Digital Signage Insider: News, Trends and Analysis

I'd like to start out by saying that I fully understand the irony of this post, having just written it.

It's 2020, years since I last wrote a serious blog post for WireSpring, partly due to a business pivot but mostly due to the fact that the nature of business writing just started to feel... obsolete to me. When I first started blogging -- back before that was even a word -- things in the digital signage industry were new, fresh and exciting. Hell, things in the online business writing field were new, fresh and exciting as well. Clever writers developed content not just because it would be indexed by Google and used to provide some minuscule bump in search rankings for whatever terms it was optimized for, as is all to often the case today, but because they felt they could contribute knowledge that wasn't yet widely available or commonly known. Of course they took opportunities to try and establish thought leadership and brand recognition (and the bump in Google search rankings certainly didn't hurt), but the signal-to-noise ratio was pretty high: for every decent, educational post there was a manageable amount of garbage.

Fast forward to today. Social media offers vast echo chambers capable of turning a single modest (and frequently incorrect) thought into a barrage of memes, tweets, reposts and comments. More often than not, long-form content gets developed and then immediately redeveloped into slate of shorter episodes, each with their own clickbait-y title. Meanwhile, outsourcing groups in low-wage countries backfill with new content more focused on word count and search engine optimization than insight, further amplifying the noise. And I have no idea what's going to happen once the AIs get good enough at writing to pass for human.

None of this is news to anyone who visits websites or uses social media. The competition for your attention and personal data is more fierce than ever, even as cheap aggregation services and a never-ending stream of major security breaches makes our information more available and accessible than ever. Which leads me to the true subject of this post: personalized messaging versus the Big Meme™.

A long, long, long time ago I wrote a blog post about the "Uncanny Valley" of messaging -- when personalized marketing starts to feel creepy. It's still a fun (and relevant) read, partly because it contains this silly chart:

In the years since I wrote that, a strange thing happened. Marketing automation services enabled the cheap production of highly personalized messaging. Legit mail marketers and spammers alike no longer had to be limited to simple template variables, and could instead make up complex algorithms to fill whole paragraphs with highly specific text based on troves of personal information sold for pennies a person. And sure enough, these unnaturally crafted tomes did really start taking us toward the uncanny valley of text -- messages that seemed to know much too much about us, but clearly got something fundamentally wrong.

But the thing is, we never really crossed over to the other side of the valley. We may still in the future (see the aforementioned note/fear about AI-generated content), but for now we're firmly stuck on the left. Marketers, seeming to realize this (or, more likely, having realized that response rates started falling off, or that the effort of automating all of that customization just wasn't worth it), seem to have been stepping back from the brink and simplifying their targeting approaches. For various reasons conventional digital signage and OOH media in general never really achieved the same level of hyper-targeted customization, so there's been a shorter distance to fall back. That said, though, the content I've seen running around town certainly looks a bit simpler -- on average -- than it did a few years ago. Whether or not it's being generated by some super-sophisticated algorithm on the back-end I have no idea, but I kinda have my doubts about that.

So what does this have with COVID-19 and the "Great Hunkering Down of 2020?" Simply put, for the first time in... well, maybe ever, there's a thought or idea that virtually every person on Earth has an interest in, and that has allowed marketers to shift their content way over to the left side of that chart. The coronavirus is the biggest, baddest meme around, and it will be top-of-mind for virtually every consumer for not just the next month or two, but long after. Behaviors will change, shopping and travel patterns will upended, and people will have the opportunity to find new and (potentially) better ways to do things that they've been doing for their whole lives, whether it's going to school, going to work, or going to the store. Consequently, every single marketing message in your inbox, on your phone, or shown during your commercial break can safely toss in a hook they know you'll at least make some vague subconscious connection with. I saw two ads on the digital signs in my local pizza place -- one for a personal injury lawyer and one for a real estate broker -- that both managed to shove in a reference to the novel virus in the time it took me to quickly grab my pizza, throw some money on the counter, and run out the back door (I can only hold my breath for so long, after all). These services had absolutely nothing to do with healthcare, social distancing, or any other relevant topic. Yet because they latched on to this giant, global meme -- albeit clumsily -- they're positively going to catch more eyeballs, and I wouldn't be surprised if they converted better as well. We see similar effects on a smaller scale all the time. Superbowl Sunday is preceded by weeks of sales announcements and special deals. The furniture industry has mastered the art of leaping from holiday period to period in an attempt to build excitement around limited time offers that are only limited if you happen to be foolish enough to be shopping during the two or three days between them.

If the spam in my inbox is any judge, marketers are having a hard time figuring out the right ratio of deep customization to Big Meme. At the moment I'd say most are ditching highly targeted content in favor of heavy-handed references to coronavirus. In essence, Big Meme is winning. If that was effective it'd actually be good news for digital signage an OOH, since it's far easier to develop content for public display that doesn't need highly specific targeting to work. Except that nobody's supposed to be going out for the next month, which is pretty bad for an industry that's literally called "out of home." And the persuasive power of this big meme will eventually start to wane -- and there might even be some backlash -- as more people become literally and figuratively exhausted by it.

So that's my take on the status of personalization versus Big Meme marketing, having now witnessed maybe a hundred different messages aimed at the virus-fearing public. Tapping in to the collective social consciousness can make for powerful, memorable content. But timing is everything. If the message is everywhere, viewer fatigue will eventually cancel out any benefit that latching on to the meme would have offered.

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.

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.

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!

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