Making the Leap into Electronic Digital Signage
Is this dynamic medium the next horizon for print service providers? Here are four print shops that have experienced varying degrees of success with electronic digital signage and display work.
They’re cropping up everywhere, it seems: attention-grabbing LCD displays, panels, and systems that are shouting for attention wherever consumers meet products and services.
All falling under the umbrella of electronic digital signage, these systems share two major common features: They all provide changeable content and do so in a digitally delivered electronic format. Some would argue that they also are capable of producing graphics that are more dramatic and more eye-catching than their print counterparts – but that, like a printed graphic, is largely dependent upon quality of the system’s components and its installation.
The question for providers of wide-format graphics is: To what degree does electronic digital signage merit your attention? It’s a growing market, to be sure, and most industry consultants will indicate that electronic digital displays probably represent the next frontier for advertising and promotional graphics. But the over-arching concern for any shop should be whether you have the mindset and resources to make it a viable venture.
Print service providers already have the customer base likely to benefit from electronic digital displays and signage. Capitalizing on those relationships, however, requires a total commitment to a market that’s driven by tools and technologies likely to be quite new to you and your staff. If you choose to bring this in-house, you’ll be making a decision sure to have an impact on your current company – not only on its product offerings but also for its entire business structure, from staff and skill-set training to marketing and resources in general.
The four print shops that follow all have experienced varying degrees of success with electronic digital signage and display work. They’ve chosen to treat the medium and its technology not as a threat to their print work, but as a potential additional revenue stream, exploring how they can best derive an advantage to their business.
Hitting the mark: Visual Impressions
“Right now there are a lot of players in the electronic digital signage business,” observes Beth Osborne, director of marketing for Visual Impressions in Charlotte, North Carolina (www.visualimpressions.net). “They’re not all offering the same thing, or doing it as well.”
Her company, with its roots in the wide-format graphics business, is one which has apparently gotten digital signage right. Osborne happily reports that dynamic-signage services now represent 25 percent of her company’s revenues. “Hopefully, by the end of this year it will represent even more,” she says.
It’s a welcome return on the “substantial capital investment” the company made in this venture. “We invested well over half a million dollars in R&D to launch the product,” reports Osborne, a figure that also includes servers and software. “This could be a barrier for entry into the market by those who may think it’s easy to begin offering digital signage.”
With its commitment, the company is certainly doing its part to seed new business and explore new applications for digital signage. This past summer, Visual Impressions ran an experiment at New York’s City Field, using countertop digital photo frames as the window for point-of-sale promotions that fans simply couldn’t ignore. Another test in the field demonstrated the effectiveness of interactive kiosks with touch-screen LCD panels to allow patrons in fast-food restaurants to easily retrieve nutrition information for any items on the menu.
To date, though, most of Visual Impressions’ sales have been in digital signage’s established norms: networked panels driven by media-players or servers and content creation/management software. “So far, our niche with the digital signage has been in the fast and casual restaurant and cafeteria market,” says Osborne. “They have an existing need for this kind of solution.”
Four years ago, she says, Visual Impressions was primarily known as a large-format print operation when owners John Forgach and Brian McKenna first began discussing growing their business in a new direction, on the advice of a friend. “They had brought in a colleague who had a technology background rather than a printing background,” she explains. “He was very forward thinking and suggested it might be good to diversify in this direction.”
Good timing: About that time, one of the company’s established clients, Compass Group – Charlotte-based specialists in food service management – posed initial inquiries about introducing digital menu boards in some locations.
Soon, Visual Impressions was also in the digital signage business. Ward Wentzel, who first suggested the venture, assumed responsibility for designing the software to run the system, and art director Doug Elliott focused on the visual content that drives the systems.
“All our solutions are turnkey and completely self-contained,” says Osborne. “We do everything from building the computers and servers to run the system to developing custom software and installing the monitors.”
