It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public transport usage in London. Between April 2019 and April 2020, figures provided by TfL indicate a 94% and 93% drop in London Underground and Overground journeys; an 87% and 80% drop in DLR and London Tram journeys; and an 80% drop in journeys across the bus network.
Unsurprisingly, TfL’s advertising income over the same period fell dramatically, with the corporation reporting a £100 million decline in the value of receipts over the same period. But, as restrictions start lifting and company purse strings start loosening, are we likely to see a return to the levels of ad spending we saw before the pandemic?
The New Normal
Recent data is encouraging. Since work-from-home restrictions were lifted in January 2022, TfL has seen a significant bounce in passenger numbers, and—as of April 2022—Tube and bus ridership are at 77% and 86% of pre-pandemic levels. DLR and London Tram journeys currently stand at 80%, while—amazingly—Overground usage has actually increased, with a 3% bump in the number of riders in April 2022 over that of April 2019.
Although these figures are promising, for advertisers who hope to leverage London’s huge digital and print advertising network to their advantage, some significant questions remain:
- Who is returning to the transport network and who isn’t? Or, what is the demographic makeup of the city’s post-pandemic transit population?
- What are the best advertising options for brands wishing to drive awareness, or those seeking to reach a new pool of potential customers?
- How should businesses modify their existing strategies and marketing methodologies to account for the ‘new normal’?
The ‘Who’: A New Target Audience
Despite the overall drop in public transport usage throughout the capital, London still has greater reach and greater opportunities for advertising than perhaps any city in the world. 239.8 million journeys were made on London public transport throughout the last month, which represents incredible opportunities for London-based companies and those across the UK to get their message out there.
However, advertising on the London Underground network is not as simple a question as how many are choosing to ride; just as important is the question of who is choosing to do so.
With government efforts to get people back into the office, weekday Tube network usage has increased quite substantially from the numbers seen at the height of the pandemic; in fact, TfL saw a 45% jump in Tube users between January and February 2022.
However, ridership numbers still have a long way to go to reach pre-pandemic numbers, with the network currently seeing around 60% of the weekday users it saw before March 2020. When looking at the Waterloo and City line, the figures are even starker, with 50% ridership compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Weekend ridership throughout the London Tube network appears to be recovering somewhat faster than during the week. Across all services, weekend ridership on the Tube is sitting at around 75% of pre-pandemic levels, indicating a greater willingness for Londoners to rely upon the network for their leisure activities.
The Night Tube is not seeing the same bump, with levels on the Victoria and Central line sitting at a measly 45% of those pre-pandemic. Similarly grim are figures for the Night Overground (operating between Highbury & Islington and New Cross Gate on Friday and Saturday nights), which is also now around 50% of levels seen before March 2020.
The jump in weekend Tube users may be in no small part attributed to increased tourism. Key tourist Tube stations such as Leicester Square are seeing ridership at 80% of pre-pandemic levels on Saturdays.
Tourism in the capital is also returning to some sort of normality. Current forecasts suggest 2022 will see 22.1 million international and UK tourists descend upon the city this summer—approximately 52% of the numbers seen in 2019, but a huge increase from previous years nevertheless.
What Does It All Mean?
London commuters, tourists, and leisure users are not as numerous as they once were—that’s a given. For brands, the massive exposure to these ABC1 consumers once offered by the network is simply not there, and adjustments should be made to both target market strategy and ROI expectations.
It may be fair to assume that a notable—if not significant—proportion of regular Tube users are in the C2DE demographic; this demographic is traditionally more reliant upon public transport, with fewer professional opportunities for home-based working.
The ‘What’: Bus, Overground, and Tube Advertising Solutions
The size of TfL’s advertising estate is staggering, with over 19,000 bus shelters, 272 Tube stations, and numerous Overground stations all playing host to a range of solutions for outdoor advertising. Here is a quick rundown of some of the most notable:
London Underground Advertising
According to research by Global, 60% of Tube passengers notice new ads. With 1.5 billion journeys on the network each year, London Underground advertising remains a potentially lucrative way for companies to display their outdoor ads and marketing materials.
Let’s take a look at some of the most impactful London Underground advertising options:
The D6, D12 and DX48 (helpfully named after the number of 1.5m x 2.2m panels they utilise) are the most commonly-found screens across the Tube network. These full-motion panels are four times more engaging than static poster ads, offering a high-impact option for advertisers looking to make their mark in the city’s train stations.
Digital Ribbons & Digital Escalator Panels
Digital ribbons (currently found at Oxford Circus, among others) line the walls along escalators. These multi-panel digital advertising displays are a popular form for companies looking to display highly creative materials, with their ability to stretch marketing messages across the entirety of the escalator walls.
