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How Many Signs are Too Many?

Jul 22, 2008 12:00 PM, By John W. DeWitt

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Wal-Mart de Mexico;'s digital signage uses the FireCast player and
Linux-based OS and remote management software from Wirespring. This content
appeared on the

Wal-Mart de Mexico;'s digital signage uses the FireCast player and Linux-based OS and remote management software from Wirespring. This content appeared on the "power aisle" channel, which uses ceiling-mounted screens in a ring around the primary shopping area. Most Wal-Mart de Mexico stores also have a checkout channel and a pharmacy channel, and some also feature interactive kiosks running Wirespring's software as well.

There are more and larger digital screens than ever—in the home, at retail, and in other public and private contexts. So is there such a thing as too many signs? Digital Signage Update talked to Bill Gerba, a digital-signage blogger and the CEO of Wirespring, to get his advice about how to achieve adequate coverage—to reach the most people most effectively—without overloading viewers (and employees who watch and/or listen all day long). Interestingly, Gerba says the number of signs is much less important than their visual and audio content.

Digital Signage Update: Is this issue of media saturation and viewer overload a greater concern for your customers than it was, say, five years ago?

Gerba: Is saturation and overload more or less prevalent? I don’t think there’s been a huge change in the media landscape over the past few years; I think we’re on a plateau right now. The sign is essentially just another piece of merchandising or point-of-purchase display. In form, it’s different, but in function, it’s exactly the same—it delivers a commercial message—so it’s subject to the filtering, avoiding, and ignoring that people use to tune out media. People still go out of their way to not look at signage.

The main benefit of digital screen is you can make it eye-catching—people have even made it annoying to make it eye-catching—but it’s clear that there is the same kind of media avoidance that you have to overcome. Steps people have taken to address it range from the good—making the content on the screen really kick-ass—to the bad—making it annoying, with ridiculous sound effects, rapid flickering, much to the chagrin of people who have to work there all day.

What is the impact of larger signs and HD content? What dictates whether the audience pays attention or tunes them out?

I would not say the larger screens and HD have had an impact that much—even the largest screens are smaller than a 24"x36" poster in surface area, so more square inches of space are being devoted to print and static media. If it’s just visual, if there’s no audio component, research indicates that people tune it out in a manner similar to other static media—basically along the same ratio. People do tend to look more because it is animated, but the ratio of those paying attention vs. those avoiding is similar.

When you add sound, it becomes difficult to ignore and more distracting. It can be a problem when people deploying signage are not using sound appropriately, when you use something that’s annoying and hard to ignore.

When scoping a digital-signage deployment, what are the rules of thumb for achieving the right balance of coverage without overwhelming your audience?

It depends a lot on location. In general, if you have to adjust the level of sound to fight background noise, you probably should not be using sound at all. A lot of mistakes you see are on the sound side of things. A lot of the rules of thumb we talk about have to do with getting content to be recognized and remembered. Keep the content simple, so if people just glance, they get the message. Don’t rely upon complicated plot devices and story lines because people are there to shop, wander the mall, etc., and they may not be in front of the screen for the first 25 seconds of a 30-second spot. They should not have to spend much time to get something of benefit from the spot. Generally, we say don’t put more than one or two things on the screen at once. If you’re using animated text, don’t assume people will read it.

Obviously, large motions are really good at catching the attention of people not looking at the screen—but when you use the same motion on people looking at the screen, it detracts from the person’s ability to get the message. So there’s a tradeoff between using motion to capture attention and leaving space on the screen to deliver the real message.

In terms of placement, Paco Underhill’s research [he invented the concept of a “decompression zone” as you enter a retail store] indicates that a screen at the entrance not useful at all. And the closer you can put a screen to eye level, the more likely people will look at it—failure to do that is a problem in a lot of big box stores.

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