Success with Dynamic Signage

Opportunities await those willing to commit.

At first glance, electronic digital signage – aka “dynamic signage” – might appear to be a ripe opportunity to expand your business. After all, many of the same clients who turn to you for their print work would also likely benefit from some form of dynamic signage.

Electronic digital signage, however, is a very challenging market. The competition can be fierce, and margins tight – nothing necessarily new about those factors versus print. But, before you can enter this arena, you must also master an entirely new technology and all its nuances, all the while providing some easy-to-use solutions to a diverse set of client needs.

As the following examples show, it can be done. Those who have successfully expanded into dynamic signage all possess the vision, resources, and determination to make it an attractive and affordable option for their clients. And in the process, they’ve also managed to create new opportunities to sell their print services.

Combining all the options
Over the last half century, Keith Fabry Reprographics in Richmond, Virginia (keithfabry.com), has built its success on a commitment to meet the evolving needs of its diverse client base for compelling graphic solutions.

So, as electronic digital signage made its transit from a leading-edge, gee-wiz technology to a more practical and affordable solution, the company’s principals decided it represented a service category they should investigate.

“It was showing up here and there, and we could see it was eventually going to take off,” recalls Ricky Shannon, operations manager for the company’s print and display group. “In 2007, we started exploring the technology – the pieces and parts that make up the systems.”

It took a year to be sufficiently grounded in the technology to convey its benefits to clients, especially retail accounts. “We definitely had to educate our customers about why they would want one of these systems, and how they would benefit,” he says

“But the bigger part of it was educating ourselves. As a traditional sign and graphics shop, this was much different than anything we’d done and required a completely different learning curve.”

Unlike large forma – where a company can selectively invest in a few core systems, and utilize them for years – digital signage required a mastery of an array of equipment and technologies: screens and displays, players, content management and delivery systems, says Shannon. To convey its new expertise, the company launched its digital signage offerings as a separate brand, KeithFabryPlayer, with its own website (kfrplayer.com).

Despite the independent branding, however, Shannon considers digital signage a complement to the Keith Fabry’s print business, a service that can drive demand for large-format graphics as well. “It looks good to our customers to see we have this broad spectrum of solutions we can provide,” he explains.

When we sell these systems, we try to incorporate some graphics,” he says. “For example, if a customer wants a screen for a retail setting, we show them it’s much more effective to surround that screen with a printed PVC panel, with a shape cut, as a way of drawing attention.”

In a project for the US Holocaust Museum, the company designed and built interactive kiosks for a traveling exhibit. Printed graphics on the front and back served to inform visitors and draw them to the interactive displays built into each unit.

Shannon cites it as an example of the specialized solutions that are helping digital signage, in its many forms, enter into the mainstream. “In printing we do a lot more large rollouts, but with digital signage we’ve found the most success is with people looking for a higher-end solution, but in a smaller quantity.”

That’s not to suggest demand and interest isn’t growing. He’s now fielding inquiries from all types of companies and organizations, from chains with hundreds of locations to individual wedding planners asking about a kiosk to explain services. Shannon points out that Fabry systems are now fixtures in stores, corporate headquarters, restaurants, museums, and tradeshows.

Success with digital signage has come from the diversity of solutions it can offer – individually tailored to budget and customized to setting. “One client wanted a way to capture information from customers and enroll them in a membership, but they couldn’t afford a kiosk with an interactive LCD panel,” he says, offering an example. “So we used iPads as the display, with a custom app, and built a simple floor stand with graphics printed on Dibond.”

Going forward, he’s confident this ability to combine all options, and adapt, can give providers of large format a viable presence in digital signage. “As people who work with visual displays we know what looks good,” he sums up. “When you present ideas to clients that demonstrate you offer a library of solutions that look good together, it can only help all parts of your business.”

Avoiding ‘hang and bang’ solutions
When Dan Bright launched Art Digital Technologies (artdigitaltech.com) 20 years ago, he could not have foreseen that meeting the graphics needs of a demanding clientele would also entail becoming an electronic digital signage specialist.

“We’ve always specialized in creating custom store environments and events for retailers in New York City and marketing companies around the world,” Bright explains.

Print was and remains a critical component of that service mix. But with increasing frequency, he reports, he finds that his shop’s large-format graphics are destined for installations with dynamic signage.

Bright was one of the city’s early advocates of the new technology after another venture alerted him to its potential as a marketing tool.

“About 12 years ago, I started a company doing custom residential installations of electronics for smart homes and home theaters,” he recalls. “Then, nine years ago, the light bulb clicked: I saw how the screens we were installing in homes could be used at retail as a new form of signage.”

It was a new concept, even for New York. “My biggest fear when we first got into it was that we were going to make this wave, then others would ride it,” he recalls.”

