An industry by any other name...
Paul's main arguments against calling digital signage an "industry" are that (a) most of the parts that go into our projects are off-the-shelf commodities, (b) our clients have trouble figuring out a return on their investment (and look to other industries to figure out how to do it), and (c) ad agencies and media planners still don't like us. I agree with all of those points. But I don't think they have any bearing on whether we're an industry or not (and we are).
Image credit: Paolo Massa
Our rag-tag group of misfit companies (if you don't want to call it an industry) also supports two bona fide trade shows, four non-profit organizations, a couple dozen conferences, two magazines (plus plenty of column-inches in others), and innumerable blogs, websites and online newsletters. Yes, we generate a lot of hype, and spew a lot of garbage into the press channels and onto the Internet. But we also attract minds and money from industries as varied as education, government, retail, advertising, health and hospitality, just to name a few.
Why should we even care about being an industry?
What's the big deal, you ask? If companies are already involved with digital signage, why worry about the semantics of calling them part of an industry? Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, the aforementioned trade publications and outlets do actually draw more people into the industry. While a newcomer might be overwhelmed, he's certainly not going to be at a loss for places to find information. Websites and magazines spread the word to people who've not yet heard of digital signage -- and yes, there are still quite a lot of them. Trade shows give potentially interested parties a way to kick the tires before deciding whether to get involved. And conferences help draw in fresh minds from big companies who like to attend those things for ongoing education purposes (and frequently, for the free drinks).
Second, being an industry -- and actually behaving like one -- means that we can solve common problems without having to reinvent the wheel each time. This might take the form of one company pointing to another company's "Digital Signage 101" presentation -- as published on an industry blog -- to help educate a new customer. Or it might take the form of emerging industry standards that make it easier to know which types of content are supported by multiple digital signage vendors. Heck, it has already kinda-sorta started with the general acceptance and use of terms like "digital signage" to mean the screens, players and mere ability to send messages, and "DOOH" to mean the advertising-focused application of digital signage.
Despite a few nagging concerns about ROI, our chief obstacle as an industry is actually our own inefficiency. Too many companies doing the same thing -- and too many "experts" giving out bad advice -- wastes money and manpower that might otherwise go toward successfully completing projects and trying out new ideas. As lone companies, it's impossible for any one of us (no matter how cranky) to do much about this. But as an industry, we can act together, either through a formal association or just an adherence to de-facto best practices, to not only avoid this for ourselves, but hopefully make others less likely to suffer the same pitfalls.
A brief word on expertise
Adding a few letters after your name on your business card does not make you an expert. Attending a one-day class does not make you an expert. Even hanging a few screens out in the world doesn't make you an expert -- though it's a good start. An expert is someone widely recognized as being highly skilled in his or her art. And because of the broad range of industries that digital signage touches, there are plenty of digital signage industry experts, digital signage technology experts, digital signage advertising experts and even digital signage project experts. But I can count on one hand the number of people who I would genuinely consider to be across-the-board digital signage experts. At present, "expertise" is far too easy to come by, it's not specific enough to tell potential customer what a vendor is actually good at, and there's no recognized way of validating it. As an industry we do a poor job of shining light on these problems, so they're left to create more confusion, add more hype and cause more wasteful spending. I'd certainly be interested in hearing suggestions for how to go about fixing them.
Are we an industry, or are we not? Do you call yourself an expert, or do you use a more low-key approach when describing your skills? Leave a comment below and let us know!