The Digital Signage Insider

Is Digital Signage an Industry? Yes. Is Everyone an Expert? No.

Published on: 2010-07-29

A few weeks ago, Paul Flanigan posed the question of whether the digital signage industry is really an industry at all. He put up a short survey on his blog, got back a good handful of responses, and ultimately decided that no, we're not an industry. Paul has devoted two articles to the cause, and Ken Goldberg proffered his own opinion as well. Since this is one of those rare opportunities for us digital signage folks to share a meme that doesn't involve corporate name calling, I'd like to offer my opinion on why there is a real industry around digital signage, why that's important, and why all those dolts going around calling themselves digital signage experts are going to cause problems for us down the road (if they aren't already).

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
A really basic definition of an industry is simply a group of companies that sell similar products and services and have similar business activities. Well, whether you look at the hardware, software or integration aspects of our business, there are lots and lots of companies out there selling products and services that are frequently indistinguishable from one another. Well-diversified companies like Sony and Cisco have put effort into developing industry-specific products to supplement wares offered to dozens of other industries. They're joined by literally hundreds of smaller companies that sell specialized hardware, software and services, and exist solely to help enable visual communication on digital screens. These companies, in turn, are supported by thousands of integrators, dealers and resellers that provide supporting products and services -- frequently to many other industries as well. Well over a billion dollars was spent last year enabling new networks and managing old ones. And that billion almost certainly spawned several billion more in ancillary economic benefit.

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!


+1 # Paul Flanigan 2010-07-29 16:33
Great, GREAT commentary, Bill. You're very right. What's interesting is that your reasons for supporting the idea of an industry are in line with your role in it; similarly, my role in this I think supports my belief. But you touch on something greater that I missed, and perhaps can help figure this out - that is the need to overcome our own inefficiency. It's not that trade shows and publications have a certain degree of spam PR associated with them (every industry does), it's the infighting and territorial attitude that we allow to happen, and sometimes happen publicly. I'm sure you have been asked by newcomers which shows and blogs and products would help them acclimate themselves. If you have to stop and think at all about it, you're thinking about the lesser of all evils instead of the best approach. That's never a good strategy. Ironically, I got a note this week from a gentleman in Europe who is interested in entering the industry. He wrote, and I'm quoting verbatim from the email, "we had a hard time finding someone to help us on this somewhat of Digital Signage (many freelance charge us for advice and now only want to have some references)." That's not good. (I steered him toward several locations, including DSE,, my blog, your blog, Dave Haynes's, Ken Goldberg's, the DSF, and a few others.) To your point about expertise, you are absolutely spot on. While I think there are lots of smart people around us, the entire culture of communication is evolving so quickly that none of us can keep up with it. We do our best to educate ourselves and have perspective, but it's hard to affix the title of "expert," especially in a ubiquitous fashion, to anyone.
+1 # Tom McGowan 2010-07-30 01:54
All communications mediums are crossing over each other at every opportunity. I would say it is a misnomer to say that digital signage is an industry. Still too infantile, there remains far too many moving parts and gadgets required to tweak life into "systems". An industry has to have a common platform concept as its Product, and a choice of brands of the product. I would argue that Digital Signage is only one choice of medium for the wider communications industry. Its part of the morass of customer facing displays that includes mobile, kiosk, digital and static display. The point gets lost with so much tech-talk that eyes roll back. I was telling someone today about an acquaintance that is thought to be building the first digital signage factory. We need more entrepreneurs like this to weed out the chaff and churn out product. The model will resemble the Ford model T production concept. Common parts, assembly line, low price, easy availability, easy service. Content would be the fuel. The most common denominator and least understood for all who read this is the Content. As a member of the digital signage community we do too little to consolidate with existing "industry" standards such as initiating IAB sizes and file format standards. So as to not sound like a whiner, I suggest we go to ground with the basics like universal agreement to support something as simple as H.264 as "the" baseline content standard going forward. One must be like an industry and support an industry's standards to be part of the revolution and evolution. Who do we want to be like when we grow up? Is there a kiosk industry too? We share a common pedigree. As a community we need less Walter Mitty Syndrome tech fantasy and more aggressive communications agency style thinking to grow an industry. What is so special in how we challenge a viewer to make a choice on the spot or recall our message? So if we recognize ourselves as a medium for communications and advertising, then who offers the fewest pain points with the most effective message delivered with the highest margin? I would rather reach across the aisle to the agencies and advertisers and say what can I do to make your life easier, tell me your problems? So much for chatter about digital signage being an industry. After 25 years in this space, I don't see it becoming a freestanding industry. My conclusion is that we are one part of the multichannel sensory experience that thrills and makes me want to have more. AKA Advertising Suggested reading: External Partnerships Tom McGowan
0 # Bill Gerba 2010-07-30 03:16
Paul: Thanks for the comment. With regard to inefficiency, if I had a nickel for everybody who came to WireSpring after getting mixed up by some industry consultant or less-than-honest vendor, well... let's just say I'd have a lot of nickles. Inefficiency and waste is definitely our #1 enemy. For the past two years, we've been trying to streamline our own internal operations to specifically target that waste as an opportunity. So far, it seems to be working. Tom: I still have to disagree, if only because advertising isn't nearly as important to the digital signage market as everyone thinks. Non-advertising networks outnumber advertising networks by a ratio of something like 1.5:1 and growing, according to PQ media. Without big brands dumping tons of money into DOOH (and they're not right now) the ad-funded-or-die argument rings hollow for me.
0 # Kris R Vollrath 2010-07-30 14:16
Bill: Another awesome blog entry. As a technologist in this 'industry' I, too, see a huge amount of poor quality information coming from many areas. I spend a great deal of time working with clients on projects and undoing the "damage" this has caused. I believe that, at least in the non-DOOH space, our clients are still quite lacking in specific knowledge and tend to latch onto potentially very poor guidance. And they still don't know what they don't know, which has caused an enormous increase in project timelines. Appreciate the great insights, as usual.
0 # Kris R Vollrath 2010-07-30 14:18
Bill: Another awesome blog entry. As a technologist in this 'industry' I, too, see a huge amount of poor quality information coming from many areas. I spend a great deal of time working with clients on projects and undoing the "damage" this has caused. I believe that, at least in the non-DOOH space, our clients are still quite lacking in specific knowledge and tend to latch onto potentially very poor guidance. And they still don't know what they don't know, which has caused an enormous increase in project timelines. Appreciate the great insights, as usual.
0 # Tim Warrington 2010-08-02 16:06
I do have to agree with Bill, My opinion is the advertising side of digital signage is dying or slowing down considerably, the In store self promotion is what we are finding customers want.
0 # Steve Gladden 2010-08-04 21:21
Hate to be a me-too-er, but i can't agree more with the "subtraction by AD-ition" sentiment. If you review any of my posts on Paul or Ken's blogs you'll sense my disdain for it all. I do have one question for Bill and Wirespring: Being as there is no one vendor who truly offers (or fully understands) every facet of every DS component, are cooperative partnerships the only way to service the customer? How long do you think this will be the case? Love the dialogue everyone.

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