Site assessment, she says is critical to developing and deploying an effective digital signage system. “We’ll visit the site and look at the architecture and existing signage,” she says. “That’s the best way to decide on the proper placement and size of the screens. We want to make sure those screens are located in the right place, where they will be comfortably and easily viewed by someone standing in line.”
Each system is designed to order, based on that assessment and client goals. As far as components go, Visual Impressions cherry picks components from several vendors, combining the best of what’s available, based on the latest technology and, of course, the client’s budget.
“There’s a lot of hand-holding, we have to do a lot of explaining to clients about these projects,” she says.
Take LCD panels, for instance: “People don’t always understand why the ones we use are so expensive. They think they can just go out and buy any low-priced flatscreen monitor at the electronics store. We have to show them how the requirements in a digital sign system are different and more demanding. ”
For most systems, Visual Impressions provides initial content development. The software for clients to update and manage content, and training, are included in the bundle. The company’s expertise and guidance helped them deliver effective content.
“What really works for restaurants is very crisp and engaging images – it has to look like something you’d want to eat,” she offers as an example. The text, easily read info on price, and a terse description of the menu item should be fixed as images move in and out or are rotated to create motion that catches the eye.
The need for those visuals plays to the recognized strengths of providers of large-format graphics. “It’s our ability to know how to really manipulate an image, to do color correction, and understand what’s going to look best and what works on the printing side that makes the transition to digital signage easier,” she says. “If your existing customers have the need to make a switch from static to digital signage you can be the one to help them there. Many of our customers are now using plenty of both in their operations.”
All of which has Osborne encouraging her clients to see the company in a new way. “I’m trying to position Visual Impressions as not just a graphics or digital signage provider,” she closes, “With all we now offer, I want our customers to think of us as their merchandising solutions company.”
New revenue streams: Signs by Tomorrow
Five years ago, when Rob Kaun took his first look at adding digital-signage capabilities to his Signs By Tomorrow franchise in York, Pennsylvania (www.signsbytomorrow.com/york), he was put off by the costs.
“The pricing of systems and media players at the time was outrageous, and wasn’t something I could even see my Tier 1 clients investing in,” he recalls. But it was that price, and not the technology itself which delayed entry into what has turned out to be a profitable new venture. “I knew the market would eventually be moving in that direction, and that one day it would be a good fit for my business.”
So, Kaun kept an eye on developments in the dynamic signage arena while managing a prosperous business with traditional sign products. Then, about three years ago, he was approached by a representative of a company called Creosity (creosity.com) to gauge his interest in its SignPassage digital signage network of products.
“I told him I needed a system that was cost-effective, easy to operate, and could display both stills and animation.” Creosity covered all those bases with a flexible integrated solution of monitors, media players, and cloud-based content-development and management.
Kaun agreed to test the system, found it to measure up to his expectations, and has been marketing the SP digital signage system to clients ever since. His first customer was a local beer distributor to promote multiple brands and current specials. He’s also sold systems into a variety of retail outlets, schools, and restaurants.
One of the most ambitious installations to date has been at five locations of Tom’s convenience stores and travel centers operated by Shipley’s Energy in Pennsylvania. The chain’s marketing department now uses the SP series system and networked 32-inch panels installed at five locations for monthly promotions on food, drinks, and other items in the stores. With this digital sign network, Shipley’s marketing department can revise the sales pitch in all stores as needed, then transmit new content directly from headquarters to the panels. Content can be updated daily, even hourly, without expense or delay of representatives physically visiting each site.
Kaun is pleased with client feedback and the revenues from this and other installations. In fact, he’s become Signs By Tomorrow’s most outspoken advocate of dynamic digital signage for all franchisees as a natural extension of the traditional sign business. “If you can sell static signs, you can talk digital signage,” he says. “It’s been a complement to our existing business, and also attracted new customers.”
He believes those in the business of designing for large-format printing already have the essential skills required for content design. “If your staff is already creating graphics with Illustrator, it’s just a matter of recreating those graphics for display on digital sign systems,” according to Kaun. “It’s all done with Adobe CS5, it’s all Web-based. If you’ve created anything for the Web, you already have a basic understanding how these systems operate.”
