Relevance is King


Dynamic digital signage is a concept that is really a combination of several technologies and is brought to fruition in the market via several pathways. Digital sign applications can look like a slide show, a television commercial, a how-to video, an outdoor billboard, an old-fashioned show card—or some combination of all the above.
In its many guises, digital signage is growing, increasing its share in a number of market applications and gaining more acceptance and influence as an important 21st century medium.
It’s credited with helping to increase brand awareness and sales “lift” as well as being a community source of information. It has strengths and weaknesses; advocates and critics, but it is definitely here to stay.
The basic physical components of digital signage systems are computer hardware, computer software and display screens. Another crucial component, without which the sign would be meaningless, is audience. And audience has everything to do with placement.
Peripheral and supporting components include presentation/display fixtures and furniture, and network connectivity (unless it’s a standalone unit). Satellite connections, network servers and the Internet enable broad and instant distribution of all kinds of digital signage. Implementation requires some basic fabrication and installation skills, electronic and computing skills and, of course the skills to generate and deliver quality content (not an easy combination of talents)
There are two major ways digital signage is used: The term “Digital Signage” (DS) captures the entire use of dynamic digital display and is increasingly used to describe display for non-ad based media such as patron, staff and student communications. The term “Digital Out-of-Home” DOOH) is used to describe digital signage networks that depend on third-party advertising. However, there is very little difference between these two types of digital signs, in terms of physical applications. That’s because the display mechanisms are so similar—indeed not only similar to each other, but to all other 21st-century display screens (cinema, television, personal computers and cell phones).
But for those within the industry (and to careful observers), the difference between “digital signage” (DS) and “digital out-of-home” (DOOH) is enormous because the application is the result of a completely different business model and purpose. “Digital Signage” shows up in department stores, the work place, consumer services locations, movie theaters, at sports and arts facilities and fast food restaurants; it shows up in hospitals, airports, museums and colleges. Digital Out-of-Home is used much the same way its technological predecessors (printed posters, hand-lettered bulletins and show cards, changeable menu boards) were used—to educate, promote and influence behavior on the premises. Digital signage may be responsible for sales increases (sales lift) but focuses on the facility in which the display is located.
Digital out-of-home shows up in retail locations, on the edge of highways, in airports, convention centers and other public spaces. DOOH is a revenue generator and advertising is sold to clients in much the same way as its technological predecessors (television, radio, newspapers, magazines or static billboards) are still sold.
But the rules may be changing.
Dynamic digital signage can be like a flashing neon sign on steroids. It is a young, disruptive technology that appears to be maturing quickly. As it matures, it is sometimes displacing other forms of advertising and information delivery and other times complementing them.
As the demand grows, DS providers will need new skills in addition to those needed for other kinds of advertising and signage. In a recent paper analyzing digital signage sourcing and supply, industry consultant, advisor and educator Lyle Bunn says he believes it’s not a question of whether, but of how an end user will engage with digital signage in 2010.
“End users, suppliers and integrators all have the choice to be part of digital signage or not,” Bunn writes, “with consequences to those that do not, and benefits for those organizations that do.” (This and other reports by Lyle Bunn are available at
Bunn also examines supply chain and servicing logistics, citing numerous opportunities “to provide services such as network operations, help desk, play list administration and content development…”
And while an ideal source for the components of digital sign technology might be companies with audio-visual and information technology integration backgrounds, Bunn also points out, “End Users are going to buy from someone, and the ability to respond to needs is the basis of ongoing supply relationship.”
Sign companies and digital graphics providers that are already familiar with working with print, paint, light and other graphic design processes can tap into the “content” part of digital signage. It involves redirecting their understanding of layout, primary and secondary copy, the use of color, and effective typography into an electronic rather than printed medium. 
Sign and printing companies that are used to working with sheet metal, steel, wood and other types of sign and graphics fabrication materials can tap into the fixtures and presentation part of DS.
The upshot is that there is a growing demand for digital signage and it needs to be installed, updated and serviced by someone.
Opportunities to provide digital signage as a compliment to more conventional signs are plentiful. Let’s look at a few examples.
