October 27, 2017
By Peter Saunders
The overall medium of digital signage can be thought of as an ‘ecosystem,’ with multiple key elements that interact with each other, from hardware and connectivity to software and content. It is important from the start to identify these elements and make a detailed plan, so as to avoid making the following common mistakes that can cost time and money.
1. Not understanding the elements of digital signage
Every digital signage system comprises all of the following stand-alone elements in one form or another. If any of these is ignored, it can become
a weak link in the chain.
In addition to the displays themselves, hardware for a digital signage network includes screen enclosures, mounts, media players and components for extending audiovisual (AV) and data signals from the players to the screens.
The software for controlling digital signage ranges from single-purchase licensed applications—which are loaded onto or integrated into media players—to remotely hosted Software as a Service (SaaS) options.
‘Connectivity’ generally refers to the cabling between the media players and the screens across a digital signage network, which may be dedicated or shared with other applications. It distributes data, video, audio and serial control signals (e.g. for turning screens on and off and to support touch-screen interactivity).
Cabling is particularly important in contributing to the performance of digital signage. If the screens are far away from the source(s) of their content, then additional extensions or network switching equipment may be needed. And for screens in out-of-the way areas without network drops, wireless connectivity may be the only option.
One of the most easily overlooked elements of digital signage when getting started is the creation of content. There are a few options to consider, including the use of in-house services and/or outsourcing content creation to a specialized agency, the choice of which will depend on the client’s needs, goals and budget.
The catch-all term ‘operations’ encompasses everything needed to get digital signage up and running and then to keep it going at an optimal level to produce sufficient return on investment (ROI). It is important to understand from the star who will be responsible for all aspects of ongoing operations, including provisions for system backup.
Network design involves planning how the digital signage will be implemented in a systematic way, with a clear idea of its purpose and audience. One question is whether the rollout will be incremental or the entire system will go live at the same time, which may depend on whether the network is intended to be local or broad-based, perhaps even international in scope. In any case, starting with a beta testing project is a sensible way to work out all of the logistics involved in delivering content to screens and optimizing its presentation.
It is ultimately important to understand how digital signage will deliver an ROI or other benefits to the client, e.g. by saving time for the distribution of reliable information, making internal operations more efficient, boosting sales and/or reducing expenses.
In cases where digital signage is not intended to increase revenue, it should still deliver a return on objectives (ROO) in line with the client’s strategy.
Other aspects of the business model to be determined early on include the division of responsibilities, the involvement of partner organizations and the metrics for measuring the success of completed tasks.
2. Failing to define objectives before deployment
By clearly defining goals at the start, it becomes possible to determine how results will be measured and analyzed over time. Otherwise, a digital signage network can get locked into a cycle of stopping and restarting to accommodate changes in direction.
Many first-time digital signage clients do not have clear objectives at the beginning for what they want to do, the type of messages they want to present and the resources they will dedicate to create content. Frequently, they need to be encouraged to determine these specific requirements. One size does not fit all when it comes to digital signage platforms.
One reason this process is important is to avoid disappointment later on if content is not displayed correctly. The reasons for such problems vary. Sometimes, clients do not understand how many frames per second (FPS) are required for video and Flash content to appear smoothly. They may assume they can use a media player with a basic processor, only to find it cannot play large files or stream video seamlessly.
To avoid such disappointment, they should begin with a thorough analysis of their needs, identifying what types of content will be displayed—e.g. static images, video, Rich Site Summary (RSS) feeds, live TV broadcasts, etc.—on how many displays in which locations, plus whether that content will be the same on all of the screens or different from one to another. Messaging may serve one or more of the following purposes:
It is also essential to know at the beginning if the system will need to be interactive. If so, the system could require local inputs for touch screens or interfaces with external hardware, such as card readers or point-of-sale (POS) systems.
The network configuration will also have an effect on the ability to support applications and achieve specific objectives. It could be a local area network (LAN), wide area network (WAN) or wholly Internet-based.
3. Lacking a content strategy
As mentioned, it is essential to have a plan in mind for on-screen content, as well as the resources in place to create and manage it. With digital signage, after all, content can be scheduled in advance to change at regular intervals or based on external factors.
The right mix of content is what makes digital signage attention-catching and memorable. To truly engage passersby, marketing materials need to be combined with informative and entertaining content. This can be achieved by either dynamically displaying one message at a time or incorporating multiple messages in the same display area. Some portions of the screen may change, such as streaming video feeds, weather updates and event schedules, while others remain fixed, such as corporate logos or menus of services.
