The Digital Signage Insider

Where's This Industry Going? Keen Observations from the 2010 DSE

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By pure coincidence, a young man I met during my DSE panel discussion wound up sitting in my row on the flight home from Las Vegas. My session, entitled "Do it right the first time: the politics and pitfalls of digital signage deployment and how to avoid them", had been well attended -- mostly by prospective or current network operators long on entrepreneurial spirit but short on experience. My row mate's situation was typical. He has started a doctor's office network that currently has just two locations. His questions for me (and the focus of his two-day fact finding mission at DSE) included weighty topics like, "should I get serious and expand?" and "where is digital signage/digital out-of-home going?"

Good question... where is this industry going?

Digital signage veterans (some of us have been around for over a decade) have never seen as much activity nor felt as much energy as we just experienced in Las Vegas. Exhibitors entered DSE 2010 anticipating the norm: few buyers, but lots of "tire kickers" walking the show floor. Instead, there were plenty of indications that buyers were qualified and conversations were positive. Some vendors were even writing business on the trade show floor. So the future is bright, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. Certainly the short-term view is encouraging. Digital signage/digital out-of-home finally seems to be approaching a heightened level of maturity. After dipping their toes in the water in past years, two mega-players -- Intel and Cisco -- reportedly are diving into the deep end. And established entities like LG, Sony, NEC and others are expanding their traditional, conventional DS/DOOH offerings. All of this suggests money is about to pour into the space which, logically, means the good times are about to roll.

Image credit: Athena's Pix
Good times, with a caveat

Geri Wolff works for Exponation, the company that produces DSE. Part of her job is to compile the collective wisdom of DSE's advisory board into a form that can be passed on to the digital signage community at large. At the DSE advisory board meeting the night before the show opened, Geri polled the board for advice. She asked: what are we (both the DSE & the digital signage industry in general) missing?

Patrick Moorhead, VP at Chicago-based agency Draftfcb, did not hesitate. Patrick said, flat out, there simply are not enough ad agency types in attendance. None of us disagreed. We acknowledged that currently, there's no reason for agency folks to care, let alone attend.

Ironically, this comes at a time when agencies are slowly warming up to the idea of sharing the wealth and spreading the buy. The TV audience is shrinking. That can't be disputed. But those TV dollars won't automatically default to DS/DOOH unless the agencies see it as a media buy that makes sense. Right now, they generally don't. And that can't be disputed either. Thus, unless the focus of DSE -- and the industry overall -- shifts more toward the audience and less toward bright, shiny tech, the agencies will continue to stay away in droves. That's one of those things that keep "good times" just out of our reach.

Where art thou, content?

Back to my flight home from Las Vegas. My new friend said that by walking the trade show floor, he felt he received an adequate overview regarding digital signage hardware, software, etc. But he had a nagging question. "I need help creating content that will look different from all of the other content, content that makes sense for my doctor client and his patients. Why isn't there more help at the show regarding custom content solutions?" My knee-jerk answer: "Because it is extremely difficult to make a living creating custom content solutions as custom content is not valued in the digital signage industry."

  Oh, there was plenty of content literally jumping off the digital displays on the trade show floor. From an aesthetic standpoint, some of the content was truly spectacular. (The Christie MicroTiles were amazing. But then, Christie could have hooked them up to an old security camera and would still have stopped attendees in their tracks.) But from an editorial standpoint, the content playing on the show floor was, at best, generic. Mind-numbingly generic. No-one-pays-attention generic. As my Preset partner Paul Flanigan tweeted from Vegas, "I know the weather in every city in the world by walking the show floor. Does everybody do weather?"

Unfortunately, it seems that everybody does do weather. And stock tickers. And news. They combine to form an easy default. But weather, stocks and news are not the answer to our collective problem of mediocre content.

Where should DSE and this industry be in 5 years?

That was another question Geri Wolff asked the DSE board. I spoke up. "Unless this show and this industry changes its focus from being transaction-based, unless it shifts its focus away from hardware and software and starts focusing on the audience, the person on the other side of the screen, and focuses on the messages we are sending to that audience... unless that happens, in five years, digital signage will still be a bunch of technology folks talking to each other." And the digital signage show, as Patrick Moorhead observed, will be nothing more than vendors "selling picks and shovels." Shifting the priority from an emphasis on prettier pixels to an emphasis on compelling consumer communication will not be easy for this industry. But the opportunity has never been more, well, more opportune. Digital signage/digital out-of-home has momentum, and momentum attracts resources and buys time.

It's time to provide an offering that compels the agencies to recognize digital out-of-home as a viable alternative, and time to pay more attention to what plays on the screen and less attention to the screen itself. If that shift in emphasis comes to pass, every DS operation will benefit: the mammoth enterprise projects, the two-office network operated by my new friend, and all networks in between.

I can't wait to see where we're at in five years. Meanwhile, what do you think the next half-decade holds for our industry?


