Digital signage: the picture is bright

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This article appeared in the October issue of CRN magazine.

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Digital signage: the picture is bright
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The commoditisation of digital flat screens, improvement in touch technologies as well as faster broadband speeds have all helped to drive innovation and demand for digital signage solutions.

Over the past few years shopping malls, airports, hospitals and universities have seen the sudden arrival of sophisticated multimedia displays performing a range of functions from sales and marketing to information sharing and real time communications. 

For many traditional electronics companies the digital signage market represents an opportunity to essentially create a new product and solutions category that builds on their existing capabilities. Likewise, for resellers there is an opportunity to engage with customers to develop tailored solutions which directly address the requirements of their customers.

However, the market has grown much slower than many expected. The global digital signage market is only worth $US1.1 billion at the moment, according to Frost and Sullivan*, with the US contributing 44 percent of the pie. 

“The industry hasn’t taken off in a big way,” admits Audrey William, ICT research director with the analyst group. She blames the industry for failing to demonstrate for organisations why they should invest. 

“The biggest problem in the industry is demonstrating the ROI,” she says, noting that the retail sector has been especially hesitant.

A little over two years ago, senior Gartner analyst Mark Cortner predicted a surge in demand for network-based digital signage solutions, arguing that the business case for many organisations should be clear, especially when viewed in terms of better customer engagement.

At the time he compared this with the business case for UC (unified communications), which, he said, was comparatively opaque because of the difficulties in measuring the real benefits of improved internal communications.

Two years on, it appears the reverse has happened, with the UC market thriving while digital signage has languished. Yet with falling prices of digital signage hardware and solutions and growing awareness of their potential to improve the customer experience across key vertical industries from retail to government, education, health and others, it would appear the industry is poised to turn the corner. 

Consultative approach

William says there are exciting opportunities for Australian resellers in digital signage, particularly those able to take a consultative approach with their customers to determine their real objectives, fashion compelling content and ultimately help them measure the results.

“Content cannot be static anymore; it cannot be boring. It must be relevant and it must be updated regularly, even every couple of hours. Content creation is king.”

Another stumbling block for the digital signage industry is the lack of a mature system of processes and protocols connecting stakeholders such as advertising and media agencies, multi-media content providers, vendors and customers.

At the end of the day it’s all about user the experience and in industries such as retail where competition for customers is intense, businesses need to be innovative and creative to be stand out in the crowd.

Peter Maddison, founder and director of Melbourne-based Flash Photobition, has seen pretty well every technology and solution in the digital signage space. Not long before his company launched in 1986, the best example of “digital” displays would have been the walls of stacked CRT TVs beaming free-to-air TV stations through the windows of department stores.

He says many big companies are realising the power of digital signage to respond immediately to offers from their competitors. One of Flash Imation’s biggest customers is Telstra BigPond, for which it recently deployed a large multi-store solution for the carrier’s branded shops.

As Maddison explains, the signage solution currently operating in Telstra shops means that if, say, Optus, were to announce a special deal or offer of some sort, Telstra could quickly broadcast a responding offer to customers in its own stores.

Maddison notes one of the key drivers for the digital signage space has come from the gradual proliferation of more complex products over the years.

“Anyone with a complex product to sell wants to be able to show it on a video. You can’t always rely on an 18-year-old shop assistant to sell the story.”

But Photobition is mindful of the importance of keeping it simple and not over-stimulating the audience. One of the company’s signature techniques is to use moving dynamic content as a means of drawing would-be customers’ eyes to a static message (see image, left).

Maddison notes that while things are far from dire in the Australian digital signage market, it is well off the heights they reached some 6 to 7 years ago.

New picture

Michael Oltmanns, head of NEC A/NZ’s digital signage practice, says the local market has become a lot more sophisticated over the past few years. In 2004 the company started development of what would eventually become NEC Live, a software suite for digital signage aligned with NEC’s various hardware products spanning large format screens and PCs.

A focus of the product family is ease of network connection, with the rapid decline in bandwidth prices in Australia helping bolster the appeal of NEC’s offerings, Oltmanns explains.

However, he stresses that NEC has yet to explore the content streaming route, focusing instead on the ability to transfer content between dedicated storage devices serving specific locations.

“We’ve always been emphatic not to go down the streaming route. If there’s a network outage you end up with the situation where there’s no content.”

Sony offers a wide range of digital signage solutions but hasn’t made a huge effort to market the fact. The company did not respond to requests from CRN to take part in this story.

Reflecting the diverse and evolving range of business needs and scenarios, the electronics giant has simple, user-managed solutions right up to highly automated, networking managed-services type offerings catering to high-end users operating across multiple locations. The company also markets a “custom video wall” solution allowing organisations to deliver dynamic and highly customised content.

Voided warranties

One of the most common pitfalls in today’s signage market is the temptation among partners and end-user customers to deploy consumer products, especially consumer TV panels, for commercial applications. For virtually all of the major flat screen panel vendors this invalidates product warranties immediately.

“As soon as you put it up on the wall that’s it,” says Andrew Upshon, head of Ingram Micro Australia’s digital signage group.

Locally, the distributor’s partners are seeing exciting opportunities, especially in helping to migrate organisations away from ineffective solutions built with consumer equipment.

“It’s not as simple as just saying here’s a big screen now create a display solution,” Upshon says.

Ingram Micro’s signage business operates under the company’s Vantex division and boasts a broad cross-section of partners spanning traditional systems integrators and audio visual (AV) companies moving to improve their IT capabilities to take advantage of demand for more sophisticated solutions.

“Traditional IT resellers are getting more involved with audio visual,” Upshon says.

Over the past few years, as the price of flat screens plummeted, it has become more common for resellers providing traditional IT products solutions to corporates or in education to receive enquiries about providing some sort of signage solution as an add-on.

“Companies getting into this market realise there is a margin opportunity,” Upshon says.

Australian PC maker Pioneer Computers has been one of the more successful vendors in the Australian digital display market.

Company director Jeff Li says the company has won a number of big local deals, including with Melbourne’s Crown Casino, Harvey Norman, Queensland TAB, the Department of Defence and Optus. Pioneer has partnered with Fujitsu to provide digital display solutions for Optus stores across Australia.

Li stresses that for resellers looking for advice about how to sell a digital signage solution, it’s all about the machine driving the content, whether it be called a PC or a media player.

“The business case is more on the PC side,” Li says.

But not everyone needs a lot of power. Pioneer markets solutions with low-end Atom-based PCs right up to quad core i7 machines. Pioneer is working with around 20 specialised digital signage partners in Australia helping it to manage some 100 customers.

But overseas companies are emerging as a key driver for the business, Li says, especially in Dubai, where the company recently won a major shopping centre contract in partnership with Nokia. While Li was cagey about the details, he indicated the project would involve the development of solutions enabling mobile integration.

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