The challenges that face digital signage run deep. Deeper than the struggle to even define itself semantically: digital signage, DOOH, and digital place-based remain ambiguous to outsiders. Deeper than the struggle to establish technical standards that make the Beta-VHS battle seem trivial. Deeper than the struggle to create and distribute engaging content widely. Deeper than the ongoing struggle to monetize on a grand scale by appeasing agencies and advertisers. The challenges are all of those and more. But let’s be brutally honest: the greatest struggle for digital signage is to be relevant. There has to be a way to catapult this industry from the fringes of media to the mainstream at every level.

The clues are everywhere, like dots waiting to be connected.

  • Twitter recently added its 500 millionth user. It was an engine of revolution in Egypt, and has scooped the traditional media many times since the Miracle on the Hudson was captured and tweeted by Janis Krums.
  • Facebook has filed for an IPO that is expected to hit the market with a $100 billion enterprise valuation, just a tad more than $100 per user. Despite its flaws, it is the undisputed king of social media, and if someone ever calculated the bandwidth consumed by its users every day, it would be staggering.
  • Smartphone penetration in the US has crossed the 50% threshold.
  • Apple sold 18.7 million iPads in the fourth quarter of 2011, and the new iPad is breaking more records. These days, if an Apple product is found on a desktop, it is increasingly likely that is only there being recharged.
  • Smart TVs and internet-connected game consoles, streaming boxes and other dedicated devices are fast making televisions yet another node on the internet.
  • A Discovery Communications survey revealed that co-viewing, watching television while using an iPad, “increases many viewers’ connection to programs and advertisements.”
  • GetGlue lets you check in to TV shows, movies and music to earn stickers and discounts. Viggle will reward you for checking in to TV shows from your smartphone. Watching a TV show while using a companion app on a second screen? Second Screen Networks syncs ads inside the companion app to those appearing on TV in real time. Bluefin Labs and trendrr are fast becoming the new age Neilsen and Arbitron by analyzing social media trends related to TV shows and ads. And the list goes on…

Social TV is the concept that connects all of these dots, enabling consumers to engage with the entertainment and brands that they love; allowing television networks to build their franchise, and programs to amplify their buzz and engage with viewers even when the show is not airing; giving advertisers the opportunity to extend the traditional 30-second ad to something much more engaging, much more personal and far more valuable.

At the Social TV Summit in New York last year, co-host and media expert Jack Myers noted that “Social TV is not only a movement in the business, a trend in the business, but a business in the business: and a real revenue opportunity not only for the many emerging players, but for the established and legacy media companies.” He predicted a dramatic shift of marketing dollars over the course of this decade toward social marketing, about $30 billion of which would end up pegged for Social TV annually. Clearly, there is a vibrant and well-funded ecosystem establishing itself around the axis of television, mobile devices and social media. New value propositions pop up frequently as new players engage.

Today, the newest value extension to Social TV is established: digital out-of-home.

The digital out of home (DOOH) industry as measured by the installed base of networked displays has been growing rapidly for the past ten years. The technologies enabling network owners to control huge networks of digital displays with pinpoint granularity have matured. However, the majority of ad-supported networks have failed to reach their goals with respect to ad revenue. Even the most successful networks are often saddled with unsold inventory. One of the speed bumps is that media buyers simply do not understand the space, as the metrics and behaviors are not the same as the familiar television world, even if the screens look similar. To them, the medium is irrelevant.

Irrelevant. Is there a more humiliating word for an industry that touches hundreds of millions of people daily? I doubt it, and it seems likely to remain irrelevant until the metrics and behaviors of out-of-home become synchronized with those of television. And we are not talking about the metrics of traditional ratings and behaviors like time-shifting. We are talking about new metrics and new behaviors that are defining how we consume media and relate to that media and to each other.  Social TV.

Today, out-of-home venues offer the current stakeholders in Social TV (the legacy networks, the brands and the Social TV startups) the opportunity to greatly enhance their reach and effectiveness. Imagine extending the reach of a TV program or ad campaign through the integration of social media tools and apps with networks of out of home screens, perhaps augmented by special benefits, offers or rewards to keep engagement high. Would a Revenge fan make his/her way to an out-of-home network venue to check in and thereby receive a preview or clue as to what Emily Thorne is up to next week? Would a brand want to reward consumers who like (in both the Webster and Facebook definitions of the word) their product online, on TV and in the store? Would a TV network want to engage in a second screen dialogue with viewers outside the home, to be continued on a second screen while the show airs (or vice versa)? If the answers are yes, then DOOH becomes immensely relevant when it joins the Social TV ecosystem.

I seldom use this blog to tout Real Digital Media or to announce customer wins or strategies. But this is different. We are fully engaged with our partners at rVue and with others in the process of defining Social TV for the out of home industry and providing the products and services that will add a third screen to today’s two-screen Social TV ecosystem. Done well, the shift toward Social TV will change how DOOH networks drive revenue. It will change how loyalty programs are defined, executed and measured. It will change how content is distributed and how OOH networks operate. It will create a “couch to cash register” continuum for networks and brands to consider in their consumer campaigns. The renewed relevance of what we all work for is at stake, so it is worth talking about before the finished products are fully baked. To be sure, the message and concept will be co-opted by opportunists, but so be it. We are off and running. The dots have been connected. Let’s get busy on the transformation to relevance, the transformation to Social TV.