Thinking about deploying digital signage but unsure about costs? Here is some useful advice.
Think of the software first
Digital signage is made up of many components. One part hardware, one part software. But what most people don’t realize is their choice of software will impact many downstream costs, including hardware.
Some digital signage software will only work with specific hardware platforms, like Windows PCs or Macs. PCs and Macs tend to cost more than comparable hardware devices running Android and similar operating systems. While it’s true that PCs are still the best choice for multi-screen installations, it’s no longer the case for single screen applications. In fact, PCs will always cost more than current generation Android based media players while offering little if any advantage. Today’s professional-grade Android media players will outperform many Windows PCs and Macs for traditional digital signage tasks.
Android is a mature and efficient operating system that strips away a lot of unnecessary features you find in desktop operating systems. Digital signage is a very focused application so a robust, efficient and thin OS is perfect for this task. On top of that, Android doesn’t add any extra cost to the media player hardware. Besides, Android comes pre-installed on a multitude of hardware products like tablets, smartphones, media players and System on Chip (SoC) displays.
PCs and Macs are mostly stand-alone devices that are produced in a smaller range of form-factors. Sure, we’ve all seen “PCs on a stick” but these devices tend to be underpowered, and unsuitable for dedicated digital signage use. There are exceptions but they are far from the norm while the more common PC form factors, like NUC cases, are still a bit chunky compared to modern Android media players.
While there are some displays that can accommodate an internal PC
It’s important to note, the larger the media player device, the more complex and expensive the installation will be. PC and Mac based media players can’t always be mounted behind the displays so extra cabling is required to move the unit into a more suitable, and secure location.
The cost of the OS isn’t trivial
Getting a copy of Microsoft Windows is a lot cheaper than before, but it’s still an expense that you must contend with every time you set up a new PC. Some people call it the “Windows Tax” for a very good reason. Each PC based digital signage player you deploy will need a paid Windows licence, so the cost will add up over time. It may not be an issue with small deployments but it can be significant when the shipments go up.
Macs buries the cost of the OS in their hardware prices but the total unit costs are even more expensive than your typical Windows PC, and you can’t shop around for a better deal. Therefore, you see a lot less Mac digital signage deployments in the field. They are simply too expensive for most applications and offer very few benefits when used exclusively for digital signage.
When researching digital signage software solutions, don’t underestimate these hidden costs:
Ease of use
Most digital signage CMS products feature a dashboard that users interact with to manage and schedule their content. CMS solutions with the best dashboards require less training time so users become productive faster. Furthermore, the simpler the dashboard, the easier it is for in-house staff to train new hires.
These are real savings when compared with solutions that deliver overly complex user interfaces that require an extensive amount of training, or a technical degree to operate. These products may be less expensive to acquire up front but their long term operating costs can quickly add up and wipe out any savings.
Support costs can escalate quickly when you factor system down-time, on-site visits by technicians and time spent online with technical reps. These are more than simple distractions. Unreliable digital signage software will effectively increase your operating costs, and eventually eat into your profits.
Here’s how things can play out…
- Advertising network operators suffer losses when their displays are down. They can’t collect for ads that aren’t shown so idle screens directly impact revenues.
- Retail store owners are affected when an expensive video wall installation is blacked out in the middle of their store. Some retailers use digital signage to communicate with customers and improve the shopping experience, but when displays go dark, people quickly notice. Sales stagnate, stock levels increase. You get the picture.
- Restaurateurs who rely on digital menu boards can’t operate efficiently if their screens are down. This has a negative effect on customer’s perception that can go far beyond any inconvenience.
When screens go down, you get hit from both sides. Your staff wastes time debugging issues and your sales suffer.
A lot of folks who invest in digital signage expect to grow their network over time. They start with a few displays and if they have a good business plan, thinks will take off and they ramp up their deployments. This is when scalability comes into play. Digital signage software that won’t scale well can cause all sorts of pain. You experience reliability issues and user access problems. Eventually performance degrades completely and you face some hard choices. Scale back your network or switch to a different solution than can scale efficiently. None of these options are great, so it really pays to do your homework before you pick a digital signage software product and start running with it.
Look for software solutions that can be spread over many servers or that can work with content delivery networks (CDNs). Host your software on a scalable server platform. Make sure the database architecture that underpins the solution can support a growing number of users and media players.
This is a tough one. It doesn’t require a crystal ball, but rather a vendor that is willing to share their software roadmap. It requires a certain level of transparency and a willingness to communicate where the product is headed.
Here are some basic, but important questions.
- Is the vendor developing native software optimized for each hardware platform or are they using interpreted code?
- Is the software based on current programming languages and technologies?
- Is the vendor developing products for new devices?
- Are they investing heavily in research and development to meet tomorrow’s challenges?
- Is the company well funded and financially sound?
The product you are buying today must have a predictable life expectancy. Otherwise, you may need to switch solutions when you least expect it, and incur expenses that you’re not ready for.
Cloud vs. On Premise
The main difference between Cloud and On Premise digital signage software is where your money goes. Cloud solutions don’t require any significant upfront investment because you’re effectively leasing the software. With most Cloud based solutions, you pay a monthly fee per media player. The more players you deploy, the higher your monthly payments. It’s great for start-ups who don’t have sufficient cash on-hand to purchase the software and the back-end hardware. Not to forget the staffing required to set things up and make sure the system runs smoothly.
On Premise solutions cost more upfront but there are no recurrent monthly fees. However, most software vendors offer maintenance and support plans that are billed annually based on the number of players deployed. On Premise solutions are purchased mostly by well established companies who wish to control every aspect of the system.
The type of solution you choose will depend on many other factors like the need for security and privacy, having an aggressive network build-out plan or needing to deal with financial constraints.