Here’s a question that comes up often. “How much will digital signage cost me?“
It’s usually followed by… “and can I make any money from it?”
It’s a perfectly good question. While some people find a way to do digital signage on the cheap, they soon realize it’s false savings. Here’s why.
Why you can’t afford “free software”
It may sound counter-intuitive. In fact, the term “free software” is misleading. Free digital signage software can mean anything. Maybe you get to try out the software for some time at no cost, or you get a severely crippled version of a commercial product. It can also mean the software is totally free with no strings attached, but there is no documentation or support included. You must pay for assistance and technical support, if it’s available.
If you search long enough, you may find software that is truly free (as in, open sourced) but you must still pay for some core services, like content storage fees. There’s also software that comes bundled with hardware, like System on Chip displays that include some basic digital signage software when you buy their product. These bundled software and services tend to be light on features, and difficult to manage.
Once you get this out of the way, you can start comparing features with commercial products.
- Does the product scale well? If so, how easy is it to you grow your screen network?
- Is there an upgrade path, or regular updates and bug fixes?
- Do you have access to a support team (not just an end-user forum)?
- Is the software secure, and are there regular security patches available?
- Has the product been around for a long time, and is the product in current development?
If your free solution doesn’t meet these basic requirements, you may end up spending a lot of time and resources plugging security holes, and dealing with issues. You’ll also spend a lot of time developing workarounds to bend the product to your needs.
It’s no secret free software appeals to lots of small, and medium size businesses. After all, SMBs don’t have a lot of money to throw at digital signage. Often, they will look for cheap software after spending a whole lot of cash on flat panel TVs, display brackets, cabling, and media players.
There are other considerations. For example, what happens when SMB owners can’t get their screens online? Let’s say someone hacks their devices and puts up some inappropriate content? Perhaps they’ll get help from cousin Joe who’s handy with computers… or, they can ask someone at their local computer store to come and fix their digital signage system.
In either case, the results can be less than optimal, and the business owner may face additional costs.
If you’re running a business, you need to focus on the things that keep the doors open. You don’t want to spend your time configuring PCs, or figuring out networking issues.
In the next section, we will discuss what digital signage is made up so you can make a better choice.
How does digital signage work?
Digital signage is made up of many parts. You have your hardware components, like flat panel LED displays, PCs or media player devices, and networking equipment (wired or Wi-Fi routers, etc.). Once your hardware is connected, you will need CMS software to manage your content, create playlists, and schedules.
Digital signage software products operate on a few different of principles. There are streaming solutions that push a steady stream of content to distributed media players over private networks, or the public internet. Streaming media players usually feature a memory cache where content is stored in case the media player loses its network connection. The cache ensures there will be some local content so the screens don’t go dark.
Next, you have digital signage that uses a more elaborate “forward and store” method where all content is sent to each media player, and the content is stored locally. In this scenario, all the content managed through the software’s content management system (CMS) is stored at each location. We’re talking about images and video content. Only content coming from remote sources get retrieved as needed, from its source. This covers external web pages, remote data and other web content. In this case, the CMS handles a mix of local and remote content.
Streaming solutions usually require proprietary media player hardware, so you can’t just pick and choose the PC or media player you want to use. Forward and store solutions use a more open approach where the software is proprietary, but you can use any manufacturer’s hardware. Some support Microsoft Windows, and other devices like Android media players and tablets, Raspberry Pi devices and system on chip (SoC) displays with built-in media players. Look for software that supports multiple hardware platforms as these are more versatile.
At this point we’ve covered how digital signage works. We’ve discussed all the bits and pieces, but like a car’s engine, digital signage needs fuel to run. That fuel is content.
The fuel that powers your screens
Content is the single-most neglected area of any digital signage project. Few people include it in their cost estimates, which explains why we see so much bad content. It’s a shame really, because good content doesn’t cost that much. You just need to plan for it, and make it part of your calculations.
Digital signage content can be static (images), active (videos) or dynamic (html, data-driven content). Your first task is to determine what’s best for your intended audience. Are you dealing with a captive audience that will spend a lot of time in front of your displays, or a mobile audience that simply walks by?
Here are a few tips to help you pick the right content mix for your application.
- Content intended for a captive audience can last longer than content aimed at passers-by. As a rule, don’t show content longer than 7 seconds where there is a lot of foot traffic. This is so people can be exposed to more than one piece of content. Remember the audience needs to absorb the content as well so program your content accordingly.
- Your CMS should support both playlist-based and program-based scheduling. This will make it easier to change your programming over the course of a day, week, or month. Look for CMS products that support both types of programming, as this provides the most flexibility.
- Always make sure you buy professional content from a reputable source. There are plenty of royalty-free content sources on the internet. Be sure to read all license requirements as there may be some restrictions. It won’t take up that much of your time, and you will save yourself a lot of hassles. A quick Google search will find decently priced images, animations, audio and video content. Always factor-in the cost of royalty-free content when budgeting for your digital signage project. If you have creative staff on-hand, then make sure they follow the rules when acquiring new artwork. The same goes for any freelancers working on your content.
Bad content can have a negative impact on your brand. It reflects poorly on your company. It can affect sales, employee morale, and how an audience views your business. Come to think of it, publishing high quality content is an investment in your company.
There is one last point we will make here, and it’s the need to publish fresh content. Think of digital signage content as a perishable item. If you leave it out there, it will become stale. In the viewer’s mind, you have nothing new to offer so there is little incentive to pay notice to the displays. At this point, your big digital signage investment is performing as well as wallpaper. It’s part of the background noise. Something to be avoided, and ignored.
You don’t believe it? Pay extra attention next time you visit a public space where digital signage is present. You’ll notice displays that you may not have “seen” before. It’s probably due to stale content, or content that has no visual impact. The displays just blend into the background.
This is our most important advice. Always make an effort to publish memorable, original content. Then, rotate the content often. Do it weekly, or bi-weekly. Don’t leave the same loop playing over, and over for many weeks, or worse, months. The audience will stop looking at your displays.
How can you tell? Look for digital signage software that features an analytics engine so you can publish content playback reports. This will let you know which content has played, at any location, and how many times the content played.
If your CMS has a randomizing feature, use it. Better yet, look for software that supports rule based programming, and playlist blending. These products deliver a more organic programming, where content repeats less often. The trick is to make sure most viewers never see content repeating constantly.
Include data driven content, like data feeds from RSS, XML, and social media sources. It’s useful information that can increase viewer engagement.
What else? Include calls to action with your content. Entertain the audience. Be bold. Be creative.
Follow these tips and you will become a digital signage guru. Your audience will notice, and if you’re running an ad-based network, your customers will benefit too.