A Vista Systems media pylon that Fort Myers, Fla.-based Images Graphic Specialties utilized in a sign system at the Resort at Marina Village in Cape Coral, Fla. The system includes vehicular and pedestrian wayfinding signs, monuments and custom designed six-foot lit logos. The eSign Pylon, supplied by Memo Media, features a 21.5" display screen that the hotel uses to advertise real estate opportunities, special events and amenities.
“After viewing the functional demo in our office, the client realized the potential for not only communicating information to guests, but the portability that allowed it to be utilized wherever needed,” says John Hose, Images President and CEO. The customer then asked that it be included in the signage package.
Hose says the addition of audio capability via surface mounted speakers atop the media pylon was added to the unit at the request of the customer, and was easily added due to the plug and play nature of the ePlayer CF solid state media player.
“It’s like an entry-level digital sign; it’s pretty simple,” says Images designer Matt Cavalier. With no network connectivity, a data card similar to one used in a digital camera is inserted into a solid-state card reader and feeds an information loop into the digital display. Cavalier says he foresees the company providing more integrated system units. “It’s definitely a selling point that fits along with the rest of our turnkey systems. It’s good for us to be able to offer such a variety of product.”
Another example can be seen in New York City, where Tribeca-based SignExpo has arranged several digital sign installations. Typically the company supplies or builds enclosures, assembles and installs the components, but hires software providers such as Memo Media to configure the software.
Although most of SignExpo’s digital sign installations are not part of a conventional sign system, a number of their digital signage projects have been done for previous conventional sign clients.
SignExpo’s director of new business Evan Swartz says the company has arranged similar installations for several other clients in retail locations, events and a number of other applications and believes the company will be installing more digital signs, especially interactive displays in the future.
There are a number of indications that the sign industry is starting to adapt to the more complex aspects of digital signage technology.
In January 2009, Fastsigns International announced a mainstream readily available digital signage system, integrating products and services from Scala Inc. and NEC. “A major stumbling block for many in digital signage is the IT infrastructure,” says Matt Miles, Director of Special Products for Fastsigns. So the sign shop franchise invested in servers, software and bandwidth and developed what Miles says is “the only multi-network, unlimited player Scala network in North America” to support its centers.
A typical Fastsigns installation is a pre-priced bundle that includes hardware, software, content management and installation. “It’s an all-encompassing product designed to make the purchase, installation and execution simple and hassle-free for the customer,” Miles says.
“Fastsigns is all about the content,” Miles says. He says Fastsigns has also developed a complete marketing program for digital signage for franchisees to use at the local level. Software training as well as sales training is a part of the Fastsigns program.
He says it’s targeted to small-to-medium-sized businesses, a market he believes is underserved and has limited time and resources to research digital signage. But he also believes education will expand the market even further. Fastsigns centers as a group are pro-active about publicizing their digital signage services, hosting open houses, seminars with local Chambers of Commerce and using various other marketing avenues to position themselves as industry experts.
If not already, the installed base of digital display screens will likely soon reach “critical mass” and at that point demand for content will seriously increase. The digital signage industry mantra, “Content Is King” echoes far and wide. But the future belongs to not just any content; it belongs to relevant content.
Miles believes relevant content is the most important to those small underserved businesses. Content needs to be properly targeted to be most effective.
Digital signage is maturing, but it is by no means a one-size-fits-all commodity product. There are many levels of price and product performance, and many purposes behind installations. Success in the digital signage business will come to companies that combine an understanding of the components and technology, graphic design, their clients’ business objectives and relevant content.
1)      More small businesses will demonstrate interest in retail applications of both networked and non-networked DS systems.
2)      Interactive display installations will increase.
3)      LCD monitors will dominate the DS industry as LCD prices fall and its installed base achieves critical mass.
4)      OLED technology will continue to improve and will become a more commercially feasible display alternative, especially indoors.
5)      Content providing will be in demand as more networks compete and consumers selectively tune out incoming media as their attention spans wane.
6)      Content providers will be challenged to provide interesting, relevant and targeted information.
7)      More open-architecture systems will become available as prices for turnkey systems continue to fall.
8)      Several start-up/spin-off DS enterprises will emerge offering advanced services based on integrated matched hardware component designs and an advanced knowledge of digital content management.
9)      Traditional media outlets – outdoor advertising, publishing and television companies – will form strategic alliances for DS systems with lesser known companies that specialize in DS systems.

New metrics for measuring DS effectiveness will contribute to its evolution and usefulness.