Digital Signs of the Times

Take a walk around Times Square in New York and you’ll instantly see the power of digital signage. From virtual billboards to point-of-sale monitors, audio and video cry out to passersby. Combining sound and motion, digital signage is a living, breathing high-impact communications platform that takes marketing to another level. And with the price of technology coming down and the number of content providers growing by the week, digital signage is no longer just for the big boys.

Digital signage needn’t be a complex application — at its core, signage is signage. The digital technology, however, does make the medium more powerful and versatile as a marketing vehicle. Whether it’s a commercial broadcast on an interior wall or a small point-of-sale screen, digital signage is about quickly capturing the attention of passersby. Rotating messages with motion, sound, colors, and changing graphics often cause shoppers to respond not just with open minds but with open wallets as well.

As a “flexible” medium, says Kristi Kinney, creative team leader for Bainbridge Island, WA-based 3M Digital Signage, digital signage can change by the minute, by the hour, or by the time of the day (called day-parting) to cater to different markets within a retail environment. Hundreds of signs — menus, window advertisements, product displays, billboards — can be broadcast on one screen and set on a virtually automated mode. Digital signs can announce sales promotions, showcase product information, run commercials, and convey just about any other message to a customer.

“The impact of your business having relevant, almost instantaneous information, vs. having to change a print run, is huge,” says Kinney. “If you can attract consumers’ attention and pull them over to the window, chances are they’ll come in.”

Lon Otrema, CEO of Access 360 Media, a New York-based multimedia network that works with retailers targeting young adults, says that digital media are often used as an “enhancement to the experience.” Instead of just slapping a phrase on a digital sign, retailers should carefully create presentations and themes that create a better affinity to their brand. For instance, athletic-shoe stores can broadcast clips from sporting events, cell-phone companies can run videos about their latest products, and apparel merchants can show footage from fashion shows.

That engagement is no more apparent than in the stores of Hollister Co. The apparel retailer, a division of Abercrombie & Fitch, airs in its stores live feeds from cameras at Huntington Beach, CA. The footage is broadcast on a 5-ft. × 5-ft. panel made up of nine 21-in. screens. The scenes immerse store customers in a branded beach environment well suited to the surf-loving teens who are the target market; some even hang around just to watch the sunset.

“You can use digital signage to create a ‘stickier’ customer experience,” Otrema says. “And it makes them — hopefully — want to spend more.”

Options abound

Digital signage is already an important part of the landscape for big-box retailers. Wal-Mart, Albertson’s, Best Buy, Costco, and ShopRite, for instance, have in-store television networks, courtesy of Premier Retail Networks. Mike Quinn, senior vice president of marketing research and product development for the San Francisco-based programming provider, says the company tailors its content for each retailer; it broadcasts in more than 6,000 stores nationwide and reaches more than 250 million viewers a month.

“There’s not much else for [customers] to do while they’re waiting in line at the checkout,” Quinn says. “It’s a great messaging opportunity, since you’ve got a captive audience.” He advises limiting video and audio spots to 10-15 seconds. Opt for clean and simple messages in high-traffic locations delivered with frequency.

For small retailers, 3M Digital Signage offers a low-cost entry solution. All that is needed is the software, a small display screen, and a host computer. The software offers high-quality graphics with full-motion sound and video capabilities, templates, full support of dynamic data feeds, and drag-and-drop scheduling that can direct your messages for specific markets during specific times of the day. Users can then create their own content and messages and rotate them throughout the day.

“The real power is the ability to rotate different messaging in the same footprint,” says 3M’s Kinney. “It’s not really that costly any more to have a plasma screen or event messaging on your own laptop. The display is completely flexible.”

Jim Wessels, executive vice president of media solutions provider PlayNetwork, says that the size and type of the store along with its market will dictate how best to implement digital signage. Displays are by far the most expensive items in a digital signage solution. Some retailers use top-of-the-line plasma screens, but traditional television sets and computer monitors can work too. Wessels says that small screens should generally be placed closer to products, while large screens are best positioned in the front of a store.

Active Light, a major supplier of hardware in the industry, has plug-and-play- ready monitors from as little as $269 to more than $13,000. Popular and versatile for many signage applications, 42-in. monitors can usually be had for approximately $2,000.

As for the content, “many people use off-the-shelf computers with a distribution and scheduling software,” says Wessels. “Content can be delivered via satellite, a corporate network, or hard media.”

Redmond, WA-based PlayNetwork offers licensed content and scheduling and playback services for $100-$200 a month. The company manages two high-definition video networks for CompUSA. Updated once a week via satellite and broadcast on 80 screens in each store, the network promotes computers and consumer electronics that the stores carry.

Bill Gerba, CEO of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based digital signage solution company Wirespring Technologies, estimates the cost of running a simple digital sign for three years to be about $8,200. This includes $2,500 for a 40-in. LCD screen, $2,500 for player hardware, $1,500 for a ceiling mount, $500 for player software, $1,800 for management software and tech support, $1,400 for installation and $300 for initial project management. Wirespring Technologies offers solutions ranging from complex point-of-sale kiosks to simple digital signs.

Integrating multichannel marketing

Some of your suppliers may be able to help you offset the cost of implementing this sort of digital signage, Wessels adds:Having seen the results that spots on digital signage networks produce, manufacturers are often quick to jump on board and pay for advertising, virtually paying for the signage system itself.

Then there’s the ability to accept advertising — and earn revenue — from outside partners. For instance, music and entertainment retailer FYE recently joined up with Jeep to target 18- to 34-year-olds. Jeep paid to run 15-second commercials on the digital displays in F.Y.E. stores.

Albany, NY-based F.Y.E. has also incorporated its digital signage marketing with its Web efforts. With the Jeep partnership, promotional messages were included on and in marketing e-mails and radio commercials. “We’ve proven that we can drive in-store to online and online to in-store using digital media,” says Barry Burmaster, director of marketing for parent company Trans World Entertainment.

PlayNetwork’s Wessels says there is a lot of cross-pollination between what is happening on Websites and what is happening in stores. In many cases, the same messages that are used for branding on a Website can be used for in-store digital media.

“You’re starting to see more marketers thinking of their store space and their Internet space as the same things,” Wessels says.

Craig Guillot is a New Orleans-based writer whose work has appeared in Cargo Systems, Stores, and National Geographic.

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