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Digital Signage Requires Advanced Skills—But Not Necessarily the Ones You Would Expect

Once upon a time, if you wanted to deploy a digital signage solution, you needed to seek out a professional with the technological prowess to integrate the hardware and software components of the system. As we saw in last month’s installment of this ongoing monthly series devoted to dynamic digital signage (DDS), traditional sign shops have been gradually incorporating DDS solutions into their offerings for customers, and integrating those digital deployments with traditional signage. But resistance still abounds, and a good portion of that resistance is due to the fear factor.

IT’s Hard?

There is the sense that DDS requires a higher degree of IT skill than most shops are wont to possess. However, it’s not necessarily true that you need an advanced degree in computer science to offer and deploy a digital signage system. For some, all it really requires is a high degree of comfort around computers and technology, and an ability and willingness to learn from experience. On the other hand, if you’re one of those people whose VCRs were always flashing “12:00” because you couldn’t figure out how to program the clock—or if you are one of those people who still have a VCR—outsourcing DDS deployment or hiring the right staff may be a better strategy for you.

There are twin perceptions at work. On the one hand, many end customers underestimate the complexity of digital signage. “People think that a digital sign is just a computer hooked up to a TV and it’s just playing back video,” said Levi Stutzman, consultant and digital signage specialist for FastSigns Erie-PA. “In a sense, that’s exactly what it is. But once you throw in being able to a schedule content or just remotely access and push new content to the player, it becomes incredibly complex.”

On the other hand, providers of print and other static signage often overestimate the complexity of DDS, and get scared away from it. “Not everybody understands computers, not everybody understands networking, and not everybody feels they can sell TVs,” Stutzman said. “It’s an intimidation factor. It’s the same as when you first jump into a design program like Photoshop or Illustrator. It looks really scary because you don’t what all the buttons are.”

Like learning a graphics program, taking things one step at a time is the best way to accumulate knowledge about DDS. Stutzman didn’t go to school for computer science or IT, and has acquired his knowledge base on the job through experience and trial-and-error. He learned the nuances of DDS in discrete steps, starting with a basic plug-and-play system. “It was a matter of, I design this here, I put it on a thumbdrive, I put it on the computer, I understand that,” he said. “I understand the player.” Then, he took a step forward and learned how to work with a remote management system, then how to schedule content, how to pull variable data and RSS feeds, and so on. Before long, he knew pretty much how everything worked.

As with most things, a hands-on approach is the best way to learn. “There’s only so much knowledge you can gain away from the product,” said Stutzman. Initially, FastSigns-Erie was working with DDS systems that a third party had set up. “Once we actually went and did our first [DDS deployment], I learned so much more. It’s funny the questions I asked two years ago and how easily I can answer them now. The best way to learn it is by doing it.”

You’ve Got Your Troubles, I’ve Got Yours...

Anyone who has been around computers or technology for any length of time knows all too well that most of the time you’re troubleshooting. So, too, with digital signage. A key skill is not necessarily setting up new deployments, but solving problems and other “tech support” tasks. This doesn’t mean you need to be able to write code, but understanding overall how everything in the system works can help pinpoint problems when they arise. Is the computer itself defective and thus needs to go back to the manufacturer? Does a cable need to be replaced? Is there an errant software setting? Is the power on? “It saves a lot of time having the basic knowledge of how the entire system works,” said Stutzman, “and how monitors work, and how computers work.” Still, he added, “you have to have a good balance between not wasting your time learning how to do everything, but still having enough knowledge to be able to point to the right spot if something needs to be fixed.”

Long Live the King

While another aspect of the DDS knowledge base is selecting the right components in the first place, at the end of the day it can be more than that. “I always want to sell people a good physical product,” said Stutzman. “A screen that’s not going to crash after six months, a computer that’s not going to overheat and break down every couple of weeks.” “In the end,” he said, “I want my content to be what sells it.”

And that, he said, is often the crux of the matter. “Everybody says content is king, and that’s true, but it’s often the last thing people think of because of the intimidation factor of the hardware. We see how complex hardware is. That’s where a lot of people are scared away.”

For companies that can acquire this knowledge base, digital signage offers a unique opportunity to enhance a shop’s relationship with its customers. With static signage, it’s often a simple, mechanical output process, but digital signage helps foster a far deeper, more meaningful relationship. “With our biggest digital signage deployment, it really brought us so much closer to our now-biggest customer,” said Stutzman. “They’ve come to see us as industry experts. We were already experts on static signage, but they now see us as technology experts.”

The signage industry—like much of printing—has been constantly changing, from the advent of computers in the 1980s, to wide-format printers and plotters in the 1990s, to flatbeds in the 2000s, and now to digital signs in the 2010s. “Digital signage will be that next industry changer,” said Stutzman. While sign companies don’t necessarily have to adopt digital signage, they do themselves a disservice if they ignore it. “It adds so much more value to you as a company.”