Parbunkells, as you almost certainly know*, is the alternate plural form of a 17th century English word meaning “coming together through the binding of two ropes.” On the super unlikely chance you were previously unfamiliar with the term, you wouldn’t be alone. The Internet didn’t know it, either — that is, not until Julia Weist put up a billboard, launched a website and sparked a debate about how real-world experiences drive digital behavior.
Earlier this summer, Weist, a New York-based artist, was allocated unused billboard space belonging to outdoor advertising company Lamar by artist initiative 14×48. The latter organization’s very purpose is to temporarily re-purpose unused advertising real estate as a display for artists’ work, until such time as someone ponies up to lease the original blank canvas.
Weist, who holds a degree in library sciences, came across the word “parbunkells” in a long-forgotten volume housed in the rare-book room of the New York Public Library. She was in search of a word that did not appear on the World Wide Web, a word that she could use to uncover something about “impressions and how people pay attention,” Weist said in an interview with Betsy Morais for The New Yorker just weeks after the billboard appeared on June 12th — and she found what she was looking for.
“Parbunkells,” printed in Apple Garamond font against an all-white expanse of billboard, can be seen floating above the intersection of Queens Boulevard and Seventy-first Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens. Located adjacent to a much-traveled line of the New York City Subway, Lamar estimates the billboard gets approximately 125,000 views a week. This exposure has undoubtedly helped drive interest and traffic to Weist’s own website, where the word “Parbunkells” appears big and bold at the very top of the landing page, and which at its peak saw 1,300 daily visitors.
Since the billboard first appeared, nearly 22,000 search results for “parbunkells” have popped up on the Internet. This is thanks in large part to conversation threads started on Reddit and Facebook, as well as an Instagram and Twitter account, both of which were created specifically in honor of the mysterious word of art (as it were), although Weist doesn’t know by whom. There were also articles and interviews with the artist herself on Gizmodo and, somewhat curiously, Popular Mechanics.
Besides the cultural phenomenon, there is additional value to this artistic endeavor, which Weist herself probably did not foresee. The same questions that Weist had about how viewers connect real-world experiences to online behavior is the same relationship that many advertisers have sought to understand since the dawn of their industry — only in reverse.
As retailers know all too well, correlating online behavior to offline purchases is challenging, to say the least. While most shoppers now research their purchases heavily online, most retail transactions still happen offline. Which leaves retailers looking to drive offline sales with many questions — the answers to which could be worth quite a bit of coin.
A survey conducted by Google found that shoppers who researched television sets online spent 33 percent more on their ultimate in-store purchase than those who did not. That means there’s a lot at stake for retailers to get right when it comes to accessing information about products online.
These purchases, which ultimately happen outside the digital space, are a combination of many impressions made by the brand in real-world and digital environments. No matter how good the reporting may be from any given channel, it remains extremely difficult for retailers to know if it was the billboard or the bus cling, or the subway poster, or that Twitter campaign that ultimately drove the offline purchase.
What Weist’s art project offers is a pure set of data that removes the cloudiness of multi-channel brand awareness and allows researchers to see what a viewer will do based solely on a single advertising impression and an unanswered question.
Another area that the project sheds light on is location-based search. With the advent and ensuing boom of mobile advertising, retailers are curious to know how much behavior is driven by in-the-moment mobile searches and the ensuing results. Those in advertising are also curious to understand just how much they can charge for mobile ads and paid search results.
As of May 2015, Google officially disclosed that there were more mobile than desktop searches in the U.S., Japan and eight other countries. It should follow, then, that a fair amount of the traffic generated by Weist’s billboard came via mobile devices. Weist herself notes (in the interview with The New Yorker), “I can see from the analytics that a lot of people are searching for the word not in front of desktop computers but when they’re walking around.”
Perhaps in a credit to her artistic integrity (among any number of potential motivators) — and to the likely chagrin of marketers and advertisers looking to buy her secrets — Weist is remaining tight-lipped about the details of her data, at least for the time being. While it may have been an unexpected consequence, the attention her project has garnered must have attuned her to the fact that this art project holds value for retailers and advertisers alike. At the time of the publication of The New Yorker article, Weist was being courted by Lamar as well as several other undisclosed companies for access to her analytics.
Google itself is playing its own cards close to the vest; the digital advertising giant launched “store visits” reporting in December 2014 as part of its larger conversion reporting tools. Currently, Google only grants exclusive access to more in-depth purchase data to a handful of the nation’s largest retail chains, including Target Corp. and Home Depot (so it’s fair to say that the $350 billion company and the experimental artist might not be exactly simpatico).
Whatever Weist ultimately decides to do with the data, she has undoubtedly caught the attention of the Internet by doing something previously thought to be rather novel: existing beyond it.
*Like heck you knew that.