In our world of instant messaging, instant celebrity and instant gratification, many things get taken for granted. It is almost as if process has been forgotten in our modern culture, and only rapid results matter. This seems to be especially true in the world of digital signage, where even people who know better (or should) tend to assume things instead of understanding the process that gets one to an end result. As a result, concepts that should be fairly easy to grasp tend to get glossed over, because after all, sending files to devices to be played out on a screen is pretty simple, right? Well, it can be, if you keep four simple concepts in mind.
1. Cookie cutters are for bakeries, not networks. This one goes first, because it never gets the attention it deserves. Time and again, network operators overlook the hidden costs in a digital signage deployment. Chief among these is the two-visit installation. The most frequent cause of a two-visit install is the lack of a proper site survey prior to the installation. Network operators have a tendency to see the cost of a site survey, which can vary from $100 to $300+ per site, to be a luxury they can do without. It is tempting to gather data from the sites remotely and trust that it is correct, especially when a large number of sites are involved. But the cost of having equipment and technicians arrive to find surprises can greatly exceed the cost of a proper survey. We typically provide an extensive checklist of things to look for at every site, and all of the reputable installation firms have their own. Key considerations include understanding where the screen will be hung, and what type of mount is needed; the presence, or lack thereof, of electrical outlets adjacent to that site; the presence of an ethernet port in a wired network; the location of the network modem and/or router; how the network assigns IP addresses (DHCP vs. static IP); wireless security method, if any (and password!); and much more. The old carpenter’s saying of “measure twice, cut once” is very appropriate in digital signage deployments. If you assume that all sites are the same, then also assume you need a hefty contingency fund for expensive truck “re-rolls”.
2. You get what you pay for. No one will deny the large capital expenditure required to create a digital signage network. Every network operator, corporate entity and venture backer gulps hard at the cost of getting to a point where some measurement of success is possible. The logical effect is an effort to minimize that cap ex. The big buckets of cap ex are typically displays, media players, deployment, software, content and freight. The discussion above is a case in point. So is the idea that consumer displays are “just as good” for the job as commercial displays (NOT true); that media players are commodities (actually, as electronic devices they are commoditized, but there are clear classes of offerings); that all software solutions are essentially equal; that content is just filler between ad slots, etc. This type of generalization is self-defeating thinking. The market is extremely efficient, and information flows freely. As a result, most (not all) items are priced efficiently. Which leads to…
3. Apples are not oranges. The biggest challenge with respect to prices in the digital signage industry is the seeming inability of buyers to compare apples to apples when making purchase decisions. Here is an example. At a recent trade show, I was asked how much one of our media players cost. I gave a range, explaining that quantity, among other factors, would matter. I was informed that the potential buyer had just seen a functionally equivalent player for quite a bit less. But that was not the whole story. A box is just a box. It does what it is told… by software. It is good to understand whether the “cheap” media player includes or can support the software that you want/need. It is also good to understand things like warranties, pre-delivery services, and the nature of the components inside the box. To be sure, the many choices and business models of hardware and software companies does not make it easy for buyers, or for sellers. The same discussion can be had regarding software, services and content. A rational discussion and comparison of options has to begin with what one’s requirements and constraints are. If that is a secondary discussion, the chances of success are greatly reduced.
4. There is no such thing as a perfect fit. While we are on the topic of requirements, it makes sense to state this truism as it relates to software. If you have a properly constructed requirements document and you find a solution provider who scores 100%, then one of three conditions has occurred. First, you may have let the solution provider write the requirements; second, someone may be taking liberties with the truth; or third, you have oversimplified your requirements. In my years in the digital signage world, I haven’t seen too many RFPs that were oversimplified. In fact, many are overly complex and future-oriented, and give less attention to current needs. That seems odd to me, given that most relate to first efforts in digital signage, not second or third generation networks that build on institutional learnings. In my career as a retail IT consultant, I was involved in dozens of RFP processes for a variety of critical applications. What I learned was that 80% to 85% fit to a well-conceived requirements document was pretty darn good. Evaluation of responses often hinged on the relative weight given to individual requirements. Having a path to the important elements of the unmet requirements, as well as a process for meeting evolving requirements, was often the difference maker in the ultimate selection. So it will be in digital signage. Eventually.
Things would be much easier if every network environment was the same, if every piece of hardware and software were the same, and everyone used the same terminology, business models and requirements. But since that isn’t the case, it would be wise to remind ourselves of these four concepts from time to time. Besides, if it really was easy, anybody could do it.