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Digital Signage: Ready for Take Off?

The Albany airport in upstate New York, like many airports, offers a great perfect example of the past, present, and perhaps future of signage. Basic, printed wayfinding signage directs passengers to their gates, tells them where to enter and exit lines, and explains the security procedure; at one...


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The Albany airport in upstate New York, like many airports, offers a great perfect example of the past, present, and perhaps future of signage. Basic, printed wayfinding signage directs passengers to their gates, tells them where to enter and exit lines, and explains the security procedure; at one airline’s terminals, old-school channel letters inserted into a display board announce the day’s flights; and throughout the airport, dynamic digital displays update all the arrivals and departures—and, of course, feature advertising.

The airport is not unlike other airports, or in fact many other public spaces, retail establishments, and restaurants. The proliferation of digital signage has, in some cases, replaced conventional printed signage, but more often than not, digital and printed signage exist side-by-side with each other, a situation that most sign industry experts believe will continue indefinitely.

“There are some applications where digital signage is very valuable and brings added benefits for the customer, and there are some applications that don’t make sense at all,” said Catherine Monson, CEO of FastSigns, a visual communications franchise with more than 530 locations worldwide. FastSigns offers extensive educational and training support for its franchisees in all areas of signmaking, and has been integrating digital signage solutions since 2009.

“I think there’ll be a peaceful coexistence [between print and digital signage] forever,” seconded Glenn Feder, Director, Business Development, for the International Sign Association (ISA). Last year, the ISA’s Sign Expo debuted “Dynamic Digital Signage Day,” with a full complement of sessions and tutorials on how traditional signmakers could develop and offer digital signage. Every session sold out. So for this year’s Sign Expo, ISA is expanding Dynamic Digital Signage Day, and the “Dynamic Digital Signage Park” on the show floor is 25 percent larger.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest drivers of the fast development and proliferation of digital signage has been the dramatic drop in price and weight of the displays themselves. Where once screens weighed a ton and cost a fortune, today, lightweight and inexpensive screens have become the norm, even at the commercial display level. (A consumer-level display—like an LCD TV you’d buy in Best Buy—would not be able to support the constant uptime a digital sign requires.)

However, the display is only one part of a digital signage solution. Another is the software and hardware running the content that physically gets displayed. To pipe content to a display, you need media player software running on a server or some other device either wired or connected wirelessly to the display. Content needs to be formatted for a given player, and the player needs to be compatible with the display. Some displays have built-in players, some don’t. And the questions don’t end there. How do you update digital sign content? Remotely over the Internet? Locally from a USB drive? And how often? What about tech support: whose responsibility is it to monitor and maintain uptime? Who is responsible for fixing signs that go down? And how? Do signmakers need to offer service contracts? How many even want to get involved in that?

There are many questions and much confusion when it comes to digital signage. As a result, digital signage has by default become the purview of A/V professionals, at least for high-volume deployments like airports, fast food restaurants, digital billboards, and other large-scale applications. Smaller companies like commercial printers and even traditional signmakers have been leery of trying to navigate the sea of vendors and options, and figuring out how to develop content for digital, let alone how to make money doing any of these things.

“My general impression is that signmakers were confused about how to put together a digital signage solution, intimidated by the technology, and even thought they had to learn all new motion graphics software and Adobe Premiere,” said Rick Scrimger, president of Roland DGA Corp. But, he added, “a lot of these are very simple menu boards and static signs like they design today, but they rotate through a bunch of different things to catch the customer’s attention or tell a story in a different way.” In other words, digital signage doesn’t have to be that much different from static signage.

“Digital Sign In a Box”

To help cut through a lot of the confusion, last year at the ISA Sign Expo, Roland—known for its wide-format printing systems and no stranger to traditional sign shops—had pre-announced a digital signage solution that aimed to help print signmakers explore digital signage options. The company used that initial announcement to glean customer feedback and tweak the offering, and at this year’s Sign Expo officially announced the Roland DisplayStudio digital signage solution. Essentially, DisplayStudio is a “digital sign in a box,” and includes the nuts-and-bolts of what companies need to get started in digital signage: production software, a media player, and a choice of high-resolution commercial-grade LCD displays ranging from 32 to 55 inches (including mounting hardware). The cost of DisplayStudio ranges from $1,600 to $2,900, depending primarily on the size of the screen. There is also a less expensive “BYOD” (“bring your own display”) option, consisting of just the software and media player, that brings the cost down to about $1,000. The goal is to make digital sign development as easy as using iTunes.

“The key thing is software to build playlists, much like you’d build a playlist in iTunes,” says Scrimger. “Whether it’s a movie file, a JPEG, a PDF, or a PowerPoint, you can quickly drop content into a playlist and publish it to a display. One of the key things we’re doing with our solution is we’re helping people get into this business, and wrap Roland support around it.”

