The Digital Signage Insider

Making great digital signage content: Crafting your copy and call-to-action

Published on: 2008-04-09

Ok, can I please get a quick show of hands?  How many of you have worked as a copywriter in the ad industry? Wow, that few? Ok, what about professional writers of any sort?  That's a bit better, but I dare say there are still a lot of hands down.  And that can be a problem, because the biggest "secret" we learned during our study of effective digital signage content is that the words on the screen are far more important than any amount of graphical eye candy. Now before all of you fabulous graphic designers out there leave in a huff, let me first reassure you: good graphic design is crucial, and the expert use of animated effects can have a significant impact on your content's ability to attract the eye.  But the focus of today's article -- effective copywriting for digital signage -- needs to come first when you're putting together a new piece of content.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

I wanted to come up with a set of simple, concise rules to explain what goes into great ad copy, but after a little bit of digging it turns out that someone already has.  Back in 2000, a group of influential advertising folks selected the best slogans, straplines, taglines, and headlines of the 20th century to form the Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame. And last year, the authors of "A List Apart" (a popular weblog) dissected these 115 items to find out what makes great copy. They were able to summarize it with six simple rules, which also apply quite well to digital signage copywriting tasks:
  1. Be five words in length
  2. Don't mention the brand name
  3. Be declarative
  4. Be grammatically complete
  5. Be otherwise standard
  6. Contain alliteration, metaphor, or rhyme
Most of these guidelines are common sense: short, simple phrases are both quicker to read and easier to remember. But I was initially surprised to see that most of the top slogans didn't feature the brand or product name.  Then it occurred to me: most of the time, these slogans (which include Nike's "Just do it," DeBeers' "Diamonds are forever" and Wendy's "Where's the beef?") appear in a brand-specific context like a print or TV ad.  And in most of those cases, the brand's name or logo will be present, making the use of it in the copy redundant.  Looking back on our sampling of effective digital signage spots, I found this trend to hold true. Because the product/brand/venue logo was frequently on-screen (in fact, we recommend that it's always on screen if possible), few elected to use the name when it didn't provide any obvious benefit.

Remember your Call To Action

Regular readers of the blog know that we're huge proponents of using a persistent call-to-action in digital signage content, whether in the form of a command, declarative statement or mere suggestion.  However, we've found that using an imperative (command) statement does tend to work better, especially when the command is immediately actionable.  If you ask a viewer to do some task that they can complete immediately (or at least in the very near future), there's a much greater chance that they'll do it.  Likewise, easier tasks are more likely to get completed than more challenging ones.

Writing a short, polished and effective call-to-action is still something of an art form. But in the course of researching this, I found a great source of inspiration: Google AdWords. Do a search for any term that's related to what your content is promoting, and chances are that somebody has already thought long and hard about the few dozen or so characters that will best convince viewers to pay attention. Of course, I'm in no way condoning plagiarism, but you should take a look at how successful AdWords campaigns are being conducted before trying to write your own copy. After all, why should you re-invent the wheel when they've already put the time and effort into the necessary research and development?  Think of it as inspiration for some approaches that you might try. I also have a few personal preferences that would arguably improve the performance of a call to action, but we honestly haven't tested them as thoroughly as I'd like to (yet). For example:
  • Start the call-to-action with a verb
  • Keep the verb and subject close together, e.g. "Ask a salesperson for details"
  • If you can't keep the call-to-action on screen the whole time, show it several times per spot so that casual viewers have a better opportunity to see it (assuming your spots are more than a few seconds long, of course)
And before we forget: Everything that we learned about memory and recognition in those articles is even more applicable to your call to action statements, since they're the things you want to be most memorable.

I know it doesn't seem like rocket science, but simple, straightforward copy and a strong call to action can make the difference between a content spot that converts and one that doesn't. And despite how obvious these tips may seem, I still run into digital signage spots that don't take advantage of them.  Airport networks seem to be the worst offenders -- or maybe that's just where I see lots of digital signage, so I'm exposed to them more frequently. In any event, I know that some of our customers in retail, transportation, healthcare and corporate communications were missing at least some of these points, so they were able to make measurable improvements based on our collective findings.

As we've seen today, the message in your call-to-action is crucial to the performance of virtually any digital signage spot.  But next week, we'll look at something that can significantly impact how (or if) viewers consume your message: what the text looks like.  Coming up, I'll give you a crash course in typography, including the font faces, sizes and layouts that work best to  get your message across.

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