Electrical Spotlight: Making Content Keep Up With Technology

​Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine. 

*Click below to enlarge images

Successful advertisers know what makes consumers tick. Vendors know they have to stand out from the competition and distinguish themselves against a competitive field. Their job is to present an influential case to the people as effectively as possible. Relay their content in a truly meaningful fashion—through modern and compelling approaches. This is where digital signage plays a major role.

“I think that everything starts with content,” says Keith Hanak, executive vice president at Panasonic Enterprise Solutions. There is genuine strength behind a really well-executed digital display, and as Hanak puts it, “maybe there’s a little more to it than people realize.”

To a sign shop that hasn’t yet entered into the digital signage space, there are likely some questions—perhaps even some reservations—about taking that step. And shops that have been doing this for years realize that an attractive digital signage presentation requires great content. 

“Digital signage is not in its infant stages anymore,” says Stephanie Gutnik, director of marketing and business development for BroadSign International. “It’s an industry that’s over a decade old and in its growth phase.”

And as the category has grown and become easier to use, so has the software that manages all that content, despite the fact that in come cases that software is doing more than ever before.

The Pieces are in Place

During the early days of digital signage, processes and configurations were very simplistic. A single screen and a continuous video sufficed as a suitable solution.

“The biggest problems with those things is that you had looping content at best,” explains Bruce Kaplan, digital signage account manager, DSA Phototech, “and if there was ever a hiccup or power failure, you needed a person to go back there and hit restart. Because it’s the face of your business, and your reputation’s at stake, those solutions are not really good.”

These early adaptations of digital signs were so basic that, though they were easy to construct, they did little more than provide motion and sound to a display.   

“People could create a platform from their basement and manage content with it if they wanted to,” Gutnik says. “But networks are becoming much more sophisticated in terms of the technology they require to interact with viewers.”

In today’s market there are a variety of elements that make up a digital signage system. A provider must consider the hardware, the network, the design and above all, the content.

“For us to be a serious player in the space we felt that the necessary components included having a network operations center where you can set up and monitor not just the content but also the displays and the network that you put up to support the content,” Hanak says.

Sign shops should take this to heart: Digital signage content lives through the hardware, and the hardware cannot function suitably without quality content. In many ways if a shop is offering digital signage hardware, it makes a lot of sense to also provide content solutions.

“My advice to sign companies is to develop the relationship,” Kaplan says. “One of the big questions (from digital sign users) is ‘How big are my screens and where should they go?’ And you can be the expert there, then they’ll take your advice on the content side.”

To become the expert, a shop must be strategically involved with a number of different aspects including the delivery of the message, the composition of the target audience, the capabilities of the customer, and expectations of how the content drives behavior.

“Once you get the infrastructure and personnel in place to support those activities then it’s a matter of having the right resources so you can build a network for each customer,” Hanak says.

But, as it goes in many situations, not all customers are the same.

Users Large and Small

Panasonic has extensive experience with large-scale displays. The company has run digital content at popular racing venues and the NASDAQ stock exchange.

"What doesn’t show well on a digital sign—even though they are big in a lot of cases—are commercials,” Hanak says, explaining that most scoreboards and jumbo screens require a resolution that is higher than your television’s high-definition output. “Our focus has been primary colors: reds, greens, blues – things that really pop on the video board get people’s attention. And if you can map pixel to pixel, that’s generally going to get you the best outcome.”

On the smaller end, digital sign providers worry less about the quality of the picture and more about delivering a quality solution that fits with the environment.

“We started with the concept of ‘here are some templates,’” Kaplan says, “but we’ve found that everybody wants it slightly different. So I guess you could say we’re building the customer kind of a little mini custom template.”

DSA Phototech works with its customers to complete the design and layout of their signage, taking into consideration the size and location of each sign.  As part of the process, “we divide the screen up into invisible boxes that we call ‘zones,’” Kaplan explains of the concept that compartmentalizes content into boxes on the screen, each one able to be individually programmed. “So this is where we say ‘your logo’s going to go here and your Twitter feed will go here and here’s where you put your promotion.’”

Regarding the content, each zone is uniquely defined by the customer. Kaplan says he has dealt with a number of individuals who have their own ideas about how to handle the messaging. One client, an image-oriented bar owner, wanted to upload a series of photographs depicting happy customers in one zone of his screen. 

“What’s nice is that he doesn’t have to tell the cameras, it’s already configured,” Kaplan says. “That particular camera is Wi-Fi set and anything on that camera goes to the screen.”

Automated Systems

This type of system, one that runs on its own and can populate content internally, has been very beneficial for users. For BroadSign, automation is a key to digital signage solutions as it allows the process to “become less time-consuming and less complicated for network operators to deploy” according to Gutnik.

“When (customers) can use an automated platform,” Gutnik continues, “it just makes their lives a lot simpler and that’s how it should be. As a result, they can dedicate their own resources to tasks such as content development and strategy behind it instead of the arduous labor of scheduling content to meet a growing number of specifications.”

