When I was in high-school, I worked for my father in a family business: a small engineering firm that designed and fabricated materials handling systems for conveyors.
One thing you can find in abundance at any engineering firm is computers. We had roughly two dozen of them, running top-grade software like AutoCad — an engineer’s first love, next to Star Wars and Lego blocks. There was one thing that these computers shared in common: they all ran on the old DOS platforms.
One day I showed up for work and happened to mention that our freshman computer class was learning something different. It was a program (I don’t think anyone knew the phrase “operating system” yet) called Windows, and it was — in my expert adolescent opinion — “cool”. For a start, it wasn’t text-based. It had just enough icons and graphics to get the video-game-addicted neurons in my brain fired up about typing up that Word document. It was, in essence, the next “New Thing”.
Those were the days when a kid could start a riot simply by stepping into a cafeteria filled with IT personnel and casually suggesting that Windows had better diagnostics tools than DOS. In five minutes’ time, the room would be split into two camps, spaghetti would be everywhere and you could easily cut to the front of the line to pick up your Twinkies. Ah, those were times.
Of course we all know how that debate ended.
* * *
When I think of the current state of the digital signage industry, my mind goes back to those days. It can be safely said that — in advertising circles at least — digital signage is the next New Thing. It’s breathing life back into an advertising market previously ravaged by the declining print industry and a dramatic drop in the number of viewers who still watch television commercials. (I think there are three now, and if they see one more ad for ABC’s “Eli Stone”, I’m afraid someone is going to end up in the emergency room.)
And yet the comparison doesn’t hold. Windows was a brilliant success because it was — well — Windows. There could only be one Microsoft and as much as everyone hated – and still hates – to admit it, there could only be one operating system.
That’s not the case for digital signage.
There is an army of content providers, hardware providers, software providers, integrated solutions providers and network providers — ranging from Fortune 500 companies to three-man startups — all claiming to offer an exclusive chunk of the New Thing. Some of them are good, and some of them are, well, less so. It’s almost like the California gold rush must have been: that shiny pebble the prospector offered you might have been gold, or it might have been just a shiny pebble.
Far too many deployers are assuming that, just because it’s new, they can deploy digital signage in any way, shape or form and it will be kissed by the prize of success. They have the Windows mentality: The project has to work. After all, it’s digital signage.
Their problem, I suspect, is that they don’t understand the life cycle of an industry.
* * *
Think back to when the Internet first came into being. In those early days, marketing departments and management consultants were all chanting the same mantra: If you want to survive in the new economy, you’d better have a Web site.
True advice, but how many breathtakingly pointless Web sites were thrust before us — sites with outdated content, bad links, e-mail addresses that went nowhere and information we didn’t need — all so a company could say they had something on the Web to show that they were progressive and on the leading edge?
And they were. The Internet was a brand new medium, with no rules or standards. It still had the ‘wow-factor’. When it came to the information superhighway, all you had to do to impress was show up.
But you can’t sustain an industry on the wow factor for very long. After the dot.com bubble burst, we quickly learned that we had the mantra wrong. We should have said: If you want to survive in the new economy, you’d better have a relevant Web site.
Remember the old IBM commercial? The young Web developer is excitedly showing the corporate sales associate the spinning, flaming logo he designed for the company’s Web site. It was visually dynamic. It looked cool. But the sales associate, unimpressed, says what the site really needs is an online order platform that links the site with the company’s POS system.
There is a long pause.
“I don’t know how to do that,” the kid says, gulping hard and looking like a deer in headlights.
The Web developers who survived the test of time figured out how to do That. They understand that the Internet industry is about more than just looking cool. Now it’s all about applications that actually fulfill a need: the Googles, Mapquests and eBays of the world. How long had the Internet been in place before Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim had the bright idea to create a site where people upload and share their own videos? Nine years? Ten years? They ended up selling YouTube to Google for $1.65 billion.
* * *
That, I think, is where digital signage is today. Some people are still bowed over by the sight of it, and who can blame them? It’s visually dynamic. It looks cool. But that won’t last forever. Soon the honeymoon will be over and digital signage content will have to be relevant and useful or the consumer walking through the crowded mall will simply relegate it to the blind spot of their minds.
When this happens, except a harvesting similar to what we saw with the Internet. It will still be a thriving industry, but many of the frivolous, less relevant deployments will be weeded out with Darwinian efficiency.
How can an industry leader make sure that they’re on the winning side when it’s all said and done?
I’ve thought about this, and more and more I believe the deployer’s greatest tools aren’t displays and players, but a paper and pencil. Take a few moments to sit down quietly and jot down as many verticals as you can think of: hospitals, movie theaters, bookstores, car dealerships, jewelry stores, community centers…
Now next to each vertical, write down its specific communications needs. A hospital has to provide its patients and their families with directions from the lobby to the maternity ward. A car dealership has to show its prospective customers what the interior and the exterior of its newest model looks like. A movie theater has to advertise its movies and show how much a jumbo bucket of popcorn costs. A church has to inform its members about upcoming events. A concession stand needs to link its digital menuboards with its POS system.
These are applications. These are the golden nuggets perspective signage deployers will be willing to pay good money for. These are the Googles, the Mapquests and the YouTubes of the digital signage industry.
There are still countless verticals that have yet to be reached by digital signage, with countless applications yet to be discovered. The deployers left standing when it’s all said and done will not simply be creative. They will be practical. They’ll be practical enough to identify a need – a real need – and creative enough to come up with the solution.