He adds, though, that digital signage also requires an understanding of technology that will be new to those entering from the large format print business. “There is a learning curve and some new questions you need to ask your clients in order to sell these systems,” Kaun points out. “But these are things anyone can figure out: What kind of router does your client have; are they on a Wi-Fi or wired network, and is the cabling already in place?”
An economic incentive to ask those questions certainly exists. As Kaun notes, marketing digital signage promises both short and long term returns. Up front, there are the margins on sales of hardware, and the requisite network to drive that system.
Long term, lucrative new revenue streams can develop in content creation and management services. “We had one client we used to print four new signs for, every two months, at $50 each,” he notes. “Now they’re paying us $400 a month to create and manage content for their digital sign system. They can change that message whenever they need to, for a much more effective form of advertising, and we’re seeing income that just wasn’t available to us before.”
Looking ahead, Kaun sees these services as a complement to his traditional business, an opportunity that will allow him to provide his clients with more responsive services while bolstering his own bottom line.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” he states. “All this really is, is a new type of signage, using the skills we already have, to give our customers new options in how they advertise and promote their products and services.”
What it means for the future, is entirely subjective. “There are definitely going to be opportunities for those who offer digital signage, there’s still a lot of potential for growth there,” notes Kaun. “But it could also be seen as a threat by those who are afraid to begin offering these services – because if they don’t someone else will.”
Elusive opportunities: NuArt Sign and Graphic Systems
Check online, and NuArt Sign and Graphics Systems of Traverse City, Michigan (www.nuartsigns.com) is in the digital sign business. On its website, the company offers to guide clients, old and new, through the maze of this complex new medium to build the perfect solution.
That venture, however, has proven little more than an incidental complement to the company’s thriving business as a specialist in more traditional sign design, fabrication, and installation. As some early believers in dynamic digital signage have discovered, profiting from these services can pose something of a maze in itself, and realizing the initial promise of these new sign systems can prove much more elusive than first envisioned.
“While we do offer digital signage, it’s an area that I initially thought would explode much faster,” admits Michael Albaugh, the company’s co-owner and chief designer. “It’s not something any of my customers have recently asked about. So while we do offer it, we just don't get a lot of calls for it.”
That’s certainly not what Albaugh expected more than five years ago, when he convinced his brother and partner, Chad Albaugh, NuArt’s president, that they should establish a presence in the burgeoning digital signage arena. “I was trying to be very forward thinking, and get ahead of the curve,” he recalls.
“It seemed a brilliant idea to be able to go from static signage to animation and video. We were debating at the time if hard signage had much of a future.” In fact they placed an informal bet about if, and when, digital signage would dominate.
Five years on, their bet is still open. Although the prices for the varied components required to build a system have come down, he says the equipment and underlying technology has become more sophisticated as vendor population has grown. “It’s hard enough for most print-shop owners to keep up with digital printing technology,” Albaugh notes. “This stuff can get truly overwhelming.”
And because there is so much involved in the way of computers, video hardware, and software, he’s seen clients who could benefit from digital systems look first to other distribution channels. “These systems are so technical, people don’t necessarily know it’s something a company like ours can do for them,” he observes.
The airlines – one of his core client groups – would seem a natural for these systems, with their need to continually update flight arrival and departure information. But they’ve given their business to digital specialists: “The people who have been doing those large installations are the big boys, the tech specialists able to integrate these systems in multiple layers in multiple locations.”
Among many smaller accounts, awareness of the systems’ possibilities, and how to take advantage of them, still lags. “People who don’t understand how to use them also don’t understand why these systems cost so much,” he says.
They also seem to overlook the amount of work involved in developing, updating, and managing the content. “In that way, it’s very similar to Web-design services,” he continues. “People don’t understand all that’s involved, so they undervalue it and aren’t willing to make that investment.” At least not yet.
