Happy New Year, folks. Here's to a happy, healthy and prosperous 2008 for all. For many, the new year brings with it connotations of renewal, a fresh start, infinite possibilities... and zillions of blog posts with top-10 lists and predictions for the coming months. While I'm as much an optimist as the next guy (oh, stop laughing already), I'm not much for making predictions. Maybe it's because I recognize the futility of trying to do the impossible. Maybe I don't want to trap WireSpring in a self-fulfilling prophecy that belies its full potential. Or maybe it's just because I'm always wrong. But regardless of the underlying cause, I'm not kicking off the first post of 2008 with some corny industry predictions. Instead, today I want to talk about the innovation (or lack thereof) taking place in the kiosk and digital signage markets.
Admittedly, talking about innovation itself isn't very innovative -- I actually got the idea from this month's HUB magazine, which focuses on marketing innovation. As Editor-in-Chief Tim Manners quips, "talking about innovation is kind of like the marketing equivalent of talking about the weather. You know the old joke: Everybody talks about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it." Whether looking at marketing in general or the tiny microcosm of digital out-of-home media like kiosks and digital signage, I think Manners' observation holds true. There's certainly a lot of activity in the marketplace right now, both for interactive kiosks and non-interactive digital signage. But does any of it show the hallmarks of innovation? Does anything out there today make it past the "Gee, that's a neat demo" phase into the "Duh, now why didn't I think of that?" territory that so often marks a truly innovative idea? I can't think of a single thing in the last twelve months that's firmly planted in the latter category, though a few come close. For example:
Not very innovative - New and different form factors: 2007 saw the aggressive expansion of Reatrix's interactive digital signage, installations in taxis, on buildings, in public toilets and urinals, on the floor, on the ceiling, and even mounted on people. Are any of these ideas interesting? Sure, they all are. Are they truly innovative? Not in my book. Unique signage placement, even when bundled with (or reliant upon) a unique business model, hasn't solved any of our well-known industry-wide problems, nor has it opened up (or created) significant new markets or otherwise advanced the state of the industry. Likewise, when highly-touted OLED and electronic paper technology makes new screen shapes and mounting options available in a few years, they may offer significant technological innovations, but little industry innovation.
Somewhat innovative - DS that appeals to more than one sense: And throwing up a pair of speakers to complement your hanging LCD screen isn't what I'm talking about. The past couple of years saw some interesting ideas come to light, though. In particular, directional sound came of age, with Wal-Mart Mexico deploying something like 5,000 hypersonic sound speakers to reduce employee fatigue and improve audio targeting in their digital signage network back in late 2006. (Full disclosure: Wal-Mart Mexico is one of our customers -- here's more info on their in-store network if you're curious.) Since then, a number of other large deployments have followed suit. Directional sound represents not only technological innovation (which has been in the works for years, of course), but also a solution to problems that previously plagued installations. 2007 also marked the advent of scent marketing, with Japan's NTT testing a digital sign platform that could match specific scents with audio and video promotions. I don't think this tech is quite ready for prime-time, but it has a lot of potential for driving sales of food, drinks, perfume, and other products where smell is a big part of the customer experience.
A little more innovative - Interactive store windows: Although it only spanned a few locations, the interactive store window deployment at Ralph Lauren Polo stores this year scored some major headlines, not only in the interactive kiosk circuit but also in weighty, mainstream publications like the Wall Street Journal. On the surface, it looked quite innovative: a huge, dynamic screen that users could interact with simply by touching the store window. In reality though, the true innovation was smaller: let passers-by shop the store after hours. That particular piece has been done many times before, and in a number of different ways -- just think ATMs. Still, it brought the solution to 5th avenue and the New York Open, garnered some positive press for the self-service industry, and from a technical standpoint was visually stunning. Still, we've encountered through-glass touchscreens and rear-projection onto storefront windows a number of times before, so I'd have to say that the combination of these elements was clever and eye-catching, but not something I'd call highly innovative.
Quite innovative - The rise of ad aggregators: In an attempt to solve one of the biggest problems plaguing the ad-driven digital signage community, companies like SeeSaw Networks, Adcentricity and Artisan Live started working on ways to make buying time on screen networks easy for media planners and buyers. While each company has some successes to talk about, we're still a ways away from a digital signage media buy being as foolproof as it needs to be in order to see mass adoption over on Madison Ave (if in fact that would ever happen, and it probably wouldn't). Still, each of these companies (and others, I'm sure) are introducing unique solutions to a highly complex problem, and while the overall concept of "Let's take a bunch of little networks and sell them like one big one" might seem obvious, I'm sure it's quite the colossal undertaking, requiring all sorts of business, finance and technical acumen.
Most innovative yet - Direct feedback/interaction via mobile phones: It certainly wasn't invented in 2007, and it might even be old hat by now, but every time I see a particularly well-done piece of content that has a call to action featuring an SMS coupon or feedback form, I'm impressed. This technique addresses one of the most difficult problems for digital signage vendors: proving out an ROI. With a direct feedback mechanism, advertisers have an accurate gauge of how many people actually were engaged by their ads, and they even have the opportunity to collect some information about them. For viewers who aren't interested, there's no negative consequence. For those who are, participation is just a text message away. Considering the mobile phone and SMS penetration rate in the industrialized world, very few are excluded. Of course, the method isn't perfect: it still requires some effort on the user's part, and it doesn't do anything to address those individuals who were engaged, but not enough to whip out their mobile. But of all the solutions I've seen so far for measuring engaged audiences, this is my favorite.
All considered, this year is likely to bring many incremental improvements to the solutions I've covered above, and that's a good thing. Part of becoming a mature industry is realizing that it's not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the best approach is often to learn from (and work from) the accomplishments of others. But there's always the chance that we'll see some real innovation happening -- solutions to the "big problems" that we all face every day: calculating ROI, measuring impact (heck, merely defining "impact" would be great), engaging more viewers, and delivering messages to those viewers effectively.
I certainly don't know everything about the market, and there are probably hundreds of deployments that I've never even heard about. If you know of something truly innovative that's happening in the industry right now, or if you have an opinion about any of my observations, why not leave a comment below? (Email subscribers: click the link below to access the comment form.)