The Digital Signage Insider

Making great digital signage content: Lessons from TV and print

Published on: 2007-06-12

Advertising Age recently published a two-part series about the seductive danger of "attention vampires," looking at the risks these strategies pose for print and online media as well as TV campaigns. In short, attention vampires are creative elements that might look great, but actually divert the viewer's attention from the real purpose of the ad. Studies from PreTesting (which focused on TV commercials) and GfK (who studied magazine ads) generally agree: all the eye candy that can make an ad aesthetically spectacular can also dull down the brand or product message to the point where viewers can't recall it. Since the content on digital signage networks tends to fall somewhere between posters/print ads and full-length TV commercials in both form and function, it stands to reason that we may feel the same effects when working on spots designed to run in the store. In today's article, we'll look at how relevant these "attention vampire" studies are for digital signage, and how we can make the most of the findings without taking away too much visual flair from our networks.

By tracking tiny eye movements in a controlled environment, Lee Weinblatt of PreTesting can determine exactly where a viewer is looking at any time during playback of a series of content segments, and more importantly, determine the level of focus and attention that area of the screen is receiving. Having collected this data from thousands of subjects over the past three decades, he has made some very interesting observations about the kinds of ads that perform the best, as well as some images and stimuli that serve only to distract the viewer. His conclusion: "The key is keeping the commercial simple and keeping the product or benefit front and center -- make it the hero of the commercial, the attention grabber. Base jumping, beautiful people and running from a skunk may attract a viewer's attention, but only to those elements, not to the brands. This is why people have difficulty remembering the brands the commercials are supposed to be promoting." While this may seem straightforward enough, even no-brainer image compositions (such as using an image of a baby to advertise a bottle, diapers, etc.) can backfire, as the user's attention is drawn towards the cute little tyke, and away from the newest innovation in baby-feeding technology.

As you might have guessed, keeping the focus of the ad tight (on the product's key features and benefits, for example), using straightforward imagery to articulate these features and benefits, and keeping the overall length of the spot short all increase the ability of the viewer to recall salient points. In contrast, using complex visual effects and metaphors can dilute the key message. While such distinct visual elements might themselves be easy to recall later on, they probably won't translate into better recall for the brand, or any of the key points that should have been communicated during the spot. My favorite piece of advice from Weinblatt: "if you want to talk about key attributes of the product, paste the words up there and read them aloud for the consumer. It hits them in two senses at once and drives home the point." Amen to that! It doesn't get much simpler than putting some text up on the screen (provided that it's short, to the point, and easily readable, of course). If there's an option for a voice over, all the better, but the visual content should be able to stand on its own.

These findings are nearly identical to those from GfK, authors of the Starch reports. Their "The Myth of Reader Engagement" and "Do Spectacular Ads Generate Spectacular Results?" reports have drawn controversy from the print media industry and advertising execs alike. The first of these reports tests the idea that readers of high-engagement publications (the ones that they read lots of articles in, and spend a lot of time with) may "connect" with advertisers better than those in low-engagement publications. But the Starch data turned up an interesting result: there is no correlation between a publication's engagement level and the performance of a given ad. Instead, the ad's creative power is the primary driver of performance. This conclusion no doubt sparked their later report on spectacular ads, of which they say: "[regarding] spectacular ads, an analogy is in order: A beautifully wrapped gift might delight the eye at first, but if the box contains nothing to sustain interest, the experience will ultimately be disappointing and interest will be lost... the ads that both gain attention and involve readers, regardless of size or level of innovation, are those whose creators are mindful of the factors that draw the eye, usually through powerful photography and stunning colors, and that involve the reader, primarily by presenting a clear product benefit."

Without reams of data to check against, my gut says that most of this advice will hold true for digital signage content as well. By combining clear, articulate text, imagery and sometimes even sound that describe a product's most important features and benefits; avoiding complex images, metaphors, or competing visual effects that sap viewer attention; and using a bold, attention-getting format, you can deliver ads that connect with a viewer, deliver the appropriate message, and then let that viewer get on with his or her life -- newly-primed with information about your products or services. Of course, with out-of-home media we have the added benefits of being able to dictate the place and time that a spot should be shown. Thus, we can optimize a spot for fresh-ground coffee to look one way during a morning spot ("Wake up with the bright, bold flavor of our rich French roast"), and then have it look different during the evening ("Long day at work? You deserve to relax and unwind with a hot mug of our finest French roast"). Since the clips should be focused around the message and the product, there shouldn't be a huge amount of additional production work to spin out variants of a spot optimized for different places and times. These spots also lend themselves well to the short 3-7 second format that's becoming more popular in stores, as many find that (in certain cases, at least) shorter, more frequent plays can perform better than longer, less frequent ones.

With at-retail media, we also have the benefit of being able to motivate a user right at the point of decision, so throwing in a strong call to action at the end of a clip can turn a pretty piece of branded media into a powerful selling tool. From a creative standpoint, digital signage content arguably has a lot in common with spots for print and especially TV, but the signage-specific additions I've proposed also tie into something that GfK brought up. A spectacular ad, they say, "will do its job not simply because it is spectacular, but rather because it effectively makes the most of the format to 'put it all together'" (my emphasis). I see more and more examples of appropriate, attractive digital signage content with every trip to the field, but this last piece -- the real key to differentiating the medium and using it to its fullest potential -- continues to get lost, probably because it's so different from how other marketing campaigns work. In this respect, it pays to think more like an Internet ad designer and less like a traditional media producer: start by optimizing for place and time, run a few split tests, and then go back and optimize some more.

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