The 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage and How They Have Evolved with the Industry


Depending on who you ask (factor in how long they have been around), digital signage as we know it came on the scene just after the turn of the century. For some of us, that seems like last week… but I digress. It began as an advertising medium, and this focus is easily demonstrated by the first iteration of the digital signage trade show, the Digital Retail Expo. A new vision of advertising opportunities was coincident with the development of flat panel displays and compact video projection. From the beginning, it just made sense to change out the time-honored static signs with something more dynamic and more noticeable, that would draw attention from the shoppers passing by. One of my favorite phrases is appropriate in this situation… “when applications, technology, and prices converge, an opportunity is created”. And so, it has been from the beginning with digital signage.

As it has evolved, digital signage has broken free of the limitations of being used primarily as a vehicle for advertising.   As early adopters experienced the proverbial “arrows in their backs,” it has now become mainstream, and a central focus of the converged commercial AV, IT, and content creator communities. It crosses over the boundaries of retail, food service, corporate communication, education, healthcare, entertainment and transportation to name just a few areas of concentration. It has become a very effective and pervasive multi-purpose communication methodology.

Digital signage continues to be one of the most exciting and fastest-growing industries with a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) tripling that of the U.S. economy. It has far-reaching implications and opens expansive new opportunities and markets for consultants, systems designers, resellers/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 and healthcare, digital signage cannot be ignored. In short, the opportunities within digital signage are very significant and simply waiting for further discoveries and developments.

The problem we have faced from the very beginning is that, on the surface, digital signage appears quite simple… but therein lays the set of challenges. As our Brawn Consulting Director of Business Development Dave Haar opines, “Unlike any other application of technology, the answer to any question in digital signage that you or your customers may ask is that ‘it depends.’” He goes on to explain that it depends on where you’re placing the screens, where the players are located, how many screens you will have, what the content is on the screens, what you want your messaging to do, how big the screens need to be, how often they need to be updated and who is doing the updating, how many content streams you have, how long the loops need to be, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…

He rightfully points out (to all willing to listen) that having a fundamental knowledge of what is involved in creating a digital signage network is imperative to intelligently and accurately ask and respond to these questions.  This applies whether you are putting one screen in a lobby or 10,000 screens enterprise wide into a QSR chain, nationwide financial institution, or large corporation. Of course, this begs the question of what to do and how to gain the knowledge necessary to answer and expand on that simple statement of “it all depends.”

Many companies understand certain parts of the equation from a technology perspective, be it displays, networks, or content. But even today, few understand the totality of what digital signage encompasses. To truly participate and succeed in the vision of this space, a company must understand all the disparate parts that make up the scale and scope of a digital signage network, from hardware and software to content and analytics. They must also understand how to properly convey the value (ROI and ROO) in those networks to the constituency of the industry, and most of all, to end users.

Everyone needs to begin with the fundamentals. This prevents overlooking any of the critical elements along the way that are common to every digital signage project. The obvious is just that, obvious… but this single word becomes a limitation and an enabler of the misconception that digital signage is simple. It will come as no surprise that I am not a believer in the plug and play, digital signage-in-a-box dream. What comes to mind is a product that is supposed to be a universal fit that, in use, never seems to fit what you need it to fit. Consider that a Swiss Army Knife may contain many tools, but are they the best version of that tool? It is always much more complex than this, and without a fundamental knowledge and understanding of how it all works together, the dream can become a nightmare.

To address the growing need in the industry for knowledge that would encompass the fundamentals in an impartial, agnostic, and vendor-neutral manner, the Digital Signage Experts Group (DSEG) was formed almost 10 years ago. The goal was (and still is) to provide industry-recognized education and certifications, ultimately establishing professional credentials for the constituencies who ply the craft.  The search for, and attainment of, knowledge had to begin with proven and agreed-upon elements that affect all that we do, and hopefully provide those in an ordered manner.

In concert with the Digital Signage Expo (DSE) and the Digital Signage Federation (DSF), DSEG introduced the 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage as a set of fundamental truths. To explain the concept and objectives, compare it to the laws of physics in science. These fundamental laws permeate scientific thinking as a point of reference and are used as a stepping stone for further advances and developments. The 7 Key Elements is an easy-to-use reference tool intended as an umbrella of categories and concepts that are necessary to consider in every digital signage project, whether it is a single display application in a local school or a multi-thousand screen rollout for a major fast food chain.

This begs the question as to the status of the 7 Key Elements, since the industry has evolved and expanded over the years since inception. Does it follow the correlation to the scientific laws of physics concept? The answer is yes, but….

It did not take long to understand that the original order of the 7 Key Elements was, shall we say, out of order. We originally began with hardware, then software, etc. Refer to the earlier comment on the pitfalls of simplicity and stating the obvious. Credit here goes to the DSF and the past Chairman Phil Cohen. In his iconic, gravelly voice, he pointed out that the original model was wrong… it all starts and ends with business. He would warn us that “If we don’t have a good business model, then we have nothing … and will not survive”. He spoke with a lot of credibility as the CEO of what was then the largest healthcare digital signage network. 

After our early re-ordering of the 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage, the categories remain the same, but the complexities have expanded greatly under each one. They are listed in the order of steps in succession that need to be addressed. I will explain each one as they exist today, keeping in mind that the only constant is change, hence the need for continuing education.

