Take a moment to ponder the plight of someone from outside our industry and community trying to get smart on digital signage. What would a potential network owner, advertiser or investor, see when they start to undertake some diligence on the business many of us work in day-to-day? When you take that step back, you will see several constituencies at work, pumping varying messages and agendas through various channels to prospective customers. These messages and agendas will often seem to conflict, even though the desired end game of all the players is presumably a larger, faster growing, more robust industry that creates more opportunity for profit. What a newcomer may perceive will be greatly influenced by what they read and hear, and how they come across the information. In the absence of leadership and standards, money will likely drive perception.
At a macro level, there are three loosely-defined constituencies within the industry speaking to potential customers with different messages and agendas. The first group is the big technology companies, with a message that it is technology that matters, and an agenda to sell their specific technology to the exclusion of competing technologies. Think Intel vs. AMD; Windows vs. Linux; NEC vs. Samsung and LG. These giant companies are makers of building blocks that are not industry-specific, with relatively few competitors in their defined space. The potential volumes are huge, however, and the stakes are high. Strategies to win the hearts and minds of influencers are fueled by incredibly large marketing budgets. If you don’t think big budgets help, do a search on Twitter for “Intel digital signage concept”, and understand that the related news is now over two weeks old. That exercise will reinforce the thesis that money drives perception. A newcomer reading press releases from CES and NRF might think that the state of digital signage art is 7-foot touch displays with holographic images, facial recognition software and the ability to “select” the ads you see. Very Minority Report-like. The fact that this is not an available product or that there is currently no real market for something that expensive is not an important part of Intel’s message. Their goal was to demonstrate what can be done with their technology. That it might create a perception that it should be done is less important to them. The same exercise can be undertaken for the Intel-Microsoft “open standard” announcement, the recent NEC/VUKUNET announcement, and the upcoming Cisco Ad Exchange announcement. A newcomer might think that they each re-invented some aspect of digital signage.
The second group is the army of digital signage foot soldiers: the solution providers, content producers, aggregators and consultants. These are the people with the deepest experience and the most customer touch points. To the extent that one can generalize their message, it is that execution matters most and that their products and services drive execution excellence. Their agenda is to leverage technology in a manner that advances their corporate goals. Most of the industry’s players live here, and with them, most of the lessons learned at the vanguard of the industry. As a group, though, their total revenues may be less than the ad budget of a Cisco, Intel or Microsoft. So the lessons learned and their messages seldom get the attention of a big tech announcement.
To compound the challenge, the large number of competitive offerings across each space makes messaging and differentiation problematic. For example, a solution provider must slay dozens of potential dragons to win a customer. The resultant struggle to differentiate has caused outlandish claims, odd behavior and lots of confusing messages. It is hard to imagine how a newcomer might sift through all of the clutter to gain actual insight.
The third constituency is the digital signage mediasphere, consisting primarily of the trade press, web portals, non-corporate bloggers and trade show operators who have entered the news and editorial space of late. Their core message is that information matters most, but each applies their own filter and level of analysis to the flood of information available. Their agenda, in addition to building readership, sponsorship and/or attendance, is to raise the tide for all the boats in the industry. Each of these entities relies upon sponsors, advertisers and exhibitors to keep the lights on and web servers humming. None should be expected to treat their customers without some degree of deference. But how is a newcomer supposed to know where the bones are buried?
There is even a layer of pseudo-media out there, best evidenced by what is now an annual Digital Signage/DOOH Supplement to USA Today, published by Media Planet. If last year can be taken as a guide, then the supplement will mix some analysis of the digital signage space with case studies, quotes and insights from… wait for it… yes… the companies that paid to sponsor the supplement! Where I come from this is called an advertorial, a vehicle where marketing dollars can buy you the imprimatur of best-in-class. But a newcomer might mistake it for actual research. I find that scary.
We live and work in an industry that is growing up rapidly. Make no mistake: the battle is on to gain mindshare of newcomers and veterans alike. Three distinct constituencies are driving separate agendas, and all are driven by potential profits. Sorting out the relevant and useful information will be a difficult task for newcomers. Helping them do so is a requirement for the continued expansion of our market. How we collectively do that will be no easy task. The late, great Warren Zevon once penned, “send lawyers, guns and money.” Money isn’t going away, but maybe instead of lawyers and guns we can settle on leadership and standards. But that is a discussion for another day, hopefully before the next line in Zevon’s song is operative.