I don't think there is a slower slug in digital marketing than digital signage. While the likes of Google and Facebook have been able to generate literally billions in digital advertising dollars in under 10 years, digital signage advertising revenue is barely breaking $100 million with all players in the space combined. The good news is the technology is reliable and cheap and I can't think of more impressive visual impact than well done digital signage. It's time to dig a little deeper into this promotional medium and figure it into our marketing and branding plans.
Digital Signage Defined
Perhaps part of the slow adoption of the media for advertising starts with the industry name. Signage harkens thoughts of "For Sale by Owner" signs on lawns, Realtor Ads on outdoor benches and large, ugly billboards on the sides of roads. The way I think about digital "signage", and I believe to be a much better name, is to call them dynamic media displays.
When you break it down a digital signage system is a display screen, a computer and software controlling the display. That's the simple heart of it. A laptop running a looped PowerPoint presentation on a tradeshow table is technically digital signage. But that simple basic description doesn't do the technology justice. Looped information displays or endless commercials are probably the lowest impact for purposes of attracting mindshare but it's got all the nuts and bolts.
Digital signage can get really exciting and if you've walked Times Square lately you've seen it in all of its outdoor glory. Buildings are literally wrapped in digital displays that wrap corners and light up the entire sides of buildings. But even building sized displays really only stun by scale. There is lots more to digital signage.
How to Gain Mindshare
Successful digital signage needs one major ingredient - creative content. Since the display is essentially computer displays and certainly can combine audio you can have full blown multimedia capability and the ability to display simultaneous and different information. The software to control the displays calls each different data source a channel. You can mix and combine different channels on a timeline. A good example of this are financial and sports cable networks that have scrolling news, stock quotes, rotating game scores and talking heads all simultaneously. Each information type and display area is a channel and displayed through computer combination. Common examples most people see are for entertainment purposes but let's get to advertising.
Your also seeing basic dynamic displays for menu boards. Bright vibrant photos of food can be a nice twist on the same boring plastic displays. It can also be practical for restaurants with frequent menu changes. Although practical this really doesn't do much to capture attention beyond the point of purchase.
Now marketers can take all the demographics of their customers and apply it to displays. You can choose music, commercials, voice overs, relevant hobby information and geography to blend information, entertainment and commercials into one unified marketing wonderland. The creative aspects are truly dizzying and for some this may end up being overwhelming. When you use digital signage software any digital data can be "mashed" into the display screen. Video, audio, weather, stock symbols, Facebook and Twitter posts.
The potential of this medium has never truly been pushed and explored. Custom apps that allow direct connection and interaction from customers, observers and employees is all feasible but not developed. Crowd sourced content is an interesting area just waiting to be leveraged.
You can also, with the correct display and software, make your displays interactive. Think digital kiosk. If you add sensors for motion you can prompt people as they walk by. It will get more complicated to set up an interactive kiosk but the potential gets really interesting.
Advertising Networks and Digital Signage
Digital signage networks are placed in all sorts of venues. They are lit giant signs on the side of the roads, blinding positions in New York's Time Square, screens peppered throughout airports, restaurants, bars, airplanes, malls and taxi cabs. These network owners are screaming for business. There isn't enough demand from advertisers to fill the advertising time available and advertising agencies don't really know how to bill and charge for the creative around the use. This has created a void that any would be advertisers can leverage to their advantage. Ad agencies normally take a cut of advertising placement fees but there isn't enough revenue currently with most digital signage networks to financially support the creative effort. Ad agencies are starting to bill for creative directly to the advertisers which shifts their revenue model somewhat. If you have an ad agency and you're interested in digital signage ad networks then be prepared for them to push you away from it. Don't take no for an answer. They need to learn the medium as much as you do.
Another reason for the advertising void has to do with the challenge of Internet advertising impact. Advertisers are treating digital signage networks like online advertising and not like television or radio media. There is no AC Nielson rating for digital signage networks. What advertisers are looking for is "click through" like you'd find with Google Word Ads but digital signage as a medium is generally (but not always) not interactive. So different metrics are being tried like "likes" on Facebook or special product pages to view. The results are kind of mixed.
The final challenge for the network providers is the underlying costs for displays, computing devices and software has plummeted so there is a glut of start ups moving into the space over the last few years to create new and ever expanding networks. This creates a supply and demand imbalance. It's also an opportunity to get some smoking deals on advertising prices.
Skip the Middle Man, In-house Digital Signage
Digital signage has gone the route of full product evolution - it's now freeware. Yeah, you can get very sophisticated cloud based software for no licensing fees at all (but you'll need platform savvy techies to get it up and running) or use the software through a third party host for next to nothing - hundreds of dollars a year for an unlimited number of displays.
Display prices have plummeted overall. Retail display prices have been hit the hardest. Commercial units are more expensive but as a tier they have moved down on price as well. You can use a retail display mounted on a wall to get started. If you do this don't display it vertically as they are generally not designed to last in that position. Pixels tend to blow and flicker at the bottom of the vertically mounted retail display. Don't use a plasma display since burn in of images is going to be an issue. Retail displays won't display well in bright light. They typically run around 250 nits (measure of brightness). This means they won't be seen out a window in bright sun and they may be weak in glass entry ways. Commercial units can be purchased with more nits of brightness. In general, an outdoor display will be at least 400 nits of brightness. The price of the displays starts to triple when you move to 400 nits for the same sized 250 nit display. 400 nit displays will make you squint from 10 feet away. They are that bright. Direct IP commercial displays are just getting on the market but there isn't any software that really takes advantage of the feature.
Kiosks can be very useful for waiting rooms, lobbies and thorough fairs. They are metal cases that hold a display vertically and house the computer device in a compartment. They are also excellent for interactive displays.
Computing power can be banks of servers for the New York Times Square building displays but most single and dual displays are powered by basic small computers. Smaller displays that don't need high resolution can be powered by solid electronic board android operating system devices.
The Digital Signage Getting Started Package
So what does it take to get started? If you'd like to experiment with the medium here is a quick, easy and low cost way to get going. Buy any 1080p LED retail display on sale. Don't get a "smart" TV, 3D capable, etc. you won't use the features. You should be able to get a 50 inch model for around $700. Go to digitalsignage.com and create an account. It's free. It's a cloud based digital signage software system that has all the features you'll need. It's a flash based interface system and it will take several hours of watching the online tutorials and playing with the software to get comfortable with it. If you do video or sound editing you'll get the swing of things very quickly. Also, you need some content to play with. If you have video of your kids playing, you are good to go and experiment. Also, on digitalsignage.com they sell different computer hardware. Start by buying a single display supporting 1080p output computer for around $500.
That's it. For $1,200 you have all the pieces you need to enter the digital signage world. If you're a real cheapo then use your own display at home and you can drop down to a 720p droid solid state computer for $149.
$149 to start experimenting with digital signage! What are you waiting for? Embrace dynamic media on dynamic displays.