Signage

A printer's step-by-step guide to digital signage

by James Matthews-Paul | 19/03/2024
A printer's step-by-step guide to digital signage

James Matthews-Paul shares a step-by-step guide designed for printers who are interested in starting their journey in digital signage and adding this to their product offering.

What is digital signage?

If you’re in the print world you’ll have been hearing about digital signage for most of the last two decades. Initially it was coming to kill print off, or take up valuable market share; the reality is quite different. As with any new technology, digital signage has already taken the easy wins from the print market where content changes frequently, or is hard to access – specifically, in posters and out-of-home advertising – but the reality is that the best results blend a combination of print, analogue sign-making principles and digital screens.

Let’s take a moment to review the fundamentals. Digital signage uses display screens for marketing, operational and other business messaging. Ranging in size from shelf-edging to whole wall LED screens, digital signage obviously carries the benefit of being able to update content regularly, whether according to a schedule or on demand.

Broadly speaking, these applications can be divided into two categories.

Marketing Functional
  • Display advertising (posters, OOH)
  • Real time offers
  • Experiential/interactive
  • Decorative/artistic
  • Internal/corporate messaging
  • Wayfinding/directional
  • Reactive signage
  • Interactive/POS terminals
  • Presentations and data display
  • Accessibility
 

Of course, these use cases might overlap and between them, the possibilities are endless. But that also means a potential headache when working out how to access this increasingly popular technology area: how to scope out and scale a project to make it affordable, deliverable but also fit for purpose.

Sites for these applications are varied. Posters are of course a popular and versatile option, and can be put almost anywhere that power can be supplied. But posters are only the beginning – although their principle runs through many of the use cases below.

Out of home: advertising, experiential or interactive campaigns; billboards; signage networks (e.g. on the London Underground); street furniture; council/local government

Caption: Digital Menu Board controlled by Eclipse’s embed software, can receive and display content updates instantly – useful for moving stock in a flash sale, for example. Image credit: Eclipse Digital Media

Retail: window displays, in-store advertising, product feature/promotion, loyalty/customer interaction, electronic price displays/shelf labels, point-of-sale, store/mall wayfinding, menu boards (including time-specific offers and allergen information)

Hospitality: check-in/check-out, loyalty and customer retention, safety and live updates, room allocation and scheduling, POS

Transport: point-of-sale, dynamic updates, safety and emergency information, advertising networks

Sports: score- and time-keeping, wayfinding, menus and retail cross-sells, match analysis, advertising, team communications and general retail applications (as above)

Office/Education: presentation, employee benefits, state-of-business screens, workflow tracking, performance reporting

Museums: interactive displays, learning tools, unguided tours, multi-lingual and dynamic content

These applications are likely to be relatable and as a sign and display professional yourself, you’re likely to have wondered how they’re put together. The answer is that different installations require different technology, and some require more assembly or skill than others. In essence there are only a few component parts and each might require simplicity or scale, depending on the application.

The display

The bit that the user sees and interacts with – either by taking in the information, responding to the call to action, or interacting via touch (or another mechanism). It could be a screen, anything from a computer monitor or television, tablet or touchscreen; it could be based on LED or LCD technology, or ePaper; it could even be a projection. Most importantly the display must be fit for purpose – which means able to deliver the content demanded by the application reliably and professionally, and with good clear visibility of the content at the distance from the intended viewer. It’s also particularly important to choose a technology that matches the ambient light level.

The media player

Essentially a computer that delivers the content to the screen. Once again there is a spectrum of technology, from small single-purpose media players or embedded computers up to custom-built solutions. The media player is there to run a content management system and ensure delivery of the content to the screen according to a schedule or on demand, or due to certain conditions (reactive to weather, for example). The player needs to support this content in the same way a video player needs codecs to play certain files, whether they are static images, video or dynamic or social content. It needs to be secure and reliable, not just from malware or attacks, but from environmental elements, particularly where content is safety-critical or when the mission is advertising uptime. And in all but rare and specific use cases it needs to be connected to the internet so it can receive instructions and deliver reports.

The CMS

The content management system (CMS for short) is a software piece that manages the delivery of content to the screen via the media player, either installed on the player or accessible via the cloud. Much like a web CMS or social media management tool, the CMS will basically let you organise, schedule and deliver your content to various degrees of sophistication. Some will let you edit your content and playlists remotely; some will let you create adaptive playlists that react to local conditions or events, such as the weather or time-specific offers. Some will be able to deliver content dynamically to several screens at the same time. Some will offer graphic and video editing, overlays on that content, and some will have a simple drag-and-drop interface designed for the simplest poster applications.

