Retail Signage Primer
Feb 15, 2007 2:00 PM, By Ronald I. Gross
Tips and tricks for success from an installation veteran.
Digital signage networks — in-store flatscreen displays — have arrived. A new advertising medium is born. What does this mean to you if you are an installer or an integrator, or if you're looking for someone to handle the installation and management of one of these systems?
At DynaTek Media, the trials and tribulations we experienced with one of our first pilot programs for such a network were almost enough to cause us to quit the business — but we sure learned a lot. For instance, don't expect an installation to ever go as planned. Old walls can have hidden problems (such as the studs being in the wrong place), and sometimes the people you hire to help you put the whole thing together don't show up. You might think I'm kidding, but believe me, we have the bills to prove it. Another valuable lesson I learned: Make sure to allow yourself plenty of time on your bid and provide provisions that allow for changes or unusual circumstances.
Here's my biggest piece of advice for the integrator thinking of taking on these types of installations: Run, and run fast. Just kidding. Actually, the advice is to know your equipment. Know each product's limitations and which products work best with each other. Some hardware doesn't play nicely with other hardware, even when it's supposed to. And be sure you have a solid support group behind all your efforts.
CONTENT CREATION, DISTRIBUTION
As a full-service provider, we have our own production department based in a warehouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., complete with busy editors and artists to build content to meet our customer's particular needs. We have found by offering content creation services we can make life easier for customers who aren't eager to spend their time guessing who to call to provide content and get it into their network.
For content creation and editing, we use the Adobe Production Studio software package on both PC and Mac platforms. Then when our clients want content produced or changed, they give us a call, and we promptly edit what they send us and insert it into the schedule, or we build it from scratch, get a signoff, and then put it in. If they want current information such as time of day, weather, and news, we also provide live ticker feeds to use on their displays.
To distribute content to the onsite players, we currently use an intelligent scheduler within the BroadSign system, which allows us to organize and play content based on parameters such as location, demographic, daypart, and content category. We hope to transition to our proprietary system, Spot, in 2007.
Spot is designed to allow any content to be downloaded and automatically formatted to the specs of any screen size by dragging and dropping it on our software interface. Additionally, it includes a scheduler and demographic specs that will allow others to enter our portal, put their own commercials together in minutes, and decide where they want them played. This will allow us to automate the content ingestion process and provide a more accessible, user-friendly interface for clients.
After it is formatted with Spot, the media content then gets zipped across more than 100Mb of Internet bandwidth to our flatpanel displays at each retail location. Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) gives us the ability to remotely monitor all aspects of the delivery and health of the signage itself.
LESSONS FROM THE FIELD
After every one of our convenience store deployments ended up being a tug-of-war between the customer's IT guy and our team, (and of course, their IT guy always ended up winning), we said to ourselves, “Hey, let's go wireless and not ask to have them pull wire, or give out their secret passwords.”
It was a great idea. Still, there were plenty of hiccups as we worked out the details. Not only did we have to find a system with the ability to transfer large quantities of media data, we also had to find one that would stand constant use and abuse. Testing all the available commercial products was not an easy task, considering that there are more than 100 wireless hardware solutions out there, in addition to countless wireless service combinations and technologies.
When we started installing these wireless gizmos, we learned a lot about what does not work. We thought those great little consumer-based Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) cards offered by various wireless providers would do the trick; they didn't. Sometimes they would connect; sometimes they wouldn't. And they must have had an auto disconnect command somewhere, because every time we thought we had them working, they would disconnect and never come back.
We tried a second provider, with no better luck. Our IT department often had to spend hours on the phone trying to reach someone who knew what was going on and could actually provide a direct answer, as opposed to reading from a script.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying: Use modems. Don't waste time or your sanity trying to use those consumer-based PCMCIA cards in order to save a few bucks. You won't get a good connection with them. You can't build enterprise-level relationships with the vendors, and you'll end up spending more.
And if you are designing a signage system around a cellular network, be sure to test all signals long before the installation phase, and contact the service you are using and have them test the signal as well.
After a year and a half, we think we have arrived at the right solution. We pulled every single unit and connected to what is currently the largest network — Verizon Wireless — with heartier, beefier wireless modems from AirLink. This was a superior choice, and the company was frequently available to help us out onsite at the convenience stores.
Our recent installations have typically required a screen with a player connected to a wireless modem. We either hung the system from the ceiling or mounted it to the wall. Working with wireless systems was a great benefit because all we needed from the store was access to electricity. That was a big plus from the customer's point of view: There were no new wires to pull, and no camping on their network. The content runs back to our central system, so users don't have to burden their already overloaded IT departments.
One issue to watch out for: Some sites have a lot going on with their intercom systems or other local signals. Be sure you can produce and maintain a great signal at the store, with no wireless interference. If you cannot maintain a good signal, or the customer wants the network placed on the existing system for some reason, then you may need to look at pulling wire, setting up a link to the customer's existing broadband system, or installing a satellite dish. In our case, we try to offer them the full package, including central servers and content management software. The less the user has to deal with technical issues, the better.
