The Digital Signage Insider

Digital Signage in Europe: A Comparison of Germany vs. the US

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Pat Hellberg, who launched and ran Nike's digital signage operations for the better part of a decade, has certainly kept busy since leaving the iconic firm earlier this year. After starting a new company to focus on content production and creative services for digital signage networks, Pat was asked to share his insights at the Viscom trade show in Germany. While we often hear stories about one market or another setting the pace in this industry, Pat found (and I'll readily agree) that once you clear away all of the rumor and hype, the US and European markets for digital out-of-home advertising are actually quite similar. Here is Pat's take on the topic:
It's a small digital signage world

If a recent visit to Germany is any indication, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, even in the digital signage industry. Our European counterparts seem to think we're executing better than they are, even though we usually hear just the opposite here on this side of the Atlantic.

I was in Frankfurt for Viscom, a well-known international trade show with a focus on conventional/traditional signage, to speak about digital signage content and creative services, my area of expertise. It was a trip to look forward to, having never been to Europe on industry business. (While in Italy over the summer I did make a fascinating, industry-related discovery: the Vatican City has a digital signage network. But we were in vacation mode and our research was devoted not to emerging media but to finding the best gelato in Rome.)

I had heard from industry colleagues in the US that the Europeans have been making great gains in digital signage, surpassing the US in quantity and quality. Sure enough, just moments off the flight while waiting for the downtown train, I came across an effective execution. Mounted perfectly at eye level between the tracks stood a large, high resolution display showing a nice blend of news, weather, local event information and ads. It worked for me, even though I don't understand a word of German.

I immediately thought about my presentation. What was I going to tell these people that they didn't already know? "Could be a tough gig," I thought to myself.

Thomas Dockter, a marketing consultant based in Cologne, did a terrific job pulling together Viscom's digital signage program. The highlight was a best practices contest, showcasing entries from Lufthansa, Audi, Deutsche Bank and others. There wasn't a dud in the group. The winner came from Sixt, a European-based rental car agency. Marrying the best of the kiosk and digital signage worlds, the Sixt execution resembles the airline check-in process. The customer starts the process with his/her credit card, triggering a behind-the-scenes explosion of data specific to the customer, lot inventory, local promotions, etc. I can't recall all of the details but I do remember the most important: Sixt reports a 20% increase in successful upsells with the program. Say no more.

Seeing and admiring the contest entries the day before I was scheduled to speak made me wonder, again, what I was going to bring to the party. Nonetheless, my dog-and-pony was well-received. The war stories about starting Nike's digital signage program and then managing the day-to-day and feeding the content beast for seven years transcended any language barriers. (Truth be told, I was the only one faced with barriers. The audience had few problems understanding English.)

"Tell us about those big, successful networks in the States."

Certainly, there are large deployments in the US, I said, but size isn't everything.

"Who's doing it well?" Sure, some are better than others but I couldn't name a single US network that absolutely nails it, day in and day out.

"Tell me about business in Germany, which, judging by the entries in the contest, must be thriving."

Yes and no, I was told. The contest entries represented, for the most part, small networks, and in some cases, pilots.

One retail executive explained, "Germany is not easy to convince in DS."

It's no picnic in the US either, I thought to myself.

The more we talked, the more we learned. The misconceptions faded away and became irrelevant. We were too busy comparing notes to care about who is bigger or better.

The conclusion is clear. No matter our language or location, we all share the same mission. We have to create relevant, compelling customer experiences. We need to promote brands, move product and, ultimately, boost the bottom line. To do that, we must give consumers a reason to engage, over and over again, with our digital signage campaigns.

That holds true regardless of which side of the fence -- or the Atlantic -- you're on.
A global audience means global innovation

Pat's words got me thinking about how the perceptions and implementation of digital signage may vary in different parts of the world. Clearly, products and services sold online have a global audience. Software can be downloaded instantly. News publications no longer have physical limits to their distribution. So why should markets be so different? OK, sure, third-world and developing nations will sometimes lack the necessary infrastructure to compete at the same level, but when you take a look at North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, even the large cities in China, the market dynamics for digital out-of-home are remarkably similar. And I guarantee that you can go to any of these places and come across a cool, new and innovative use for digital signage that you haven't seen elsewhere before.

So, if you were getting ready to pack your bags and move overseas in search of new and better opportunities, I recommend you hold off on that plan for a while. But I do encourage you to take a cue from Pat Hellberg. Have a look at what's going on with your counterparts overseas, even if it's just over the web, and see if there are some best practices you can incorporate into your own projects. And for more of Pat's insights, check out his previous article on the art and science of digital signage content.

Have a story about something you've seen abroad but have yet to encounter at home? If so, leave a comment and share it with the world!


+2 # Frranois Reeves 2008-12-04 14:32
Nice story. The Canadian Out-of-Home Digital Association (CODA) output a nice document that describes the industry in terms of common factors (screen size, #screens, venue, etc.) that can be found here: It would be nice to have this for every country.
0 # Bill Gerba 2008-12-13 13:35
Hi Franois, Thanks for the link - that **is** quite useful. I wouldn't be surprised if OVAB or POPAI or some similar body didn't come out with a similar list for the US, or possibly even globally, sometime in the near future.
-1 # Charlie 2010-09-21 21:56
Didn't know the Vatican has a Digital Signage Neetwork. Can you share more information?

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