Answering Content Questions

Selling a customer an electronic digital signage system takes more than simply hanging the monitor and plugging in the media player. There also needs to be something to show on the screen, otherwise referred to as content.

Whether or not your electric sign shop is set up to provide content options—anything from static branding messages to full-motion video, and plenty in between—it’s more than likely your customer will have at least some basic questions regarding what works and what doesn’t when it comes to placing advertising or informational messages on a new digital signage system.

Solutions providers have offered some introductory information on basic EDS content options —useful knowledge that hopefully will allow you to steer your customers in the right direction for the content they need to be successful.

What’s the simplest form of digital signage content?
Still photos offer a basic approach for simple signage systems, operating like a slideshow or digital photo frame. In many instances, the photos can be uploaded from a basic digital camera.

“JPEG is the most popular (file format),” says Tom Searcy, president of MagicBox Inc., Corvallis, Ore. “It is a universal standard. Most digital cameras save images as JPEGs. They are also smaller than TIFF (files), which our customers use from time to time.”

Are still photos enough for a successful digital signage system?
It depends on the customer, of course, but most industry experts would say no. Because the systems are designed to do so much more, running only a simple slide show will likely not provide the return on investment most clients are looking for.

“The impact and return on these (static image) systems is marginal, at best,” says Jeff Collard, president of Omnivex, based in Concord, Ont. “Digital signage systems should be more of an individual and personal experience for the viewers. The systems need to relate directly to the viewer with information that assists them to make an informed decision.”

What other types of content choices are there?
Searcy spells some of them out:

• Crawl lines allow streaming text and graphic content on a page.
• Adobe Flash handles dynamic content that can be authored in a flash authoring program or video content that is converted into the Flash FLV file format. It offers a small file size and is often found on Web sites such as YouTube and Google.
• Video including MPEG2 and MPEG4 works well for high-end advertising and full-motion, 30-frames-per-second video playback. It does require larger bandwidth, however, and more cost to create and convert into the proper format.
• Video in a window from a live source such as satellite or cable TV or a live camera can be as simple as running a video cable into a player and scheduling the page or window to open at the appropriate time.
• And database integration pulls information from a live, dynamic database, offering anything from meeting room schedules to manufacturing or call center statistics, or even tee times at a local golf course.

So, would a mix of static and dynamic content work?
Again it depends on the customer, but it is often a good place to start.

“Content should include both static as well as dynamic content,” says Kevin A. Cosbey, business development manager for Exhibio LLC, Williamsville, N.Y., particularly in multi-zone systems. “Images and perhaps scrolling text are important. However, adding more dynamic information commands more attention. Also, it’s important that the content is relevant to the audience.”

Is there other technology that could affect future content options?
Along with the above-mentioned dynamic content options, it’s a good bet that interactivity will be a part of many successful digital signage systems in the near future, according to Nathan Grepke, creative director for Blue Pony Digital, Fort Wayne, Ind.

“Viewers are not just viewing anymore,” he says. “There is going to be more of an exchange taking place (involving) cell phones, credit cards, member cards, kiosks, etc.”

Omnivex’s Collard also notes that high-definition video will have an effect. “This will impact not only digital signage systems, but a large number of other technologies including bandwidth, distribution technologies, PCs, graphics cards and operating systems,” he says. “Content will be produced in layers using 3-D techniques and that will create new skill requirements.”

And while not new, wireless is another technology gaining momentum, Searcy says. “Reliability has been an issue,” he notes, “however, it seems to be getting better and better all the time.”

With all of these options, how can I help my customer choose what’s best for him/her?
Ask a lot of questions about the sign, where and how it will be used and what your customer hopes to achieve.

Grepke suggests this basic question list.

First, consider the location of the sign:

• What type of venue is it in?
• Where will it be placed?
• What is its proximity to the viewer?

Next, consider the type of audience:

• Are they waiting in an office?
• Are they walking down an aisle?
• Are they driving down the street?

Finally, how long is the time of engagement (5, 10 or 30-plus seconds)?

As Collard puts it: “The end-users need to first define the customer and define the message (sell a product, promote a service, etc.) before they can define the medium.”

