It is the week before the biggest trade show of the year, and as good a time as any for Digital Signage Today to put together a Future Trends Report on Digital Signage. My requested contribution: 750-1,000 words on what we can expect to see in the coming year or in the next few years. That’s pretty open ended, but everybody and their brother has taken a stab at this in the past few months, including my own annual shot at predictions at the start of the football season. For what it is worth, I’m scoring better than last year, and I don’t see any reason to tweak those seven forecasts here. So run of the mill predictions aren’t going to cut it. Mobile, blah, blah. Convergence, yada, yada. Content, whoop-dee-doo. Its been written, said and read a hundred times. So what can we really look for in the next year or two? I call it End Times.

The End of Features

With a major trade show coming up, the pace of press releases has stepped up considerably. As unoffical confirmation of the trend, Dave Haynes reports that his PressDOOH business is keeping him very busy. We are seeing lots of product announcements, and words like “new”, “improved” and “enhanced” dot the pages. Close your eyes and you see toothpaste. My email inbox fills with hardware vendors wanting to partner with us (a euphemism if ever there was one) after extensive research amounting to a review of the DSE exhibitor list. The product press releases and the product email pitches are invariably feature-based. Yes, it is very important to advance products and continuously improve, but that’s the price of poker, not a differentiator. Here’s the dirty little secret: the buyers really couldn’t care less about features. They care about outcomes. Desired outcomes can vary, and often do across functional areas of a company. To seal a deal, a product needs to stretch one person’s budget, reduce another’s headcount, make a key person more productive, mesh with another’s strategic plan, integrate with another’s strategic application, and make the nervous person comfortable. Whether we are talking about hardware, software or services, features are hammers looking for nails. Outcomes are problems solved.  A smart friend of mine hit it on the head the other day when he said, “there is no killer app out there, and there isn’t one coming, either.” Cynical? Perhaps, but feature-based selling and differentiation is a loser’s game. The overarching problem of how to manage a digital signage network has already been solved. Figure out how to impact outcomes, or relegate yourself the playing the price game. Features are dead: long live features!

The End of Fragmentation

This one is easy. There are too many ad supported networks for the ad buying world to make sense of, so the buyers are either paying someone else to make sense of it, or just staying away. Those networks, the equivalent of hundreds of UHF TV stations trying to compete for national dollars, are driven by a huge number of software platforms delivering information in a non-standard way, a technical Tower of Babel that causes many on the buy side to wonder why they bother. Together, it is a formula for disaster. This will shake out when networks achieve scale, insist upon technical standards and deliver to ad buyers what they want: large, segment-able and target-able audiences with standardized, verifiable data to back up their contractual obligations. Give yourself a gold star if you identified that as an outcome. So here is what has to happen on the ad-supported network side: networks must grow organically or through acquisitions to a scale that ad buyers can wrap their brains around. And they must (and will) determine which software platforms and technical architectures will enable them to achieve scale and drive results. When the process is over, there will be fewer, but generally larger networks and many fewer software platforms.

The End of the Middle

When defragmentation is achieved, there won’t just be a few giant networks fighting it out for their share of the pie. It is more likely to look like cable television, where the bigs do well and the focused, differentiated small networks also prosper. There won’t be much in between, because once a small network achieves a certain level of scale,  it must invest in additional resources to support that level of business and beyond. To properly leverage its investment, it must actually proceed down the growth path. Some will make it and others will not. Those who choose to stay at a certain size can remain lean and profitable. Those who find themselves outgrowing their resource base will have to become big or potentially die. The middle is going to be a layover for those on the journey to become big, and a dead end for those about to be swallowed up or left to die. Management of growth will separate the truly great business professionals from the opportunists. For digital signage to achieve its potential as a legitimate communications channel and as an industry, the middle has to shrink while both large and small prosper. Then we’ll have something that outsiders can truly understand.

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