Digital Escalator Panels (DEP) combine digital ribbon and digital billboard technology. Whilst these single-screen escalator panels don’t have quite the same “wow” factor as their ribboned counterparts, a recent network-wide ultra-HD upgrade makes them one of the most attractive Tube advertising options for large international companies and startups alike.
Bus Network Advertising
For brands looking for a cost-effective way to run their OOH advertising campaign, TfL’s network is home to thousands of bus stop advertising sites.
Combining high dwell time with low minimum spend, London’s bus network can be a convenient alternative to more expensive Underground advertising.
With a lower recommended minimum spend than those expected for other forms of TfL marketing, posters can be produced quickly, cheaply, and easily, without the need to compromise on eye-catching creativity.
Unlikely London Underground advertising, which limits advertisers to a particular location or area, bus advertising offers potential exposure to a range of audiences across the city—not to mention pedestrians, drivers, and other non-network audiences.
Digital Poster Panels
Digital screens are becoming increasingly common at bus stops throughout London, allowing brands the option to reach audiences in a more interactive and engaging way.
Digital panels let companies advertise a range of content, from video and rich media to real-time updates, giving them the opportunity to really capture the attention of Londoners on their commute.
What’s more, with the high dwell time associated with London’s bus network, digital poster sites can prove a welcome distraction, effectively turning your brand messaging into a form of entertainment.
London Overground Advertising
The Overground and TfL Rail zones are home to 94% of the city’s inhabitants, 70% of which are in the valuable ABC1 demographic. For marketers, the Overground can be the ideal avenue for delivering outdoor advertising messages to this educated, affluent population.
Currently found at Bank, London Bridge, Liverpool Street, Kings Cross and Charing Cross, digital gateway billboards are strategically-placed in high-footfall areas (normally above stairs and escalators). For visitors entering the station, these massive HD screens are impossible to miss, making them the perfect option for advertisers who have already invested in high-quality video marketing content.
Tunnel advertising is used extensively throughout the Overground and DLR network, with shaped digital and print poster panels installed at almost every site. However, for the ultimate in OOH advertising, TfL have begun to offer the opportunity to completely take over an entire tunnel wall.
Pioneered by the Hendrick’s Gin installation at King’s Cross, a tunnel take-over allows you to display brand materials across all the tunnel walls at a specific location, developing an immersive advertising experience.
The ‘How’: Strategic Considerations for Future Marketing
With these factors in mind, it’s important to consider how the upheaval of the past few years might impact the strategies you consider going forward.
Your brand is ever-evolving and has undoubtedly changed significantly since the start of the pandemic; your working practices, your areas of focus, and even your core values may have altered hugely since 2020.
When it comes to advertising on the London Underground system—or any of the city’s transport networks—you need to assess whether it remains a viable canvas with which to align your brand.
Many Londoners have been forced to leave the city in recent years, and so your target audience may no longer be using public transport as frequently as they used to. If public transport advertising is no longer likely to yield the same returns, you may choose to consider deploying it only as part of a mixed media campaign (or even abandon it entirely).
For over a hundred years, London Underground advertising has been the number one tool for reaching the broadest possible London audience, delivering amazing results year upon year. And, unquestionably, advertising on the Tube still offers great exposure to London Underground users from London, the UK, and indeed the world.
Nevertheless, the drop in the number of users of the London Underground network cannot be ignored. As an avenue for outdoor advertising, it’s vital to take into account how this drop is likely to impact the outcomes of your campaign.
For international brands and those with larger budgets, the fall in frequent passenger journeys is unlikely to cause much concern. Popular terminals like Oxford Circus and Victoria Coach Station will still yield a positive ROI, irrespective of the drop in passengers.
For other advertisers—those who need to be more selective with their ad spend—it’s important to instruct your media buyers to look for cheaper advertising and brand marketing solutions wherever possible. Advertisers tend towards the biggest and brightest, but things as simple as smaller posters can reduce the various costs associated with a campaign. Similarly, longer campaigns in less popular areas can be even more effective as shorter marketing pushes on busy station platforms.
Cost-efficiency should be the watchword for your London Underground advertising campaign—don’t be afraid to ask yourself what will generate the most bang for your buck.
Despite the altered marketing landscape, London remains one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in the world. And, the innovative and impactful opportunities the city provides advertisers through its transport network are still more appealing than those offered by any other mediums.
Advertisers should exercise caution, but not necessarily reluctance—through effective media planning, the prospects of success are as great as ever.