Heeding the Digital Signpost Up Ahead

Positioning your company in the emerging digital signage market is about much more than buying some screens and plugging them in. Entering this segment requires careful planning and a wealth of knowledge.

While some of the visual communication skills required are similar to those you mastered long ago, you’ll likely need to gain greater expertise through industry association-sponsored seminars and other means. You may also have to hire the young technical and design talent familiar with both digital and static signage to lead you into the digital promised land.

Some argue the chasm between print and digital is steadily shrinking, and there will come a day soon when it will be totally blurred. PSPs must be ready when that day comes.

Digital is entering retail in store, says Phil Lazo, director of innovation with Rocktenn Merchandising Displays. “It has some powerful features and ability to deliver rich media to shoppers at the point of purchase,” he says. “Rich media means a higher level of information in the form of movies, stills, changing stills and promotional campaigns that could change virtually instantly.”

Digital signage has the capability of informing shoppers about product choices, but also carries with it a “wow factor” at the point of purchase that engages consumers and helps drive sales, Lazo points out.

This capacity has helped pique the interest of both advertisers and signmakers, say experts. “We certainly see a lot of interest in the digital signage market,” says Rich Gottwald, executive vice president of the International Sign Association (ISA). “We’re getting questions from our members and we’re also sponsoring webinars and seminars that do very well. This technology is going to be another technology for traditional sign manufacturers. We don’t see it doing away with existing technology.”

In discussions with experts in the field, the ISA is hearing that what is displayed will become just as important as how it is displayed. Ongoing content generation and content maintenance will be a key to profitability.

Providers will differentiate themselves on capabilities. One area of sales and profit will be installation, another content generation and maintenance, which will require a different skill set than what current sign makers possess.

“People will want new messages all the time,” Gottwald says. “It won’t be a matter of putting it up and leaving it up for a few weeks or a month. If you have this technology, there would be no reason to do that. Content will have to change regularly. And the providers could position themselves to do that.”

The technology is becoming more interactive. In its simplest form, a user touches a screen and gains directions. On the far more sophisticated side of the ledger, a sign recognizes the age and gender of a person walking past and generates a message to that individual.

The Learning Curve

What will PSPs need to learn to enter the digital signage market? They’ll have to learn a lot, says Bill Collins, principal with DecisionPoint Media Insights.

In printing, PSPs must know inks, materials, and techniques. In digital signage, they must be knowledgeable about the differences between LED, LCD, plasma, and electronic inks, and which are most appropriate for different sizes, applications and locations. “For instance, they need to understand the implications of ambient light on these different technologies,” Collins says.

Gaining this insight isn’t rocket science. “It’s remarkably similar to what they’re already familiar with,” Collins says. “They are in the business of visual communication. It’s not too much of a stretch for them to understand the basic principal of communicating, using sound and motion imagery in a public venue.”

At one time, back in the pre-digital era, the world of printing static graphics and the world of sound and motion were very different worlds, akin to the difference between the newspaper and the television. But with the development of graphic communication tools, designers who live in both worlds aren’t hard to find. “It’s blurred now,” Collins says. “Those typically young designers, many in their 20s, can be recruited to do both kinds of work. They can be put on staff, or hired on an as-needed contract basis.”

Because many PSPs who enter digital signage will continue to work on static signage, they will need to have designers and production people who can deliver both, Collins says. Ten years from now, the distinctions between digital and print signage will be a thing of the past, as these “digital natives” become owners of their own shops, Collins says.

According to Lazo, PSPs will have to become thoroughly familiar with the elements of digital display. The technology platform of the screens, motion sensing and network, as well as the content itself, are all key ingredients that create a seamless experience at point of purchase, he says. Print aspects of the display are fundamental, as well. “The goals are to drive traffic, drive dwell (the shopper stops in front of the retail display) and drive sales,” Lazo says.

Getting up to speed, he adds, will entail developing key technology associations with partners skilled in the hardware and content aspects. Those partnerships are necessary because “this is not something that can yet be vertically integrated within the organization,” Lazo says. “It’s important to have partners who specialize in this market. There are partners specializing in electronic digital signage specific to the retail marketplace, in terms of screen reliability, battery life, and the motion sensors that activate the media.”

When dealing with complex digital signage systems featuring connected screens, it’s important to collaborate early with the brand, retail provider, and display provider, Lazo stresses. “Getting a retailer and brand involved early in the process, so it can approve the look and feel of the point-of-purchase experiences, is important in avoiding having to go back to the drawing board,” he says.

Also essential is designing an experience that looks and feels integrated, Lazo says. “Don’t ignore your content until the last minute,” he adds. “Think about it early, about how long it plays on the screen and how well it’s integrated. With the emerging digital world, content is king.”

Marketing Your Capabilities

For those PSPs already servicing static sign clients, the best market will be their existing customer base, Gottwald says. “[Clients] are likely to ask their current providers whether they can offer the new technology,” he reports. “If they can’t, the end user will go to someone who can provide the digital, and it’s likely they will shift their static signage to that new provider as well.”

As a result, ISA is encouraging its members to learn as much as possible by taking advantage of the education in digital signage it offers. At SignExpo in late March, ISA will have a full track dedicated to this topic. It will focus on topics ranging from basics of the technology to partnering with technology providers.

Collins also believes existing customers will be the best prospects. Those relationships already exist, and PSPs can leverage them to their advantage.

“I would not go out and chase other digital signage business beyond my base, at first,” he says. “You know what colors, what messaging works for existing clients in print, so you’re halfway there. The colors and messaging you do in digital will have to complement what you’re doing in print.”

Concluding Thoughts

Two franchised operations that have really “cracked this nut,” Collins says, are SignsNow and FastSigns. A minority of each company’s sign shops offer digital signage. But both companies have well-developed programs that allow individual franchisees to get involved in digital signage if they wish.

The heavy lifting to produce the digital content is provided through each organization’s central office, helping ensure that individual sign shops can offer work that doesn’t look amateurish and boasts excellent production values.

“I’d encourage any wide-format imaging professional who wants to get into sound and motion to study what FastSigns and SignsNow are doing, because they’ve spent a lot of time and effort perfecting their models,” Collins says.

For his part, Gottwald reports the ISA is well aware that the sign-making industry tends to be somewhat slower to adopt new technology.

“What we’re encouraging is that they be open-minded to the new technologies, and show a willingness to learn,” he says. “Those who will succeed are those who can incorporate this technology into their current line of offerings. Again, we don’t see this replacing static signs, which will always be around. We see it as an additional offering that will be crucial to success.”