What is digital signage?
Digital signage uses a mix of hardware components (PC, Android device, System on Chip – SoC), some type of display (LED, LCD, projector, etc.) and CMS software to deliver live news, information and media content to an audience.
Why is digital signage so popular?
Digital signage’s popularity has taken off in the past 15 years due to many factors. For starters, hardware components have become smaller, better and cheaper. What once required a full-tower PC hidden in a wiring closet, has now shrunk smaller than your average TV remote. System on Chip “smart” displays even have the computer embedded inside them. Today, SoC displays deliver the same performance as a full-fledged PC, and some may soon exceed these capabilities with better playback quality and 4K content support.
Since the hardware is integrated into a single unit, SoC displays offer substantial cost savings and ease of installation. There are no longer any wires hanging from the back of the displays and external PC or Android device to steal making them ideal for commercial use.
Another important factor is the availability of professional content creation and editing tools. Smartphones can now capture video at 4K resolutions, with a quality that rivals pro equipment of only a few years ago. Combine this with high quality stock footage available online, and you have all the ingredients for success.
The last piece of the puzzle is the software running the show. Most digital signage applications require some type of CMS software. That would be the content management system people use to manage and create content, prepare schedules or set up rules that determine when and how content will be played. Most CMS software requires a media player of some sort. In other cases, the CMS may simply display the content in a full screen web browser. CMS products often feature a dashboard of sorts, so end-users can interact with the system. Then you have the different types of CMS products. Some are delivered via the cloud (as in, Software as a Service, or SaaS) and others require a local server of some type which is managed by the end-user, or by a technical resource.
CMS software has evolved a lot since the industry’s early days. Today’s CMS software is easier to install, use, and manage than the early products. There are still products that are more complex and require specific technical expertise, but the trend is leaning towards user friendliness.
When you put it all together, it’s easy to see why the sector has taken off and become so popular.
Who uses digital signage?
The digital signage industry has achieved some sort of “critical mass”, since all the pieces are readily available and more affordable than ever. Less technical knowledge is required, so more and more people use digital signage for all sorts of uses:
- Engaging customers and staff.
- Lobby welcoming screen.
- Information kiosk.
- Employee training.
- Presenting statistics, financial information, real-time data.
- Informational dashboards.
- Stock prices.
- Currency prices.
- Call-center statistics.
- Sales figures.
- Advertising products and services.
- Restaurant menu boards.
- Retail, point-of-sale signage.
- Indoor and outdoor advertising (d-o-o-h).
- Industrial and commercial applications.
- Employee productivity statistics.
- General information.
- Safety notices.
- Emergency/evacuation notices.
- Museums and attractions.
- Exhibit signage.
- Queue management.
- Donor walls.
- Patient notification.
- Waiting room infotainment.
These are but a few applications and industries that benefit from digital signage displays.
Which software features should I be looking for?
Looking at the components that make up digital signage, and knowing how the technology is used is the first step in this process. Your next question should be; which features are the most important for your needs. More specifically, what makes one CMS software stand out from the rest.
To answer this, we must look at what makes a professional-grade CMS software.
- Multi-platform media player support. This means you can deploy many types of hardware on the same CMS software. Multi-platform support can be extremely useful because you’re not “locked-in” to a specific technology. For example, you can start your project on PCs and deploy SoC screens later on. You get to pick the right hardware combination for each location.
- Web-based dashboard. Modern CRM solutions use HTML5 to deliver a professional user experience without having to install local software. These HTML5 dashboards provide all the functionality of a locally installed app once the end-user is logged into the system. All that’s required is a URL, login name and password to get access to the system from any location. The best CMS solutions also support multiple platforms such as PCs, tablets and smartphones. Having the ability to access and program content from anywhere is now a must, which is why it should be on your list.
- Native software vs interpreted software. It is estimated that 90% of digital signage software players are based on interpreted languages. Coding software using this method is less costly and less expensive, however there are some major trade-offs. Interpreted software tends to be less secure, less reliable and less efficient than the alternative. Native software requires a lot of resources and more capital investment but the results are well worth it. Native digital signage player software will perform measurably better than interpreted software. Content playback is smoother and more reliable on target hardware platform. This should factor very highly in any comparison between software products.
- Ease of use and deployment. Look for software that is easy to use and doesn’t require any specific technical skills. Remember that a product’s UI can make, or break your next project. Software with an obscure and complex interface just ends up frustrating end-users. Training costs soar and user adoption eventually drops until the project fails, or the software is replaced. Avoid these pitfalls by selecting a CMS with a user-friendly front-end that people will actually use. When reviewing multiple solutions, always remember this rule… Training should take hours, not weeks.
- Look for software that scales well. Maybe you’re looking at a small deployment of only a few displays. For you, scalability isn’t a key deciding factor. However, consider your situation may evolve over time and your needs may change. If you pick a CMS that isn’t scalable, you may be forced to make some hard choices. Like switching products in mid-deployment or scaling back your project, or worse. Think of the investment in time and effort to become proficient with a CMS product. The learning curve and the hardware investment required to have a fully functional display network. Take the time to look at every CMS software as if it was the last product you will buy.
- Look for “open” software that integrates easily. There are CMS products that are limited in what they can do, and how they can be integrated with other products. Think of situations where you may need to exchange data with other software, or automate certain processes to save time. Professional-grade CMS software products are open to other software and technologies. These solutions offer software development kits (SDKs) and APIs, so you can extend their capabilities.Here are some examples of what an open system can do:
- Trigger evacuation messages from an automated alarm system.
- Integrate with audience detection systems to trigger content based on the audience’s age or sex.
- Automate content uploads.
- Generate automated playback reports.
- Turn digital displays on or off based on a schedule.
There are all sorts of CMS software products on the market. You can evaluate them based on price or features. When looking for a specific product, don’t just consider the cost of acquiring the software. Think of all the related costs. This may sound counter-intuitive but in the long run you may find that buying cheap software can actually be a very expensive proposition. Look at what you need now, and plan for tomorrow. Consider the cost of hardware, installation and training. Think how much you would spend to switch to another platform if you pick the wrong one.