Published in November 2007

Content: Missing Element In Digital Signage Network Design
By Vern Freedlander

Leveraging brand loyalty to gain a competitive advantage.

Digital signage can play an important role in public spaces, keeping viewers informed about current events and other pertinent information while they wait for services.

    As a systems integrator, it’s easy to focus solely on the technical aspects of designing a digital signage network for your customer. After all, technical expertise is your specialty and, certainly, there are a lot of technology decisions to be made in developing a digital signage network. Choices such as the type of display screen, the number of screens, where they’ll be located, how they will be connected and the type of engine that will drive them tend to dominate the development of a digital signage network.
    Decisions over the content that will air on the network, on the other hand, have long been considered to be solely the responsibility of the customer: the network operator. When it comes time to launch the digital signage network, keep in mind that the equipment you selected has already been tested and proven; it’s the content that will make or break its success.

Customer’s Success Is Critical
    Your customer’s success in launching digital signage translates into greater accomplishments for your systems integration business, as well. Aside from simply building loyalty from a satisfied customer, the successful launch of a digital signage network can bring new business. As viewership increases, your customers may look to expand the network with additional displays and locations.     Unquestionably, understanding the basics of digital signage content can further increase revenue for your business. Knowing this, the type of content that the customer will be using should be your first consideration in determining the type of digital signage that you purchase and install.
    Many customers are new to digital signage and have a limited understanding of the editorial decisions involved in developing content, or even the type of content that is best suited for their environment. By analyzing your client’s content needs up front, and having a keen awareness of the strengths of various digital signage systems, you can select the right technology partners to make the business of being a content expert feel like second nature.

Great Content Reinvents Signage Nets
    When most people think of content for a digital signage network, they tend to focus strictly on advertising. This makes perfect sense because signage networks exist to make revenue and to provide an effective way to direct advertising content at consumers at the point of sale.
    Though there may be some situations where it makes perfect sense to deploy an ad-only digital signage network, broadening the definition of digital signage content provides the powerful benefit of strong, clearly focused programming. The fundamental problem with a narrow-minded approach to defining content as strictly ads is the real risk of the digital signage network becoming ubiquitous, mundane and eventually nothing more than a monotonous store fixture.
    In many circumstances, if a digital signage network provides only ads, your customer’s viewers will tune out as surely as traditional television viewers will fast-forward through commercials with a DVR—and your client misses an excellent opportunity to develop and enhance its brand.
    The ability to engage audiences, get them to notice a new product or service, motivate them to action and connect them to a brand is the paramount purpose of all digital signage content. Non-ad content can help achieve these goals, create new ad opportunities and sponsorships, leverage editorial content and give your customer’s viewers a valuable reason to watch the network.

What Is Content? (Why Should I Care?)
    Content is every visual, every editorial and every audio element that appears and plays on the screen. From a four-minute video clip to the essential design elements that go into a graphics template, all are considered content, and content makes a signage network viewable. Ultimately, the content defines a brand.
    To be truly successful, the network must enhance the viewer’s experience by providing unique insights and information that build brand loyalty. A digital signage network must be a seamless marketing tool that fits in perfectly, not just to a location’s ambiance, but also into the company’s overall marketing goals and aspirations.
    With such a personalized approach for each of your customer’s networks, it’s understandable that you’d be tempted to avoid the topic of content design altogether. Yet, each digital signage technology solution available today has its own strengths and weaknesses, and so an evaluation of your customer’s content needs before you purchase a system for him is key to the program’s success.
    For example, does your client require the ability to include tickers, with data pulled automatically from news feeds or the wire? Does your client want to create its own data feeds that highlight company news, promotions or activities in the community? Does it plan to air mostly simple data or will additional bandwidth be required to support a heavy load of video? How often is your client going to have to update programming? Does your client have any design experience or will you have to incorporate a template library-based system into the package?

Digital signage can be appropriate for presenting live data in a wide variety of applications, including corporate training, public announcements and entertainment in retail settings.

Who’s Providing Content?
    Will your client be providing all of its own material, or does the company hope to purchase and air syndicated content, as well? If your client plans to purchase syndicated content, does it have the resources to handle rights management or will it have to hire someone to coordinate programming?
    Encouraging your clients to use sophisticated content on their digital signage networks opens up the doorways for new revenue for you, as well. If your customers are interested in packaging content between more traditional broadcast programming, consider offering services for acquiring shows from TV networks, for example. Or, if your customer has limited content, you may even want to offer design and programming services.
    If these tasks sound like they’re outside the scope of where your business is headed, it’s especially important for you to understand your customer’s content needs in advance. This will ensure that you select a technology vendor that can act as a service provider, as well.
    Ultimately, knowing the ins and outs of developing content, and at which time each type of content is most appropriate, will ensure that you can ask your customers the correct questions and develop the best network to meet their needs.

Lessons From Broadcast TV
    To really understand effective digital signage content, I recommend that you start where dynamic visual displays began: broadcast television. Digital signage is not broadcast television, but the two mediums have a great deal in common. Both use the power of visual elements to communicate, and both focus content on specific demographic groups.
    Harnessing the power of video to communicate effectively with customers, employees or the general public requires a unique combination of strong editorial, design and technological skills. These are all skills that originated and became more and more sophisticated in broadcast television.
    The differences between digital signage and broadcast television are obvious. Viewers walking through a retail location are not expected to park themselves in front of a monitor and watch 30 minutes of programming. Hopefully, they glance at the screen for a few seconds, are informed about a new product or promotion, and take action. But a customer in line at a bank will spend perhaps a few minutes watching, while a patient in a waiting room or a customer at a hair salon will spend perhaps 30 minutes or more watching content.
    The trend is evident: The longer the dwell time, the more a digital signage network has to look and feel like broadcast television, where ad content does not run continuously, but rather is segmented or packaged around other programming.     Broadcast television has been around for more than 50 years and provides three key lessons for systems integrators looking to educate and best serve their clients.

