Digital Signage Insider: News, Trends and Analysis

Unless you're in the large-format LED billboard business, you can file this under "boring, but important." As the headline above says, the cost of those LED modules that make up the giant displays found in Times Square, Tokyo, Las Vegas and your local interstate fell at least 15% in 2015. While I haven't been keeping particularly close watch on the prices of these things for very long, that, to me, seems like an astonishingly big drop in a very short period of time. During the same period it seems like 16mm pixel pitch has become the preferred size for roadside and building-mounted displays, versus 20mm in the previous year.

Because most LED billboards are made out of smaller modules, this price drop scales linearly with the size of the display (measured in square feet or square meters, usually) and means that in many cases that 14x48' billboard (a standard size for US roadside billboards) costs around $155K as opposed to the roughly $182K it would have cost in 2014. I've seen even bigger drops for older 25mm pixel-pitch screens, but most vendors and buyers these days seem to be interested in the better resolution of 16mm, 12mm and even 10mm displays.

What's "pixel pitch" again?

The pixel pitch describes how much space is between the individual pixels (picture elements) of an LED screen. Back in the days of CRT monitors it was called "dot pitch" (and measured in fractions of a millimeter). These days for LCD and OLED screens it seems we've settled on dots per inch (DPI), which is admittedly a much smarter thing to do than describing your smartphone as having a 0.001mm dot pitch.

A single pixel of an LED screen contains 3 individual LEDs - red, green and blue
The pixels on an LED screen are spaced much further apart than on an LCD display. However, it is difficult to notice the gaps when the screen is viewed from far away.
Smaller LED screens and screens that will be viewed closer in need to use a smaller pixel pitch to display high-quality imagery. However, because they use so many more LED lamps, they are considerably more expensive. In this example, a 10mm pixel pitch display uses 4 times the number of LEDs as a 20mm display of the same size.

So how much do these things tend to cost?

We of course have an elaborate LED billboard price calculator that can provide a pretty accurate range of prices for all sorts of bells and whistles, but if you're looking for ballpark pricing, the most popular "standard" size is the aforementioned 14x48' sign. At a 16mm pitch, they currently cost between $140K and $310K, depending on options. At 20mm (so, effectively a lower resolution for a screen of the same physical size), that range is more like $115K and $255K A "poster" or "30 sheet" screen -- another standard size based on old-school OOH media -- is 12x24' and costs $45K - $100K.

Why is the price range so huge?

Well, there are a lot of different options to consider, like country of origin, the quality of the individual LED lamps (which affect everything from longevity to brightness to reliability), and the materials that the modules are built from. Special ratings and certifications can affect the price too. Fortunately, for most applications the bog-stock offerings from the major vendors will be the best choice, and those tend to be on the low side of the range (for example, we're working with a US-based supplier right now who stocks 14x48' 16mm billboards and sells them for $155K, FOB Miami, FL).

And what about the environmental impact?

As I said, in the past 12 months (or a bit more) many vendors have been working just as hard at lowering the environmental footprint of these devices as they have at lowering the cost. Why? Well, after the capital cost of an LED billboard, electricitity is one of the highest ongoing operational costs, with some screens costing thousands of dollars per month to operate (they're really, really bright, and bigger than you think). While I've yet to hear about a LEED-certified billboard, I've seen literature from several different US and China-based manufacturers recently that claim anywhere from a 15 to 40% power savings versus similar models from a few years ago -- that's not only better for the environment, but given the cost of electricity, it's better for the bottom line.

It's a well known fact that emotions play a powerful role in our decision making processes -- nobody ever claimed that we humans were rational actors (well, aside from economists, who are great for making detailed hypothetical models of things that will never happen, but little good for anything else). And it goes without saying that our attitudes about everything from the products we buy to the companies that we work for are profoundly influenced by our feelings towards those places and things. Unfortunately, anybody who has tried to develop a marketing campaign, whether for selling a new product or motivating employees in the break room knows that making a successful emotional appeal is really hard, especially when you're trying to appeal to a broad group of people. That's why this article from the Harvard Business Review really caught my eye. In short, researchers claimed to have cracked the code on making potent emotional appeals, and they have the data to back it up.


