Interview: Gathering Advertising Insights On City Streets
Kobi Wu, founder and CEO of VisuWall, discusses the tech enabling advertisers to track impressions in the real world
With our eyes strained by inundated social feeds, the appeal of the humble poster has never been more evident. In New York, at least, street advertising has always found its audience—look no further than the colorful branded murals dotting Williamsburg, New York Magazine’s artist covers and OkCupid’s currently ubiquitous DTF campaign. But the nature of the medium leaves advertisers without the satisfaction of counting every click.
Kobi Wu founded VisuWall to bring data-collecting sensor technology to street-level ads. The company works with landlords to match vacant storefronts with brand campaigns, whose imagery is then outfitted with a tiny sensor that counts foot traffic and determines when and where people are looking. Kobi, who recently won the $10,000 Hillman pitch competition at Black Women Talk Tech, sat down with PSFK to talk about the proliferation of tools that track consumer behavior in physical spaces and the importance of approaching outdoor advertising thoughtfully.
PSFK: To start, can you tell us about VisuWall—the technology, the sensor, how it works?
Kobi: Essentially, I take what's existing. I'll take a vacant storefront window, and then I'll put in two forms of technology. One’s simple: it's a computer vision sensor, which is like a camera that sits in the window and faces the street so it can count people.
It counts people, it counts the peak hours of the day, how long it takes people to walk by. But it’s not recording. It's not recording faces—that's a massive privacy issue. It's literally a digital line on the screen. We create some metrics and attributes that help identify that it's a vertical thing instead of an animal to make sure that we're counting people.
We don't necessarily want to count children. We want to count, maybe, young adults. It's around this vertical image that walks by, so we count that. We can also count cars. It's a different application to the same technology, but most of the time, I'm counting people walking by.
The other form of tech is a beacon. We just put a beacon in the window, which is a very simple radio transmitter. It counts the basic captures of mobile devices. It counts how many mobile devices are in the area and allows us to send a message to these phones if they have certain apps on their phones.
Say, for instance—Nike's a perfect example—that someone has the SNKRS app on their phone. Nike’s team decided to integrate with our SDK. They could emit a beacon or a message to someone's phone that says, “Hey, you are close to that Easter egg” that they always try to create in their campaigns to drive people into the store or onto the app.
Those are the two forms of tech. That's all with this notion of impacting people along their journey in certain areas in cities. Taking vacant locations like that one across the street and putting some beacons and our sensors in there to tell people what's up with that campaign in that window.
Is your background in tech and hardware, or is it more in creative advertising?
Advertising, and experiential at that—driving consumers and creating experiences. The last job I had was working with Sean Combs, doing strategy for his brands, which included Cîroc, DeLeon, Revolt and Sean John. I created experiences to help optimize what those brands should do together, what they should do incrementally, etc.
Before that, I was working in the agency space—Cornerstone being one of my favorite places to ever work as a shop creative. I've always had this lineage with music and entertainment. It was the intersection of music and entertainment—sports, even—and brands.
It was just fun to do stuff. When I realized that there were all these storefront vacancies I thought, “Damn. What can we do to make that better?” Advertising is the easiest way in. Of course, there's the option of pop-ups, but that's a lot more immersive and sometimes the experience could be just on the street, while people are on their journey.
PSFK’s Advertising Playbook 2018 report was all about experiential. One of the points that our researchers made was that there's a large percentage of consumers—over 50%—who say that they've come to associate digital advertising with spam. There's digital fatigue, essentially.
It's true. I feel like when people have a connection and they're asked to engage with it, it appeals to them. If they're opting in, they really like it. But if they bought something on a site, and then all of a sudden they get hit with ads for it, that's after the fact.
The experiential is what really connects, so I'm just taking the experiential to the streets. Not making it a two-hour event—it's an everyday thing. It's also an experience that brands have to understand. They really have to want to connect with people that way. Some are more latent and want to do things digitally, which is elastic. You get traffic. I get that.
The next step for me is AR. You hold your phone up to a window and all of a sudden, the content shows up on your phone, in a 3D image or some unique thing so you're like, “What just happened? That's awesome.” That's the kind of stuff that counts.
Visual tracking and analytics are things we're following, especially for retail. It’s what your technology brings to an otherwise physical ad that you wouldn't usually get feedback from—except on social media, maybe, in more of an anecdotal way.
True. The other thing that's always elusive with advertising is attribution. You never know what ad exactly made them buy that product. Was it a billboard, was it the commercial, was it the digital ad? You can't measure it. What people do know is that outdoor advertising does make a difference. We all know it's cool. If you see something that's really different, you go, “That's really dope.”
