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Breaking Into a Dynamic Space

Is the next step for your shop electronic digital signage?

We live in an ever-changing marketplace. As we saw in the early 1990s with the innovation of digital printing, the signage and graphics industries are forever evolving. With competition steadfast, what’s the next step in the evolution of graphics?

The obvious answer to me is electronic digital signage, aka “dynamic signage.”

Whereas conventional print methods involve multiple steps to make simple changes to graphics and/or text, dynamic signage allows customers to change their messaging in moments. And there are other benefits to dynamic signage as well, including: the ability to schedule specific messaging; remote changing of messages and content; displaying emergency messaging; a perceived sustainability versus print; and more.

Some print shops believe that adding dynamic signage to their portfolio of options might appear to be a market that’s too expensive and too technical to break into. But by focusing on some of the talents and expertise that are already in-house, many print providers are actually well poised to enter into the dynamic-signage realm. What follows are a few notes that can help you determine if it’s time for you to break into a more dynamic space.

A close look at your customers
Look at your current customer base. What types of customers and projects need re-works and/or additional prints on a regular basis because of simple changes? Menu boards, for instance, would be a prime candidate due to regular changes to items and pricing. It’s become a necessity rather than a choice for the industry.

Think about how many quick-serve or fast casual food venues have now gone completely digital. This type of changeover is even more apparent in food courts or with food-service companies that serve hospitals, universities, or other organizations because they change their menu items every day. Dynamic signage is the only solution for them. In the next five years, I believe that print menus in these types of establishments will be the exception, not the rule.

So, before making any decisions about whether to diversify into dynamic signage, take a close look at your customers. Think about the way they do business – specifically, how they communicate with customers. If their needs point toward constantly changing their messaging, then they’re an excellent candidate for dynamic signage.

This is the starting point in determining if you want to diversify. Because if these customers need a better, quicker way to convey messaging, and their print shop cannot provide this, then they’ll seek out a new vendor, regardless of the relationship. Customers don’t stay with vendors that can no longer provide them solutions.

In these initial conversations, listen specifically to your customers’ requirements. This can help you make the decisions on what type of solution to offer. Building a solution focused on the needs of your existing customer base will help you be successful with new customers as well. This type of research will also supply you with any concerns the customer might have about dynamic signage – such as cost and ease of use (two rather common topics that are initially brought up). Barriers such as these can be easily overcome as you develop a solution that works for your specific customer.

The hardware, the software, and more
First, you need to determine what type of dynamic-signage solution you want to provide and what its components will be. A solution can be completely turnkey, with the vendor offering hardware, software, creative, installation, hosting, and support. That might seem like a tall order – how can a print provider suddenly diversify without a large amount of resources? Here are just a few of the considerations when determining what you want to provide.

Hardware: Regarding hardware, many dynamic-signage providers do not provide the actual displays or screens. It’s not necessary to do so. Instead, you can simply guide your clients on the basics of what they need to know about choosing the right screens. Advise them they cannot just go to a “big box” store and buy the least-expensive screens. The screens used for digital signage should be, at a minimum, commercial-grade TVs; best practices would require commercial-grade monitors. Screens can be a large upfront cost for providers, so this responsibility is typically placed on the customer.

If you do decide to provide the screens, however, you should strategically partner with one manufacturer and become a licensed reseller to ensure best pricing. You can also buy directly from distributors that only sell to resellers. There are ways to get rock-bottom pricing on screens. Keep in mind that the prices you see on a consumer site are not the prices you will pay, especially if you are buying large volumes. Distributors and manufacturers are more than willing to provide special pricing for large quantities.

The other part of the hardware equation: the computers or servers that run the system. These you will want to provide to the customer (versus having the customer purchase them directly) because it’s likely that each will have to be configured for that particular customer and/or application. You’ll need to have a hardware expert on your staff that can configure the right type of computers to run the system. And, of course, your customers will be dependent on you for updates and upgrades.

Software: The next decision is software. Will you pursue developing your own or purchase existing software? Unless you have the resources, there’s no reason to develop your own software; many software packages are available that can provide the functionality that customers are seeking: dayparting (dividing the day into several program/message-specific segments), instant updates, Web-based platforms, scheduling features, the ability to easily change out images, and so on.

Be sure to thoroughly research your choices. You want to choose software that resells to dynamic-signage providers; not one that sells directly to end users. Most of the major screen/display manufacturers also have software products, so this could be an opportunity to receive both products from a single source. Of course the drawback to reselling an existing product is licensing fees, which can vary depending mostly on the number of licenses purchased. Additional maintenance fees might also be involved. This investment is, however, minimal compared to the time and resources that would be required to develop your own software.

Content: The easiest part of the puzzle to provide for large-format print providers might well be the content piece. Most content is developed using the Adobe Creative Suite (now Creative Cloud) products, which most designers already utilize when creating and working with large-format print artwork. This is where you have the ability to play to your strengths. And your expertise in color correcting and image correction works here as well. Keep in mind that dynamic-signage content should integrate animation, since static content doesn’t have the same impact as content that moves.

Installation: When considering installation, you have outsourcing options – various companies do nothing but install dynamic-signage solutions. The downsides to this option are that you have little control over how these installers will conduct themselves; and if issues arise, these individuals are not your employees. Installing digital signage doesn’t require a technology genius, but the installer should have a good understanding of networking, hardware, and the software itself.

Support: The final decision to be made is how you will support your customers in the field when it comes to ongoing maintenance and everyday troubleshooting. The good news is that having a robust support program does not mean that you need a room full of technicians ready to take calls. One person available to take calls and deal with customer issues should be sufficient when you’re just starting out with dynamic signage. If you’ve employed an excellent software program, then the technical issues should be minimal; providing a very detailed user guide to your customer is also a good first step to minimizing support calls.

It’s important to determine the costs associated with support as well as when support will be available – only during work hours, 24/7, etc.? You can customize options for each individual customer. When considering costs, think in terms of the labor costs associated with employing a fulltime support technician as well as any profits. Because support is a recurring-fee type of income, its profits can become a foundation for expanding your shop’s dynamic-signage solution.

Launch the solution, make the leap
After you’ve completed the research and made the big decisions, the next phase is implementation. That, of course, begins with customers.

Starting with current customers is the obvious and prudent path. Any customer utilizing menus is the target we already identified, but it’s not just the dining industry that has a need for updated information. Retail, banking, healthcare, and entertainment are all industries with a need to instantly disseminate new information. Retailers choose to preview certain products at certain times; banks want to provide updates on interest rates; hospitals update wait times in ERs; entertainment venues promote the next concert. The landscape is ripe with opportunity, but competition can be stiff.

The best way to combat competition and become a force in the industry is to deliver a great product but also be experts in the field. It’s not realistic to become a dynamic-signage authority overnight. Take advantage of all the information already available: case studies, white papers, editorial content. Also consider working with a dynamic-signage consultant or perhaps hiring a professional with dynamic-signage experience. This type of industry knowledge goes a long way when meeting with clients. Walking in with a dynamic-signage strategy including critical best practices shows your customer that you can deliver the solutions they need.

Offering a new product or service is never easy. But successful companies don’t fear change – they embrace it. Embracing the evolution of signage and graphics is already in the veins of your company. Make this next leap.

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