In the past several years we've seen some pretty impressive ads. Big companies, desperate to get your attention, are performing all kinds of stunts and visual tricks to stick themselves in your head. In the deserts of Nevada, KFC used tiles to build its Colonel Sanders logo so huge you can see it on Google Maps. This past August, Sprite Zero released a YouTube video you can control with your numberpad. The video features a hunky skateboarder who launches himself off a cliff and from there you control how he flips and maneuvers the board. Yahoo! Mail set up an oversize purple mailbox on a sidewalk in New York City, with a guy hiding inside it yelling hellos at passersby. They called it "The Purple People Greeter."
These are clever but also basically desperate attempts to get our attention. And you can't really blame advertisers for overextending themselves. They're just trying to get you to notice them amidst all the noise from all of the other trajillion ads you're skipping over, ignoring, not listening to and avoiding. They're competing with Google and Facebook ads, Groupon and Living Social, YouTube and Vimeo, TV, newspapers, magazines, radio and billboards. There are ads now in the backs of taxis, pre-takeoff on airplanes, behind stall doors in public bathrooms and on the handles of your shopping cart. With that kind of chaotic sponsor-saturated environment, how does any advertiser stand a chance?
AMP Radio out of Plainville, Conn., has taken inspiration from the guys who put the car-repair ad on your shopping-cart handle. The independent, regional radio network, which opened in 2006, focuses on the sale and distribution of local ads and music, which play exclusively at about 125 gas stations (specifically, at the gas pumps at gas stations) in the state and in Western Massachusetts . If you've been to a Mobil or Shell in Cheshire, Stratford or Vernon, there's a good chance you've heard AMP Radio, whether you realized it or not. You'll find it all the way up 91 from Bridgeport to Northampton, Mass.
There are fewer and fewer opportunities for what advertisers call a "captive audience"; in other words, your bathroom-stall moment, away from billboards, magazines and YouTube, where your consumer has nothing to do but look at your ad. (Mmm, well, now a lot of people are spending their stall time playing Bejeweled on their iPhones, too. And there are ads there too.) Pumping gas is another stationary, often-isolated activity from which your attention is easily diverted. One of those few remaining — and agonizingly unstimulating — moments where the need to occupy yourself becomes urgent. You'll read or tune in to anything.
AMP's homed in on the right audience and also caters to the right market. All of AMP's ads are region-specific — very, very specific. Advertisers can choose which gas stations in which area they want their ad to air, as well as how many times an hour it plays. This is useful for the local Mexican restaurant on the same road as the Citgo station. They can target potential customers in their immediate vicinity.
Rit Petit, AMP Radio's founder, said in a recent phone interview that he has a backlog of about 400 gas stations who want to be "hosts" for his service. But the equipment can be expensive to install, and so AMP is only gradually expanding. One reason stations are eager for AMP, says Petit, is that they get some free advertising encouraging customers to come inside the station and buy a soda or a hot dog or a cup of coffee.
"Eighty percent of people pay at the pump and drive away," Petit said. "Gas stations can't live with just pumping gas. They have to get people in the store."
Gas stations who host also get a small percentage of the ad revenue, another motivator to join the AMP network. But the equipment can cost upward of $2,500 to install, a bill footed by AMP, and while business is good, Petit said, it needs to be a little better before they can set up 400 more gas stations.
Patrick Connelly, senior director of membership and programs at the Middlesex YMCA in Middletown, started using AMP about a year and a half ago. He said he heard about it while at the gas station, where he noticed the Michael Cleary Band, a local group who's performed at past Y events, playing on the radio.
"I thought, 'Dude, how cool,'" Connelly said. "And I heard that the ads were from local places and I thought, 'How cool!'"
Petit said he was going to have mainstream music between ads on AMP, but discovered the licensing fees for the rights to the songs were outrageously expensive, close to $120,000 per month.
"My eye was twitching," when he found out how high those fees were, Petit said. "I said we're just gonna play silence… and have a two-minute pause between commercials and play them again." Then his friend called him and suggested he play independent music he wouldn't have to purchase rights for. Now, hundreds of independent musicians from all over the world have signed on with AMP to get their music heard at Connecticut's gas stations. And it doesn't cost them — or Petit — anything.
So that local spirit attracted the business of the Middlesex YMCA, and Connelly says when he polls his members, lots do cite AMP. But Connelly's been in his position at the Y for only about two years, and said he's been thinking a lot about advertising options and strategies, and he's found that captive-audience advertising tends to generate more traffic for him.
"We're on the movie screen at our local movie theater," he said. "That gets me about 30 percent return on people saying they've seen that because they can't get away from it. So it's very similar." (Actually, Petit said he's looking into expanding into movie theaters, parking garages and malls, just as soon as he can figure out a way to make it work.)
Ultimately, Connelly says, it's referrals and word-of-mouth that bring in the most traffic for the Y. Facebook ads weren't too successful (though the Y's Facebook page updating members about upcoming events has drawn some response) and daily-deal sites were a disappointment as well. Surprisingly, newspaper ads do well, though, and so do mainstream radio ads and ads on the hyperlocal news site Patch.
Next time you're at one of his stations, you might notice the ads get a little more audible — something you've probably noticed on TV and YouTube too, that the commercials are all of a sudden loud.
"There's always gonna be distractions. What we do with our messaging is we put in various volume levels. Whenever an advertiser is ready to air an ad, it clicks up a bit in volume," said Petit. "It helps people take note."
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