Delivering Digitally

Creating effective content for a digital signage configuration

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Sign makers today are increasingly becoming involved with digital signage-not only to provide the physical elements, such as hardware and displays, but also to generate the content that appears on the screen. It’s not always the easiest undertaking; however, it can be a game-changer when an attractive display is running compelling content. And sign designers are in a good position to do just that.

“Regardless of whether a designer is laying out a static billboard or a digital display, the skill is creating a visually compelling message that connects,” says Ryan Cahoy, managing director, Rise Vision, a digital content management company in Toronto, Canada.

Targeted Messaging

Cahoy says that the “less-is-more” model is the best practice when creating digital signage content. It is easy to be lured into throwing every possible element onto your screen, but it is probably best to make sure that the message is clear.

“A skilled designer recognizes that they need to use as few words as possible and with digital they have the opportunity to use subtle movement or animation to help draw eyes to the display,” Cahoy says. “So, there may be a little ongoing education about the technology to do animation, but a good designer or graphic artist can absolutely move into digital.”

It’s important to keep in mind how a viewer will consume the digital message. For instance, how much time will they have before they move away from the sign?

“Make sure the content fits the format,” offers Jody Smith, product manager at digital signage solutions provider Broadsign. “For example, it’s best not to display a text-heavy print ad on a highway-side billboard where the audience might only see it for three seconds.”

Jay Saret, business development manager for digital signage equipment distributor Almo Professional A/V, refers to this as “dwell time”-the length of time that a viewer allows himself or herself to be captivated by the sign. If the message can fit into this time-which is usually a small window-and be effective, then it has done its job.

“How long is the customer going to look at the screen?” Saret asks. “The content should be created based on the average amount of time it will be viewed. If it’s in an elevator or at a point in a line for a theme park ride, and the viewer is only going to see the screen for 20 to 30 seconds, then the content should be created with that time span in mind.”

Relevant Content

Of course, along with understanding your dwell time, it’s just as important to fill that time with relevant messaging. This could factor in elements like the environment or location.

“Include relevant, useful information to make the content helpful as well as informative,” suggests Smith. “A great example of this is a Virgin train ad comparing the amount of time it would take to arrive to a destination by car and by train. It’s a simple idea, but it’s informative and effective.”

Another question to ponder: Are demographics relevant to each specific message? In other words, should a message be tailored to reach different audience sets? And furthermore, are there useful tactics to attract those viewers who might be more comfortable with digital applications than others?

“Incorporate social data and user-driven content,” advises Smith. “Getting the consumer involved in the ad helps increase awareness, viral potential, recall, etc. Keep in mind that when doing this, it’s important to ensure that the platform used has moderation included.”

Because of the constant interaction that results from social media applications, involving this kind of content in a digital sign should enhance viewers’ experience. For the content provider, this is not only effective but also relatively simple to implement.

“You could argue that using social media is a form of content automation as it is a steady stream of new and fresh content that is relevant to a specific college or hash tag,” Cahoy says.

Content Applied

Today, digital signage applications can be found in almost any location imaginable. If there are crowds to reach, a digital sign is a suitable solution.

“Any location where digital signage can provide useful information to someone on the go is always helpful,” says Smith, citing malls, entertainment venues, and other high-traffic areas as viable locations.

And with this type of signage on the rise, it is becoming more prevalent in previously untapped areas. “I think we are seeing signage pop up in nearly every environment and new and creative uses are surfacing every day,” Cahoy says, pointing to projects that he has recently executed. “At Rise we do a lot with education, so in the context of those users I think content automation is important to help keep screens fresh-in the business school, automating to show live financial quotes-in the hallways, tying into an event management system-or for donor walls, tying into a managed listing of donors to ensure the content is always correct.”

Two Kinds of Content

Saret categorizes the content for digital signage applications into two groups.

The first is “Dynamic Content,” that should be “tied to a pre-existing content platform, and is automatically being updated, such as weather, news, sports or social media,” he explains. “It could also be content that’s specific to the venue that is being changed by the company, such as product specials or promotions at a fast food restaurant or clothing store.”

This type of messaging allows for remote changes that correspond with business decisions such as inventory control or other variable conditions.

The second group is “Content Tied to the Goal of Digital Signage,” which is content that “should address the questions of why the screen is going up as well as where its being placed,” Saret says.

