Digital Signage Insider: News, Trends and Analysis

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!

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.

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.

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.

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