New Opportunities

That a printer manufacturer is getting involved in digital signage is telling, and is perhaps representative of the added value that traditional signmakers can bring to customers who want to get into the digital signage space: complementary and supplementary static signage, as well as the attention to aesthetic detail that graphic communications professionals can offer.

“If you look at the total opportunity, there’s tremendous growth for the sign companies even if they lose some of the traditional signage along the way,” said ISA’s Feder. “Some of it will end up being complementary to each other, some will be replaced, and there is a big upside on bigger revenue opportunities and a chance to better serve your customer by moving onto this new sector.”

“An A/V professional thinks, ‘We’ll put a screen up, it’ll be in the cloud, you’ll have all this content, it’ll be great,’” said Scrimger. “Signmakers think, ‘Let’s not just put a screen up, let’s think about a digital print around the whole thing on the wall that speaks to, or is in harmony with, what is on the display.’ Signmakers and commercial printers think a lot of the time about readable, legible fonts and color combinations of text on certain backgrounds that make it impactful. Signmakers will think a lot more creatively like that and deliver something that is more integrated or aesthetically pleasing. It’s not just a TV on a wall.”

Understanding what complements digital signage also goes hand in hand with understanding what applications make sense for digital signage—and which don’t.

“What’s very suitable for digital signage are areas where customers and prospects have dwell time and you want to update or even day-part the messages based on who is walking by typically in that part of the day,” said FastSigns’ Monson. The types of people you find in a shopping mall, for example, will vary over the course of a day; early  or mid-morning shoppers have a very different demographic profile than an after-school crowd. Being able to easily tailor signage to appeal to those different demographics can have a great deal of value.

Signage That Makes Sense—and Cents

Although large retail locations, fast food joints, and airports like Albany—or bigger—are the emblematic venues for digital signage, for the average commercial, quick, or sign printer, the real opportunities lie further downstream.

“We could see much greater growth [in digital signage] as these deployments move from the large scale to the small and medium—local and regional—area, because that market is most likely untapped at this point,” said ISA’s Feder. “That’s where we see the sign companies coming in and playing a major role.”

Small and mid-sized local businesses—printers’ primary customers anyway—are a vast, untapped market for digital sign solutions.

“Commercial printers who have a wide-format department could easily get into this,” said Scrimger. “A lot of the bigger pro A/V digital signage guys are going after airports and a thousand screens in a quick-serve restaurant chain.” The opportunity, as Scrimger sees it, for Roland and for small to mid-size commercial printers, is “to target those small and medium businesses that need one display at their reception desk to tell their corporate story. There are a lot of small businesses that are largely being ignored.”

There is of course the perpetual issue of how to make money with digital signage. Return on investment (ROI) is always a nebulous concept and is notoriously variable from company to company—or even from month to month at the same company. “In any marketing situation, calculating ROI is never easy,” said Monson. FastSigns helps its franchisees not just with the technology, but also with extensive sales and marketing support. “You would put in your total cost of operating the digital sign system vs. your total cost of implementing static signage and how often you update it. And you would have to have a good way of measuring your sales lift.”

Moving into digital signage is not going to be a fast process; it’s going to take some due diligence, and a great deal of education. “A lot of folks move in this direction because it’s sexy to do,” said Feder, “but the more time you put in up front understanding what your objectives are, and how you will measure them, means you will deploy a system that will have long-term benefits to your organization.”

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign...

Whether—and how much—digital signage cannibalizes print sign work remains to be seen, but either way, it’s worth investigating. 

“Let’s say it’s going to take some portion of print,” said Scrimger. “Do you want to eat your own lunch or do you want it eaten for you? Do you want to be a part of that cannibalization, or do you want someone to take it from you? You have to decide how to participate.” The printing industry is no stranger to cannibalization from digital media, after all. Scrimger suggested a good place to start is to use it for their own businesses before offering it as a service. “Every commercial printer, every signmaker, should have a digital sign in their shop, so that when someone walks onto get print services they look up at the display while they’re waiting—‘I didn’t know that you did wide-format, or could wrap a vehicle,” he said. “If they realize the benefits, it’s easier to convey those benefits to someone else.”

“He who installs the digital signage and /or he who provides the content for digital signage is also probably going to be supplying static signage around it,” said Monson. “It’s an offensive and defensive play.”

 “We fundamentally believe that signmakers that are providing channel letters, indoor graphics, window graphics, and vehicle wraps can also provide a digital sign,” said Scrimger. “There is no reason why that same customer couldn’t come to them for everything they need in the signage world.”

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