For many people, using digital signs for public service doesn't have quite the same appeal as launching a branding or advertising-driven network. But it's hard to ignore the fact that there are thousands of digital displays out there whose main purpose is to disseminate useful, non-commercial information to the public. From airports to army bases to shopping centers, these displays rely on some combination of public funds, corporate sponsorships and tax-free donations to run -- and they might even offer a compelling business opportunity for those willing to look a little bit deeper.
Whether it's a billboard along the interstate or a huge signage display in Times Square, advertisements have been finding their way into public spaces for a very long time. But for as long as advertising techniques have existed, the same methodologies have been applied to supply important, timely and useful information to the public without any corporate interest or oversight. So it comes as little surprise that the same holds true for digital signage, one of the industry's newest advertising media. For example, one of the prime targets for public service signage networks are not-for-profit gathering places like train stations, museums and libraries. These spaces often serve multiple purposes and are frequented by a wide variety of people. Thus, they're best suited to displaying general, demographic-independent information. Another popular approach is to display public service messages on private networks, such as the advertising-driven networks that we talked about last week. In these situations, private network owners and operators may be paid with public grant money or even DHS funds to show important information like emergency/disaster reports, inclement weather warnings or amber alerts. In other situations, host venues (even private venues like malls and shopping centers) may require an ad-funded network to display public service messages for some percentage of the time as a service to patrons.
Who drives the project: Since a public service network's primary function is to serve the public, the drive to install the network often comes from an organization whose purpose is the betterment of the people. At some level, public service networks require the involvement of a public body like the federal, state or local government, but in some cases they may be headed up by an NGO or other non-profit. Depending on the nature and intent of the network, their impetus to deploy the signs can come from many different places. For example, a school board concerned about kidnapping could encourage a public-private partnership to deploy public signage that would carry community announcements, advertisements and Amber Alert messages. Retailers and community leaders might join together in hurricane or tornado zones to create a broad network that would have a primary goal of providing severe weather alerts, but a secondary function of displaying local information, like news, weather and sports. And the Department of Homeland Security has plans to deploy all sorts of centrally-managed signage to warn of impending terror attacks.
Potential benefits: The upside to providing public service announcements is enormous if it helps keep the public safe and prevent a loss of life. Even less ambitious services like noting upcoming community events can have an appreciable "soft" value for community members. However, hard values can be harder to come by unless the signs can accommodate some kind of commercial messaging, or are subsidized through public funds or grant money. For the private business looking to install and manage a sizable public service network, the two best bets are to form a public-private partnership to tap into government money (when available), and use limited external advertising to keep the networks profitable. Since it's often the case that the content on these networks will be highly scrutinized by the public (who are arguably paying for some or all of it through their tax dollars), the rules for what constitutes appropriate content may be more restrictive than in other types of networks.
Potential risks: As usual, capital costs weigh in here, though when it comes to using taxpayer money, it sometimes seems like bigger is better :) All joking aside, a poorly implemented public service network doesn't help the community and ties up funds that could be more useful elsewhere. There's also a security risk to consider. While even modestly-sized retailers are locked down like Fort Knox these days thanks to various data security requirements, many small government and not-for-profit organizations lack basic security protocols and mechanisms. Given the public nature of these displays, it's obviously important to make sure that they remain secure and uncompromised.
Common pitfalls: The most common pitfall for those deploying public service networks is failing to define the project's scope and goals. Since the overall purpose of the network -- providing useful information to the public -- is pretty simple to comprehend, it's easy to overlook the need to clearly define exactly what the network is going to be used for. That includes things like how screen time is going to be apportioned, how to allot these units of screen time to the different private and public groups that may want access, and how to continually ensure that the network is operating to the benefit of the public. Along with that, another common pitfall is not reserving enough money to maintain the signs after deployment. It might be fairly straightforward to allocate $1,000,000 for an initial deployment, but unless the appropriate amount is budgeted to keep that network running and full of content, the initial investment will essentially be lost.
How to participate: Since the driving force (or at least the initial force) behind a public service network is a not-for-profit or government body, there's often good reason to seek outside help. Most commonly, the network's host organization will need help with network architecture, hardware procurement and installation, but may later expand this to include ongoing services like extended warranties, network management and content creation. Those networks that allow advertising will also likely want a partner who can manage the ad sales. We've actually seen some public networks partner with local town papers and even churches who have existing local advertiser connections.
As we've discussed over the past few weeks, the lion's share of today's digital signage opportunities can arguably be placed into the categories of branding, merchandising, ad-driven and public service. Of course, there are numerous other digital signage business models that branch off from these categories, like corporate communication channels. Hopefully these past few blog articles have cleared up some of the confusion surrounding the different types of digital signage networks, who's responsible for them, and how they're monetized. In case you missed one, here are the links to the full series:
1. Digital signage networks: experience, branding and private label networks
2. Digital signage networks: private label merchandising networks
3. Digital signage networks: Advertising-supported networks
4. Digital signage networks: Public service networks
While these articles aren't meant to provide an exhaustive study of the digital signage industry, we've tried to cover the questions that come up most frequently when we talk to savvy organizations that are new to digital media, retail media or both. Still, if we've overlooked any big, blaring, obvious questions that everybody wants to know, contact us and we'll try to cover them in an upcoming article.