If a digital signage network will rely on TV feeds for news or sports, by way of example, each media player should be equipped with a video capture card for connecting to a set-top box with either coaxial cable or High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) input and located near a cable or satellite TV jack. Further, there should be a contingency plan for making real-time changes in case of cancelled or rescheduled broadcasts.
Digital signage can be as simple as a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation or as complex as a six-zone video wall with live feeds, real-time messaging and dynamic scheduling. The more elaborate the strategy, the greater the need for different people to perform different functions relating to the creation and management of content, whether they are corporate marketing, AV, web design, human resources (HR) or management information systems (MIS) professionals—and whether internal expertise is sufficient or outsourcing will be called for.
It is easy for clients to feel intimidated by all of the available options, but many of today’s media players are preloaded with a wide selection of user-friendly design templates and tools, making in-house content creation a viable and affordable option.
The following are some questions to ask:
4. Not involving the right personnel from the start
When beginning a digital signage project, the need to involve all key stakeholders is often overlooked. The notion of deploying screens may come from an organization’s public relations (PR) department, for example, but then runs into problems by getting too far ahead of other departments. It is a good idea to involve key representatives from marketing, HR, purchasing and information technology (IT) teams and, especially, to get buy-in from senior leadership as soon as possible.
From here, the next step is to determine who will be responsible for sourcing and uploading content. These people will need the right technical skills and, to ensure continuity, the support of backup personnel.
Generating content and keeping it current may also require co-ordination between a variety of teams, in which case quality control and accountability can become challenges. It will be important to set up a process for collaborating on creative contributions.
The IT department will certainly be one of the most important stakeholders, as its staff will be most keenly aware of the available resources and which applications may already be taxing the network infrastructure. To prevent problems in the future, the following questions will need to be answered:
Indeed, there are many IT-related issues that can affect digital signage in the field. Security may be compromised if outsiders can turn off displays, change their content or remove media players. Heat dissipation may be a problem for screens and players exposed to direct sunlight, requiring extra cooling and/or shielding. Similarly, screens and other electronic equipment should be protected from dust, debris and moisture, especially in manufacturing plants and other industrial environments.
A power supply will need to be available near the screens and players, potentially with power consumption limits imposed on the network. Any applicable electrical wiring and municipal sign codes will need to be complied with, particularly for digital signage that is visible outdoors. There may also be connections needed to integrate the network with other building notification systems, such as paging, security alerts and fire alarms.
5. Not provisioning for future needs
After an initial digital signage rollout proves successful, it is not unusual to suddenly need to expand from a handful of screens to a deployment of 50 or even 500. With this in mind, it is important to start with a technology platform that (a) will not become obsolete tomorrow and (b) can be scaled up to meet new needs as they arise in the future.
To be sure, some pilot programs only involve a small initial investment in one screen and an entry-level media player for a simple setup, just to demonstrate how digital signage might be used by the given organization. In these cases, the lack of scalability may not be a problem, as there is no intention to deploy a larger-scale network using the same hardware.
Experience suggests digital signage tends to sell itself, however, once that first screen has been put up for everyone in the organization to see. Personnel in other departments and offices begin to consider the potential of the medium to benefit them, too. Soon, they are requesting their own screens.
So, given the prospect of needing to meet increased demand, it generally makes more sense to be prepared from the start with technology that is expandable and not near the end of its useful life. Then, scaling up to a multi-channel network with geographically isolated screens will simply be a matter of adding more ‘subscribers’ to the configuration, with content cloned over the network to appear on displays at multiple sites.
Also, the software for publishing playlists to different screens should be intuitive and time-efficient for users. This is particularly important with digital signage networks at a national or international scale, where support for different time zones, an interface enabling both central and remote content management, media player operation verification and alert reporting functions are all key to ensuring smooth 24-7 operation. Software support for multiple languages may also be necessary, depending on the nature of the organization.
Digital signage should also be scalable in terms of increasing the number of screens and locations without taxing the integrated IT architecture’s overall bandwidth. The software vendor should regularly provide updates to ensure system support for the latest browsers, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate files for use with Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), social media integration, popular apps and widgets and changes in Internet Protocol television (IPTV) streaming standards.
