Understanding the 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage
By Alan C. Brawn CTS, ISF, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE
Principal & Co-owner
Brawn Consulting

The concept of ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room has become a popular metaphor for ignoring the obvious. Nowhere is this more evident than the area of digital signage. It has grown from the days of those early adopters with the proverbial “arrows in their backs” to become the central theme of a great deal of the commercial audio visual and IT marketplaces crossing the boundaries of retail, corporations, education, healthcare, entertainment and security to name just a few areas of concentration.

Digital signage is one of the most exciting and fastest-growing segments of the audiovisual and IT industry. It has far-reaching implications and opens expansive new markets for systems designers, integrators, content creators and end users alike. From the obvious “explosion” of the retail signage market, to the unique applications for venues such as corporate communication and wayfinding, to education and transportation, digital signage cannot be ignored. In short, the opportunities within digital signage are very significant.

The problem we face with this market is that digital signage appears quite simple on the surface, but becomes a tangled web of interconnected and complex technologies that all interact together in unison to produce the images we see on screen. The challenge this poses to the designers, installers, service providers and content creators wanting to enter into this space is one of immersion and full understanding. Many companies have parts of the technologies that they understand, be it displays, networks, or content, but few understand the whole picture of what digital signage involves. To truly succeed in this space, a company must understand all of the disparate parts that make up the entirety of a digital signage network, and understand how to properly convey the value in those networks to the constituency of the industry.

The challenge then is to understand the breadth of everything that goes into a successful digital signage project. Most manufacturers, distributors, integrators, content creators and end users understand part of the dynamic but to be truly prepared to address the concept you must expand your scope of vision and understanding in areas that you may not be so familiar or even comfortable with.

You need to begin at the very beginning so as not to miss any of the segments that make up each and every digital signage project. You will quickly learn that there are hardware issues, networks to consider, software to learn and apply, and content creation to name just a few. Add to this, integration and service after the sale and the scale and scope of what is involved comes into focus.

In order to facilitate an understanding of what is involved, the Digital Signage Experts Group (DSEG), in concert with Digital Signage Expo and the Digital Signage Federation, present the 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage. This easy-to-use reference tool is an umbrella of key elements that are necessary to consider in each and every digital signage project whether it is a single panel application in a local school or a multi-thousand screen rollout for a major fast food chain.

The 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage are:
1. Hardware
2. Software
3. Connectivity
4. Content
5. Operations
6. Design
7. Business

Let’s take a brief look at each of the 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage individually and explain how they fit as pieces in the final puzzle:

  1. HARDWARE: Hardware is the most obvious and visible part of a digital signage system and frankly the one that is the least difficult to understand. Hardware involves displays, mounts, stands, media players and infrastructure such as cables, connectors and distribution amplifiers. The truth is that all the major suppliers make good to excellent equipment and most are on par with one another. It boils down to the digital signage system design telling you what hardware you require. Once decided, the selection process is basic with an eye toward understanding price versus cost, consumer versus commercial, and total cost of ownership.
  2. SOFTWARE: One of the most important choices you have to make for your project is which software vendor to partner with. There are more than 350 software providers on the market and selecting the one that fits your project can be intimidating and is available in two forms: Subscription or software as a service (SaaS), and as bundled or packaged software bought outright or included with a display purchase. Digital signage software packages are usually made up of a group of components, each designed to perform different tasks. Different vendors may call these parts by different names, but let’s take a look at the basic components, and what they do.

    Scheduling. The scheduling component allows the user to define when each content item will play chronologically, and what displays the content will play on.

    Player. The player software is the component that will reside on the player hardware, and will actually drive the video being sent to the display device.

    Server. The server component of the signage software package acts as the brain of the system, handling the distribution of media to the player software.

