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Digital signage industry gets attention because it’s an intriguing and effective new medium.

It’s not TV. It’s not the Internet. And it’s not just digital posters. It’s the sum of many parts, but also its own thing.

Done right, the medium offers huge potential. But it must be done right, and the history of this still emerging industry is one of many, many misses and precious few hits. Hardware costs were too high in the early days to deliver a return on the investment. The agencies and brands that were expected to pay for the systems through advertising weren’t ready. And most of the people putting these systems together were making things up as they went.

The biggest problem, and one that persists today, is that most people starting to work in the sector – from custom electronics professionals to media companies – consider the product to be the technology. It’s not. The product is what’s on the screen.

Your network’s technology may be brilliant, but if the programming isn’t relevant and engaging to the targeted viewing audience, it’s just VERY expensive, thoroughly ineffective eye candy.

I have been involved in this industry since its early days – doing everything from operating very large 1,000-plus screen networks to developing business for software companies active in the sector. These days I consult, along with my business partners, in a group that advises companies in this sector.

Here’s what we tell anyone getting into this space …

Figure out what your objectives are for the project

A project plan needs a goal, and a plan or map to reach that goal. There has to be some clearly defined objective, or set of objectives, that make things better for the environment where the screens will be located and lit up.

  • Sell more stuff – In retail, the rule of thumb is 15 per cent lift on items that are properly, effectively promoted on digital screens. That’s now well-documented.
  • Boost brand awareness - For some retailers and venue operators, the entire content approach is just about reinforcing the brand and the sensibilities that go with it. Youth apparel retailer Hollister, for example, used video walls with visuals from a California beach to set part of the tone for its stores.
  • Improve messaging compliance – Retailers have to rely on staff to put up and take down promotional signs based on set schedules, and inevitably those schedules slip or get missed entirely. Digital makes changes instant, and compliance goes way up when the human factor is removed.
  • Improve communications at the venue - Communication-focused screen networks offer a tremendous opportunity to boost the quality and timeliness of information on a premise because the messages can be targeted by area, changed and distributed on the fly and, increasingly, made interactive.
  • Wayfinding – Directional signs that can be updated on the fly and interactive (so that things like multiple language support can be enabled) make for a huge improvement in customer experiences.
  • Distracting from wait times - Whether it’s being stuck in a waiting room to get your car serviced or your medical needs attended to, or in a line-up at a bank or government office, it always seems to take a lot longer when there is nothing to do but stew about how long it’s taking. Screens can pacify those crowds, but the content on the screen MUST be interesting and relevant.
  • Employee communications - We mostly think of digital screen deployments in terms of messaging in some fashion to the public. But many companies have started using screens for employee-facing purposes, with nothing in the public-facing areas, or something entirely different. Screens mounted in reception areas, in the lunch rooms or lounges, or on a facility floor can be a very effective means of distributing information around a company.
  • Improving safety - Networked digital screens, when they’re using optimal software and connections, have the ability to distribute information as quickly as it comes available, and target information where it’s needed. A dangerous incident in one building of a massive campus is an emergency in a tight area, but a mile away, raising that same level of emergency could cause undue panic, and strain resources needed closer to the real problem. Many networks now tie in to Amber Alert programs.
  • Reducing costs - Most site communications are now done using print, be it paper or plastic materials that get mounted in frames. That material gets regularly changed out as the seasons, services and offers rotate, and some retailers and venues need to change printed material as much as weekly. Aspects of this – such as creative production – require just as much work whether it is digital or not, but where additional costs come in are the material and labor needed to print new posters and signs, organize and ship them to dispersed sites, and then have visual merchandising or floor staff change all that material out. After the initial capital outlay, all the printing, transport and set-up costs go away using digital creation, scheduling and distribution. The costs of training staff and product education can also be reduced, as well as staff and company communications, by using the screen networks after hours for scheduled product knowledge sessions and pep talks.
  • Green considerations - Digital screen networks can make a statement for an organization about their efforts to help reduce carbon emissions and waste. Digital screens can largely eliminate the need to use paper products for mid to large format messaging and mean a truck is needed once to get a screen on site, instead of weekly or monthly to courier over new signs. Computers and screens draw power, but nominal amounts when compared to other systems in most buildings – and huge strides have been made in reducing power consumption and the amount of toxins used in the electronic components. New LED backlit LCDs consume only a fraction of the energy of older flat panels.
  • Generating revenue from advertising - This is the one that tends to get all the attention, but the promise is so far much greater than the delivery. It is still early days for advertising, and very few networks “make it” based on ad sales alone. Selling ads is a tough game, and make no assumptions a concept will work.

