Eyeing EMCs

Studying the latest in EMC technology and the sign maker's role

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There are good reasons why everyone can read the “E” at the top of the eye doctor’s chart. First, it’s the biggest, most prominent letter on the diagram. Typically, it doesn’t even require a pair of corrective lenses to identify its shape.

Similarly, to see high-impact, educational messaging, people should not have to squint. If they do, the message probably won’t be very effective, and the viewer will quickly lose interest. On the eye chart of signage, E might represent Electronic Message Centers. These brightly lit, larger than life LED-illuminated signs typically come with large spaces for scrolling messages and advertising, as well as a solid and noticeable structure to emphasize the content, and serve as standalone structures that make them nearly impossible to miss in their environments.

Along with these characteristics, in general, EMCs have become more advanced, more versatile, and easier to use. 

“EMCs come in a variety of sizes, resolutions and configurations that can benefit any business or organization,” says Ben Barr, regional sales manager, Watchfire Signs, “LED displays offer a vibrant advertising method for drawing in customers or targeted audiences within proximity to a location.”

Because of these qualities, EMCs are being used in a variety of different ways, and in many more venues than ever before.

EMCs in Action

In past years, one might only see a message center at a highly trafficked location; now they are popping up in many places.

“LED displays are growing in popularity in many business verticals and industries,” suggests Paul Hughes, national sales manager, ThinkSign Inc., Louisville, Kentucky. “You can cover a building with LED mesh, you can show high resolution content and videos now, but we’ve seen a large increase in the number of businesses purchasing EMCs for their on-premise advertising. The ROI is tremendous because of the exposure to customers and the attention it brings.”

The list of potential homes for EMCs continues to grow.

“Financial institutions, (convenience) stores, retailers, restaurants, healthcare entities, municipalities, car washes, storage, houses of worship, and nonprofits,” recites Jess Bern, a strategic marketing manager for Daktronics Inc., Brookings, South Dakota. “Virtually any organization with the desire to display promotions to increase sales or attendance at events is a great customer for an EMC.”

“The old days of the scrolling lightbulb marquee are behind us,” says Barr. “Instead of a single scrolling, looping sentence, now an array of messaging can be delivered to the audience. Modern LED signs display messaging with the same style as a television or print ad. Not only a more attractive display of information, but also more efficient, allowing for an increased volume of messaging.”

And users say that having the flexibility to instantly change the content makes all the difference in the world. It increases awareness, provides relevant information, and helps generate revenue all at the same time.   

“Content is the direct path to consumer engagement; it needs to be compelling,” tells Bern. “Owners should drive their ROI, not just manage a display. Fresh, attractive messages following best practice guidelines require planning. They should brainstorm what they’d like to feature on the display for the next 12 months.”

Factors in Play

Just like virtually anything nowadays, there are options aplenty and many factors come into play. A number of features in EMCs impact performance and price. Customers have their work cut out for them before they even decide to install these signs.  

* Full-Color Versus One-Color-“Single-color displays are quickly losing value as full-color message centers become less expensive,” says Hughes. “What used to be a 50 percent differential is now more like 20 percent. Why limit yourself to a single color over a 20 percent cost?”

Of course, users will want to talk about costs when evaluating display color and other related features. Bern has a set of questions to ponder when these choices arise.

“There are many things to consider when deciding between full-color versus monochrome displays,” she begins. “What are the signage regulations for the end-user’s area? Do they want to run pictures and graphics of their services or products? Full-color displays add more impact with exceptional graphics and text. Graphics and imagery increase memory recall-make sure your customer understands that. If they are primarily interested in running text messages, a monochrome display could work for their application.”

* Life Expectancy-In any situation, it always seems so morbid to discuss the finality of something that has so much life. But the reality is that signage does not last forever. On the bright side, EMCs will exude plenty of worth before their days are up.

“A variety of factors will affect the life expectancy of a sign,” Barr explains. “The quality of components used to make the EMC have a direct effect on the longevity of the sign in the field. A five-year warranty for most signs will ensure that the product is kept in operation and functioning well. With the use of quality components, highly trained service personnel and the availability of replacement parts, some signs have operated for a decade or more.”

Ten years seems to be the default answer when electronic sign experts are pressed to give an actual number, but what Barr says is valid-the display’s life is dependent upon the parts and maintenance that is put into it, and the general usage of the sign.    

“The real answer (of life expectancy) is difficult because of many factors,” says Hughes. “LEDs are produced, packaged, tested, and categorized by quality and consistency. You can expect to get what you pay for. The best LEDs can be expected to achieve their half-life of brightness at 10 years, but content also drives degradation. The more white content presented to the LEDs themselves, the faster they will degrade. White drives all three colors at max voltage. We equate it to driving your car at 6,000 RPMs.  Content over time affects lifespan. For that reason, we suggest customers limit or manage the amount of white used. You can also extend the life of the sign by using the scheduling feature built into our software. Have the sign automatically turn off during off-peak hours or middle of the night.”

* Budgeting-As mentioned previously, the question of price is one that’s always bound to arise. Sign users are ever-conscious of their budgets, but they know that quality and value sometimes come at a cost.

“Think of a digital display as an investment for your customer to grow their business, not as a capital expense,” says Bern. “They’ll attract customers with messages when they can turn into the parking lot to buy-unlike TV, radio, and newspaper ads. Running a digital display will cost less than the customer may think.”