And, indeed, competition has increased as costs have come down, making electronic digital signage almost commonplace in Manhattan. “It’s become a must-have element in retail. Every store seems to have some type of digital signage,” he observes.

But what’s lacking, he says, is creative implementation. Bright laments the amount of what he describes as “hang-and-bang” systems that fail to take advantage of the technology.

“Our niche is providing our clients with much more,” he says. “Cracking the code with clients means you have to paint the vision for them, and show them the realm of possibilities with digital signage.”

By his definition, those possibilities entail more than what typically comes to mind. Art Digital can provide flat panels, interactive displays, and touchscreens – but its brand of digital signage also taps the latest digital projection technologies for motion-sensitive mirrors; interactive storefronts; and screens precisely aligned so the content moves with those passing by. The company even offers a mobile digital billboard, with content displayed on the windows of a fully wrapped bus.

“When we first started out, we were just putting a rectangular screen in stores,” recalls Bright. “The way I pitch it now is hanging a monitor on a wall just doesn’t look good on its own, it’s just another form of media. We can combine the other things we can do with printing and installation to create a unique environment.”

Although awareness has grown, most clients still want easy answers, and that plays to his strengths, he says: “To be successful, you have to bring to the table a value-added solution, educate them about their options, what digital signage can do for them, provide content and service, and be the one to implement it all,” he says.

“If you’re in the sign or graphics business, and you want to be a player, you have to realize that you must get into this game while there’s still time.”

Going the subscription route
“There’s only so much you can say in print, or with video,” says Stephanie Boisfontaine, managing partner at Crystal Vision (ccimaging.net/crystal-vision) in New Orleans. “But when you can combine the two, it completes the story.”

Her company’s story itself is a bit about both worlds. Crystal Vision began as a new venture for large-format specialists Crystal Clear Imaging. In 2006, the company launched an electronic digital signage division in recognition of its potential as a future service. But as New Orleans recovered from Hurricane Katrina, demand for print services soared. The company’s principals had to decide whether to invest in growing a new business, or focus on their proven expertise as large-format specialists.

As an Internet entrepreneur and sister to one of Crystal Clear Imaging’s founding partners, Boisfontaine was approached about running the new digital signage division. Ultimately, she acquired the company with Louis Chott, the attorney who helped her evaluate the business and its prospects.

“Crystal Clear Imaging remains our marketing partner,” she says. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The graphics company sends customers to Crystal Vision for digital signage, or advertising spots on the systems it has placed throughout the city. Crystal Vision, in turn, refers its clients back to the print company for the collateral Boisfontaine believes enhances the impact of digital signage.

“When you can wrap something with vinyl graphics then put a screen on top of that, it enlivens the whole space, and that screen becomes much more of a focal point,” she explains. “Everyone is familiar with how to use print, and people who are visual tend to get the benefits of combining the two,” she says. “In most cases, you have to present them examples before they see how it can work for them.”

Before conversations get that far, she sometimes needs to address basic misconceptions. “People are more aware of dynamic signage today, but they don’t think they can afford it. They think it’s too complex or they don’t know where to start,” Boisfontaine explains.

Once she acquired the company, she surveyed early adopters to see what worked, what didn’t, and what they would like in digital signage solutions. While responses were as varied as businesses and settings, some consensus emerged: They wanted systems that could be easily installed and managed, and affordable.

That insight influenced her business model. To offer a breadth of options, she allied the company with electronics distributor Ingram Micro for hardware, and Scala for content-delivery solutions.
While Crystal Vision does sell components, its emphasis is on fully integrated solutions that are sold on a subscription basis. “We found subscription to be a much easier way to market digital signage because it makes it easier for a business owner to get started,” she says.

The company offers several customizable packages. Its CV-TV is marketed as an affordable, integrated system of screen, player, and management system for small to medium-sized businesses and organizations. Crystal Vision Elite offers a more extensive range of options, including multi-zone interactive screens.

“I wish there was a cookie-cutter approach we could take, but every quote has to be for a custom job,” says Boisfontaine. “When we meet with a customer, we ask a lot of questions.” These can include: the type of business or organization; goal for the-digital signage; target audience and dwell time; installation setting; type, size, and number of screens; content needs and plans; and whether or not they want to display paid advertising. “Once we determine all that, we can craft the appropriate solution,” she says.
Content is available as an add-on service, at a cost per spot, based on volume. For those willing to run advertising from other sponsors as a way to recoup costs, Crystal Vision provides that service, too. The company’s staff includes specialists in media sales to area businesses.

“What we try to do is take out all the mystique of digital signage, to make this technology as simple as possible for our customers to embrace,” sums up Boisfontaine.