What we can do now is actually tell you that, because people crossed Lafayette and Houston and they saw our window or they were in the neighborhood of our window, we delivered 30,000 units to the following company and, of those 30,000, users who touched through and engaged with that company.
Then, being able to say that that intersection—instead of us just believing some public data that said maybe there are 123,204 people that walk through an intersection on a daily basis—our sensors can tell you how many people actually walked in front of that window and, not for nothing, how many eyeballs looked at the window.
It makes a difference. Brands want to know how many people I actually captured. Just because I put a billboard up on Lafayette and Houston, yes, we all know that it's a great neighborhood, but how many people actually looked at it today?
If a brand comes to you and wants to do a campaign, how do you advise them about where they should put their posters?
It takes a little bit of effort on the brand's part, too. We like to sit with them and understand the brand goals.
Say, for instance, it's a beverage company but they want to talk to music fans, or they want to talk to sports fans. It's not talking to moms who are going to go in the grocery store and buy the soda, it's talking to people who will talk about it. Give them a sense of: Are you trying to get awareness, or are you trying to get people to buy the soda?
And in what form? Did you want the can, or did you want the bottle? Are you announcing something new? Really trying to understand what those goals are, and then we help them with simple messaging, which goes in the window. We can help them with the creative—what’s in the window and on the phone. What the message should be; what's the call to action? Is it, “Go in a store. Buy now. Watch now”? We give them those best practices, and it's pretty simple from there.
What are the design needs for incorporating the sensor into the ad?
When I say that we have ‘smart billboards’ or ‘smart windows,’ most people assume that I'm talking about a digital display. Sure, we can use digital screens, but usually what we are looking at is a window, and every piece of architecture is slightly different.
We have the measurements of all of our windows, and we give it to the creative, or the creative people can give us their artwork, and we just cut. Literally get vinyl prints that stick to the window and put that artwork in so it becomes a billboard, a static image.
We could do digital displays, like I said, but it's a static image first, and then we assess the positioning of the camera based on that building. If it's on a corner, we're going to put two sensors in, so we have lines of traffic on both sides of the building.
Then we want to make sure we capture the eyeballs. The sensor has to be at a certain height. It has to make sure that we're capturing a certain depth of the sidewalk. If we do want the street, do we want the other side of the street as well?
We make those assessments, but it's no infringement on the client. We do all that ourselves, so it's easy for them just to say, “We want to know how many people walk by,” and “We want mobile proximity tech involved.”
The sensor is the size of the camera on your phone. It's very tiny, and it's a high-def camera, so it captures the right information. Even poles can look like people to a computer, so it's smart in that way, where it discerns a moving image.
I feel like there's an advantage to just having a beautiful, analog, static image. People don't want to be assaulted by video screens on every corner of the city.
It's amazing and insane, all at the same time. It's too much, but digital displays, for us, are something to look at. I think the next iteration of our model is to look at a simple digital screen that allows me to have multiple brands in the same placement.
This is now when my personal opinion kicks in, but I always think it's better if a brand has an opportunity to make that impression themselves. Own that space for four weeks, eight weeks, and then change it up later. Certainly, some locations do lend themselves well to a changing ad scenario, like at a bus stop or at a movie theater. If you were impacting a beautiful neighborhood like SoHo, where there's a mix of businesses and residents and tourists, you just want something great all the time, not flashing all the time.
What’s on the horizon for VisuWall?
I'm hoping that 2018 is huge for us, and for us, huge means consistent visibility using our windows and tech, because the data—the information that we’re capturing around traffic—is the kahuna of the business.
It's not always where streetlights are. It's not always where people think that they want to know the data. Curiously, when I'm talking to the city, they don't always know what they want to know. As we grow, we'll start to learn more and maybe start to impact smart cities with the information that we're capturing. I'm excited about that.
There are a few case studies on the horizon. College campuses are another major goal for us—looking at that as kind of a small city in itself. Then talking to the business improvement districts in every major city. So, in New York, talking to the SoHo business improvement district, Flatiron, Harlem, and really getting sign-off to have city legislature support what we do.
That’s important, because it doesn’t work if we don’t have the city aligned with us as we go. A lot of times I think businesses just do; especially entrepreneurs who just get stuff done and forget to check and see, “Is this okay? Hey, what do you think if I have advertising all throughout your neighborhood?”
But we position it like: “You’re going to have data, you’re going to have increased revenue and open up economic avenues that didn’t exist.” The cities are usually pretty responsive to that. Every neighborhood needs that. So how can we do it least intrusively?