    Content creation. This may or may not be built into the software package. Content creation allows the user to build the media files used for the digital signage system.
  3. CONNECTIVITY: Connecting the displays to the main server is the “nervous system” of a digital signage project. You must consider if you will need connectivity to the Internet or cloud and plan accordingly. Wired systems are the most reliable but due to installation issues, they may be the most expensive or even impractical depending upon location. Wireless and cellular both sound great and have improved significantly over the last couple of years but may have issues with connectivity , reception and bandwidth.
  4. CONTENT: Content involves the creation of the media to be displayed on screen and may also involve advertising and marketing components. Content must be created to suit the objectives, viewer environment and other unique requirements of the digital signage network if the benefits are to be fully realized. Content creation is an art form specific to digital signage and usually involves more than a reformatting of media purposed for broadcast or print publications. Content can be designed to meet many objectives including information, education, entertainment, wayfinding and brand building to name a few. The Content Development Life Cycle or “creation equation” is as follows: “Content elements applied to the objectives in a viewer’s environment with a call to action will achieve a response.”
  5. OPERATION: Operation involves installation, network topology, maintenance, service and support. It is the unsung hero of most digital signage projects. It is ultimately the day-to-day processes that make the system work and continue to work at a profit and definable cost. It all begins with project managing for the installation to plan. Once it is complete, the network itself needs to be managed on a daily basis. Continuing maintenance is a requirement and not accounting for this will result in additional outlays of money and negatively affect the total cost of ownership (TCO). When (not if) something does go wrong, service and support must be in place beforehand in order to save the day.
  6. DESIGN: Design involves meeting the objectives and purpose of the system in a given environment and a plan for efficient deployment. There are several issues to consider under the heading of design. If the upfront work is done properly this will insure a smooth installation or at the very least reduce problems that could have been avoided. Once the objective is known, the needs analysis can take place. In the needs analysis, the environment must be taken into consideration. This includes location (indoor or outdoor), heat and humidity, lighting and ambient light, security and potential for vandalism. Finally, the deployment or scale and scope of the entire system must be factored in. This includes locations as well as the number and size of displays. The design links all of the hardware and software items into an integrated package that is both manageable and successful.
  7. BUSINESS: The most significant percentage of failures in digital signage projects fall under the areas of poor due diligence and business planning. The business plan must begin with a clear articulation of the objective or purpose of the digital signage network, and exactly what you want the system to do. Common objectives are brand building, increased sales and turnover of goods, dissemination of information, wayfinding, and an improved viewer/customer experience. Business topics that must be explored and agreed upon upfront are:

    ROI. Return on Investment (ROI) is one of the most talked about concepts in digital signage. In simple terms, ROI means the value of a project defined by the amount of benefits gained minus the amount of cost invested. Return on investment deals with hard dollars spent and the expectation of hard dollars returned in a specific time frame.

    ROO. Instead of calculating success based on revenues alone, return on objectives or ROO measures returns or the value of the digital signage system based on whether objectives are met rather than hard dollars earned. It must be noted that most systems are evaluated on a combination of ROI and ROO.

    Revenue. Revenue refers to the funds that are earned by a digital signage system. This money may be simply a way to pay as you go on the refreshment of content as well as the maintenance and upkeep of the system or it may be a larger number that includes profit on the overall investment in hard dollars. Whichever the case, revenue must be accounted for in the basic business plan.

    Partnering. Most companies involved in digital signage do not perform all of the 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage in house. It makes good business sense to partner with people who have skills or resources that you do not have. In short, effective partnerships can make or break a business.

In the ever-changing universe of digital signage, if the originator of the idea and the team put together to make it a reality understand the 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage, how to clearly articulate the system’s objectives, and ultimately how the system will be evaluated and by whom, then success becomes a probability more than a possibility.

Principal & Co-owner
Brawn Consulting

Alan C. Brawn is a principal of Brawn Consulting, an audiovisual and digital signage consulting, educational development and market intelligence firm with national exposure to major manufacturers, distributors and integrators. Brawn is an AV and digital signage industry veteran with experience spanning three decades and a recognized author for leading AV and digital signage publications. Brawn is CTS certified and a senior faculty member of InfoComm and was moderator of the ANSI Projected Images Task Group. He is a director of the Digital Signage Experts Group, certifying professionals in the digital signage industry, and the past chairman of the Digital Signage Federation. He was awarded the coveted InfoComm Volunteer of the Year Award for 2011 and Hall of Fame recognition from rAVe in 2004. Brawn serves as a chair person on DSE's education committees and advises DSE on digital signage education matters.

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