  1. Business
  2. Content
  3. Design
  4. Software
  5. Hardware
  6. Connectivity
  7. Operations

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

    1. To this day, a 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. It must say exactly what you want the system to do and by whom and how will it be evaluated. Success will be measured in terms of how close you come to the attainment of those objectives. Common objectives are brand building, increased sales and turnover of goods, dissemination of information, wayfinding, and an enhanced viewer experience with increased engagement. There are numerous business elements that must be explored, but we will limit ourselves to the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is return on investment (ROI). It remains 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. An alternative way to look at the investment is return on objectives (ROO). This measures the agreed-upon 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. Closely connected with ROI and ROO is the concept of partnering in business. Most companies involved in digital signage do not perform all 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 plan.
    1. Content involves the creation of the dynamic media to be displayed on a screen … and in all cases, it involves communication of a message. However, depending on the objectives, it may also involve advertising, marketing, and in some cases, entertainment components. At its best, content is the vehicle to realize the objectives, taking into consideration the viewer environment/conditions, demographics, and other unique requirements of a digital signage network. 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. Today, we have a better understanding of the complexity and nuances of content, especially in the need to regularly refresh content to ensure maximum and continuing impact. Also, the burgeoning field of analytics is helping us understand more fully what works and what does not. Never has it been more true to say that one size (or type) does not fit all!
  1. DESIGN:
    1. Design involves meeting the objectives and purpose of the system in each environment, with a plan for the eventual deployment. There are several issues to consider under the heading of design. This includes considerations such as location and the environment (indoor or outdoor), lighting and ambient light, traffic flow patterns, numbers of screens and their locations, as well as concerns for security and potential for vandalism. Finally, the deployment or scale and scope of the entire system must be factored in. The design links all the hardware and software items into an integrated system that is both manageable and successful.
    1. One of the most important choices you must make for your project is which content management software (CMS) vendor to partner with. There are more than 300 providers on the market, and selecting the one that fits your project can be intimidating. These are available in two basic forms: Software as a service (SaaS), which is cloud based, or as bundled or packaged software bought outright residing on premise. Digital signage software packages are usually made up of a group of components, each designed to perform different tasks. These include the overall server management, plus variations in scheduling and player software, as well as handling the insertion of content. As a rule of thumb, we have come to learn that most CMS programs do similar things but in different ways. In many cases, the user interface rules the day.
    1. Hardware is the most visible part of a digital signage system, and frankly, the one that is the easiest to understand. Hardware involves displays, mounts, stands, media players and infrastructure such as cables, connectors and signal management. The truth is that all the major suppliers make good-to-excellent equipment, and many are on par with one another. It boils down to the digital signage system design literally telling you what hardware you require. Once decided, the selection process is basic with an eye toward understanding price versus cost versus availability, consumer versus commercial, and total cost of ownership.
    1. 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.
    1. Operation involves logistics and project management, installation, network topology, ongoing 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. Once the network is installed and up and running, it needs to be managed daily. 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) and ROI. When (not if) something does go wrong, service and support must be in place beforehand to save the day.

As we noted in the beginning, the 7 Key Elements of Digital Signage remain virtually unchanged at the top level, but we have a  much better understanding today of both the complexities and nuances that make up each element. With the experiences of the last decade, we have an expanded paradigm gleaned from the developments in digital signage, and in the process, we have come to understand what works and what does not. In the beginning, few would have guessed that a new way to advertise a product or a brand would become a mainstream communication medium crossing many platforms and devices. It is exciting to think of what will surely come. Stay tuned….

DCME – Digital Signage Content & Media Expert (DCME) Program

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM

The DCME discusses the philosophies at the core of visual communication and how content can be used as a tool for creating impact and viewer engagement. It shows how properly designed content can enhance the viewer experience and promote a response to the call to action. The DCME discusses how to develop a content strategy and introduces the rules for creating effective content. It demonstrates the physical elements and software tools for content creation and finally how the business aspects and analytics complete the picture of ROI for the end user.

DSCE – Digital Signage Certified Expert (DSCE) Program

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM

The DSCE provides the fundamentals necessary to begin a career in digital signage. It introduces the 7 Key Elements of digital signage, a step by step approach that shows the business, creative, and technical elements that interconnect to provide the images seen on screen. Digital signage appears quite simple on the surface but if not understood in context can become a tangled web of concepts. The DSCE addresses the challenge of full immersion and understanding of all that digital signage has to offer.



About Author

Principal & Co-owner
Brawn Consulting


Alan Brawn is a principal of Brawn Consulting, an audio visual and digital signage consulting, training, educational development, and market intelligence firm with national exposure to major manufacturers, consultants, integrators, and associations in the industry. Alan is an industry veteran with experience spanning over 3 decades and a recognized author for leading industry magazines. Alan is an Imaging Science Foundation fellow and co-founder of ISF Commercial. He holds InfoComm CTS certification, is a senior faculty member. Brawn was awarded the InfoComm Volunteer of the Year Award in 2011 and received the Fred Dixon Lifetime Achievement in AV Education in 2015. He is a founder and past Chairman of the Digital Signage Federation and Legacy Award Recipient. He is the co-director of the Digital Signage Experts Group certifying digital signage professionals around the globe.

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