Scheduling, as Gutnik mentions, is important for digital signage advertising because you probably do not want two major competitors playing back-to-back messages. Similarly, a user will want to time the content correctly, so displaying a restaurant’s lunch special before the noon hour would be appropriate. With automated systems, these concerns are alleviated without much, or any, effort from the user.

"Once an automated platform is in place, networks should focus on targeting viewers and ensuring they can engage with the content," Gutnik says. "A lot of money is being poured into our space to facilitate and use audience analytics technology."

The investment increases significantly as the number of screens grow. For instance, a local pizza place may have one or two screens operating to promote menu options, however, things get very interesting when a national brand is advertised on several screens of a highly-trafficked urban area.

“We’ve got some signs that we’re synchronizing so you might have three or four signs and you’re trying to have a domination campaign in a very small space to get someone’s attention,” Hanak summarizes of a multi-screen system. “In Times Square for example there’s so much digital noise when you walk around, and you’re surrounded by these signs, the idea of doing domination campaigns is a way to cut through the noise and reach the intended audience.”

No matter the size, there should be a focus on the sign to perform in a specific way. Whether it’s an advertisement to sell more products, or an informational design to enhance customer service, there needs to be an end goal in place.

The Return

How do you measure return on investment from a sign? It can get a bit intangible and confusing trying to track down who bought what and why. With digital signage, and the content that is generated, there are some reliable ways to track sales activities.

“The goal in a lot of these cases is to actually create some transactions that move the needle for the customer,” Hanak says. “The tough part in our industry is being able to measure those results, but the technology is certainly available to do it today.”

Because of the advancements that have been made in recent years, digital signage can engage consumers on a much higher level than ever before. The result of that is detecting specific demographics, trends in behavior, and even personality type; then relaying that back to the source.

“Network operators, and advertisers in particular, must relate with and delight their target audiences and can do so by using cross-channel means of communicating,” Gutnik says, pointing to combining the digital screens with a mobile device, a camera or a beacon to analyze the data and customize the message based on the individual viewer. “When done properly, such a campaign will have a high likelihood of boosting sales or delivering on the key performance indicators set for that specific content.”

It is possible for digital signs to ascertain the gender, age, or disposition of a viewer based on how it is configured. But Gutnik warns that if this information is collected in ways that appear invasive, consumers will react negatively. Therefore, intelligent steps need to be taken to accomplish this goal in a manner that instill comfort in the consumer.

“With these signs, you’re trying to move from in a signage location where the relationship is one to many,” says Hanak, describing a sign’s content being viewed by several different individuals, “down to one-to-one on the mobile level. A lot of those technological pieces are in place, you just have to have the right business case to get to that relationship.”

Make the Connection

Sometimes having a QR code or a text message call-to-action in the content will help move that process along. Other times, gathering viewer information will take it to the next level.

“Obviously you want to extend the experience from the display potentially to handheld and mobile devices,” Hanak acknowledges, “and there’s a number of different techniques that could be used to make that happen. It’s not so easy to get folks attention today, there’s so much going on.”

With a tremendous amount of individuals now interfacing with social media and web applications, it’s also important to make that connection through digital sign content. Best of all, it’s entirely possible and an effective means of communicating.

“Customers can update their Twitter feed and pictures and information,” says Kaplan. “The social media features, once they are set up, they can manage it on their end and the media player puts it all together.”

Applying it All

Knowing all of this, sign shop owners may still be wondering if taking on digital signage content is too much; too daunting. It’s true, there are challenges, just like any other kind of sign production work.

“The biggest challenge we find is as people see something they’re unsure of or something they don’t know about, they may be afraid to do digital signage at all,” Kaplan says. “But once we see them get it, the benefits are pretty strong.”

During one project completed for a fire department, Kaplan explains that he was able to convey the advantages of the sign by touting its functional features. The sign divided information and operability by incorporating a bulletin board area on one side and an active call area on the other.

“If a call came in it would show up on the screen and any firefighter could see that,” Kaplan says.

Commercial locations are realizing the perks of effective digital signage content as well. Typically, the biggest question is how to manage such content to maximize its value.

Going back to the local pizza parlor example, the establishment’s daily specials and advertisements could run on a free system that comes with the screen, but such platforms are not meant to scale, according to Gutnik. “Once you begin entering highly visible locations such as malls or airports stretching across many different faces,” she continues, “you will want and require a separate platform that can manage a high number of varying rules from a single point.” 

Reliability should always be a consideration when developing content for a digital sign system.

“There are so many different ways to create content today and so many different file formats, so making sure that things are going to play back appropriately is something that we’ve always tried to focus in on,” Hanak says. There’s no doubt that in today’s ever-advancing world digital signage has become more popular.

“People are aware of screens now,” Gutnik says, “and they almost expect them in certain places too.”

While flat screens are commonplace now, the main difference-maker is the content. Many businesses need assistance with promotions or relaying communications. Great content in digital signage can give them the boost they desire.

“Any business that has changing information is a candidate,” Kaplan says. “And it’s actually really smooth sailing once they go forward with it.”