Once in a while we receive a blast from the past, a contact from a prospect that had gone dark for a long period of time, sometimes years. When a name rings a bell, a quick email search often turns up past correspondence and provides a great backdrop to renewed discussions. This happened recently and one of the aging emails had a spreadsheet attached with quotes for everything that would be required to get a network up and running: hardware, software and services. I smiled when I looked at the pricing, acknowledging the truth of Moore’s Law and the normal lifecycle of technology pricing, especially hardware. I chuckled because I remember how potential network owners complained about costs in 2004 when I entered this industry; as they did when in 2009 when capabilities had taken quantum leaps while costs dropped; and as they do today in the face of even lower costs while capabilities and options have jumped forward yet again. Back to the future, indeed.

To a certain extent, the angst over costs will always be relative to where costs are at the time, not to where they were 5 years ago, so the ongoing moaning makes perfect sense. In today’s environment, however, it seems very clear to this observer that one of the key factors that will differentiate a successful digital signage effort from an unsuccessful one is the ability to understand the why and the how before concerning themselves with the how much. This applies to ad-supported networks as well as branded or non ad-supported networks. And here is why: unless you have objectives from which you can develop metrics of success (the why), you can not possibly develop a sense of what it will take to optimize the chance of achieving success (the how). One must consider so much more than initial investment and ongoing expenses to calculate the true ROI on a network investment. Undue emphasis on the cost side in absence of clear objectives often results in an infrastructure and services deemed “good enough”, when in fact they are not well matched to a required solution. Low bidder mentality does not always end well.

Buyers should recognize that there is a path to purchase in technology just as there is in a grocery store. An efficient and successful trip to the grocery store often includes a list or a recipe. So it is with technology purchases, except that the list should only be developed after a careful analysis of the why and the how. All too often, buyers caught at the early stages are convinced by salespeople to put the cart before the horse. My fellow observer, Phil Cohen, has ranted more than twice about choosing technology before developing a content strategy. He is clearly correct. I would add that development of an overall strategy driven by clear objectives would lead to a content strategy that together are the horses that should precede the cart that is technology.

The view may be better, but not the result.

The view may be better, but not the result.

This is not to say that you must overpay for technology or services to succeed. But it is imperative that an entire solution be put together that optimizes the chances of achieving objectives and generating positive ROI. We’ve all seen networks die on the vine with hardware that was bought well, but not bought smartly. It ends up costing more to remove it than it is worth. Today’s buyers are faced with an avalanche of what appear to be low cost options for hardware, software and services. Still, like the smart grocery shopper, it requires a plan to buy right, not just cheap. Buying right means understanding all of the elements of a comprehensive solution, total cost of ownership, minimization of risk, future-proofing and of course the ability to meet the overall objectives. Failure to get that right, at any price, does not bode well for success. After all, if you have not identified the problem, how likely are you to acquire the right solution?

I have recently encountered more and more new prospects that have taken the time to consider and develop objectives and strategies before they pull the trigger on solutions. Sometimes this process takes place after they have nearly succumbed to doing the easy part (procurement) first, and it is gratifying when they realize that they might be jumping the gun. That may sound like heresy coming from a seller of technology, but it isn’t. That is because the sword cuts both ways. Vendors without the courage and integrity to understand the buyer’s strategies and objectives before recommending a solution (or not) do themselves and the buyer a disservice, never to be a true partner with vested interest in the customer’s success. Given the choice, I’d prefer to be the latter. As tempting as it is for both buyers and sellers to drive decisions based only on price, it would be wise to keep the strategy horse in front of the technology cart. That way, buyers will be more likely to end up with an appropriate solution, and sellers are more likely to become partners.

From the beginning of commerce, buyers have never liked to overpay. That will never change, nor should it. It is ironic that we are now in an era of free, freemium and downright disposable technology options in which underpaying becomes a possibility.  Because time has value, basing business decisions upon cost over value may turn out to be more painful than the dozens of unused apps on your smartphone or tablet. Smart buyers are less likely to overpay if they know why they need something and how they will use it before they make the purchase. It turns out that some of those prospects that had gone dark had learned a costly lesson in the interim: horses are better at pulling a cart than they are at pushing it.