Sometimes, we all get lost in the weeds, so engrossed with what we are doing, hearing and reading that we lose our sense of the big picture. This is especially true during the trade show season that we are in the midst of right now, with the tweets, blogs, press releases and contrived buzz reaching new levels of oppressiveness. Taking a step back from all the tumult, the digital signage landscape is filled with contradictions. To a certain extent, that seems to be a symptom of a fragmented industry struggling to find its own identity, even as it grows at a high rate. At the same time, it is also the result of a great number of dissonant messages from all over the landscape, attempting to define what is important. As an industry insider, I sometimes get distracted and confused. I can only imagine what newcomers have to deal with. Here are two examples of conflicting messages, and an attempt to reconcile them.
Consider the simple concept of capital. Few will argue the fact that deploying a digital signage network is a capital-intensive proposition. Capital, whether it be from angels, venture firms or private equity shops, has been very difficult for network owners to access for nearly 18 months now. I can think of several high quality projects that are “stuck” in the capital formation process. I am sure there are many more that I am unaware of. The trickle down effect of slow capital formation impacts all of the companies that would provide products and services to those networks, throttling their growth in the process. Conversely, we have witnessed increased investments made by several very large technology companies in the space during the past year. The exploits of Intel and Microsoft have been well-chronicled. NCR bought into the space. Oracle appears to be dabbling. NEC fancies themselves as software developers now (or should I say “for now”?) Cisco has been in the space for years, and is redoubling efforts to be noticed. What do the technology bigs see that investors do not see? Interestingly, I think they see the same thing, but from different perspectives: high growth, huge upside and a fragmented marketplace. The tech companies have the luxury of placing bets on themselves. But the angels and venture capitalists have to place their bets on others, and they are apparently finding it easier to fill out their NCAA brackets than to project the winners in each sector. I am told that there is quite a bit of capital on the sidelines, but all we have seen lately is some bottom feeding. Perhaps the actions of the big technology companies are a leading indicator of bigger bets being placed by traditional funding sources.
Then there is the area of content, coronated long ago and probably too many times as king. The basic tenets of digital signage content – to inform, to engage and to be relevant – are reasonably well understood and accepted. The level of execution of those concepts varies widely from network to network, and it seems pretty clear that even after years of evolution, few have mastered the one-to-many art form of a digital signage content strategy. Yet just as conference agendas and consultants finally begin to focus on digital signage content, we are witnessing a rush into mobile interactivity as a linchpin of content strategy. This constitutes a leap of the content chasm directly to one-to-one messaging. No one should doubt the power of the smartphones sitting in so many palms, pockets and purses. It is obvious that in most environments, extending the customer/viewer interaction to a mobile device and perhaps even to a home computer is sound thinking. Still, the rush to mobile in many cases comes off as a “me too” strategy, taken on by many networks who have yet to formulate a basic content strategy. Questions abound. Is content still king? If so, what is on the digital signage screen when your viewers have their heads down, waiting for a web page to load or an SMS message to appear? Are you ceding the task of engagement to a 3-inch screen? Is user-generated content relevant outside of bars and concerts? How do we compete for mindshare?
Traditional funding sources have become a bit gun-shy on digital signage, while established technology leaders are making big investments in the space. Network operators and industry wonks are finally paying more attention to developing a thoughtful content strategy, while those same people are chasing mobile strategies with a shotgun approach. How do we reconcile these conflicting indicators from the two cornerstones of a healthy digital out-of-home media industry, capital and content? Here’s my take: First, money talks and money attracts more money. The dam is going to break soon, else the money on the sidelines may miss a big opportunity. Second, content is still king, and digital content exists on a continuum. Digital signage will embrace the mobile channel, not become consumed by it. It will just take time for this to look seamless.