What we read, what we hear and whom we hear it from often has a large influence on perceptions and behavior. That is certainly true in day-to-day life, where various media outlets (pick your ideology) decide what is newsworthy, and carefully choose their language and presentation of information to assign relative value to that information. So it is within the digital signage industry, where perceptions are shaped by a precious few sources of consistent and reliable information. A mish-mash of consultants, self-proclaimed experts, ne’er-do-well tweeters and the marketing departments of the largest companies amplify selected messages. Entities new to digital signage, both large and small, often have their view of what is important shaped by the source of their information, which all too often is a reprinted press release. This can manifest itself in bizarre RFP requirements; absurdly narrow selection processes; lots of ethically weak behavior and all-too-often, suboptimal results for customers and vendors alike. The uneven supply of objective information and analysis impedes real progress, but is not uncommon. However it also acts to impede innovation, which can be troubling.
We often hear about the need for innovation in digital signage. Ironically, the folks clamoring for innovation are often the same people who wave off technology as a necessary evil that should be cost-engineered toward zero. As a result, we get an environment where sub-$100 hobby boxes are hailed as some sort of innovation, even though they don’t do anything new or better. Pundits, experts and salespeople who pass off cheapness as innovation actually undermine the course of true innovation. Think about that for a moment: if there are precious few margin dollars in a product, how many of those dollars are going toward R&D? If the only button among the Five P’s of Marketing that buyers become programmed to respond to becomes price, where is the incentive and the investment to develop great products and hire great people?
Where experts leave off, industrial giants step in to influence perception with well-funded PR campaigns that frame issues in a manner favorable to their offerings. This is neither unique to digital signage nor remotely unethical, but when large manufacturers take it upon themselves to “advance the industry” by developing, buying or positioning non-core products and services, the general discussion of what is important can often change. For example, while virtually every software effort driven by a hardware company has failed, each was faithfully trumpeted as something new and better, when it was usually neither. Surprised? Don’t be: it is not uncommon for those corporate marketing dollars and the open palms of influencers to find each other, helping to steer the conversation and blur the facts. It is sadly rare to hear a critical word when the big boys make puzzling strategic blunders. In truth, that should be considered an expected result, although it has unintended consequences.
The economic influence of large companies also causes market disruptions that have a negative impact on innovation. When a large hardware company enters the software space with an offering that was hardly groundbreaking, they still have the marketing clout to shift the conversation from “what works” to “omnichannel”. Ignore the man behind the curtain struggling to figure out just one channel, and understand that their influence will get them in front of some impressive and impressionable prospects. Given corporate goals related to their core product, their charter will likely be to go after premium priced and large-scale business opportunities. This alone would have two disruptive effects. First, their buzzword gambit will change perceptions among buyers as to what critical success factors are, elongating or deferring decision processes, which helps no one. Second, to the extent they are successful, high value opportunities for others will be sabotaged, in turn creating more price pressure on the middle and low end of the market as competitors look elsewhere for the next deal. This trickle down effect depresses margins that feed innovative research. All that from a “me too” product propped up by huge marketing dollars.
So it is on the display side as well, where one vendor has committed millions to convincing the buyer community that a digital sign is effectively a 42” tablet. One can argue the definition of “smart” all day long, but no one would argue that the effort has fallen on deaf ears. That they have been able to garner early software support from a number of providers is not surprising. After all, there are lots of benefits to be gained from hanging on to the skirts of a global giant tossing marketing dollars around. Despite the Sturm und Drang storyline around porting bits of software to a “new” and limited environment, it is in fact adaptation, not innovation. Once again, hijacked perceptions lead to misdirected resources. One must wonder if there is more in play here than altruism. After all, the approach is easily copied and the architecture easily improved upon. As the product may not have a material effect on incremental display shipments or market share, logical questions follow. Could the end game in some way mirror the smartphone business, where manufacturers overlay the interface with their own software, and third party developers are relegated to low value apps and widgets? If that is the case, are today’s providers tomorrow’s widget vendors, or worse, left at the altar altogether? Would innovation or customer interests be well served if high-powered marketing ultimately leads to technical hegemony? While the answers to the first two questions are unknown, most people would argue that the answer to the third is a firm “no”, as it turned out to be in the PC world. But you can bet that there are marketing materials and expert endorsements ready to convince you otherwise.
There is a gag line that is heard from time to time, “It must be true: I read it on the Internet”. That same Internet, chock full of fake review sites, paid-for and ghost written content, sponsored search results and tweets without context is often the first place the uninitiated go for information. Actual analysis is hard to come by. The information buyers receive shapes perceptions, and has many trickle down effects, not all of which raise the tide for the industry as a whole. Don’t be shocked if industry-changing innovation starts from outside the industry itself, as we run the risk of becoming comfortably numb with the status quo. In the mean time, Caveat lector, Caveat emptor.