The Digital Signage Insider

What's the secret to great digital signage content?

A few weeks ago, I led a POPAI webinar about creating content for digital signage networks. (I'll be presenting an abridged version at the Digital Signage Expo later this month, too.) We looked at things such as color, contrast and motion to see how they affect the readability, comprehension and recall of the content. Not surprisingly, many of our data-driven conclusions seem like common sense and conventional wisdom to savvy designers and merchandisers. Starting in a few weeks, I'm going to break down the full two-hour session into a series of blog posts. But an article I came across in Smashing Magazine compelled me to give away the ending early: the key to making great digital signage content is (drumroll, please)...

Simplicity. What, you were expecting something else? Something a bit more complex, maybe? Well, that's the big surprise, and the big takeaway from studying hundreds of content clips from dozens of networks around the world. Whether you're making seven-second commercials for use in stores or 30-minute programs for a waiting room network, a simple rule-of-thumb applies: the less information you present during that period of time, the more likely it is that your viewers will notice, understand and remember it. Sure it seems like common sense, but I'll bet that if you go back and take a look at your content library, you'll find at least a few clips that are too complex. Many of you will find that lots of them are. That's why so many of the suggestions in Smashing Magazine's tips for effective web design struck a chord with me. For example, take the first three:
  • Don't make users think
  • Don't squander users' patience
  • Manage to focus users' attention
All three of these things try to address the problem of how to grab a viewer's attention, and once you have it, how not to lose it. The answer, simply enough, is to make sure that the initial burst of content is just enough to get the critical message across -- without requiring any kind of significant cognitive commitment (i.e. "thinking"). That initial bit of content is not only your first and best shot to communicate the most important part of your message, but it's also a way of asking permission to give the user more. If you've done a good job and given them a solid pitch -- in five words or less, say -- they'll reward you with more cognitive resources in the form of attention, thought and memory. If you don't supply enough information, you won't spark their interest. And if you supply too much information, you risk lower comprehension -- and might even create a reluctance to keep watching. (For more on this topic, see the tips that Wal-Mart and Televisa provided about how to maximize the success of digital signage, and our article on using lessons from TV and print to improve digital signage content.)

Another great suggestion from the Smashing Magazine article is to communicate effectively with a "visible language." That's a phrase coined by user interface design guru Aaron Marcus. Basically, it means using your text as a design element in order to communicate your message visually (as part of a well-organized graphical layout) and textually (which actually uses some of your brain's audio hardware in addition to the visual bits and pieces). The mantra for successful use of visible language is organize, economize, communicate. In other words, organize your thoughts into distinct elements or blocks that provide a clear structure to your viewers; do the most with the fewest number of elements; and make sure the message you're sending matches up with the viewer's needs and expectations. (Of course, the place- and time-specificity of digital signage goes a long way toward accomplishing this.)

Last, but certainly not least: test early and test often! We've mentioned this before, but few companies do it -- despite how easy it is to run split tests and other shopper marketing experiments using a centrally-managed digital signage network. If you're willing to drop thousands or even millions of dollars on network infrastructure, content creation and ongoing management costs, spend the few extra bucks and figure out what's working and what's not. We have literally seen cases where a simple change resulted in a double-digit boost in content performance (measured by the viewer's ability to recall a particular message).

These tips should be a good place to start. But I really want to hear what's worked for you...

How have you made your digital signage more effective? If you could express your strategy in one simple rule, what would it be?

Leave a comment and let me know!


0 Mike Ganey 2008-02-14 02:25
In the ad agency world, we use a great example of the need for simplicity. It goes like this: Toss a person 5 ping pong balls, and it's likely they won't catch any. But toss them 1, and it's almost always caught. Great advice for any communication...including blogs.
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0 Hendrik Acket 2008-02-14 09:55
O so right !!! "clean and simple" or "KISS" ! But how often the customer (advertiser) pushes to get more (much more) into his ad ?
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0 Bill Gerba 2008-02-14 13:13
Mike: That's a great anecdote. I'll have to start using it :) Hendrik: Well, if your customers are like mine, they'll push hard, and they'll push often. But results are what counts. Get them to give on one or two spots where you think simplicity will make the most difference, and then let the numbers speak for themselves.
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0 Gary Halpin 2008-02-18 18:10
Bill, if I had a nickel for everytime I had to explain to a client about the simplicity rule, I wouldn't be working today, but rather surfing somewhere. When producing Blockbuster TV, we would get some promotional spots from their in-house department and it was like reading a bill in Congress. While advertising overall should be used to tweak the interest of viewers, when it is inside a retail environment, the idea that we always put forth was tweak their interest so they would engage a store associate to ask more. We also tested this idea via control tests, with some stores getting the over-information spots while others more simple ones. I'll let you and your readers figure out which ones worked better.
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0 Bill Gerba 2008-02-18 18:39
Gary: great advice, and you're absolutely right: you can't use the same content everywhere and expect consistent results. That's one of the key challenges to effective content production in our industry. \\it was like reading a bill in Congress\\ I love that. So basically it's not only long-winded and unintuitive, but also over-engineered, under-tested and generally useless.
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