Undue focus on the downturn has masked an essential underlying shift in the market for signage. To draw on the Boston Consulting Group?s classic model, Digital Signage has moved from the Early Adopter phase to the Early Majority phase. The Early Adopters were driven by functionality rather than cost – but the Early Majority is much more sensitive to total cost of ownership. Affordable and at the same time powerful software solutions that make creating and distributing Digital Signage presentations a breeze are allowing the Early Majority to embrace Digital Signage and their networks more readily. 

New Advocates of Digital Signage
A year ago, the typical user of digital multimedia content would have a premium brand in their market, and would adopt Digital Signage to associate that brand with exciting new technology. In the context of the margins in these businesses, and other expenditures on premium fixtures and fittings, the cost of installing and running a Digital Signage network wasn?t especially significant.

Digital signage installation courtesy of Argo Tea
Installation Courtesy of Argo Tea

Now, our best opportunities are small-to-medium level installations in mid-size retailers – let?s say 5- to-20 screens in chains with 20-to-500 locations. The decision making chain is shorter in mid-size businesses, and we are seeing roll-outs in a huge diversity of small retailers from travel agents to boutiques and restaurants. These customers are looking for an all-inclusive, easy to use solution for both stand-alone and networked installs. Interestingly, we are also seeing interest from standard printing companies moving into Digital Signage. In the networked case, we’ve seen some of these graphic/print companies change their business models from simply creating content and printing it to becoming distributors/integrators and delivering digital and networked solutions on a regular basis to their clients.

This last trend brings up a fact that vendors may often forget.  We are in the signage business not the digital business – and our biggest ?competitor? is paper. If creating content is significantly harder than printing off a poster and taping it up, we have a problem. Next time you?re in a retail outlet that is a stand alone operation or part of a small chain, take a look at how many sheets of paper festoon the windows and the point of sale. Clearly, a Digital Signage installation could do the job more neatly and is more eye-catching and compelling – but it won?t happen unless it is also easy to do.

Display creation
Early Adopters of digital multimedia content were willing to invest in having IT professionals work alongside graphics specialists to address this challenge. However, the new breed of signage customers tend to be entrepreneurs who don?t have access to this kind of expertise. These businesses expect to create presentations with little experience and either plug in a memory card with the presentation or send it over the network. They want to add their own slogans and messages to content created elsewhere and introduce elements that will capture the viewer?s interest. A typical small store manager might want to promote his own list of reduced price items alongside an advertisement provided by the supplier of a new range of razors. In addition, he might introduce live video footage of a major sporting event to draw customer?s eyes to his screen.

Illustration Courtesy of Diversified Media Group
Image from a stand at New York Yankees Stadium. Picture Credit: Diversified Media Group

Smart vendors are addressing this requirement with applications to create playlists and improve the accessibility and implementation of player features for users without an IT background. Running on a standard PC, these applications use simple tools and wizards to take users step-by-step through the process of creating presentations. Effortless zone templates and custom layout tools are provided, helping content authors make eye-catching displays without manually configuring coordinates and image sizes. Scheduling and day-parting of multiple playlists use an intuitive calendar format, eliminating the need to create playlists manually. And, completed presentations are quicker and easier to prepare for publication, as the software automatically creates the playlist file and bundles it with the selected content, ready to drop onto an SD card or deliver over a network ready for playback. The best solutions offer advanced features like the ability to integrate live video feeds from a TV channel mixed in with digital content to create a compelling and relevant Digital Signage display. Many customers are taking the opportunity to add interactivity – always a great way of engaging the viewer.

As a result, any corner store can run an individual player, updated manually with a USB stick or other removable flash memory card. Using the same platform, units in multiple stores can be networked and updated using an Internet connection. Targeted content such as media files, playlists and software updates can be delivered to installed units quickly and cost effectively without ever leaving the office.

Cost Model
Digital signage stand-alone and networked solutions need to demonstrate value and offer a fast ROI based on the total cost that the customer will see. This includes the hardware, software, hosting fees and the resources required to create the content. Customers won?t pay for functionality that they don?t want. They are also wary of committing to management and hosting fees.

Dual Screen Installation at a Grocery Store. One Screen is for advertising only, while smaller display helps consumers to find items and check for priicng courtesy of a bar code reader. Picture Credit: ECI
Dual Screen Installation at a Grocery Store. One Screen is for advertising only, while smaller display helps consumers to find items and check for priicng courtesy of a bar code reader. Picture Credit: ECI

Solid-state platforms are flourishing in this total cost of ownership-sensitive environment. Not only is the initial purchase price of these platforms lower than a PC, but the deployment, management and networking costs are also much less. This is achieved without sacrificing features or performance.  Built specifically for 24/7 Digital Signage using solid-state technology, they eliminate unnecessary capabilities and complexities to deliver high reliability, and scale to networks of one or hundreds of Digital Signage screens with equal ease. For small- and large-scale installations, these dedicated Digital Signage platforms are easy to set up and configure, and offer stability and flexibility. They replicate the performance of a PC in terms of graphics quality, ability to support popular multimedia content formats and advanced remote management features where they are required. Yet they are not based on PC technology, and their simplicity yields a reliability that keeps the involvement of the IT department to a minimum. The best model, I think, is bundling the required software with hardware and charging a simple one-off cost for the package.

Conclusion
Retail entrepreneurs are recognizing the power and appeal of Digital Signage technology to act as a ?Digital Salesman? at the point of sale – delivering controlled and precisely targeted messages 24/7 if required. The opportunity to clear the clutter of torn paper from the shop front is an added attraction. They are under great pressure to maintain and grow their sales in a challenging market, and realise that Digital Signage is a great way to set their products apart in a highly competitive in-store environment.  As a result, the market is growing, though it is hard to say how fast.

Digital Signage in front of Space Shuttle Challenger. Credit: Ripley?s Believe It or Not
Credit: Ripley?s Believe It or Not

Even a significant investment in Digital Signage can be much more economic and much lower risk than a major consumer advertising campaign, a product rebranding project or a point-of-sale offer. The challenge for the Digital Signage vendors is to unlock this demand by providing well-planned, economic end-to-end solutions. The cost of hardware is affordable for most customers, and it is capable of delivering high quality and compelling point-of-sale presentations to buyers at the point of decision. To make this hardware attractive to the market, it needs to be supported by easy-to-use authoring software that allows any user to create and update content on a regular basis. There is always a market for reliable, easy to use technology that delivers at a reasonable cost.