Electronic signage networks are set to replace most static print poster sites across the country over the next decade. What began as an offshoot of business television has become a dynamic new advertising medium with the ability to alternate messages at different times of day or interact with people via wireless technology.
Its potential was initially spotted by large retail chains which believed massive digital signage (DS) networks would create viewing figures to rival commercial television. While this has not yet happened, brands such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola are paying serious attention to it as their customers spend more time away from, and indeed avoiding, mainstream media.
“Advertisers recognise the decline in effectiveness of TV ads and are looking at ways of reaching their audiences,” says Sony's senior market development manager, Nick Deen. “DS is the last true mass communication tool, where advertisers reach mass audiences at the point of sale.”
Sony has undertaken Europe's largest DS project involving 2,500 French post offices fitted with 5,000 LCD screens powered by its Ziris media management software.
“People make the mistake that they can simply reuse their TV ads on a digital signage system,” says Deen. “This usually doesn't work since people have a different mindset out of home.”
Hugh Bourne, business development manager at communications equipment manufacturer Harris Broadcast, adds: “There's quite often an expectation that by rolling out a DS system, sales will increase significantly. The way content is used is fairly embryonic at present. Advertisers need to understand the function of the network they place their content on. You wouldn't want to advertise a washing machine in an airport terminal.”
Another high-profile DS project is the£72m network scheduled by CBS Outdoor, installed and managed by Arqiva, which routes information around 31 London underground stations. More than 2,000 electronic display devices are in use, including cross-track projectors, digital escalator panels and large-format LCD panels. Arqiva is also expected to be involved in a new installation at the Westfield Mall in White City, where CBS Outdoor holds a£58m contract.
DS remains, however, a rather fragmented market in terms of business model and technology. Potential customers must sort through a number of vendors contributing hardware options such as encoders/decoders, video players, multicast engines, distribution devices and screens.
Litelogic Group chief executive James Burrows, who runs a network of digital screens on buses, says: “The sector is currently concerned with linking hardware with content management solutions to deliver rich information and ad opportunities. The London bus application gives advertisers such as Yell.com the ability to schedule campaigns by daypart or district.”
A typical DS workflow involves content creation, encoding, then insertion onto an IP network; content management as part of a playlist before playout to plasma or LCD screen.
Alex Rassey, vice-president marketing for compression technologists Entriq, says the successful use of DS often comes down to the frequency of content updates. “For news broadcasters this is an imperative,” he says. “If a client has a high volume of content to ingest from many sources and it needs to syndicate that to hundreds of sites it means dealing with huge volumes of data while the clock is ticking.”
The mix of content is likely to include HD video, which puts a premium on efficient compression. Entriq, for example, has helped Sky News reduce ingest and transcode time from 30 minutes to two to three minutes.
“Sky inputs 1,500 to 2,000 videos a day but there are peak periods when it processes one clip every 12 seconds,” says Rassey.
In addition to being a big money-spinner for advertisers, DS could prove a lucrative medium for traditional TV technology manufacturers and broadcasters (click here to read more on the financial forecasts for DS).
“DS requires the creation, post-production and distribution of content and most broadcasters already do that,” Bourne says.
Others suggest broadcasters are better off concentrating on their core programme-making expertise. “Traditional playout providers are very good at linear playout, compliance and subtitling but there's a gap in the market for playout partners with the ability to rapidly distribute across multiple non-linear platforms like digital signage,” contends Jon Folland, co-founder of Nativ, which is promoting a service targeted at just this market.
Out-of-home TV networks are based on the broadcast “push” model but developments are likely to involve more “pulled” content as displays alternate messages.
One example, running in New York since last summer, involves more than 5,000 yellow cabs fitted with touch-screen monitors airing NBC news and ad-funded entertainment content. GPS helps deliver ads related to specific venues as the taxi passes them. The logical development of this trend is to niche content and narrowcasting, as with the cable industry.
Interactivity by way of Bluetooth, RFID (radio frequency identification), infra-red, motion triggers or other wireless technology is also set to grow. By using SMS, scanning a barcode or taking an image with a phone, a user can interact with DS media.
“We could get to the point where digital networks are so fine-tuned they react to individuals,” suggests Thomson's business development manager, DS, Ray Brooksby.
It's likely the sector will begin to produce more advanced displays and innovative installations. “As display technology moves forward I wouldn't be surprised to see signage being built into the fabric of a building,” predicts Bourne. “Imagine a curved wall that is one giant, super-high-resolution flexible screen.”