Over time, we have learned to streamline our installation process and avoid many potential pitfalls by doing dry runs — trying different ceiling and wall installs in mockups and seeing what happens. During these mockups, we use everyone's mounts and figure out which ones we like. In truth, there are only a few companies we like for such applications.
Not too long ago, we started a pilot program, which is still underway, with the Hess Oil Company at convenience store sites in New Jersey and Florida. We went to store locations chosen by Hess, and installed ceiling-mounted flatscreens, a customized bezel we fabricated, and digital video players.
As far as screens go, Samsung has always been our choice for retail installations. Whichever manufacturer you choose to provide your key components, do yourself a favor and stick with major manufacturers — they usually have great products and great warranties. The warranty is key, because when things go bad (and you know they sometimes do), you will be glad you picked a company that has been around for a while.
We also learned an important lesson about choosing a digital player. We started with custom-built VIA Epia systems based around C3 motherboards and featuring 1.0GHz processors, 512MB of RAM, 40GB hard drives, and RS-232 serial ports. Just as we tried to save money, so did the manufacturer, apparently. These units didn't play very long, and we had to trade them out frequently. Thus, we spent about three months essentially trying to put a round peg into a square hole.
Next, we tried pre-configured units, thinking this surely would work. We ordered Sumicom S620s featuring 2.8GHz processors, 512MB of RAM, 80GB hard drives, and RS-232-controlled Intel Integrated Graphics onboard PCMCIAs, but those players tended to overheat. We tried everything, including adding our own external cooling fan, without success. Once again, we found ourselves having to swap them out way too often.
Overall, we learned that trying to save that extra $100 by using our own designed player, and then another economical pre-configured player, wound up costing us $300 in additional repairs and servicing per system. Despite the pain, we pulled all of them — not once, but twice. At this point, we finally negotiated an enterprise-level relationship with Dell, opting for OptiPlex GX620s. The hardy OptiPlex systems feature hard drives that allow users to forward stored content. Dell imaged them to our specs, so they can be used specifically for the content we manage. They have all forms of connectivity, so we can use cellular, Cat-5, or even telephony if necessary. So, after all that pain, we now have systems that are reliable and managed remotely through our own network and servers.
Once we had the hardware components working, the last part was the software. We strategically designed our systems to work off our own network, and, therefore, we needed to have good scheduling software. We wrote some of our own and tied it initially to Capital Networks Audience. This is a powerful system, but not the right fit for our application, it turned out. It was entirely too complicated to set up on a player system and required too much care and attention to settings we didn't need for this particular application. It also had too many security issues for what we were trying to do.
If that wasn't bad enough, we couldn't work the $1,000 Matrox CG2000 video card into our business model. Company representatives told us we didn't need the card because Audience had a web-based application that would work for our networks. It wasn't that simple, however. After too many breakdowns, too many workarounds, and not enough time to fix it all, we scratched Audience and replaced it with BroadSign digital signage software four months into the deployment.
This is the moment we have all been waiting for: proven ROI. Well, maybe not yet, but when Proctor & Gamble states in the Wall Street Journal in September 2005 (and even more recently) that it is switching up to 33 percent of its advertising budget from TV commercials to point of sale (POS) advertising, you better take note. That's right: A major advertiser is making a huge shift and telling everyone they are going to get with this program. This, of course, is music to the ears of anyone in our industry.
Today, we are installing signage networks in convenience stores, the medical industry, distribution and warehouse facilities, even local coffee shops. A few banks are asking if we can do this for them too (which, of course, we can).
You, too, can get into this game — and it's a good one. I think the digital signage network industry is positioned to expand exponentially. The early adopters are now endorsing this new media format, and most importantly, the advertising industry has come around to it as well.
Savvy users are starting to figure out there is money in these screens. If you install enough of them, someone is going to want to advertise on them. The company smart enough to install a network will be making money in no time. They might advertise their own products, or even sell time on their network. The light is currently glowing bright on this proposition.
What have we learned from all of this? First, don't underestimate the time of your installation. Second, when selecting hardware, play with the big boys. And, for heaven's sake, make sure all of your hardware likes to play together, and test it thoroughly. Third, test everything three times before you tell the customer you can do anything. And finally, by all means, make sure your customer knows this is not an exact science just yet. Their expectations will be too great if you lead them to believe it's an easy slamdunk. And disappointing your customer may lose you a referral at the end of the project.
Be sure to look for every money-making possibility you can think of when suggesting the network design to clients. Always keep in mind that a network is money — how much money depends on the type of venue. Find yourself a good production company to bring some content samples to meetings. There's nothing like showing people what you want to do, as opposed to just talking to them about it. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, when it comes to selling the concept to clients, a video must be worth 10,000 words.
For More Information
Ronald I. Gross is chief executive officer, chairman of the board, and one of the founders of DynaTek Media in Scottsdale, Ariz. DynaTek is a major provider of true turnkey, networked, digital signage solutions.
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