Three Key Lessons
•  Great content wins viewers: The first principle is the concept that great content wins viewership. Exclusive or unique content wins even more viewers. How can you help your customers employ this idea?
    The key is to select a digital signage solution that allows them to update content quickly and easily, so that the programming is always fresh and targeted to their specific audience. A strong presentation with a keen sense of design, impactful visuals and consistent production values will attract and retain viewers. If it’s difficult or time-consuming for your customer to change out the content, they’re less likely to do so and their customers are less likely to watch.
    An inventory of existing internal and external marketing communications, advertising and websites will allow for a clear understanding of the content that your customer has available readily. Most companies have vast amounts of visual content that can be repurposed to accomplish many goals. In some cases, it may be prudent to create original content or form an alliance with a content provider that shares the brand’s essence.
    Either way, make it your job to know which formats your customer will be working with and then identify the technology that can support them all. The network’s content most likely will be a combination of video clips, manual and automated data feeds, templates and images.
    Easy-to-use tools are vital in ensuring that network operators can author the content easily, keep it updated, schedule it properly, report back to advertisers and maintain the health of the network.

Digital signage network/workflow system diagram.

Strong Branding
•  Strong brand identity: The second principle is to build a consistent and strong brand identity for digital signage networks. There should be no mistake that viewers are watching an identifiable, unique, branded network. Broadcasters go to great efforts to ensure that their network has a different look and feel than a competitor. MTV’s on-air identity, for example, has a distinctive look compared with ABC’s identity.
    A network’s identity speaks to its unique position in the marketplace. Broadcasters achieve this with strong, identifiable graphics, marks and music that clearly distinguish their network from other networks. Likewise, a digital signage network must consistently remind audiences of what they are watching.
    Content that resonates with customers at a sporting goods store, for example, will have a different program mix, a different pace and a different attitude than content that is displayed at a bookstore. Being acutely aware of who is viewing the network and how the customer will be conveying the brand’s attributes is a creative process that must start before the digital signage network is even installed.
    To create a strong brand, it is important that the network be fully “produced” and “programmed.” This means that, editorially, there must be a sense of flow between items, and a certain commonality of themes and ideas. An inconsistent mix of content from a variety of genres, looks and tempos will annoy viewers and advertisers alike.
    Your customers will find it much easier to create a consistent look if you’ve installed a template-based network. Some digital signage platforms are based on “smart templates” that provide a highly professional look with built-in production logic that enables streamlined loading and updating of content.
    Having access to design and creative services also is a huge factor in your customer’s success in building a brand. Advertisers want their messages placed within a network that is viewable and enhances their messages so, without a polished look, your customer could struggle to find the financial support to keep his network running.

Ad Placement
•  Ad placement: Broadcasters have become quite skilled at selling billboards, logo placements, segment blocks, specific sponsorships and all kinds of creative tie-ins with content. Digital signage networks that do the same can create additional revenue streams beyond traditional spot sales.
    The cost of these additional ad placements can be offset by sponsorships or cross-promotions. Likewise, there are opportunities to barter space on the network in return for content.
    The digital signage network can run complementary advertisements that target viewers while enhancing your client’s brand. A network in a sporting goods chain, for example, can run local high-school sports scores sponsored by a local merchant. The same network can run third-party ads for sports beverages, casual clothing retailers or nutritional supplements. It can promote community activities, such as a charity run or a tribute to a local athlete, or support a local hospital. All of these activities on the network not only bring in additional revenue, but also enhance the retailer’s place in the community.
    In situations such as these, where your customer could be working with a wide number of contributors, a digital signage platform that allows for remote management may be appropriate. Managing large amounts of content may sound overwhelming but, by selecting a system that provides web-based tools, this will allow virtually anyone who is given proper security to update and maintain content. Selecting a technology solution that enables remote management will make collaboration between a company’s divisions, colleagues or surrounding community easier than ever.

Benefits For Systems Integrators
    For the digital signage operator, success arrives when its network is transformed from an electronic bulletin board to a mini TV channel. A flourishing network is based on technology that allows your customers to deploy content quickly and easily from a wide variety of sources, to define their brands with a distinctive look and feel. You can confidently consider the network a success when viewers come to expect and recognize content on the network as having value that they can’t find anywhere else.
    And for you as the systems integrator, success arrives when your customers’ digital signage results match, or even exceed, their expectations. By being able to educate your customers on all of the details that must be taken into consideration when developing and deploying digital signage content, you further establish your position as an expert in your field. Analyzing your customer’s content needs and making recommendations can not only open the doorway for new sales as your customer expands the network, but also can provide you with the opportunity to offer additional services.
    Ultimately, by taking the design of a digital signage network one step past the technology, you can leverage the project to build your own brand loyalty and competitive advantage.

Vern Freedlander is vice president of production for X2O Media. Previously, he was a producer, director, creative director and executive in the Canadian broadcasting industry. His award-winning contributions to large-scale branding initiatives, special event production and the launch of numerous programs have resulted in a dramatic increase of brand recognition and viewer ratings.

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