By Joe Coffey | The Fifth Estate

Your business’ most overlooked media format might be the most visible one you have – the signage out front.

Hanging a shingle can do more than just identify who’s doing business on a particular property. Signage can communicate the type of business, its philosophy, vibe and more. It can tempt passersby with sale prices and calls to action. Some businesses win eyeballs with time and temp displays, while others stick their necks out with messages about the owner’s political beliefs.

From a media criticism standpoint, signs can say a lot more about a business than an owner intends.

I, for one, am annoyed by electronic signs with scrolling messages. Not the big one on the interstate that gives drivers a moment of levity via corny jokes, but basically all the others. Collectively, these small, medium and large electronic signs contribute to a barrage of visual clutter.

They’re 25 feet in the air, on the sides of buildings and in shop windows. Words are flashing and scrolling. Mattress prices! Sandwich specials! Bulleted lists!

It’s too much. We learn not to look.

In Cedar Rapids, where these signs are legal and minimally governed by city code, they’ve gotten out of hand. Due to saturation, electronic signs are harder to notice these days and, in my opinion, have steered the city’s overall aesthetic toward that of a highway cluster of gas stations and fast food joints, rather than a resident-focused place to live that is protected by ordinances to keep business signage in check.

Cedar Rapids has a limit on the total number of billboards within city limits – approximately 80 – and that number is designed to go down. To turn an old static billboard into a video-enabled billboard that can change images, a company has to own two static billboards and get rid of one of them. This kind of long-range thinking is built into the city’s new zoning ordinance that was rolled out in January. City officials do a good job responding to complaints about these billboards being too bright, and often make the owners tone them down. I’m sure at some point complaints about the overall clutter of electronic signs in general will prompt some kind of action.

Iowa City doesn’t allow electronic messaging signs in most parts of the city. It has perhaps the strictest sign laws in the Corridor, even banning those inflatable dancing tube guys. In Iowa City, signs with changing messages can only change the message once an hour and they can’t be animated. Don’t buy one of those little electronic scrolling signs at your local wholesale club and put it in the store window, either – that still counts and, yes, they will ask you to take it down.

It might sound harsh for me to criticize an electronic sign-owning business for simply wanting to get noticed but yes, that’s what I’m doing. I have more respect for businesses that get my attention without being annoying.

It’s 2019 and we’re all constantly bombarded with annoying marketing messages via annoying tactics. I have to deal with spam mail that defeats spam mail filters, pop-up windows that get past pop-up blockers and content-looking interstitial ads in the middle of real content. I get unwanted marketing texts. Heck, I’m even getting telemarketing calls and robocalls again. Oh, and don’t get me started on those invasive email sign-up boxes with hard-to-find X buttons to make them go away.

So what’s a business to do?

Simply put, it might be time to examine your signage situation in the name of being a caring member of your community. Truly prioritizing customers can mean passing on tactics that merely get people to look.

More importantly, when’s the last time you thought about your signage strategy? Is your business’ on-site signage more geared toward grabbing attention than establishing an aesthetic that makes sense for your target audience? Maybe your business’ signage strategy isn’t annoying, but rather “meh.” It might be time for a branding refresh, complete with an updated logo and tag line. Or maybe it’s time to come to terms with the fact that your beloved logo design looked great on a computer screen, but is actually illegible as signage when viewed from across the street.

The trick is to find that area between missed opportunity (boring or ineffective signage) and annoying (clutter). Between those extremes lies a zone of good ideas – maybe even unorthodox ideas – where your business can do something noticeable and effective. Whatever you do, just don’t be annoying.

Joe Coffey has 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and marketer in the Corridor.