On Friday, Advertising Age ran an article about the Taxi Entertainment Network, the latest new-media experiment from Clear Channel Outdoor. This network debuts in New York City under the name NY10, and will appear on screens inside more than 5,000 taxi cabs. NY10 will feature local and international news, weather, sports and entertainment content from WNBC, NBC News and NBC Entertainment, and has a projected reach of over 14,000,000 consumers a year. With all of this network-supplied content comes advertisements, which can be day-parted and geographically targeted. While Clear Channel is billing the NY10 as a new advertising medium (and selling the spots accordingly), the content will be decidedly more TV-like than what you'd typically see in an out-of-home advertising project. This raises an interesting question: at what point does a content network really become an advertising (or digital signage) network?
To be fair, that's something of a loaded question, since television has been a commercial affair for quite some time. While early attempts to use broadcast technology for educational purposes largely failed, commercially-sponsored news and entertainment was quick to become TV's killer app. So in some ways, TV has been both content network and advertising network since the very beginning. For out-of-home advertising networks like digital signage systems in retail chains, the primary intent has typically been more obvious: advertise products sold in the store. But even in the digital signage world, networks use different types of content and different ratios of ads to news and entertainment depending on the environment and the target audience.
Surveying the different out-of-home networks
At one end of the spectrum, we have captive audience networks like AccentHealth's waiting room network in doctors' offices. Here, the majority of the content actually feels like content. There are relevant stories about health, diet and lifestyle, created around a larger health and wellness theme. Products are either plugged indirectly during content segments, or shown in fully sequestered ad blocks. The idea is that if a viewer actually enjoys watching the content, he will have stronger and more favorable recall of the advertised products.
In the middle of the road are checkout TV channels, like those operated by PRN, IBN and SignStorey. In this case, the content format tends to skew more towards news, weather and entertainment clips, and once again the big three broadcasters seem willing to get involved with major in-store networks. For example, CBS delivers content to SignStorey checkout channels, helping to break up the monotony of ads. By featuring clips from upcoming shows, or news and weather from a "trusted" source, these checkout channels have a better chance of connecting with a shopper waiting in line (that's the theory, at least). I'd similarly put the NY10 taxi cab network in this category, since it seems Clear Channel will follow a similar format of "pure" content (this time supplied by NBC) along with advertisements.
Finally, at the far end of the ad-content spectrum are those networks primarily devoted to showing pure ad content. These media networks show highly optimized spots that are short enough (sometimes only a few seconds long) to convey information to active shoppers roaming the sales floor. While there is often supplemental content interspersed with the ads, it too is optimized to convey information as quickly and efficiently as possible. I'd also put general merchandising networks into this category, since the content is primarily aimed at in-store brand building, even if it isn't advertising a particular product outright.
Understanding the key differences: technology, behavior, and context
If major broadcast networks are supplying content, and we have screens that show a combination of information and entertainment as well as advertising, what makes a digital signage network different from a television network, and where do we make the distinction? Of course, there are technical differences like the broadcast vs. narrowcast models and the infrastructure used to deliver the content, but technology is just a means to an end in this case. There are still some content differences, since an average one-day TV schedule is generally delivered in half-hour or so increments, designed for relaxed consumption at home, whereas out-of-home networks can only count on viewers being present for a tiny fraction of that time. Likewise, regular TV viewers have the ability to watch the current channel, change the channel, or turn the TV off altogether, whereas digital signage is more of an all-or-nothing proposition: viewers either choose to pay attention to what's on the screens or not.
With marketers increasingly looking to reach highly specific demographics, it's probably safe to say that target specificity is another key difference between TV and out-of-home networks. The ability to deliver a piece of content to a viewer at an exact place and time is a major advantage for advertisers, and also guarantees viewers some degree of contextual relevancy. However, with the advent of PVRs, video on demand, mobile media, and the various ways that Google could begin delivering targeted advertising to TV and digital signage alike, this difference may become less pronounced in the near future.
Even with the above factors in mind, I believe that the most important distinction between TV and what we define as digital signage is the viewing context. Simply put, most TV is consumed at home, and at home we have a specific mode of thinking and behaving. Out of home, we think and act quite differently (much to the chagrin of market researchers). Consequently, even though ABC, NBC and CBS are supplying content to out-of-home media networks, it isn't exactly the same as their TV content. Why? These broadcasters know that their viewing audience is going to be in a different environment and in a different mental state while watching.
How to keep your viewers interested
As we've seen, a digital signage network can serve any number of goals depending on where it's placed and who's watching. There's no easy formula for deciding how content should be displayed, how long it should be, and what it should look like. However, for network managers interested in displaying non-advertising content on a primarily ad-funded network, here are a few things to keep in mind:
First, tailor the content to fit the venue's form and function. Content for brightly-lit megastores filled with scores of fast-moving shoppers needs to look different than content for more modestly-lit waiting areas at beauty salons.
Next, stay true to the content provider's brand. Even though your screens won't be showing an exact reproduction of what goes out on TV, if your content supplier has successfully branded its SuperMegaDoppler weather segments or the top-rated talk show host appearing in your content clips, be sure to take advantage of that.
Finally, and most importantly, think like your viewers. Remember that how your viewers think and behave at home is probably different than how they behave elsewhere. Work to understand what consumers are looking for and how your venue influences their viewing behavior, and you'll have the greatest chance of getting your message across.