Last week, in a post titled “Getting The Message”, we discussed how three forces appear to be engaged in a battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of the digital signage marketplace. The unstated thesis of the post was that marketing dollars are likely to have a greater influence on buyer and investor perception of our still-young industry than unbiased analysis or hard-earned lessons from insiders. That was not a gripe: after all, you get what you pay for in this world. In any event, the post closed with a call for industry leadership and standards, without which we risk allowing the marketing machines of giant technology companies and advertorial publishers to define the industry and its priorities. In my mind, allowing that to happen would be a disaster.

The post, and in particular the call for leadership, opened a discussion regarding the Digital Signage Association (DSA), its work, organizational status and future. When writing the post, I had contacted David Drain, Executive Director of the DSA, and asked if DSA was a 501(c)(6) tax exempt, non-profit association. I knew that in fact it was not, which David confirmed. I chose not to open that can of worms in the post, because it deserves its own post, and a more detailed discussion with David out of courtesy. At this point, the discussion has been had, and this is the post.

Before entering the digital signage industry in 2004, I spent most of my professional career as a retail IT consultant, first with a Big 6 firm, then my own firm and subsequently with a public entity. In the course of those years, I was exposed to many industry associations: The National Retail Federation, the Direct Marketing Association, the Food Marketing Institute, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the National Association of Convenience Stores, and the International Mass Retail Association (renamed RILA in 2004). I was engaged on projects by both DMA and IMRA, have attended more conferences than I can remember, and presented at many. I came to appreciate that these associations are examples of effective voices and leaders of their industries. They have wide and deep support of suppliers, users and constituent companies. They provide advocacy, education, leadership on standards, and many member services. They have their own conferences, which provide a venue for all of their agendas and supplemental revenue to make them possible. Some have their own magazines that provide monthly or quarterly touch points with their members. Visit the links above and get a flavor for how those associations operate and serve their industry. Digital signage as an industry needs that kind of organization to take its next important steps forward. And to their credit, I think it is fair to say that DSA’s own leadership knows this. Getting there is the challenge.

DSA, established in 2007, is a part of NetWorld Alliance, a for-profit media company focused on B2B communications. To be fair, in 2007 and probably until now, a standalone non-profit association was probably not feasible in our young industry. NetWorld took the initiative to get the ball rolling and has underwritten (and presumably benefited from) the growth of the DSA. Under NetWorld’s auspices, DSA has accomplished many positive things. However, the call to separate DSA from its for-profit roots is out there, and it seems to be the correct call at this point in time. Here’s why: A true advocate must be independent. A true neutral advocate cannot have a web site plastered with advertising, or share resources with a sister industry web portal business (Digital Signage Today) that only allows external hyperlinks to paid advertisers in its content. To be clear, DST can and should have whatever editorial and advertising policies it wants (even bad ones like the link policy), but DSA’s relationship to it undercuts their desired position as a neutral advocate and leader.

There are over 400 members of DSA today, and room for aggressive recruitment of many more. Part of the recruitment drive should be fueled by a new vision of what the DSA is going to be. Until DSA is split from NetWorld legally and organizationally, it will not achieve the type of presence and leadership that other industry associations have achieved. If getting to that level is not their goal, it will open the door for another entity to step through and make it happen.

In 3 weeks, most of the people reading this post will converge upon Las Vegas for the largest trade show in our industry, the Digital Signage Expo. Six weeks later, back in Las Vegas, and again in November in New York, The Digital Signage Show will also offer great venues for education, selling and networking. DSE and TDDS are run by terrific companies with great people and both provide important services to the industry. That being said, if a non-profit association is to emerge as the linchpin of the industry, it will be absolutely vital for it be in the conference business. Its conference(s) would be a hub of association meetings, the key event from an educational perspective, and an important source of revenue to advance the goals of the association and the industry. Again, look at the other associations mentioned above. Doing so seems to make it clear that a precursor to an independent association would be development of a plan for owning and driving an industry conference schedule. This would not preclude the existence of non-association conferences, but like anything else, supply and demand will find their balance. In my opinion, an independent association (whether it is DSA or a new entity) would be a non-starter without this vital piece.

Digital signage is experiencing explosive growth, consolidation at many levels, the entry of very large corporations, and the scrutiny of people who don’t necessarily get it or share our enthusiasm for this emerging media channel. We need and deserve a neutral, non-profit industry association to drive education, advocacy, standards and industry presence. The DSA currently has the best shot of becoming that voice of digital signage. If they don’t seize the day, another entity will surely fill the void. Let the discussion begin.