What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital Signage

Harken back to InfoComm 2011 in Orlando. Did you attend Super Tuesday? Did you sit for the Future Trends session? Do you remember me and several other editors sitting on a panel discussing pro AV topics? No? Well, it happened. Really. I was there.

Whether you made it to the 2011 Future Trends session or not (increasingly it’s the session to attend at every InfoComm Show, despite organizers once letting me onto the stage), one of the things the panel talked about those many moons ago was digital signage. Were AV integrators taking the market opportunity seriously enough? Was it even right to call what we call digital signage “digital signage”?

That last question is a mouthful, but it illustrates well something that’s come up over the years with respect to what we currently think of as “digital signage.” Namely, what is it? We know it when we see it, but our inability to clearly define it sometimes leaves us with an inferiority complex.

If you haven’t had a chance, read Mark Mayfield’s recent foray into making sense of the digital signage market as it pertains to the pro-AV industry. Over the past several years, a lot has been made in some corners of pro AV about how AV integrators are losing their lunch on this whole digital signage opportunity because (take your pick): they don’t know AV/IT; they don’t care about digital signage; other trades own the market; [insert excuse here].

Numbers have been bandied about indicating that AV professionals are responsible for just X% of all digital signage installs (where X is a small number). The InfoComm Show has made several (increasingly successful) attempts to burnish its digital signage offerings, always trying hard to understand what attendees really want and need — which isn’t always easy to do.

So I’ve been asking myself and others in the industry, What are these digital signage installs that some other profession is handling? What are we talking about when we’re talking about a digital signage install? No doubt there are flavors of digital signage that media companies, advertising firms, and IT integrators have segued into. But there seem to be lots of digital signage installs handled by AV firms. So why the dour outlook?

Mayfield’s article rightly points out that digital signage is less of a market than it is an application or a solution. Videoconferencing? As far as AV pros go, it’s an application. Digital signage is the same way.

Back at the 2011 Future Trends panel, I and another panelist tried to advance the position that AV integrators should bone up on all the latest digital signage technology, including the “softer” side of content creation and management. His reasoning was along the lines of not wanting to miss the market opportunity. Mine was simply that AV companies are going to be asked for digital signage solutions (or wayfinding or whatever the client wants to call it), so they’d better be able to deliver.

Forget for a minute what actually traverses the digital signage solution, because when it’s broadcast display advertising, then yes, the AV pro’s share of that “market” may stay X% for a while. But we’ve all seen great corporate, fine arts, education, and other AV installs — big projects with lots of moving pieces — and many of them include what would be described as digital signage (like the pictured signage at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, handled by Westbury National Show Systems). Maybe the client (or consultant) put out a big RFP for a venue and one of the things he/she envisioned, for example, was “a series of displays in the lobby to inform concert-goers of future shows” or “several displays in the cafeteria to show satellite TV and company news.” Maybe they’re not digital signage “networks” (maybe they are), but they’re digital signage.

If a facility has a board room, it probably needs a VTC codec. Digital signage is the same. If a facility has messaging to get out, it probably needs displays, connected to media players of some type, operated by end users (or solution providers). At this point, the regular cast of AV clients is just waking up to this communication medium. So yes, AV integrators need to know those technologies and how to pull them together — or risk losing out to other AV integrators who do.

Granted, there are many accomplished AV firms that specialize in complex, intricate digital signage networks in casinos, conference centers, and other facilities. And yes, there will be clients looking specifically for large-scale digital signage solutions, maybe for campuswide emergency notification. Still, aren’t virtually all pro AV integrators in the digital signage business, the same way they handle VTC applications? What boat are companies missing?

InfoComm’s 2012 AV Market Definition & Strategy Study found that “adoption rates are increasing and respondents say that digital signage finally feels like a real industry.” It also concluded, “AV integrators have been making inroads in the digital signage industry and the consensus is that AV professionals are gaining share in the market.”

Not to put words in respondents’ or researchers’ mouths, but maybe it’s better said that digital signage feels like a real, viable AV solution, like videoconferencing did when quality was good enough. If we think of digital signage in terms of an industry, or get caught up in things like DOOH and advertising, the pro AV industry’s role (yes, pro AV is the industry) may remain unclear. Which isn’t to say AV firms can’t partner with DOOH and ad companies to help roll out their networks.

Many successful AV integration firms get a small (but growing) share of their revenue from digital signage solutions. It would be a mistake to read that as somehow missing the boat.

How’s your digital signage practice?

About Brad Grimes

Brad Grimes is a one-time writer and editor for InfoComm International and the former editor of Pro AV magazine. He has been writing about technology for more than 20 years. For more, visit the Blogger Bios page.

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