In the course of reading the news, I stumbled across a few new articles from audiovisual specialist AV Interactive covering quite a bit of this past year's news on the UK digital signage market. The article that I found most thought-provoking was the first in their series, titled "Talking it up, talking it down" (careful, that's a PDF link). As you might guess, it covers some of the controversy surrounding today's instore TV networks, and highlights conflicting statistics from groups both for and against the screens.
Most of the controversy was sparked by two very recently published articles. The first one, titled "In-store TV: will it prove a turn off" was run in last month's issue of The Grocer (impossibly complicated registration/subscription required), and the second, by KPMG's Helen Dickenson, is called "In-store TV is an advertiser turn-off," and should be available here shortly. Of course, any number of people involved in the industry decided to take a stand. Many ardent supporters of digital signage immediately countered with statistics from the Platt Retail Institute and POPAI, citing the effectiveness of in-store advertising, narrowcast networks and the like. Others, like Save9 (makers of an interactive kiosk/signage/POS suite), focused more on the need for interactivity to boost customer involvement and the true value of retail digital systems. But my favorite response came from Stuart Chambers, Retail Sales Director at Avanti Screenmedia. He says that his firm is just putting the finishing touches on a 2 million study which indicates that networked digital signage is in fact the greatest thing since sliced bread.
So what should we make of all this? Well, I think there are probably a few forces at work. First, the cynical viewpoint: Ad Age has reported that some consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers have claimed that they would rather buy time on Wal-Mart's famed in-store TV network than risk offending the retail giant, regardless on how well the system works (or doesn't work), and the AV Interactive article suggests that the same thing might be happening on Tesco's network in the UK. Those who have been in the industry for awhile probably remember high-profile failures like NGN Networks, and those projects got a lot of attention and a lot of bad press. But PRN's old S1 filings show that they made quite a bit of money on the Wal-Mart network, and it was enough for Thomson Worldwide to acquire PRN for $285 million. And we know from Focus Media's IPO and quarterly statements that they might as well be printing their own money. These firms, among others, are certainly reaping financial rewards from their in-store networks, even if the advertisers aren't thrilled with the results.
Looking towards the positives, there are quite a few POPAI articles showing that traditional static POP can produce sales lifts in excess of 25%, and if done correctly, I don't see why a digital POP system should do any worse than static POP. And of course, there are numerous studies constantly coming out from industry pundits and players like Avanti, CoolSign and Scala, which suggest that digital signs can lift sales by anywhere from 15% to 400% and improve product recall by equally impressive margins.
At the same time, though, we all have anecdotal evidence that there are some networks that don't do anywhere near this well. After all, if all digital signage projects worked this well, there wouldn't be any contention whatsoever, and every retailer would already have a network of their own (or be scrambling to install one). Like any other marketing or promotional tactic, digital signage networks can fail - or at least not produce the ROI that their owners originally envisioned. A lack of planning and insufficient understanding of the target marketplace probably makes this happen even more often than it should. And of course, it's still hard to make engaging, entertaining content that people want to look at, while still monetizing the screen space effectively with well-placed advertisements. As Jeff Clarke, media salesman for UK specialty media agency PH4 quips, "generating revenue from media sales across the expanding new medium of digital outdoor is no task for the faint hearted." Indoor isn't much easier from what I've seen and heard, and again, this wouldn't be the case if everybody had an unequivocal success story that they could point to.
So it seems we'll have to live with some controversy for now. This comes as no surprise: even though POPAI has been doing research for 50 years now, there are still some people who don't accept the full value of in-store POP advertising. With this in mind, we'll probably continue to see more of this back-and-forth research for quite some time.