The maintenance piece

If you’re reading this then you’re in the business of providing a product or service to an end client. So you’ll understand already that digital signage clients want two things: for the installation to work reliably; and for any problems to be fixed immediately if and when they occur. And this is often where companies become a bit stuck when they provide digital signage services initially. Your CMS will ideally provide feedback about content delivery and uptime; your media player should have a facility to let you know when a screen, group of screens or the player itself goes down. Look out for both of these when optioning technology for a digital signage project – but also consider dedicated software that manages these elements for you and allow you to provide reactive maintenance as standard.

The principle of having the right equipment to do the job will be no stranger to any printer. It’s important to assess the use case properly before committing to buying, selling on and servicing the product during its lifetime.

What are the key differences, then, and what questions should be asked at the project planning stage?

  • What is the screen setting out to do? If it’s just there to display a static piece of information, then fine, let it do that. If it’s an advertising screen it needs to generate interest from the viewer, displaying a clear call to action and expecting a response. These outcomes need to be planned before any other commitments are made.

  • Who is the intended audience for the screen, and for how long will they see the message? An advertisement that will only be glimpsed on a high street or at a mass transit hub doesn’t have long to get its message across: one to two seconds is typical. The narrative of even a 10-second video would be lost in that example, so the message would need to be limited to a few words. Calculating the amount of time needed to communicate the information necessary with clarity is mission-critical; knowing how to capture a viewer and encourage them to ‘dwell’, generating the important metric of ‘dwell time’ (how long the viewer stays in front of the screen), is too, and is often measurable. Your experience designing for wide-format print is a fully transferrable skill.

  • People expect a screen’s content to change appropriately. If it’s there to be a digital poster, it may not need to do anything complicated: perhaps it’s just there to show one advertisement, then another. Artwork with no variation, poorly displayed artwork (stretched or pixelated, for example) or a broken screen will lose the potential audience and potentially undermine their relationship with the application.

  • What distance will the screen be viewed at? Similarly to print, an OOH billboard doesn’t need to be printed at 300dpi if the viewing distance is more than ten metres. But a screen that is viewed at less than a metre must be able to display and transition between images or videos seamlessly and at high resolution in order not to undermine the advertisement, brand or message. An unreliable installation does more harm than good to both the brand and, potentially, to the technology partners.

  • Who will be in charge of the running of the screen and for populating it with content? Printers large enough to be using CRM, ERP or workflow software might be familiar with the idea of a ‘product champion’: an individual within the client business who is the primary knowledge and communication point for their colleagues and liaison with the external vendor (you). A similar person needs to be nominated for your digital signage setup, provided with training and a troubleshooting kit; a strong relationship needs to be formed with them and the principles of good content management practice explained.  

  • Will the hardware be owned or leased by the client? This depends on the size of the installation – one screen or many – and the lifetime of the proposed application (project-specific, e.g. one month, or permanent), and the answer will lead to further decisions about the contract and the SLA (service level agreement).

Having thought through these options, it’s time to consider which applications are feasible for your business to deliver.

At the simpler end of things, out-of-the box solutions that provide a single screen with a media player and on-board CMS will allow you to access easily transferable markets. Poster-type screens for advertising in high street windows, or in-store displays for individual retailers or hospitality sites, are most accessible and require minimal installation, training and maintenance commitments.

Caption: Shown here at Lord’s, the historic cricket venue, Silver Curve’s The Totem is an off-the-shelf product that can be powder coated or vinyl wrapped in line with the client’s brand. Image credit: Silver Curve

Larger installations may require more expertise in network-building than you currently have in house – and this is where partners come in. Integrators or consultants with specific experience in the crossover between analogue (sign-making and print) and digital signage will be required to ensure that you are leveraging the opportunity and delivering it properly and sustainably – with companies like Allen Signs, Eclipse Digital Media and Silver Curve offering a track record in this area Europe-wide.

How you will make money depends largely on the size and scale of the installation, how involved you are with content creation, what training and maintenance are required according to the SLA and how regularly the technology will need updating. Enhanced margins can be applied for the creation of complex content and the amount of advice and hand-holding required by the client – and their willingness to pay those fees will come down to their return on investment.

