Digital signage is still an emerging technology, but already some trends have taken shape, and one of them is unfortunate. Since the screens themselves look very much like the LCD and plasma screens many people enjoy in their homes, companies have looked upon them as televisions, and have handled their content plans accordingly.
But digital signage is not television. It is not an entertainment medium (even though it can be used as one), but a communications method. Companies that use digital signs to endlessly rebroadcast advertising content are forgetting to take into account their customers' mindset and reason for coming into the store in the first place.
"If your intention is to take your television commercial and simply play it in a store, that just becomes noise," said Bradley Walker, president and CEO of Lincoln, Neb.-based software company Nanonation. "Your software should be able to very thoughtfully integrate brand elements and brand assets, but deliver them in a new way. We talk a lot about compositing — using the software to establish a digital media brand for in-store signage — and use the flexibility of the software to populate those templates using a variety of media types."
Perhaps the key difference between at-home media and in-store media is the mindset of the customer at the moment of viewing, or the "time/place/manner" consideration. A person at home in the evening, watching television on his couch, is in a relaxed frame of mind. He is expecting to be in front of that screen for a given period of time — an hour, perhaps, or two — and his mind parses the content accordingly.
That same person standing in a retail environment at 5:30 p.m. is feeling things very differently. He is probably tired from a long day at the office; he really wants to squeeze in a workout and dinner before ending up on the couch for that decompression session, and that means he needs to get in and out of this store as quickly as he can.
To someone with this mindset, a litany of looping ads will not only be ineffective, it will be an outright deterrent. Chances are his relationship with the brands of both the store and the items marketed on-screen will be damaged.
Visual elements and the customer experience
Clearly, the customer response to digital signage is of paramount importance. Secondary to that is the cost savings and efficiency it brings to the company.
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But focus first on what the customer gets from seeing one of the screens.
To make that experience a positive one, digital signage software should be able to do several things:
Display a variety of media types. Screens that simply rotate through a series of static images are fine, but customers will quickly learn to ignore them, since they act so much like traditional signage. To remain effective, a signage network needs to have the flexibility to change things — animation one moment, static imagery the next, live video the next.
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Ease of installation and management. "Operators should ensure the system is using an IP network with a Web-based management interface. And unless operators are certain they will only ever have the same number of screens, they have to ensure that their system is scalable and grows with them without breaking the bank — whether they have 10, a hundred or thousands of screens."
System flexibility. "The system needs to be flexible enough to schedule different content on different screens at different times to target different audiences. This, of course, requires the system to be extremely versatile, meaning that it should be able to handle a broad selection of media, such as video, live broadcast, graphics, animation, live news feeds and also emergency broadcasts like fire and earthquake warnings."
Remote control. "There are some important control and power-saving functions, such as switching screens on and off remotely, which not only make day-to-day operation a lot more convenient, but also save a great deal of maintenance cost for the operator."
Reliability. "A digital signage system needs to be 100 percent reliable, so operators should make sure they choose a dedicated digital signage system that is built on a proven consumer electronics platform and is designed to perform 24/7."
Display media at appropriately high resolutions. Many customers discovered something once they got their shiny new HDTVs home — non-HD content looks terrible on them. The same holds true in the in-store environment, but the stakes are much higher. If the signage software isn't built to handle HD, that spells trouble down the road.
Integrate with other aspects of the environment. The signs will not be hanging in a vacuum, and that means they should be networked into the other things going on around them. For instance, if in-store music can be heard nearby, the software should be able to mute or lower the volume on it while a message with audio is playing on-screen. Not all digital signage software is capable of this level of interaction, but it's a valuable feature
Dynamically generate playlists based on any number of criteria. Different media should play at different times of the day, and the software package should be able to pull the proper media, schedule it on the fly and update playlists as needed. Managers should be able to insert media where they see fit, with the playlist adjusting itself accordingly.
Dynamically select media assets via tags. All media assets should have one or more "tags" associated with them, and the software should be able to intelligently pull media based on smart tagging conventions. This allows content creators to tag their work and place it in the proper location so the system can automatically begin using it as appropriate.
Support audio. Not all signage applications need audio, but it is an important feature to be able to add if needed.
Scale as needed. "Even if you start with a simple signage solution, having the right software to control your signage will improve your overall success," said Jeff Hemingway, co-owner of Milford, Mich.-based digital signage software company Storming Images. "You may start out with one sign and grow to 10 signs per store.
Software designed to scale and expand the network of signs is important when investing in a solution. The ability to control the signs from a single point or multiple points is key to the flexibility of controlling your signage network."
Read more about digital signage software.
(Excerpted from the recently published DigitalSignageToday guide, "Software for Digital Signage." To read more, download the free publication.)