The Digital Signage Insider

Digital Signage Design: The Art and Science of What's Effective

Published on: 2009-08-27

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I'm very interested in learning how to measure and improve the effectiveness of digital signage content. Over the years, we've experimented with hundreds of spots on dozens of networks, and used that data to come up with an ever-growing list of best practices for content creation, screen placement and campaign integration. However, while I've tended to focus on the "science" of digital signage, plenty of others have chimed in -- on this blog, at meetings and conferences, and in other news articles -- about the art of great digital signage design. In other words, some people have found success even while ignoring all of the things that my team and my clients regularly rely upon to improve effectiveness. Consequently, I was surprised to hear Jonathan Cahill -- an author and advertising consultant who has worked for big agencies like McCann Erickson -- proclaim that there's no clear-cut way to guarantee ad campaign performance. Cahill studied 27 years' worth of ad campaigns that were judged to be "effective", i.e. they led to significant sales increases for the advertised products. He concluded that data-driven approaches did not typically outperform those campaigns backed up by creative, emotion or common-sense strategies. That is to say, the science-driven processes we spend a lot of time focusing on aren't necessarily any more effective than artistic processes, at least when it comes to making an effective ad campaign.

What do great campaigns have in common?

Cahill's book is called Igniting the Brand, and admittedly, I haven't read it yet. And since Amazon seems to be sold out right now, it may be a while before I do. However, AdAge recently posted a nice three-minute interview with Cahill about his findings. Essentially, the author examined case studies from 115 particularly effective campaigns executed over the past quarter-century to see if there were any commonalities. What did he find? In short, there was no clear "formula" for building an effective campaign. Makes sense so far, right? Further, he suggested that when agencies attempt to put a process in place for rigorously or "scientifically" improving an ad, it can often backfire since the insight necessary to make an ad connect for a given brand or product is not quantifiable. Finally, he argued that today's trend of focusing on hard data to make decisions and optimizations might cause otherwise savvy marketers to miss key opportunities, since the discoveries that lead to these opportunities are born of an aha! moment, and not from pouring over reams of spreadsheets. (That last argument reminds me a little too much of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.)

Process, not formula

Image credit: Josh Hallett
I'm certainly not in any position to pass judgment on Cahill's arguments: I haven't read the book, nor have I spent decades in an agency setting. But I readily agree that there isn't a rote formula for making great content. As producers like Pat Hellberg are always quick to point out, digital signage content depends on art as well as science -- and great art requires talented designers. There's no getting around that point. However, I'm ready and willing to wager that virtually any piece of out-of-home content could be made more effective by following our best practices for digital signage content, like including a call to action, optimizing for contrast, and placing screens in appropriate locations. Our process, if you can call it that, can be thought of almost like an editorial review. Take your content, which was built around some strategic or campaign goals, and run it through our best practices list. Does the design feature an offer on the screen at all times? Is the text big enough to be seen from where your viewers will be? Does it convey meaning even only at a glance? If you answer "no" to any of these, consider whether the perceived benefit of answering "yes" justifies making changes. By the end of the list of questions, you still have your original piece of content. But now it's polished and honed for display on digital screens. As an added benefit, the process works for non-advertising content, too. Anything that's trying to get a message across to viewers can benefit from a walk down our best practices list.

So while I concur that there's no set formula, I think it's unwise to suggest -- for digital signage design, at least -- that there's nothing to be gained by following a procedure at a certain stage of your content development efforts.

Idea versus execution

Another point that I certainly wouldn't argue is that a similar process exists at the idea stage of content design. To me, campaign creation and campaign execution are two entirely different things, and it's unlikely that the approach for the latter can apply cleanly to the former. Ad campaigns need to rely on some data to make basic assumptions about the audience. For instance, Summer's Eve really doesn't have to care what men think of their brand. But much beyond that, marketers have to rely on instinct and emotion as much as anything else to build a solid campaign and strategy -- after all, they're trying to elicit an emotional response from viewers. Getting back to my point above, once they hand off their ideas to the content creators, a little bit of procedural polish can go a long way towards turning a merely good ad into a great one, from an effectiveness standpoint.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: a lot of the content on digital signage networks these days is utter crap. We're firmly a decade into our industry's evolution. Surely we can do better. But day in and day out, I come across content that's illegible, not memorable or just plain ugly. Considering that we've had guidelines posted on the Internet for years now that could address at least two of those issues, it just shouldn't be that way anymore. But still I'm hopeful that as more people discover at least some of these best practices (here, elsewhere, or from their own trial and error), they'll start using them to optimize future content to be cleaner, clearer and better-performing.

What other aspects of building or managing a digital signage network could be improved with a process? Which things are better left to intuition? Leave a comment and let us know.