ROI will be measured in digital signage by the effectiveness of the technology setup to deliver content to the audience and, where appropriate, by measuring the audience reaction. How many people per hour/day/week/month viewed the screen, or engaged with its content? How will those elements be measured? Will specific landing pages be created; will QR codes be shown on the screen to lead to those landing pages; does the client have specific metrics that they will be measuring to define the success of the installation?

There are technology solutions for any and all of these elements. Your familiarity with them and your ability to guide your client from concept to delivery for each is vital. And while there is a steep learning curve initially, both in technology and project definition terms, there is excellent business to be had in providing digital signage as a service to your existing client base.

Give this final prompt some thought. How could you combine digital screens with your existing product and service offerings? Could you incorporate a screen into a fit-out for one of your clients? Have you noticed how your clients’ specific business needs could be met better by providing dynamic information? Could you combine your skills in visual communication – physical sign and display production, digitally printed wallpapers or wraps, for example – with digital screens to create something imaginative, appealing and, ultimately, profitable?

And if you can’t fulfil these ambitions yourself, can you see yourself teaming up with an expert partner who could provide the digital signage element to your existing sales pipeline?

There may be many questions to answer – as with any new business or technology area – but the opportunities are many and dynamic, and are there for the taking.

Look out for more explainers on digital signage on FESPA.com, and thank you for reading.

 

Additional Information

Many print companies are hands-on and will want to bring a piece of tech in to play around and work out how they can make best use of it. Here are some off-the-shelf technologies specifically designed for certain applications.

1. The Digital Menu Board by Eclipse Digital Media
The digital menu board is a 32” screen with an on-board media player that is perfect for a single-store installation. Content can be uploaded directly without the need for extra hardware and Eclipse developed its own signage software, embed, for ease of use off the back of demand for this product. Embed offers extensive content management within an easy-to-use software piece and is tailored to the novice user: you can update a pricing spreadsheet and it will be reflected on the screen at the next point of refresh. The software and hardware can easily be tweaked for use as, say, a corporate reception or school information board. 

2.The Totem by Silver Curve
The digital signage consultancy Silver Curve created The Totem to help its large sports stadium clients with a specific issue: planning permission for permanent installations. The Totem is a freestanding screen that can be moved on a forklift truck. It’s rugged and durable, has on-board maintenance software and LED panels that are easy to replace in case of an outage. The CMS is the company’s own and is deliberately simple to use – or you can install your own. All you need is your existing poster content and a standard 16A power supply.

3.Get a screen and a media player
If you’re the kind of person that likes to plug and play with the parts yourself, you could easily buy yourself a screen and a USB key and play around. The major professional display manufacturers LG, Samsung, Sony and NEC offer screens for indoor and outdoor applications, high and low brightness and at different sizes. Professional-grade displays will offer a simple on-board media player solution, avoiding the need for an external media player for simpler single-screen projects. You can even run a CMS like Yodeck or Screenly on a cheap Raspberry Pi.

Popular options
There are so many providers of CMS, media players and displays that it knowing where to start can be overwhelming. For CMS alone there are literally hundreds. With media players and screens there are fewer, but still dozens. Most important is to assess your application and make sure its needs equate with the features the technology can provide: you don’t need a €1,000 external media player designed to control a video wall for a rolling poster.

Popular CMS providers include Brightspot, embed (from Eclipse), Scala, NoviSign, ScreenCloud, Yodeck, PixelPipe Signage (from Silver Curve), TelemetryTV, OnSignTV, Signagelive and Screenly. Most of these are scalable but you’ll find that PixelPipe, embed, Yodeck and Screenly are best suited to the kind of application that you will start out with in this field, geared as they are to novice users. If you’re already a Google aficionado, you can also check out the company’s own solution with Google Play Services.  

You should also check with the supplier of the display itself to see what media player option is already on board and what its scope and scalability are. You’ll recognize many of the top screen manufacturers from the commercial TV world: NEC, LG, Samsung, Sony and Philips. And, naturally, there are many producers from China. Elo is an option for those who enjoy the Google ecosystem, and ViewSonic is worth a look for its adaptable offerings.

BrightSign has long been a favourite in the digital signage market for its media players, while SpinetiX options are compact and versatile, too. Once again, various Chinese manufacturers will pitch for your money here.

As an entry-level user, have a good think about the features you actually need to deliver the project you’ve planned – because without a partner, support and maintenance will fall to you.

by James Matthews-Paul Back to News

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