A colleague just returned from a conference in Chicago, and as people in our business are inclined to do, he noticed and photographed a digital sign in the host hotel.

Despite the quality of his iPhone camera, I think you can see what is going on. LOTS.

For those prospects, customers and partners who ask, we recommend they start with outlining their network objectives and content strategy before worrying about technology decisions. (I know… a strange pitch for people who sell a technology solution, but telling it like it is has always been the right approach.) Based on the above photo, it appears that the hotel objective included corporate branding, yet the content strategy included scanning in a logo from a fax cover sheet or letterhead, not scaling it to the space allocated, and then choosing sub-optimal real estate on the screen for the brand. Hotel information seems important, so the left side of the screen was allocated for a directory of events. On this day, there was only one event, leaving a whole lot of light green blank space. The final content element, clearly chosen only because it was available, was a video window above the hotel logo playing the scintillating “Journey into Amazing Caves”. The video played in about 50% of the allocated space, so why even deploy it? Undersized, uneventful and purposeless would be the description I would use. To match the execution of the content strategy, the technology beneath it is revealed for all to see: A PowerPoint presentation running as a loop, but still showing the Windows task bar. D’oh!

So what is wrong with this picture? Clearly, using rich media is an improvement over hotel stationery in a glass frame. However, execution like this should be instructive to others. Using a PC and common tools to drive a flat screen is not a difficult task. However, in cases like this one, it can be made to appear very difficult and unattractive. With all the hype over digital signage, plenty of people have seized the opportunity to sell their services to local businesses like the hotel. Through the triple threat of shot gunning content, mixing messages and sloppy execution, the result is a poorly integrated experience that does not offer great value for the customer (the hotel). If a business takes on a digital signage project, it should understand how it works, where the value points are, and how the project should be run. The opportunists won’t provide that insight, only results such as those in the picture (and an invoice). Unfortunately, results like these only make it harder for this industry to truly break through.

Another thing that is troublesome is the obsession with multiple zones on both sides of the table. Here is a second picture, which shows the Windows task bar replaced with a ticker that provides weather information.

With this layout, the clarity of the font was poor, such that the stroke width of the font varied as it scrolled across the screen. One person joked that the font should be named “Ransom Note Sans Serif”. So the result is a pulsating ticker, “Journey into Amazing Caves” video, badly scaled corporate identity and a dinner menu competing for two eyeballs per head. I multitask with the best of them, but I believe keeping it simple is the best approach. I’m not sure I get the full value even from the ticker and commentary on a typical cable news show. So it is hard to imagine that all this media competition within 42 diagonal inches is a good thing for the viewer, customer or advertiser. Are viewers benefiting? Is the venue delivering value to its’ customers? Are promotional messages getting the attention they deserve? Once again, think objectives and content first. Then execute with the appropriate technology.

It’s easy to kick something around. So what might be done differently in this example to make the messaging more effective? If we assume the primary objectives are hotel branding, information and way finding, and that secondary (read: optional) objectives are to provide some interesting and relevant content, here is what I might suggest:

  • Brand the presentation by creating a frame or “skin”: with the hotel name, official colors and logo. It needn’t take up lots of real estate to be effective.
  • Event information is excellent fodder for a ticker, if you choose to have one. Scroll the various event and way finder information at the bottom of the display.
  • Reserve most of the feature area of the display for video, Flash and JPEG content, which may include promotional information on the hotel and its amenities, restaurant menus, concierge services, other locations in the chain, etc. Run this content in rotation, perhaps with more emphasis on dining options in afternoon and evening hours. One could easily eliminate the ticker, and place the event information in the feature loop. It is easy to test it both ways and talk to consumers and gauge effectiveness of each approach.
  • If “external” content is deemed valuable, utilize a sidebar adjacent to the feature area to provide news and weather or other relevant and “sticky” content. Recognizing that the feature area is of primary importance, don’t compete by using video here. Rather, use text and graphics in a moderately-paced rotation to make it possible to absorb.

Above all else, create an integrated experience for the viewer. Once a content approach is finalized, technology can then come into play. There are many ways to skin this cat, but being able to efficiently schedule, customize, manage and monitor a network of displays takes it out of the realm of opportunists and into the realm of purpose-built solutions.