Digital Signage on the Rise

Digital Signage on the Rise


Shrinking system costs and greater acceptance spur demand for digital signage solutions.

By Eugene Grygo

IP digital signage projects are on the rise as more businesses want dynamic interactions with customers, prospects and employees. To make the most of a growing market, solution providers must come up to speed on the technology, hone their content delivery skills and focus on the vertical markets they know well.

The global digital signage market will more than triple in size by 2016, according to ABI Research, which predicts that the market will grow from $1.3 billion in 2010 to $4.5 billion in 2016. A drop in the cost and time frame required for these projects has been helping demand.

"The prices of the screens and the overall solution are much more affordable today and the shift in advertising from TV and print to more online and in-house marketing has made digital signage solutions all the more lucrative for our channel partners," says Kevin Prewett, vice president, vendor management, Ingram Micro Digital Signage.

At the same time, end users are more comfortable using a touch screen "whether it is for information or way-finding," Prewett says. "A lot of the demand is led by the growing adoption of smartphones and tablets. People are getting used to the interactivity on the screens."

Yet end users have to be made aware of the digital signage solutions that are available to them, according to Mike Ohren, founder and CEO of MacMan, a solution provider in Eau Claire, Wis. MacMan uses direct marketing and lunch-and-learn sessions where customers are invited to its conference center and introduced to digital signage.

"We have a retail floor of digital signs anywhere from 10 inches to a 92-inch video wall," says Ohren. MacMan offers touch-interactive to nontouch solutions, all sizes of displays, content creation and content management.

Ohren and others note that solution providers must know what clients want and then realistically guide them.

In fact, solution providers must prevent openended situations where customers will be unhappy with the results, notes Dave Sallander, owner and president of Sherlock Systems, a custom computer maker in Buffalo Grove, Ill. Some customers take a "build it and they will come" approach based on false hopes about ad revenue, Sallander says.

"You need to have a heart-to-heart talk with the client and find out what the market will bear regarding ad space," Sallander says. "It's all about enhancing the customers' experiences vs. getting revenue from an ad for somebody else's business inside your business."

Solution providers should also invest in digital signage for themselves to get hands-on experience.

"If you're going to sell it, you better be using it," Ohren says. "This is not something where you can read a spec sheet and say, 'Here it is.' You have to get your hands dirty."

Once solution providers understand their clients' needs, the next step is a site survey.

"Then it's about making sure the products and services you're recommending work together," Prewett says. "That includes the screens, media players, mounts, cables, connectivity, software and services."

Digital Signage 101

A site survey helps solution providers put together a digital signage solution, but it's only a first step. Combining the right elements is a challenge for solution providers because they need in-depth knowledge of the appropriate hardware, software and networking solutions, and the skills for developing and delivering content.

The good news is that digital signage is about collaboration, and solution providers can complete projects by finding partners with complementary skills.

The components of a digital signage project vary from vertical to vertical, depending upon the particular needs of each sector. Solution providers may be asked to create freestanding systems, wall-mounted signs, self-service kiosks, grocery self-checkouts or systems that offer complex services such as printing boarding passes and photos via secure websites.

Some basic elements of a ditial signage solution are almost always required:

  • Screens: Solution providers can choose from a wide range of screens, including LCD, LED, plasma and projection offerings. This variety enables solutions that can be freestanding or wall-mounted and can support high-touch to no-touch interactivity. Most screens need a mounting bracket to secure them to a wall, pole, ceiling or movable cart.
  • Content Support: The screens must support a variety of graphic formats, including JPEG, TIFF and GIF files, PDF, MP4, video, flash, HTML, RSS and television images.
  • Content Control: Solution providers must include mechanisms that let their clients control the display and flow of content to the screen. This means PCs or built-in hardware appliances that run the content on the screen. These PCs or appliances should be managed remotely. A layer of management software will govern devices and data.
  • Connectivity: Solution providers can explore options such as wired and wireless LAN connectivity to mobile devices.

Prewett says successful digital signage projects are more than beautiful screens and flawless installations.

"If a VAR is not incorporating content creation and management into the sale, then they are only selling half the solution and leaving the door open for a competitor to take away the business," he says. Solution providers also have to guide their customers toward relevant, high-quality content. For instance, displaying static PowerPoint slides is not likely to yield compelling ROI.

Expertise in helping deliver a message is paramount for solution providers, says Kevin Griffin, president of BLR Sign Systems, based in Milpitas, Calif. All clients from big corporations to mom-and-pop shops need solution providers that show "an interest in delivering content and messaging," Griffin says. "The right message to the right audience is critical, and knowing what those nuances are is important."

Going Vertical

As they gather digital signage steam, solution providers can choose from many verticals, including retail; hotels and quick-serve restaurants; hospitals and clinics; metro, rail and parking services; airlines, cruise ships and car rental companies; banking and financial services; gaming; city, state and federal governments; schools; and houses of worship.

Solution providers should place their focus on the verticals they have been serving well for many years.

"If you have that relationship with that end user, you're going to know what the hot buttons are for the customer and where digital signage can fit," Prewett says. This knowledge will give incumbent solution providers the edge over new providers attempting to lure away end users with prebaked solutions. "The trusted relationship is more important than having expertise in digital signage—a VAR can always turn to Ingram Micro and the Ingram Micro Services Network for specialized field sales and technical expertise in digital signage," he says.

However, solution providers sometimes have to serve multiple verticals. BLR developed its digital signage business from a large client base in the signage and graphics market, and has diverse deployments.

"We're working on a deal at a large hospital," Griffin says. "We've been in large hotels. We've got a higher education solution under way--a couple of screens but it will likely scale." This year, BLR has been marketing itself in "a more targeted way" to make digital signage a greater percentage of its business.

BLR has been in the digital signage business for four years, but the company spent the first 18 months performing due diligence to understand the market.

Griffin quickly discovered that BLR's content creation strengths transitioned naturally to the digital realm. But he also realized that he would need to partner with IT and audio/visual sector solution providers, which was fortunate because those providers have embraced digital signage in large numbers.

"We absolutely could partner to deliver and that was critical for us. We weren't going to write code. We weren't going to build a better display than Sony or NEC could," Griffin says. BLR has been a fan of best-of-breed partnering ever since.

About the author: Eugene Grygo has been covering IT management issues for 23 years.