Films versus monitors
Express Image (expressimage.com) in Little Canada, Minnesota, might have an inside track on the future of P-O-P: “Bring retail branding to the next level by combining remarkable printed graphics with the power of digital video,” the company invites on its website.

What’s intriguing about its approach: The company developed its own video-projection film as the centerpiece of its digital signage solution, Active Graphics (expressimage.com/active-graphics). It’s used for interactive sign windows within larger wraps, and in a new generation of shelf and floor talkers – what it refers to as “virtual mannequins” and smaller “miniquins.” With these, the person or character addressing the audience is projected on a 3D form that’s wrapped with the film.

“By developing our own film, we’ve dramatically lowered the costs,” says Mike Sloan, executive vice president. “That makes this practical for more businesses and more applications, and the projection window can be as large they want.”

Sloan’s background and experience as a chemist guided the efforts to develop the company’s Opti line of projection films. Yet, digital signage wasn’t even a consideration when the company first entered the P-O-P market in 2006. That print venture marked a strategic move to diversify the company, which had been a successful OEM printer too heavily reliant on business from a single account.

“As we began doing more and more P-O-P, we also began seeing electronic digital signage systems here and there,” recalls Sloan. “We could see it was the wave of the future.”

But for all its advantages, company principals wondered why digital signage wasn’t more pervasive. “We really spent our first year trying to identify the weaknesses – why hadn’t digital signage made its way more into retail?”

The issues, they learned, included costs, deployment, and awareness. They also identified projection films, rather than monitors, as an approach that would allow more creative applications.

“A projection film, surrounded by graphics, tends to draw more people in than an LCD,” says Sloan. “They want to step up to it, see what it is, how it works.” Combined with advances in high-resolution micro-projectors, the films bring digital signage to settings where a monitor simply won’t work.

Express Image has used the technology to convert the windows of a Mini-Cooper into digital signs. In another installation, the film displays a super-sized smartphone pedestrians could step up to explore features or play interactive games.

Then there are the virtual mannequins and minnequins. The mannequins can be built to spec, while the minnequins stand 10 inches. The package includes content production, including a green room recording of a model reading the sponsor’s message. Sloan sees applications at tradeshows, museums, exhibits, lobbies, and the point of sale. “Anybody who does any kind of advertising, or has something to explain to the public, can utilize them,” says Sloan.

Even with these innovations, and all the possibilities dynamic signage allows, he still considers the technology as a complement to print. “This has just diversified our market,” he says. “We don’t expect it’s going to encroach on print, but will create new opportunities for it.”

Creating effective content
For DGI Invisuals (dgi-invisuals.com) in North Billerica, Massachusetts, electronic digital signage helps make the company the single source for all clients’ graphic communication needs.

“It’s certainly growing, but not outpacing our large-format print business,” reports Glen Fairbanks, company vice president. He estimates the company’s turnkey digital signage solutions account for less than 25 percent of sales. Still, that’s a respectable showing for a graphics provider that’s been in the digital sign business less than a decade.

Fairbanks had his first close look at the technology eight years ago, in booths at the back of the SGIA Expo, he recalls. “They really caught my eye. Right away I decided it was something we needed to be familiar with.”

At the time, a few clients were also intrigued with the possibilities, and the company partnered with them on early experiments. “The first project we did was for a client who wanted to see how effective a system could be at reducing a customer’s perceived wait time,” he recalls.

That was the proving ground. Five years ago, as the economy soured, DGI’s owners were looking for ways to diversify the business. Dynamic signage seemed a logical opportunity. “We acquired some high-end AV and structured wiring/cabling companies, and have been able to use their strengths to bolster our capabilities,” he says.

“One thing we had learned: Electronic digital signage requires a whole other skill set than large-format printing to be successful.”

And Fairbanks sees four core markets for its solutions, each with special requirements – retail; corporate buildings and complexes; tradeshows to draw attention and inform attendees; and “dynamic way-finding,” to inform visitors about what’s going on as well as how to get there.

“There’s still a fair amount of education going on,” he notes. “Most people know what a flat screen is, but they may not know how it can be used as a sign, or how to make it work for them.”

DGI’s emphasis is on turnkey solutions, an integrated system of display, media player, content, ancillary graphics, and professional installation services. “Some customers just buy large-format graphics from us, while some primarily only do digital signage,” notes Fairbanks. “But more are starting to blend the static graphics with dynamic signage.”

As an option, DGI offers professional content design services on a subscription or hourly basis. “Right now, 75 percent of people choose to create their content in house, but most are not doing it that effectively,” he observes. “We see more opportunities to go back to the customer after they’ve had a system a while, doing their own content, and it’s not working. When they find they can’t create it and keep it fresh, we’re here to provide it.”

It’s just part of what it takes to be a total solutions provider: “What we want people to know, that whether you’re looking for print or content, we understand your brand and how to communicate it.”

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