In most instances, the type of content that is delivered to the screen will depend on the client’s preferences and situational circumstances.

What’s on the Market

For sign makers involved in content for digital signage, it is important to know what solutions are available and how to properly employ them.

“There are premise-based solutions that require proprietary software and someone onsite to make changes,” Saret says. “Or a customer can choose cloud-based solutions, which allow the screen content to be changed from any device with an Internet connection. Finally, slide show/data driven content is created with images and slides without the need to know Photoshop or PowerPoint.”

Oftentimes, the surroundings of the sign will determine which set-up is most feasible. A single screen in a small convenience store may run a looping video promotion, whereas a multi-display configuration at a professional sports arena will likely receive customized data from a host.

“Users still run a wide range (of solutions), from just putting in a thumb drive or using PowerPoint to loop to cloud-hosted, to having a premise-built system,” Cahoy says. “If you look at the landscape of software providers, the vast majority have keyed in on providing hosted services. Most customers don’t want the cost and complexity to manage their own servers and infrastructure and want to leave that to experts that have a robust architecture that is 99.9 percent reliable and protected against hackers and attacks.”

Technology and ease-of-use is pushing the content management of digital signage toward hosted solutions. This type of set up takes the burden off the sign owner and allows professional content providers to handle the load.  

“The beauty in this situation is that you don’t need someone on staff to handle this-it can be outsourced by a third-party provider with expertise in this area,” Saret says. “The expert should be able to offer a range of content-from basic templates to full customization-depending on the customer’s need.”

“Additionally, web-based hosted solutions also provide better access to content that can update such as news, weather, social media, etc. and their template libraries are always growing with new fresh designs and ideas,” Cahoy says.

No matter the configuration, there is a tremendous opportunity for sign makers to get involved with digital signage-and the management of content-as electronic displays are becoming more popular than ever before.

“Fact: if you are hanging screens, you should be providing the content for those screens,” Saret says. “Because if you don’t, someone else will and you are leaving money on the table.”

Putting it Together

Recall the first example of the school with a digital wall for learning purposes. It’s not a surprise that younger individuals are learning to interact with this technology given all that is available in today’s society, Cahoy says, “At Rise, the biggest growth we have seen is in education. From K through 12 to higher education, schools are utilizing technology to engage students and keep them informed.”

But that’s not the only use of digital signage content. Messages that are run can also become money makers for both small to large businesses.

“For big brand advertising, content is done by agencies using industry-standard tools from Adobe or the like,” explains Smith. “For smaller scale messaging, tools like Broadsign Publish can allow small businesses to mix in their messaging quickly using editable templates that allow them to create compelling, animated, great looking content without any design skill.”

Businesses with digital signage will likely look to offset their investment through some sort of advertising piece, but it’s important to balance that out with other elements.

“Monetization through advertising works in high-traffic areas with a desirable demographic,” says Cahoy, though he warns that there may also be drawbacks. “That means giving up some of the space on a screen to an advertiser. The key is to understand the goal and the objective of the display. I think the vast majority of displays installed focus on ROO (return on objective).”

Perhaps the best scenario is to create a mix of informative content with advertising if the intent is to generate dollars. Though, viewers tend to tune the message out if it’s a hard sales pitch. Instead of sacrificing screen space for traditional advertising, users should research more creative ways to add to the bottom line.

“I highly discourage anyone selling the concept of getting ROI based on advertising,” says Saret. “The best way to monetize the content is by tying it to a call to action so it can be tracked. It’s really about getting the right message to the right audience at the right time.”

Since there is more freedom to customize a digital sign versus a static sign, users are wise to take advantage of this benefit. Sign makers can act as a consultant to their customers and offer up advice on how to use the sign most effectively.

“Customization is a great way to increase relevance,” Smith shares. “This can be done by intended audience or through using external data to customize messaging to match different conditions.”

Smith cites an example he has seen with the Berlin-based food delivery service foodora, that ran a campaign that was tied to the weather. Customers were encouraged to order food for delivery during rainy periods and asked to pick up orders when it was sunny.

“You don’t need to have the same message going out all the time,” suggests Smith, “so it’s worth putting some thought into how targeted variety might be useful.”

For sign makers involved in digital signage, take a look at the content aspect of the display. It could be one more piece to add to your offerings. And the applications seem to be limitless.

Ryan Fugler

Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine and has been covering the signage industry since 2006.

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