0 # Laura Davis-Taylor 2009-08-27 17:36
God love 'ya Bill...I wish everyone would read and re-read this blog post over and over again. Why, why, why are we still creating content that has no chance of actually been truly "read" and understood in these stores? Why???!!! I'm sure that there are many reasons (most financially-based) but it's incredibly frustrating. Keep up the good fight and we'll keep supporting you in it! :) Laura
0 # Dave Haynes 2009-08-27 19:08
Interesting, but I am still not clear from this ruthless diatribe whether or not Wirespring's software supports PowerPoint slides???
0 # Bill Gerba 2009-08-27 19:57
You see? Right there? That's the difference between Laura Davis-Taylor and Dave Haynes in a nutshell ;) In all seriousness, content is a big problem, and you and I, as people who live and breathe this industry, know it. However, as we grow and welcome new folks into our ranks, I feel like the only way to make any progress is to keep saying the same things over and over, so that they continually take it up.
0 # Tony Kvenvold 2009-08-29 00:33
I know of only one person that has consistantly designed digital ads that worked. He helped Clear Channel with digital ads on Taxi's in Boston. He now has his own set up called Splendor Artisan. If anyone is interested I can put you in contact with him.
0 # manolo almagro 2009-08-31 00:42
right on mr. gerba! move over and save some room on the bandwagon for me, current DS campaigns are either gimmicks, gags (twitter on a sign?) or afterthoughts- most often a moderately edited video, flash animation or tiny remnant of budget that the agency dubbed for DOOH use. There's much to be desired as it relates to what viewers (customers/consumers) really care about. Campaigns have to be holistic, vs. a silo'd creative execution for DOOH. All customer touchpoints with the brand must to be addressed and work to support each other. But there is hope as other nascent marketing sciences grow on the horizon- Neuromarketing, augmented reality are just a few to consider.
0 # Keith 2009-09-01 09:32
So here is the question - WHY do we think that the quality of content in general is so poorly thought out and designed?
0 # Bill Gerba 2009-09-01 15:55
Hi Keith: You just asked the $64,000 question! I could proffer a couple of guesses, but none are complete. For example, as Manolo noted there are a lot of "gimmicky" types of content out there like Twitter and Facebook feeds. Sometimes these provide a valuable and unique function (like showing a real-time thought stream during an event). Other times, though, they're just a way to fill up screen time inexpensively, and perhaps be 'web 2.0 compliant.' There are also a lot of people who are simply budget constrained, and the best they can do is get a local art student to whip up a couple of stills. Obviously, the quality here is dramatically impacted by the vision of the artist and the understanding of the network operator, so their mileage varies quite a bit, even from spot to spot. Next are the people who think that content simply doesn't matter. Thankfully there are fewer and fewer of these folks with each passing year, but they're still out there for sure, and they're still responsible for a very large number of screens on the net. Finally there are people who simply aren't educated about what makes for good content, and my feeling is that this is the largest group by far. As I've noted before, you don't have to have the most amazing artistic abilities to produce good digital signage content. You just have to have some design skill (I won't lie and say you can get away without any), and more importantly, follow a procedure that will help you avoid the common pitfalls and misunderstandings about digital signage as its own unique medium. Thanks for the great question!
0 # Imam Bolaji 2009-09-01 21:42
This is a very good article. Also I appreciate the questioned asked by Keith. In one of Bill's articles, he had a statement that it looked like relevance is the new king. relevance is born because of subject which in our case is the content. Content is still the king. Back to the above article and the $1,000,000 question by Keith. Believe it or not when you enter a store and you know what the store is all about, you will immediately know if a content is relevant or not. Some contents lack the power to carry the viewers or the audience along. In the end, it should be all about relationship. Content that is not communicating is not building relationship, and if that's not happening, in my own humble opinion, we are moving no where. I'm still new in the industry, 4-5 years of experience. I listen to learn and I read to see. Thanks to everyone. Thanks Bill.
0 # I-5 Design 2011-01-19 18:50
Digital signage can be tricky to design. We have had success with digital signage - to see more examples of high impact signage visit our site.
0 # Fred Dobbs 2013-06-06 21:43
Digital Signge is an over broad term and this leads to a bit of confusion re. Discussions of content. Contextually, sight lines, ie how high the display is placed relative to the ceiling and furniture and fixtures will have significant impact on the viewing interval - 20 seconds is typical \- for a display in the upper third of the vertical axis of a room/space for most retail environs. Content in that case better be informational and brief. Creativity in that case should be focused on rapidly assimilated clarity. An extended time of veiwing has been sucessfully in retail at 7-11 by adding directional audio (Panphonics) in that case, which extended the viewing to 45 seconds and increased sales of featured items up to 200% . Placement at standing eye level allows interactivity that can significantly impact customer/viewed inter activity - eg Bose displays, Four Winds Hotel way finding and information displays. Sight lines, time of viewing and audio are only three elements, but are generally not carefully considered. Analysis of eye movement, gender, age and race identified action is interesting, but significantly altering behavior, ie increased sales, better traffic flow, etc. are the only real stats. There is much more of course, but to sum up with edited comments from the advertising masters, keep it obvious, keep it in the context of the environment, and the deliver emotional tone that is harmonious with the response desired.

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