Develop your strategy

Your objectives should lead you to a strategy, and a viable business model. You need a fully realized, well-defined, spreadsheet-worthy strategy and model that looks all the way through what you want to do, how much it will cost and what the return on that investment looks like. If the program is less about money and more about objectives, you still need to somehow quantify that. Even something as simple as explaining that roughly $200 a month would be saved in printing costs for a staff circular is a compelling argument for a network. Digital wayfinding that eliminates the need for a staffed information counter is a very powerful argument.

If your network is working with retail, your compelling business argument needs to speak in that sector’s business language and fully adopt how those retailers measure positive contributions to the bottom line. The simple, common argument that a screen network in a store will sell two more DVDs a day and therefore pay for itself may ring hollow – because the $32 made from up-selling those DVDs is really just $4 after all the costs of buying, shipping and stocking those units are factored in. Your business argument needs to be solid and contextual, and you need to understand your client’s business.

Your strategy should have a roadmap, and milestones, and it should start with tests and tweaks that lead to go/no go decisions if the network has multiple locations and a big capital and operating budget. Learn to swim before you enter a triathlon, so to speak.

Define your programming model

Objectives and strategy lead you to a programming model that considers the audience and the dynamics of the venue.

What are people doing in the venue? What are they thinking about? What are the circumstances where the screens can really help? How long are people there? How long are they looking? Are they truly captive or is there wireless Internet and mobile coverage that lets them fire up smartphones and laptops?

Putting a screen behind a reception desk in an office lobby may look cool, but what purpose does it actually serve? Would the screen be better located in the waiting area, used to educate and pre-sell customers? Is the psychology of that waiting area conducive to selling, or is that a time to be conveying other messages? What role does demographics play in the content mix?

What is the programming that is truly contextual to the circumstances? The over-used and flawed default concept of putting up screens and running news tickers, weather and sports scores is rarely – repeat rarely – the right way to go. All of that information is readily accessible and usually of no real interest. The best networks think carefully about what interests people at that time, and they develop programming accordingly. One of the most successful networks in digital signage, Chicago-based Context Media, installs screens in the waiting areas of diabetes clinics, and all of its programming is focused on educating people about getting healthy and living with that disease.

Programming model drives staffing and technology decisions

The volume of content needed to keep programming fresh may have an impact on how content is distributed – big fat video files moved on a 3G network could get very expensive, for example. A network that allows local venues to update some messages probably can’t just run video, and needs Flash or HTML 5 support. But a media player that plays out smooth HD video may not even support Flash. If messages are going to be changed frequently you may want to consider software that bundles or at least supports templates.

There’s also a big technology decision about who manages the technology. Some platforms are designed to be sold as bundles and managed by the client, while others use a Software As A Service model that lets end-users effectively rent the technology and minimize their IT needs. Again, objectives, strategy and programming all influence that decision, as do budgets. Your technology decisions can be a direct contributor to adding headcount or keeping just about everything outsourced.

Technology decisions also need to be made based on the mid-to-long-term, particularly in a fast evolving and converging marketplace. The right decision now may be entirely wrong 18 months out if things such as the need to eventually build in mobile applications or back-office (like point of sales) integration. An open system minimizes those risks. Closed, proprietary systems may paint you into a corner.

This is a really intriguing sector and one filled with opportunity for the custom electronics industry. But there is far more to it than choosing software and hanging screens. Always factor in this in:

  • objectives lead to strategy
  • strategy drives programming
  • programming drives technology choices and execution plans.

Keep that in mind and your project can prosper. Ignore the advice at your own peril.

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