2015 HBR emotional connections

The researchers were able to identify hundreds of individual "emotional motivators," any combination of which might be influential to a consumer at any given time. But they were also able to identify 10 motivators that apply broadly, nearly all of the time:

I am inspired by a desire to:Brands can leverage this motivator by helping customers:
Stand out from the crowd Project a unique social identity; be seen as special
Have confidence In the future Perceive the future as better than the past; have a positive mental picture of what’s to come
Enjoy a sense of well-being Feel that life measures up to expectations and that balance has been achieved; seek a stress-free state without conflicts or threats
Feel a sense of freedom Act independently, without obligations or restrictions
Feel a sense of thrill Experience visceral, overwhelming pleasure and excitement; participate in exciting, fun events
Feel a sense of belonging Have an affiliation with people they relate to or aspire to be like; feel part of a group
Protect the environment Sustain the belief that the environment is sacred; take action to improve their surroundings
Be the person I want to be Fulfill a desire for ongoing self-improvement; live up to their ideal self-image
Feel secure Believe that what they have today will be there tomorrow; pursue goals and dreams without worry
Succeed in life Feel that they lead meaningful lives; find worth that goes beyond financial or socioeconomic measures

Of course it's easy to say "oh, just give your target audience a visceral, overwhelming pleasure and excitement," but actually pulling it off is a very different thing. For some people, watching a trailer for a new movie might be enough to tick that box. But others might need to BASE jump off of the Statue of Liberty to satisfy the same requirement. And it goes without saying that the approaches to making these emotional appeals is going to vary widely by discipline. Product marketers will rely on one set of tools, HR professionals another, safety officers yet another still, and so on.

The thing I like, though, is that it's easy to imagine a lot of these emotional motivators in the context of digital signage messages. As we know, messages have to be short and to-the-point to be memorable. There are also dozens of other digital signage content best practices to follow to make sure they are clear and communicate core ideas properly. But in addition to that, if this research is to be believed, messages that can also integrate an emotional motivator may be more successful (or memorable, or actionable, or something) than those that don't. And the nice thing is that the emotional component might actually be conveyed better with a non-verbal, visual cue. This is really great, because we know that making messages longer reduces their effectiveness. So while I haven't done any formal research on this matter yet (and I'd love to -- any DS network managers reading this, let's chat...) my suggestion for right now would be this:

Focus your text content on the most important message you wish to convey. But back it up with visual enhancements that make a relevant emotional appeal.

I'm going to call out Betteridge's Law of Headlines right away today -- I don't actually know the answer to the question I'm answering. And I'm not really sure if an article of this sort even makes sense to post on a blog purportedly focused on digital signage. But I do know that one of the major presuppositions about making digital signage content is that when you include a call to action, some people will actually take it. Measurably more, in fact, than when you don't give them a little nudge. Yet while it might be possible to show a causal link between, say, a banner ad or in-store campaign and the purchase of the advertised product, I'm starting to wonder how much of an effect a constant bombardment of messages -- marketing and otherwise -- really has, and whether or not it can compel us to take additional action (whether purchasing stuff or otherwise) by reducing the action's perceived difficulty. The answer to this has ramifications far beyond digital signage, retail marketing and even advertising in general -- when our smartphones are bleeping important external news from subscription services, our IoT and smart home devices are chiming in with important notices about physical events, and our fitness trackers and wearables are contributing a steady flow of personal information (that was always out there but we never paid attention to before), I have to imagine that at a certain point the sheer amount of data we process will become distracting. But will the cumulative flow of data distract to the point where no message gets processed and consequently no decisions are influenced? And if so, how near (or far) from that point are we already?


It has been well known for over a decade that human beings are pretty terrible at multitasking. As Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror notes, we may lose up to 20% of our cognitive performance when switching between just a handful of tasks (this is known as context switching, and is also a problem in computer science). We're constantly switching contexts, of course. As you walk through the grocery store, for example, you may be visually surveying a dozen different signs, product packages and even the faces of nearby shoppers as you mentally walk through your shopping list and pull up some coupons on your mobile phone. This works fairly well because a) other shoppers are generally doing the same thing, so to a certain extent you are able to mirror their behaviors, and b) the different behaviors all fall into the same mental bucket of "grocery shopping," so your context switches are rapid and cooperative. Of course, if you happen to be doing that while getting a text or posting to Facebook, all of those nice mental optimizations go out the window, which is why you now also frequently see people colliding with each other or stopped dead in the middle of an aisle at a grocery store.

Multitasking and context switching has become such a problem that by some estimates the US economy loses nearly $1 trillion a year due to the downtime associated with switching between tasks. Intel estimates that the problem costs their firm alone upwards of $1 billion. So clearly, being constantly interrupted, reminded and updated is not always a good thing, especially when your measure is overall productivity.

But where do things like the Twitter Buy button, Amazon Dash buttons, FitBits and Amazon's Echo IoT hub come into play? All of these devices make it easy to track our lives down to minutae and make snap decisions on everything from product purchases to meal plans to taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Do these little nudges affect our mental context the same way as "big" task switches? I haven't see any formal research on the subject yet, but I'm willing to bet that at some point, adding more messages becomes a cognitive problem, creating a overall net loss in terms of what we're able to process and act on.

