While WireSpring's goal has always been to improve the shopping experience through the intelligent and appropriate use of technology, our first few years were primarily devoted to the development of interactive kiosk programs. Kiosks -- specifically those designed for a single function like lead collection or applying for a store credit card -- had a clear purpose, easily measured value, and calculable ROI. Compared with digital signs, which were unproven, complex and phenomenally expensive (as opposed to just "very expensive" today), kiosks were an easier sell, so that's what we focused on. Over the years, as the cost of flat screen displays dropped, the demand for digital signage networks skyrocketed, and many of those businesses who were once wary of out-of-home media networks suddenly became their strongest proponents. However, with the new influx of customers and pilot projects, we started to notice that even large companies with well thought-out project plans didn't necessarily have a good handle on their business model -- or the real "purpose" of the network. Over time, we've identified dozens of unique business models, though most seem to fall into one of four categories: Experiential and Branding, Private Label Product Merchandising, External Ad-Driven, and Public Service. Since there still seems to be some confusion about how these networks differ and who's in the best position to make them work, I thought it might be useful to look at each in some detail over the course of a couple of blog articles, starting with today's focus on experiential and branding networks.
When we talk about experiential and branding networks, we're referring to digital signage displays that are designed to increase the impact of the host's brand and what it stands for. These are typically found in retail environments, but can be used in banks and other venues as well. Experiential networks are supposed to make the host environment more pleasant, improve the in-store experience and deliver imagery that highlights the core tenets of the brand -- without actually advertising the venue's wares directly. For example, think of Oakley, whose small, often spartan stores use plasma screens to show high-motion extreme sports and action clips (featuring Oakley-clad adventurers) that are just long enough to impart a sense of adventure and adrenaline without turning into a segment from ESPN. Or consider Nike's various in-store media networks that show edgy video, artistic images and unusual iconography in a visceral attempt to capture raw motion and skill, without necessarily promoting a particular sport, product or spokesperson.
Let's take a closer look at this group of networks and see what makes them tick:
Who drives the project: Branding networks are almost always driven by the host venue or showcase brand (if they're not one and the same), and are typically an added responsibility of the group's brand management team. Since the content displayed on this type of network needs to be tightly aligned with the brand's existing marketing messages and programs, the group's in-house marketing team or agency of record is usually best suited to manage it. Consequently, except perhaps for those companies who have a proven track record of developing branding networks, outside groups or agencies that aren't already working with the brand will have a hard time making inroads with this type of project.
Potential benefits: The most obvious benefit is an actual boost to brand perceptions in the store, the place where shoppers and brand enthusiasts are most likely to become paying customers. Of course, if a shopper is already inside of a single-brand store, there's a good probability that he already has positive feelings towards the brand and is predisposed towards buying something from it. Whether boosting the presence and impact of the brand inside the store directly leads to increased sales is thus largely dependant upon the brand's existing currency and perceived value, and the ability for the content designers and managers to capture the brand essence and use it in a way that communicates that essence and value to in-store shoppers.
Potential risks: Since experiential networks are typically quite tightly controlled by the venue or brand management team, there's little risk of a content mishap that could malign the brand. The biggest risk for companies that undertake to deploy these networks is purely on the capital expenditure side: though costs are constantly coming down, in-store signage networks are still fairly expensive, so it's up to each brand and venue to decide whether the value of a retail media network can offset its costs. As part of a store redesign, campaign refresh or fixtures refresh, digital signs must compete with static signage, lighting, retail fixtures and even construction materials for a fixed number of budget dollars. Digital signage networks also have an ongoing need for fresh content, which can add considerable cost over time, but this is not altogether different from the need to keep other media (like websites, TV ads, and static POP displays) up-to-date.
Common pitfalls: Most of the modern branding networks that I've followed appear to be fairly well-managed and well-integrated into both the host venue and other advertising/marketing programs. While not necessarily a pitfall, I have noticed some networks that don't update their content very frequently (in one case I saw the same loop playing for nearly a whole year). Since different retailers and brands may place different values on keeping their in-store appearance fresh and current, I can't claim that there's a universal advantage to refreshing content more frequently than not. However, considering the investment required to install a digital signage network in the first place, it seems rather silly not to use the technology to its fullest potential -- especially if you're trying to train viewers to expect something new and exciting each time they visit your store.
How to participate: Of all the models that we're going to look at in the coming weeks, this model is the toughest for outside firms to get involved with. Strong brands are a preciously guarded commodity, and big firms are reluctant to share control with all but the most trusted of their partners. Thus, unless your creative/advertising/marketing firm either has a great reputation for in-store work, or a close relationship with an existing customer looking to expand into digital signage, this might not be the best place to focus your efforts. Likewise, while many companies installing brand-building networks will need outside technical expertise, it will be virtually impossible for your technical firm to drive this type of deal. In reality, the impetus for an experiential or branding network nearly always comes from inside, so perhaps the best way to improve your chance of working on these types of networks is to help educate your (appropriate) clients about the benefits of experiential and brand marketing through digital signage. For those clients who do have a strong brand and want to further leverage it inside of their retail venues, digital signage can tell a compelling story. Illustrating this to key personnel inside of your client's organization can help position you as an expert if and when they decide to take the plunge.
We'll pick up on this topic again next week, when we look at private label merchandising networks and how they differ from the pure branding/experiential networks described today. While these two categories might seem similar, private label merchandising networks have several unique aspects that help them not only build the brand, but also drive sales of specific products.