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Digital Signage Has Gotten Smarter

Last week I attended the Digital Signage Expo in Las Vegas. In some ways, attending this show is very wearying. I feel like a lot of the things being said are the same things that were being said in 2005… and 2007… and would’ve been said in 2009 if everyone wasn’t busy hiding under their desks during the Great Recession.But as frustrating as it is that progress is taking so long, the truth is that progress is being made. Here’s what I mean.

In 2005, when I first started writing about digital media in retail, I said that there were a few barriers that were very significant, and until they were overcome, we wouldn’t make much progress. With the enthusiasm (perhaps naivate) of a relatively new analyst, I endorsed a timeline where screens would live at every viable shelf sometime after 2010. Sitting here in 2011, I would say that I have widely missed that mark. The problem is that the barriers still remain. However, at DSE, I saw signs of a significant shift in the industry – one that bodes well for using digital media as part of the store experience:

Old Barrier #1: Content

Setting aside the expense and the ROI, the biggest challenge in digital media is content. If you manage to persuade your company to invest in digital media in stores, and you manage to deploy it, that playlist library rapidly becomes a gaping maw that is constantly crying, “Feed me! Feed me!” In the early days of digital signage, high-quality media content did not include a provision for in-store use (sometimes it still doesn’t). Repurposing media destined for TV screens in homes for use in store was a little like going through the trouble of setting up a Microsoft Exchange server for your personal, in-home email use – it was overkill, didn’t serve the same purpose, and turned out not to be nearly as effective as you’d think it might be. Creating animated flash signs to replace paper ones didn’t return any ROI – customers also found them just as easy to ignore. And even if you had the budget and the foresight to create content for in-store use, you needed it segmented and localized for unique locations in the store across multiple hours of the days and weeks – an enormous proliferation of content need.

The content landscape has gotten much more interesting in the past few years. Content libraries – think of them almost as the iStockPhotos of digital signage – make it much easier to get some high-quality starting points. Companies like Flypaper make it much, much easier to edit Flash animation so that local resources can get in on localizing content. Companies like Aerva and Locamoda make it easy to bring in user-generated content that keeps in-store media fresh. These are important developments for feeding the in-store content beast – easy content, easy localization of content, and easy refresh of content using the crowd.

Old Barrier #2: ROI

So I’m not going to say that this barrier has been removed. But at DSE, I saw a different level of conversation about ROI. On the one side, this is not about being an advertising play any longer. While there are still plenty of retail locations and ad networks out there that talk about in-store media strictly in the sense of advertising dollars and impressions, more and more retailers – and the vendors that sell to them – are starting to talk about the value of engagement, the importance of stemming the growing gap between online experiences and the in-store experience, and the need to bring more of the digital experience into the store.

On the other side, this isn’t just about selling more stuff either. Retailers recognize that the in-store experience does more than help a retailer sell more stuff during that specific shopping trip. Sure, an engaging experience helps consumers stay longer, and the longer they stay the more stuff they put in their carts. And there are still plenty of retailers who wave away all of that “awareness” and “engagement” stuff as soft numbers that hide the real ROI. But the retailers who are doing innovative things with in-store media are building their strategy around engagement, not around ads or a direct tie to sales. They are trying to create in-store experiences that provide consumers with a similar amount of information and engagement as they can find online. If you do that right, the sales will follow.

Old Barrier #3: The Dumb Sign

The last barrier that I will address here relates to a lot of issues. Measuring the effectiveness of digital signs in stores is hard, yet critical. Whether for an ad network or for a retailer looking to prove ROI, someone has to be able to answer questions like, “Who saw the sign? What was playing when they saw it? How long did they hang around (dwell time)? Did it influence their behavior?” Some vendors are going after this problem through video analytics, where a camera on the front of the sign tracks faces and people and in some cases even helps identify the demographics of the audience in front of the sign.

That helps, but privacy issues aside, it doesn’t really go far enough. Between the iPad and the rise of consumer smartphones, what consumers expect from screens in any venue is changing rapidly. Not just touch-screen, but multi-touch. Not just interactive, but interactive with my personal devices. The more interactive the screen, the more information you get about customers who use the screen. And if the sign can send something to my cell phone, or drop something into the retailer’s mobile app as part of the interaction, then so much the better – forget about faces. The retailer will know exactly who that shopper is, and what she did or didn’t do as a result of the interaction. And as long as the retailer acts responsibly on that information, privacy concerns will never cross the customer’s mind.

So it’s fair to say that digital signage has not yet grown up. Stores don’t look like downtown Tokyo (thank the stars) and they have not become as intrusive as the future envisioned by Minority Report. The industry still has a long way to go before it is considered ante in the in-store experience game. But none of that discourages me at all. What is encouraging is that retailers seem to be circling around a strategy that focuses on the usefulness to the customer. That focus suggests a new level of maturity in the space – a welcome evolution.

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