Despite all he’s learned over the last few years. Albaugh remains convinced these are sign systems with a promising future. “As a company, I think you really have to embrace and build a digital signage section of your business if you want to succeed in that market,” he says.
“That means you need to add people who understand IT and the hardware, and content developers. I know it can be done, but the question is still there: How much of a commitment do you want make?”
Mastering new tools: BigIdea
For John Rodriguez, owner of BigIdea (www.bigidea.net), Hollywood, Florida-based specialists in large-format graphics, dynamic digital signage seemed the perfect opportunity to tap his experience and grow business in new directions.
Rodriguez grew up in the sign business, but spent several years away, working in IT and networking. “When I returned to the sign industry six or seven years ago, I kept watching all the new technology as it came along. Digital signage seemed like a natural progression for our business.”
Since formally entering the digital market last year, BigIdea has built and installed systems in a variety of institutions and retail operations. It’s marketing the technology for all types of businesses, from banks to hotels to schools and sports arenas. Based on the experience so far, Rodriguez considers it a market with both opportunities and obstacles for companies approaching it as a sideline to the graphic printing business.
Growing awareness certainly justifies investigating this area. “Digital signage is becoming more ubiquitous,” he notes. “People are seeing these systems in their banks, at the doctor’s office, and the grocery store, so they at least understand what you are talking about when you mention them.
But, it would be a mistake to assume that a company’s success in large-format printing is easily transferrable to digital signage, he says. Carefully weigh all aspects of the venture before making the leap, Rodriguez advises. It can entail challenges in technology, staffing, marketing, and client perceptions about where to buy these systems.
His tech background taught him to proceed with caution, and not make a move until he was confident in the technology. “We began thinking seriously about getting into digital signage two or three years ago,” he says. “We took a long time evaluating all the systems, to see what would work and what wouldn’t work for us.”
That evaluation is ongoing. Rodriguez is not yet convinced any vendor has all the answers. “You can make a big mistake if you buy the wrong media player or content system,” he observes. “The market still hasn't stabilized so we’re not yet married to any one system, and tailor each to the job, and what our customer requires,” he says.
Selling digital signage also requires gaining mastery over this new set of tools. “There are many ways to skin a cat with digital signage,” he adds. “It can be as basic as installing a PC and monitor all the way up to creating a network of panels with integrated media players.”
The venture may also call for expanding your staff. “The people you currently have don’t necessarily have the same skillset required for digital signage,” he cautions. So he’s added people with expertise in systems integration, installation of system, and content development.
“Digital signage requires static graphics and motion graphics,” he points out, elaborating with one example. “You need people with a motion-graphics background, with experience in programs like Final Cut Pro, who understand Web graphics. The content is the key to making these systems work, and you’ve got to help your customers with that.”
Providing those content services could help legitimize a graphics company as a credible provider of digital signage. As Rodriguez notes, early adopters will find their primary competitors to be audiovisual specialists whose primary interest is selling and installing the hardware. “Your client’s natural progression may not be to call on a sign company for that type of equipment,” he says.
“I believe most sign companies have a unique relationship with their existing clients, and can build on that,” he continues. “You just have to let them know this represents a new version of things you’ve already been providing.”
His claim on the developing market is based on developing and delivering full service solutions: all the hardware; content development and management, or the tools and training for clients to create and manage their own; setup and installation; and the responsive service support to ensure the system performs as expected.
Those who committed to providing a fully integrated system, and make the required investments can become players in this new media market. “We’re not selling this as a replacement for our client’s static signs, but as something that will allow them to accomplish some things they can’t do.”
Carefully weigh the pros and cons, and consider all that’s involved, he offers as closing advice. “I can’t stress how complicated this all is,” Rodriguez emphasizes. “There really is a learning process to succeeding with digital signage, and we’re still learning.”
Freelance writer Mike Antoniak is a frequent contributor to The Big Picture magazine.