Digital Signage Insider: News, Trends and Analysis

It's been a while since I wrote about making effective digital signage content, and in fact these days I don't get the opportunity to focus in on content strategy with clients nearly as often as I'd like. And that's a shame, since even after a decade of considerable growth (I think it's fair to say that digital signage in nearly all forms is solidly in the "mature" section of the technology catalog) I frequently come across signs in serious need of improvement. In just the past few weeks I've noticed a half dozen offenders, ranging from QSR menu boards to corporate lobby screens. But the real catalyst for this post came from research house eMarketer, who noted that even in 2016 lowly email marketing outperformed the more fashionable social media and paid search industries. Perhaps most interestingly of all, the humble one-size-fits-all email newsletter was still found to be the workhorse of the industry, offering a greater return per dollar than far more elaborate hypertargeted mailings. In light of the fact that marketing automation platforms these days will slice and dice content into dozens or hundreds of different forms in an attempt to best fit each recipient, that's pretty telling, especially as it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom in the digital signage arena.

The drive toward automating content production on digital signage networks is nothing new. I remember listening to Jeff Porter (a longtime VP at Scala) give a presentation on the subject well over a decade ago, and since then the barrier to entry for auto-generated content has fallen shortly. For large networks the need to automatically customize content playback can be particularly important, since it quickly becomes unwieldy (and expensive) to create, catalog, organize and deploy multiple variations of even a simple piece of content. Tech companies were quick to answer the call, and today there are hundreds of solutions on the market that will ingest your data inputs and spit out as many different output variations as you care to make. This kind of wrote work is exactly the type that benefits from automation, after all.

That said, while "delivering the right content at the right place and time to the right audience" has been the mantra of the digital signage (and now, mobile) advertising worlds for as long as they've existed, it's unclear exactly how beneficial it is. There seems to be general agreement that some amount of customization does indeed boost the performance of out-of-home ads. There's no point in advertising snow tires in Florida, after all. And far on the other end of the spectrum we have things like AdWords and Facebook ads that hyper-target to your specific interests based on an exhaustive analysis of your online browsing habits. While there's no denying these programs do astonishingly well for Google and Facebook, it's less clear whether they're as effective as they're purported to be (case in point: in 2016 global CPG giant Procter & Gamble phased out their Facebook ads program citing lack of effectiveness). And there have definitely been anecdotal cases of people opting out of Facebook entirely because the ads have gotten "too creepy" (something that I actually touched on waaaaay back in 2009 in an article discussing digital signage and the uncanny valley).
digital signage and the uncanny valley
Remember this diagram?

I continue to read about new tech developments in face recognition, beaconing, etc. that put a lot of stock in being able to show a highly-targeted spot to a specific person as they make their way about in the real world. At one point in time, this seemed like a pretty good idea to me. Now, though, I'm in the same boat as the email marketers mentioned earlier on. If I had to, I'd bet that quality content that follows many of our best practices for digital signage content and has high production value will work better (and be more cost effective) than content that bends over backwards to hypertarget to a very small group of people (or even just an individual). I don't expect that we'll ever see a well-controlled test of this theory given how ridiculously expensive it would be (and paradoxically how spendthrift networks can be when it comes to making content), but if the companies like P&G have difficulty getting hypertargeting to work online, I have to imagine that the vast majority of brands advertising on digital signage networks will suffer the same fate in their much less forgiving real-world settings.

Quick note - we've updated our digital signage price estimator for the first time since its release back in 2012. More accurate pricing, better volume discount estimates, and support for the latest-and-greatest tech are available to all who might want to generate a digital signage project estimate.

What's new?

There are three big upgrades in this version of the price calculator: first, we added an option for 4k support. This basically just bumps up the cost of the screens and media players for those people who simply must have the newest, shiniest objects. Are there cases where using 4k content makes sense? Yeah, a couple. High-end video walls and retail installations might benefit from some really eye-popping ultra high def content, but the vast majority of the time it adds nothing. You remember this graphic, right?

resolution chart

Even in the best case -- and using a huge screen -- the visual advantage of 4k content basically disappears before the viewer is even 10 feet away.  Buuut, people want to know how much it costs, so we stuck it in the calculator.

Next, we added support for speccing touch screens. We see a lot of projects these days that make use of a smaller touch screen and larger standard screen together, or else touch screens that are integrated into some larger device. Speaking of "larger" we also added pricing guesstimates for a larger class of screen -- 60-70 inch -- but honestly there's so much of a price difference between a 60" and 70" screen right now that our price estimate for that not going to be very accurate.

Finally, we considerably improved the way volume discounts are calculated, though honestly no online estimator is really going to do a good job estimating both a 10-screen pilot and a 1,000-screen rollout. But at least now we're making the attempt!

What's coming next?

I'd love one day to be able to put a content estimator-guideline-thing up to give people a better idea how how the initial capex of installing a network pales in comparison to feeding it content forever, but that's a tall order and perhaps of limited value, since most people who are serious about their projects will so some internal calculations and everyone else... well... they probably won't be interested in a lot of math no matter who's doing it.

At one point we also considered something along the lines of an organization estimator which would attempt to quantify the number of people needed to manage the network, create the content, etc. (based on the estimates from Digital signage staffing analysis), but honestly that's hopelessly complicated and would be so extremely error-prone.

There are also some additional fixes that we need to make, in particular the handling of very low-cost Android-based players, HDMI sticks and the like. While many commercial-grade systems are still in the approximate ballpark of a lower-end Intel-based player, there is definitely still a good deal of downward pricing pressure, and we haven't fully captured all of that, so it goes to the top of the to-do list.

More than anything we'd like some feedback on whether this new and improved estimator is useful, and whether the numbers it's spitting out mirror people's experiences in the real world. Let me know what you think!

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.

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.

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