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Stumped by San Francisco tech billboards? You’re not alone

The Standard set out to see how many residents and visitors to San Francisco actually understand the billboards placed around the city filled with hard-to-comprehend tech-centric marketing. | Source: Video by Morgan Ellis, Mike Kuba, and Jesse Rogala

Drive down U.S. Highway 101 in and around San Francisco, and you're bound to notice a few things: Teslas, potholes and the sheer abundance of tech billboards that make absolutely no sense to most people outside the tech workforce.

In theory, effective advertising captures a viewer’s attention and clearly conveys what it’s selling. A blowout sale at a store serves as a good example, as does a hotline for an injury lawyer. Even Apple’s billboards, as simplistic as they may be, highlight the quality of its iPhone cameras.

READ MORE: What This ‘Toxic’ Billboard Says About Dating in the Bay Area

But then there are the canvases that promote niche concepts––workflow solutions, enterprise AI, Web3––using complex jargon that’s unintelligible to the average Joe. In many cases, the companies paying for these billboards only offer business-to-business products that the consumer will never use or even think about. 

Snowflake, a cloud-based storage company, maintains one such billboard in South San Francisco, near San Francisco International Airport. The company has held its position at that busy location since 2017 and plans to continue with it “for the foreseeable future,” Chief Marketing Officer Denise Persson told The Standard.

The Montana-based company’s billboards—which the cloud computing company calls “snowboards”— are meant to “quickly and clearly articulate Snowflake’s data cloud offering with fun, memorable and impactful messaging,” Persson added.

Snowflake's Pride-themed billboard, which the company featured in June 2018, is part of the company's marketing strategy to be 'fun, memorable and impactful.' | Source: Courtesy Snowflake

Snowflake switches out its billboard monthly, updating messages to be current—think contemporary political events, or the holiday season. One year, the company emblazoned “The Data Is In: Love Wins” on its billboard during Pride Month. Using the calendar cycle to get attention is one thing, but that doesn't mean passersby have any inkling as to what Snowflake does.

Other business-to-business companies try to work around obscure terminology by offering light-hearted puns.

Vanta, a San Francisco-based automated software security company, showcases a billboard along Highway 101 that says “Compliance that doesn’t SOC 2 much.”

Vanta did not respond to requests for an explanation on what doesn’t “suck too much,” but it turns out that SOC 2 is a set of security standards that software companies must comply with.

Vanta’s billboard, which offers a pun on 'suck too much,' sits just off Highway 101 in San Francisco. | Source: Don Feria for The Standard

But some tech companies ditch relatability to the average consumer altogether, digging deeper into jargon and meta-references.

That’s the strategy for Boston-based Jellyfish, which offers a task-management platform for engineers. Its billboard in SoMa, visible near the interchange between 101 and Interstate 80, plays on an influential quote from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen: “Software ate the world. Now what?”

Jellyfish is deliberately speaking to a limited audience. Chief marketing officer Kyle Lacy said the billboard is intended for “CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, software engineering leaders and the technology community,” which is why the company chose to highlight Andreessen’s one-liner.

Jellyfish's billboard along the Highway 101 and Interstate 80 interchange references a quote from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. | Source: Don Feria for The Standard

Just how narrow that audience is depends on your point of view. Despite months of layoffs, more than 400,000 Bay Area workers remain employed in the tech industry, which is still the highest for any region in the U.S. But even with its reputation as a hub for entrepreneurship and talent, tech jobs only make up about 12% of total Bay Area employment—and not every coder is at the C-level, either. 

Perhaps the award for the most unintelligible billboard goes to Vercel, a San Francisco-based cloud platform, which simply uses a line of code. 

Asked to explain its messaging so that the general public could understand it, Vercel marketing officer Morgane Palomares said its campaign revolves around the concept of the “front-end cloud.”

“To humanize this technical concept,” Palomares added, “the billboards feature popular web commands or quotes from users around their experience of building websites when using Vercel.”

One of its billboards—which displays “~/ npm i ai,” a command for coders to install Vercel’s AI tools—likely challenges the popular definition of what it means to humanize something. Essentially, it’s bragging about how simple it is to integrate Vercel’s platform. Is this billboard effective? Tech workers seem to think so: Software developers on X, formerly Twitter, have heaped praise for Vercel’s minimalist and simple ad messaging. But anyone who can’t decipher a library for building chat UIs while they have their hands on the steering wheel may be left scratching their heads.