+1 # Ed Personius 2010-03-16 19:08
Pat, Your second to last paragraph is spot-on. The industry appears to me (a newcomer of 15 months, and a Direct Response advertising guy for 21 years,) to be a bunch of techies nattering on about software and hardware. Which seems to boil down to, "have you gotten yours to work yet?" Just kidding. Sort of. There are lots of good solutions out there from a technology standpoint, but not much sense when it comes to content. Your conclusions are what I have been preaching about advertising for years: The medium (pick whichever one you want) will work great when you target properly and message compellingly to that target. Our model focuses on using the sizzle which Projected Digital Signage represents, to sell systems to retailers. Our systems enable to retailer to message larger, with more depth and range, and more flexibility, than they have ever been able to before. Using your entire storefront window as your screen is so much more compelling and awesome (sizzle, sizzle) than banners or posters, or even lcd screens (TVs) in your store. Integrate them and control them and bend them to your will. Don't just stick up a screen with a playlist running on a loop and leave it. The Digital Signage Industry needs to focus on the end user's need to make money. How does our product to that? That's the issue, which goes directly to the point you make of effectiveness of content.
0 # Tim Burke 2010-03-16 21:07
Good blog. The comment about content is sooo true. Our firm has been a web and kiosk interactive agency for about a decade. And we figured that content is where we'd make our play in digital signage. However, most of our customers want to do their own content. It usually looks like the web back in 1997 when every company was trying to do their own web site... ugly! They just don't value good design and unique content. We usually get pulled in when they want to integrate with a third party system or in house database, etc. The heavy lifting type of content. We do so much interactive touch screen kiosk work that we see our only real future in digital signage is the interactive type. Which in a sense is not digital signage at all, it's a very large touch screen kiosk. It's much of the same we've been doing for many years on 19" screens but now we're using 52" touch enabled LCD or Multi-touch screens. Years ago those were either unheard of or out of most budgets to be practical, yet now the technology is more mature and cheaper. I consider digital signage to be signage content that is scheduled, day parted, etc. Whereas kiosks are not scheduled content they are always on, transactional (usually), applications. The line is blurred when the screen is a mix of kiosk application and scheduled content (usually adverts at this point). Nice blog, keep it up! You guys are very insightful. (everyone else is putting in their blog addy, why not me... :-)
+1 # Frank Beurskens 2010-03-17 03:02
Thanks for the objectivity and willingness to address some real issues facing the industry. We've been building an in-store network for five years which today manages 850 interactive displays in 350 stores across 30 states, and would like to share a few observations about the industry and the advertising model. The phrase "a pick and shovel business" is appropriate. The money appears to be made in organizing anything with the name "Digital Signage" in the title. While we donTMt typically attend these events anymore, it sounds like little has changed; vendors selling vendors, and networks trying to figure out a sustainable business model. But, what should one expect from an industry that calls itself, 'Digital Signage'? As long as the industry focuses on the technology, on the ~howTM rather than the ~whatTM is delivered, things probably shouldnTMt change much. A couple of observations regarding the absence of agencies at these shows; digital media is disruptive and the efficiency of digital versus legacy tends to shrink the gross for most agencies. (Maybe the less efficient the media, the larger the spend?) Most agencies arenTMt going to take a leadership position to shrink their own piece of the pie. On a related point, interactive media is even more disruptive. Traditional broadcast media benefited by the old axiom, "I Know Half My Marketing Works, I Just Don't Know Which Half". Interactive web and in-store media are 100% measurable. Impression based, reach and frequency models typically arenTMt. What doesnTMt get measured still gets rewarded, at least for awhile. Footprint is still an albatross for virtually most digital media networks. Until an aggregator comes along and rolls up the fragmented DS marketplace or an industry supported ad placement network emerges, things arenTMt going to change much with regard to attracting serious agency dollars. But, the trend is moving in the right direction, and a handful of agencies are trying to adapt.
0 # Nikk Smith 2010-03-17 08:53
Spot on! We started our business 6 years ago focussing on content design and production services for DS - we soon learnt that there was little appreciation of value and a lack of willingness to budget for, let alone fund the true cost of creating good content. We decided that the best way to get good content on to screens is to retain our content focus but offer the end to end hw/sw solution and include our content services as part of the package.
0 # tawo jacob 2010-03-17 10:26
There is nothing as good as putting more efforst in ensuring that the right content is made available for public consumtion. Over the years DS have palced more emphasis on the far has that taken us...where can we say the improved Technology has taken DS to..Content is the answere it gives the industry the expected Direction. it provide the needed roadmap for the industry. Developing content that is customer persuasive, morally accepted, traditionaly non evasive and socially applauding will guranty the industry a possible future and direction. The public perception to DS out-door advertisement must be made and seen to have change to even create in them the interest to look at the signange boards.
0 # resus digital signage 2010-03-24 21:11
I like thge comment about the weather. How true is that!!!. Digital signage has alot of catching up to do in the way of content, but i think this will come with time.
0 # Rich Godwin 2010-07-27 14:54
Just read this article (got lost in the inbox) but I found it to be right on target. When I created my network, we wrote the whole system from scratch, that's the operating system, the kiosks etc. But then as if we weren't naive enough, we went and created all of the content ourselves. (Have a Laugh, Did You Know, Food Facts, health Tips, Household tips, sports stats, Municipal Messaging, This day in Rock n Roll etc etc.) They're all 10 second animated Flash snippets and many of you might think they sound quaint, but guess what? They work, because they are all different contrasts and colours, the eye follows them. I've tested the screens with women in one of our salon deployments when Oprah is on the TV. Yes they watch Oprah, but their eyes switch to my screen almost every time it changes. A delight to watch! The great thing about it also is that because the files are so small, we draw little band width and therefore can easily operate with a cellular air card modem. So no broadband needed. Plus I can customize the content to each location...women's stuff in the salon, guys stuff in the sports bar. Works great!

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