6. Not adequately budgeting for ongoing costs
Too many companies purchase a digital signage system just based on a vendor’s website or glossy brochure touting everything it can do, only to find out later many capabilities will cost extra or require a yearly licence renewal.
Others do not recognize the potential of the medium at first, only to find after it is implemented they want to add features beyond its original scope, which end up being expensive to add or outright unavailable, given the nature of the system they have deployed.
By way of example, Rich Site Summary (RSS) Extensible Markup Language (XML) fees, remote control and management and playback verification are all standard features with some digital signage packages, but cost extra with others. Software as a Service (SaaS) fees must be considered on top of hardware and labour expenses.
Software upgrades can get expensive, especially if the developer is issuing them with fixes every few months, and so can per-user licences for publishing, meta-tagging and IPTV streaming, training for new users and technical support after the initial implementation. Other additional expenses may arise relating to shipping terms, return policies and warranties.
So, before implementing a system, it is important to view in-depth demonstrations and take time to research which features are standard and which are optional (or unavailable). Extensive negotiations, including a number of requests for proposals (RFPs) and/or requests for quotations (RFQs), may be needed to help specify the costs of the needed system.
When planning, establishing a pro forma budget is recommended, to try to forecast the early and ongoing expenses of a fully networked, multi-screen rollout, as well as anticipated revenue if the project is intended to generate additional business, e.g. through digital out-of-home (DOOH) advertising. Beyond factors within the vendor’s control, there may be extra infrastructure expenses, such as for cabling, wall plates, backup servers, uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) and surge protectors or filters.
Some networks start out using consumer-grade displays, but for digital signage that will run for most hours of the day, these products will quickly reach the end of their useful life, as they are likely to overheat and fail. Instead, provisions for commercial-grade screens are needed from the start.
As for digital signage content, a separate budget will need to be developed for producing or buying still images, video footage and/or animation. If third-party advertising will
be part of the mix, there will still be costs associated with providing audits and reports for those advertisers.
When evaluating the total cost of ownership (TCO), there will need to be enough leeway for line-item expenses to account for any unanticipated cost overages, spikes in utility rates, staffing shortages and code compliance issues. Also, within the first year of operation, it is fair to expect a hardware failure rate of about three per cent, so the costs involved in having backup equipment and a vendor that can be reached 24-7 will prove beneficial in the long run.
The more complex the network, of course, the higher the overall initial and ongoing costs will be, but the cost per screen will generally be reduced as the number of screens is increased. Also, as more suppliers enter the digital signage market, equipment costs will continue to come down.
The key to keeping the budget reasonable is to ask thorough questions right from the design phase. A clear matrix of features and price levels is needed, to ensure the right choices are made. And as mentioned, ‘unimportant’ features at the beginning may become ‘important’ features in the future, which should be considered in the context of how the system might be upgraded over the long term at a reasonable cost.
7. Choosing the wrong partners
The size and complexity of a digital signage network will help determine the scope of professional integration assistance required for its implementation and ongoing management. This is where problems can arise if a provider falls short in delivering on its promises or, worse yet, goes out of business.
Such problems do happen, so it is important to check vendors are stable enough to provide long-term support. New companies just entering the burgeoning digital signage marketplace need to be scrutinized especially closely.
It is also important to check their credentials and ensure their expertise is a good fit. Many audiovisual (AV) system and component providers and installers have plenty of experience with consumer electronics, home theatre systems or even office communications, but not yet any with commercial-grade digital signage. When providing and supporting a totally integrated system for long-term use, IT and data networking expertise is called for with seasoned professionals.
Moving beyond product selection and availability, after all, there needs to be after-sale service. Even with the most expensive systems, screens will go blank and other issues will inevitably arise. The question is how quickly these problems can be fixed and at what expense. Both availability and costs should be specified well in advance.
It is important to learn about partner organizations’ warranties and shipping policies, how customer complaints will be handled and whether or not discontinued products will continue to be supported. (In some cases, upgraded products will need to be purchased instead.)
Software support, meanwhile, may involve dedicated online and/or phone-based assistance when content managers encounter issues on a day-to-day basis.
Falling victim to common mistakes can cost both time and money when deploying a digital signage network. And the fastest, lowest-cost options can be the costliest of all in the long run.
With files from Blackbox, which provides video wall controllers and other communications and data infrastructure products. For more information, visit www.blackbox.com.
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