Bern continues by explaining that customers can finance the display if they don’t have the funds to purchase it upfront, and then recuperate their monthly expenses by running ads on the display. As a suggestion, Barr lays out a financing model for EMC customers.

“Businesses should consider, and budget for, dynamic displays within their marketing and advertising budget,” he states. “They could consider an investment starting at $20,000, which would be just over $300 invested monthly, or around $12 per day, over a five-year period.” 

And as experts in this field, sign shops should lend their advice to customers if they have questions about the details. 

“In an on-premise scenario,” Hughes starts, “we suggest calling a local signage partner to assist in finding out the maximum square footage allowed. We find square footage to be the most limiting factor to budgets. Once that is identified, comparing resolution options is easy.”

Barr agrees by saying, “A site analysis and zoning ordinance review would allow for better assessment on what should be allocated for the application and budgets.”

* Maintenance and Management-To start, “Proper installation is a must,” says Hughes. “Proper power, ventilation and grounding are crucial to a long LED sign life. With those confirmed, your focus should be on how to best present your message to your audience. Every business and environment is unique, so the sky is the limit.”

Being a sign maker means being accountable for the sign’s functionality after setting it up for the end user.

“As the sign provider, you are responsible for installing the display and getting it up and running for the customer,” says Bern. “Some manufacturers offer installation support to assist you. After that, you can rely on the LED sign manufacturer to provide the customer software training, content best practices, and continued education to ensure they get the most out of their new dynamic advertising technology.”

Providing follow-up calls is also a good practice for sign shops to show they are committed to clients and care about the quality of their offerings.

“You also need a plan to provide continued service for that customer,” Bern continues. “With some LED sign manufacturers, you can handle service yourself, or lean on the manufacturer to handle service. Look for manufacturers that provide a product warranty, local support reps, access to parts, a help desk, as well as online support and manuals to guide you when you need assistance.”

Embracing Advancements

“Technology advances quickly,” says Hughes, “and LED technology is no exception,”. “Demand for higher resolution displays is increasing. Just a few years ago, the choice was between 25mm and 20mm pixel spacing, and today it leans more toward 16mm or 10mm. Higher pixel density means higher resolutions, and there are fewer limitations when it comes to content, adding value to businesses.”

Speaking of content, that’s the component that EMC customers rely on to ultimately generate revenue from the sign. Without great content, the entire signage project is sunk.

“Today’s LED signs are capable of more flexible programming that can optimize how sign owners advertise,” explains Barr. “With the latest, most efficient software on the market, sign content can be programmed years in advance, and updated in minutes in response to changing market conditions. Today’s content management software integrates with social media feeds for maximum advertising impact.”

The software piece is what drives the content to the screen and allows for adjustable, customized messaging.

“As for software, users want a great experience,” says Bern. “They are looking for more cloud-based software options that enable them to operate the display anytime, anywhere, using any internet-connected device-smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops. Content packages created by professional digital artists add to a good software experience.”

This all goes back to having a sharp, reliable platform in which to display the content. With so many individuals accustomed to seeing high-quality images on one of any number of devices-as Bern explained-signage must also keep pace.

“Content is king,” Barr begins. “As outdoor LED sign technology evolves with tighter pixel pitches, the resolution available in the same available square footage increases. Higher resolution signs mean higher resolution content. More often the high-resolution source imagery used in television and print markets is finding a home on LED signs.”

“Most on-premise signage is still a relatively small matrix compared to consumers’ expectations,” Hughes says. “A ‘high resolution’ 5 x 10-foot EMC is still only a matrix of 160 x 320; so often existing ads, images, or messages need to be adjusted before presenting to your audience. There are professional graphic artists who can assist.”

Calling All Newcomers

For those who may never have dabbled in the EMC market, there is certainly an entrance point. As things continue to progress in the market, even those who are electronic signage experts must be re-educated.

“It is an emerging market, and there are literally thousands of providers from around the world,” Hughes says. “We advise those new to the product to partner with a UL-listed, FCC-verified domestic manufacturer, and get engaged with them as a partner. Ask for training for sales staff, installation, and allow them to assist with your project installations. You need a domestic partner when selling EMCs for quick and easy support.”

The manufacturers themselves can make for great resources in this area of the industry. As Bern explains, “Take the time to educate yourself on the differences in manufacturing processes between LED sign providers. Request a tour of their manufacturing facility. Ask where their parts originate from and how they manage their supply chain. Another good question is what standards they test their products to. Understand that in this market, as many others, you get what you pay for.”

Barr echoes that statement, suggesting that it’s a wise idea to consult with those who are intimately involved with the processing of the EMC parts and components. If sign makers have a professional partner to lean on, it makes things that much easier.

“Finding a manufacturer who understands every aspect of their product will help sign shops enter into the LED signage market,” Barr says. “Training on the installation and operation of EMCs is crucial to helping sign shops sell them, and service them after the sale. Sign makers should ask EMC manufacturers questions about service after the sale, warranties, the ability to obtain replacement parts, compliance with US governmental standards, and the history of their products in the field.”

With the proper guidance, and as their experience begins to build, EMC offerings will come as easy to sign makers as spotting that “E” on the infamous eye chart. 

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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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