Why Content Plays Second Fiddle On So Many Digital Sign Networks, And What To Do About It

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When is the last time you were stopped dead in your tracks by the sleek industrial design of a big flat panel display – its thin bezel, its brightness and contrast ratios, or the way it was fixed on a wall?

When was the last time you stood transfixed at how content management software handled video playback without dropping a frame, and showed a clock, the weather and even a news ticker at the same time!!!

Never, right?

In digital signage, displays and software are just enabling technologies. But they are enabling very little if what’s on the screen is not making people look, and keep looking.

Content is the most important part of any digital signage installation, yet so often it is the last thing end-users think about when they’re planning and launching their networks.

So why is that? Here’s a few thoughts:

Most of the selling and discussion between companies starting digital signage projects is with software companies, display manufacturers or systems integrators. They sell the infrastructure and the execution. They don’t sell advice, and most don’t touch creative work on the idea or production side. Usually, end-users have decided on and ordered their technology without having started to really think about content.

These end-users have had very little cause to think about content programming in their normal work routine and responsibilities. Their projects have usually been instigated by someone on the leadership team who wants the company to start using digital to energize retail or corporate spaces, or introduce new ways to customers and visitors. There’s probably a base idea from leadership on what would be on those screens. But it’s rare when end-users have well-considered, rich and sustainable content plans at the start of projects.

People new to the idea of video creative logically tend to think ad agency when they think about who might produce work for them. Then they get the quote for the anticipated studio hours, and promptly sit down before they faint. Agencies do great work, but that work can be very expensive, and will send an operating budget through the office roof.

If agency work is beyond the budget, two things tend happen:

– Freelancers are engaged to put material together, with widely varying results.
– End-users launch the tools and templates that come with their content management software to produce their own work, or they do the work in presentation software like PowerPoint and import it to the CMS. It’s rare when creative done by untrained designers – even if they have creative eyes – looks very good.

End-users who have some good base material – the messages that are core to the network even being there – often pad their programming cycle with syndicated editorial content, with the idea that they need more in the programming mix to stop the schedule from looking too repetitive. Things like news, sports and weather feeds are relatively inexpensive and when automatically updated, seemingly make a network look fresh and current. But buying content only addresses an operating problem. That material rarely does anything to help and drive the core mission for the screens and network. It’s just filler.

Here’s what end-users who are starting a digital signage network should be thinking about for content:

• What’s the objective of the network? Is it to sell more goods and services? Raise awareness for promotions and offers? Inform and educate?
• What are the dynamics of the viewing environment and audience? How long are they there? Are people on the move and likely to only glance at screens? Will they be sitting, and in the viewing zone for a lengthier period?
• What’s on people’s minds when they’re in that viewing zone?

That last point is particularly important. Relevance is the key to effective content programming.

In a pediatrics waiting room, child health tips and advice makes much more sense than world and finance news. In a busy bank, directing customers to self-serve options helps people and branch operations. At an airport, programming that reminds people about security screening procedures can expedite line-ups.

Some of the best content for screens isn’t even really what people think about as content. In a busy waiting area, where someone’s number is on a waiting list is great content. People will look and look and look. On a subway or commuter train platform, the thing everyone’s looking for is the arrival time of the next train.

Digital signage is its own unique medium, and the content strategy and execution has to respect the viewers and viewing environment. It doesn’t need to be like TV. It’s doesn’t need to be like online. There are networks that are going to need 45 minutes of original video programming, refreshed each quarter. There are lots of other networks that don’t need much more than a few well-presented stills or brief motion messages. And increasingly, there are networks with a look and feel that stays constant – with dynamic data the material that steadily refreshes.

The other oft-ignored aspect to great content is great performance. Too often, we see networks using playback hardware that is struggling to get the job done, dropping frames and pixilating images. It’s not enough to say, “It works.”

Along with compelling, relevant messaging, the best networks deliver rock-solid video and motion graphics. With those networks, the technology simply does its enabling job.