We know that some psychological tenets hold true over large populations. For example, most people can hold 7 (+/- 2) items in memory at once. I'd bet that there will be some similar "law of distractions" (if there isn't already) that holds that without training, most people will only be able to handle a small number of new messages at once before each additional message starts to incur mental penalties that cancels out whatever benefit there might have been to sending the message in the first place.

multitasking it only good until it isn't


Information overload is a real thing, with measurably bad consequences. For the most part, digital signs have avoided the role of adding too many messages because they generally focus on context-specific content (that old addage of delivering the right message to the right audience at the right time, blah, blah blah). But with the IoT that's no longer true. A student trying to focus on a lecture will face a context switch when his fitness tracker reminds him to get up and move. A corporate executive will have to switch tasks when an "urgent" message is sent to his phone letting him know a delivery was left at the front door. And who knows what's going to happen when my smart hub starts telling me that I'm almost out of milk and a dozen other things in the fridge, and would I like to place an order now???

We're going to have to adjust our situational awareness if we are to have any chance of using most of these new messages rather than letting them wash over us like noise. So far, research suggests that this is going to be hard -- maybe impossible -- for us to ever do well. But if manufacturers continue adding new and smarter devices and service providers continue to come with new and more clever ways to streamline our choices and nudge us into making the "right" one, I have to hope that somebody is looking into this problem and thinking of ways to solve it.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has been used and abused by too many disciplines to count. In fact, I'm guilty of one such infraction back in 2012, when I wrote "5 Tips for Engaging Your Viewers Through Digital Messaging" (which is thankfully still pretty relevant). Since good -- as in useful -- digital signage content design is something that many network managers continue to struggle with, I thought it might be a good idea to once again trot out that tired old pyramid, give it a bit of polish, and once again describe the expectations that compelling content must meet.

 digital signage content needs

Before getting started I need to note that while the content in the image above is all my own, I cribbed the color scheme and dimensions for this graphic from an image I ran across on Twitter. Unfortunately I can't find it again, but if anybody happens to know what it was, please leave a comment below so I can give credit where it's due. 

My perspective on digital signage content is that it can generally be thought about in four stages of "completeness." In the first stage, the content attracts. It must be eye catching enough to grab the attention of viewers distracted by other tasks, goals and stimuli. That's true whether the digital signs in question are on a factory floor (where, presumably the viewers would be factory workers who ought to be preoccupied -- namely by their jobs), or a grocery store where distracted shoppers pull coupons on their mobile phones while racing through their weekly shopping list.

Once a viewer's attention has been captured, the content must explain -- it should quickly convey enough information to explain or frame an overall message or position. As we've talked about before, the optimum message length on a digital sign is pretty short -- only about 22 characters, so brevity is essential. And we know that even the order that words appear in (and how many you use) can have a significant effect on how much your viewers will be able to absorb and understand when they're casually glancing at your signs.

As if that wasn't enough, though, we still have two performance tiers left to climb. For example, good digital signage content will not only inform, it will persuade the viewer to broaden his range of thought, change his opinion or take action -- converting them from a mere viewer to an engaged actor. Conversion might be as simple as using breakroom signage content to convince employees to put their empty soda cans in a recycling bin instead of the trash can. Or it might mean trying a new product being promoted on an aisle endcap. The critical moment for conversion is when an otherwise passive viewer decides to take action.

Finally, truly exceptional content will provide value beyond what is expected. It has been 10 years since P&G introduced the concept of the "First Moment of Truth" in consumer product marketing, and the notion that as message producers we should aim to surprise and delight our viewers. That insight is no less true today than it was then, which is why digital signage contnet that can delight an engaged viewer will be better remembered and more frequently acted upon than content that can't reach this final stage. Of course how your digital signage content might delight will be very situation-dependent, but I've seen something as simple as a piece of humorous trivia content on an airport sign bring a bit of much-needed levity to an otherwise tense and uncomfortable situation.

In virtually every case I've run across in the past 15 years, the best performing digital signage networks were those managed by a dedicated team of content professionals who both understood the audience that they were trying to reach, and had some vested interest in making compelling content. This was just as true in cases where we were working with HR and corporate communciations teams as it was when we were working with flagship marketing and advertising agencies and their big retail clients. Thankfully, making compelling digital signage content doesn't need to take a huge budget and a big team of people. It just demands patience, a willingness to test (and make changes), and an understanding that just because a piece of content might attract and engage, it can (and should) still be tweaked to reach those last two tiers of the hierarchy.

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