What happens when the question of price comes up?
There are initial and ongoing costs to operating a digital signage system. Searcy outlines the total cost of ownership as including hardware, software, monitors, video distribution, installation, data feed fees, ongoing support fees, warranty and support.

Regarding content: “As for budgeting, JPEGs and still video are the least expensive, but not free if you are paying a graphic artist to create them,” he says. “Flash can generally be authored relatively inexpensively, while full-motion video is the most expensive, as the content must be shot, edited and then often encoded.”

Once created, will the content be good for a while?
In most cases the answer is yes, but not indefinitely.

“Old content is ignored after some time, eventually causing the viewer to tune out the sign completely, even if new content is there,” notes Grepke. “Content has to be consistently refreshed and not repeated over and over.”

And pictures, as they say, are worth a lot more than words. “Understand that less is more,” he adds, “and present the content precisely and clearly. Use images and animation to gain people’s attention, and limit the amount of text.”

Do customers really have enough content to keep things fresh?
The good news is that most businesses that purchase digital signage systems don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to providing content.

“Generally, the content already exists somewhere, as communication between an organization and its audience is commonplace,” Cosbey says. “Digital signage is simply repurposing existing information into a digital form. Depending on your application, content is completely unique. Digital signage is a great complement to your already existing print or Web content, but much more eye-catching.”

And, the more things the system can do, the more versatile any current photos, video or other preexisting content becomes.

“Content is a common question, but it shouldn’t be the most important,” Cosbey adds. “If you position your customer with a versatile and diverse digital signage system, then repurposing existing images, movies and flash is quite easy. However, if you provide a solution that only plays MPEG2 video files, for example, you eliminate a great deal of content opportunities for your clients.”

Does better content require more technical knowledge?
Digital signage systems can be as simple or as complicated as a customer desires. Of course, the more comfortable a client is with technology in general, the more likely they will be interested in taking full advantage of a system’s capabilities.

“There are a few questions sign shop owners should ask themselves while they are helping their customers determine their digital signage content needs,” says Collard. “What are the technical capabilities of the customer? Can they manage an IT-based solution? Can they access real-time data that may be part of the content? Can they act on the information generated by the system?”

Bandwidth availability can be a critical component, adds Searcy. “Many customers, especially corporate customers, are very concerned about putting any system on their network if it will have an appreciable impact on their bandwidth usage. Getting past the IT person is often the last step for a successful digital signage install.”

With all these opportunities, does it make sense to bring content production in-house?
Depending on a sign shop’s personnel availability and workloads, offering at least basic content services for your digital signage customers is certainly an option.

“Most sign shops have qualified graphic artists,” MagicBox’s Searcy says. “Creating flash content or even helping a customer create a look with branding is a good way to get started. Some of our customers create all their own content, while others use an ad agency, and some do both.”

What else might be involved?
Omnivex’s Collard reminds shop owners not to forget the computer side of things.

“Sign shops should develop an IT capability when they begin offering their own basic content options,” he says. “Digital signage requires management and understanding of IT networks and content development software.”

Is partnering with content providers an option?
Yes, and often very successful.

“Call the professionals and use them as an extension of the sign shop,” recommends Blue Pony’s Grepke. “Basic content might be detrimental. Content should have engaging animation and images to attract viewer attention and get the message across.

“If the content is done in-house,” he adds, “make sure you hire a creative professional who understands the industry, content considerations and the technology being used to play and display the content.”

In the end, is it all worth it?
Count Exhibio’s Cosbey among those who see digital signage as the wave of the future when it comes to businesses communicating with their customers.

“Content is going more dynamic, Web based and interactive,” he says. “Technologies are evolving into generating a positive customer experience and creating a positive image of the brand. Customers will have the ability to get information they want and streamline the process. Rather than perhaps waiting for a salesperson at a dealership, they can walk to a glass wall and interact with the features of the car that interests them.”

Is more information available?
From books and magazine articles to trade shows, seminars and conferences, there are plenty of ways to get educated on the content available for digital signage. Solutions providers are also available to help with individual assessments and specific inquiries.