I have fun on Twitter from time to time with a couple of fellow bloggers using the hashtag #CurmudgeonFriday to complain about whatever has gotten under our skin that week. It has not become a viral by any means, but it is good, harmless fun nonetheless. There is, however, one viral meme in our industry that is so overblown that it can’t wait for this or any other Friday. That would be the words “Content is King”, and the implications (not to mention the cavalcade of horrible blog posts) that follow from it. Heresy, you say? Perhaps, but Galileo was considered as heretic as well, less for being a big fan (and producer) of content, but more for being a bigger fan of technology.

Don’t get me wrong, we all know that content matters. I have had hundreds of conversations with prospects and ask the content question first without fail. Sadly enough, the majority of potential network operators have given little thought to content before going out to engage with the rabid purveyors of technology. That is a true cart-before-the-horse process, but legitimate salespeople will force the content issue before driving technology decisions. Sadly again, many of them skip that step in the quest for more red meat, which in turn has a direct and negative impact on the relative success of the venture. So the importance of content is not in dispute, but the implication, or in some cases the central hypothesis, of content-centricity tends to be that technology is at best a commodity and a necessary evil. One is as good as the next content centrists reason, and it should be a matter of driving toward the lowest possible price. That is a demonstrably false and potentially dangerous position to take.

We suffer as an industry from thinking that digital signage exists solely to drive advertising. If that were true, the industry would be a whole lot bigger, the membership of the DPAA would be larger, and the advertising industry itself would be much more engaged with our space. Aside from two or three execs that manage broadly defined digital portfolios for their respective mother ships, the industry receives scant attention and participation from agencies. The truth is that digital signage growth as a brand building and communications vehicle is now far outpacing its growth as an advertising vehicle. Think about how many new ad-supported networks you are aware of. I’ll give you time to think, and even play the Final Jeopardy music for you.

Now think about how many existing networks are being re-platformed or how many new, branded rollouts do not rely upon third party advertising to justify their existence. Less music needed for that one, don’t you think? It is not that content is unimportant for branded networks. In most cases it is a primary critical success factor. But branded networks and other non-ad supported networks have different objectives and require more than traditional approaches to content. They require technology to unleash their engagement strategies. Typical requirements for these emerging networks include integration of internal and external data and applications, some fairly complicated on-screen handling of content elements, multi-sceen management and something more than a hat tip toward multi-channel strategies, to name just a few. They are generally not about simple, full screen presentations, and require ongoing collaboration between the technology provider(s) to evolve properly, not the “license and leave” behavior so prevalent in the industry.

The reality is that for all networks, execution is king. Content and content strategy are important elements of an overall plan that is powered and enabled by technology and executed by marketers and operators. Execution in lockstep with trusted partners brings more hands and more minds to the table. Great content that is not properly targeted, distributed, delivered or played is not really that great. In fact, engagement with and recall of a video on a single screen may no longer be the Holy Grail. Ironically, the content-centrists out there are now struggling with the emerging demands of advertisers, who  want to talk about requirements similar to those of the branded networks. These requirements can be tough to deliver from commoditized, low cost platforms. And that brings us back to the core implication of content-centricity, the specious notion that technology is fungible and undifferentiated.

The drive to commoditize and cram margins on technology hinders innovation. Those who subscribe to the theory of fungible technology reason that the only differentiator they should concern themselves with is price. That perspective results in vendors competing in what becomes reverse auctions, often taking deals that generate little or no profit. One expects that kind of pant-dropping from the desperate and the arm wavers with basic offerings hoping to get a foothold at any cost. As requirements for more technology-driven strategies emerge, so too does the need to invest in R&D and to innovate. Yet vendors who were  eager to drop prices to commodity levels will find themselves without the cash flow to invest in ongoing R&D, account management and dramatically increased demand for support just when all three are in high demand. The networks that took delight in securing a low cost deal will find themselves wondering how good a deal they really got as their needs change. And the overall level of innovation in an industry so very hungry for it will decline, curbing growth across the board.

Content is the fuel of digital signage, but technology is the engine. Modern content strategies are driving new requirements that technology must support. The notion that technology, and particularly software, is fungible could not be more wrong in the new world of digital signage. There is a wide spectrum of capability, functionality, scalability, architecture, philosophy, service levels and partnership ethos among vendors. If execution is indeed king, then commoditizing the technology engine mortgages the future of a network and limits innovation. Price may be a nice tiebreaker, but it is in the best interest of the buyer that their technology provider is able to invest in advancing the product.

As execution of complex strategies becomes the standard of excellence, partners are needed more than vendors. Innovation is needed more than commodity products. As content needs advance, so must the technology that enables it to shine. Yesterday’s king would be naked without it.