So it was with these thoughts in mind that I found myself entering the hyperreality (as Baudrillard would say) of Las Vegas, ready to attend my first ever Strategy Institute conference. Being ultra-skeptical of all things trade show related, I was not expecting to get much out of it other than the chance to meet a few customers who were also in attendance, and perhaps find a stray sales lead or two. After all was said and done, though, I left with a journal full of notes and a richer understanding of our rapidly-evolving market, quite pleased with the conference and its presenters. I can honestly say that I learned a lot, and I expect that these types of shows will continue to get better as the market matures.
But if you still think that I've sold out and I'm just going along with the corporate hype, here is a list of the five most interesting points that I took away from the conference (and which, in my opinion, would have justified the cost of the whole thing by themselves):
- Have a vision statement: It may sound like a line from back in the dot.com days, when all you needed was a business plan and a dream. But today, real companies are putting vision statements to use as a tool for defining the overall scope of their digital signage solution. Less organized than a project plan, a vision statement often revolves around a single idea - just a sentence or two - that captures the overall effect that the company is trying to achieve with their signage. For example, MGM Mirage Advertising, an internal group handling the company's 12 resorts in Las Vegas and elsewhere, manages a large and sophisticated signage network that includes outdoor LED billboards, indoor plasma screens and video walls, and even in-room TV channels for their different hotels. Yet their vision statement boils down to one simple idea: the network's purpose is to "create compelling content that informs and entertains." That's it. No talk of advertising, demographics or ROI. Those things come about as the result of their additional planning around their central vision.
- Sometimes, brand experience equals ROI: I lost count of the number of people (presenters and attendees) who said they don't care about measuring ROI for their digital signs. It took me a minute to realize that what they meant was that they're not immediately concerned with the direct monetization of the space and time on their screens. A lot of people from the visual merchandising and store design persuasions felt that any improvement of the in-store experience was more than enough to justify the cost and complexity of a digital signage network. Folks in the know from Best Buy, marketing firm Alchemy, and even Nike (could there be a more brand-centric company?) all practically said the same thing: if a signage network can contribute to the in-store experience, there is less need (and reduced management pressure) to find direct revenue streams to offset the cost of the digital signage.
- Content should motivate, not just communicate: So says Rebecca Walt from Convergent, and I think that's a great line, as least for those networks that are interested in monetizing their screen time. To me, that's the greatest difference between a clip that runs on TV and one that runs on a digital sign: in the latter case, the call to action needs to be more direct and more personal in order to encourage the viewer to make a decision or take some action in the very near future.
- Know your network's "ROO": I originally thought that Lauren Moir from St. Joseph's/Alchemy was going to be another pure-branding, anti-ROI enthusiast, so I was pleasantly surprised when she coined a new three letter acronym: ROO, or Return On Objectives. This really goes back to the other point about not needing to monetize screen space. In some cases it doesn't make sense to try and sell space on your network. But that doesn't mean that your screens have no value, or that they don't contribute anything to your retail environment. Perhaps the goal of the screens is to lure customers into your store, keep them there longer while sipping lattes, or keep them happier while they're shopping. In each of these cases, it would be hard to ascribe a particular dollar value to the content on the screens, but their goals and objectives are clearly defined, and if you wanted to, you could even come up with a way to measure them.
- Trade seminars aren't inherently evil: Yes, this is actually something I learned. As I've said before, I'm an ROI-driven person when it comes to marketing and advertising, and my feeling towards trade shows is that you rarely get as much out as you put in. Most of the conferences that I've gone to in the past have been that way too. Sure, they can be great networking opportunities, but if the right person isn't there, or is camped out on the other side of the room (unbeknownst to you), you can be left feeling less than satisfied with the whole experience. The Strategy Institute isn't going to be able to solve those problems completely, but I felt that they did an excellent job of assembling a diverse group of eloquent and motivated presenters, paired with a highly-qualified and attentive audience.
In all seriousness, I expect that many retailers and network owners have already recognized and tapped into the merchandising power of an in-store TV network or affinity kiosk program, so the notion that you don't have to sell ads to make your screens valuable shouldn't come as shocking news. Yet I was still surprised to see retailers, brand managers and advertisers alike get up in front of an audience and decry the notion of pay-for-placement digital signage in favor of a kinder, gentler medium whose primary purpose is to subtly enhance the retail experience. Is it time to put down the calculator and pick up a sketch book? Should you throw out your rate cards and instead grab a retail floor plan? In many cases, the choice of whether to merchandise or advertise will be obvious. But when in doubt, think about the vision statement for your network. Then establish your goals and objectives, and consider how and when those goals will be reached. Finally, think about which business model and type of content is going to help you reach those goals the best, whether it be 3rd party advertisements, internal merchandising messages, or some combination of both.
By the way, since the original conference page may no longer be available by the time you read this, see the Strategy Institute conference list for info on the various digital signage-related events they have in the pipeline.