I often lament the the lack of generally accepted terms and generally accepted definitions in our space. Even a basic term, “digital signage” can mean different things to different people. It may or may not include being interactive, networked or managed. Usually it depends on who is using the word and what they are selling (or buying). That the core name for an industry conjures up many different images is not a great situation, leading many to question the industry itself. But that discussion has been had more than once.

The popular term that is beginning to rankle me as a software person is “CMS” or “content management system”. CMS is an old term in technical years and is frequently the default term to qualify digital signage software. While it is always difficult (and sometimes misguided) to introduce a new term into the techno-lexicon, as there is the risk that it won’t stick, I believe CMS limits our industry. I suspect CMS has become popular because it is sometimes easier to have a conversation about digital signage in the context of managing content. Newbies can quickly grasp the idea of moving content to remote, targeted displays. However, CMS sells the capabilities of today’s digital signage solutions short, and causes confusion with actual content management systems that preceded our lovely industry. These applications do different things with content than what a digital signage application does. For examples, see  here or here. To see a partial list of where the term CMS lumps our industry, click here.

In many large organizations, a standard CMS is already in place, and positioning a digital signage solution as “CMS” will generally result in three predictable IT department reactions. First, there will be an instant barrier put up, as “we already have a CMS”, which will require the digital signage salesperson to admit that it “really isn’t CMS” and actually explain what it IS. Second, the person responsible for CMS will be asked to determine if “we can already do that with <place CMS application name here>”. Being forced to play defense by using the wrong term is not a fun place to start a pitch. Thirdly, you will be asked, “can you integrate with our CMS, as we don’t want to manage our content versioning in two separate systems.”

There is little doubt that a fully featured digital signage software package includes elements of content management. Content is generally created, ingested or both in digital signage software. Content is also stored, referenced and organized in digital signage software. And sometimes, as pointed out above, content is stored in and accessed from (horrors!) an actual content management system.  Content is generally grouped, queued and distributed. But there is so much more that has to happen to make digital signage software viable. I would argue that the manner in which the content is able to be organized, distributed and reported adds far more value than how it is stored and accessed. In truth, digital signage software is better described as content distribution systems. But even that sells digital signage software short.

The ability to manage remote media players, collect and report data, define and organize networks and sub-networks, maintain attributes and metadata, and interface with other systems are what make these solutions unique to digital signage. Why would we cheapen or muddy the concept by lumping it in with Joomla or Vignette? Isn’t it time to shed the security blanket and pronounce ourselves as legitimate?

So given that the core functions of a robust solution includes content management, content distribution, player management, network management, reporting and more, what makes sense for a catch-all name? At the risk of being ignored, I am going to throw out a suggestion and try to rationalize it. Sort of like suggesting where to go out to eat with my family.

I like the term Digital Signage Platform. In three words, it both indicates the problem being solved and the positioning of the application itself within an application portfolio and an ecosystem. Admittedly, ‘platform’ is a technology catch-all, but I believe it conveys the core attribute our industry requires to grow, “openness”. Third-party innovation is going to help grow our industry and place our platforms at the strategic heart of marketing decisions. A robust digital signage platform will provide all the key functions mentioned in the prior paragraph, as well as “hooks” and interfaces to other applications in a corporate portfolio and/or the digital signage ecosystem. The applications may include content management systems, ad planning tools, inventory management systems (for both ad and merchandise), decision support and analytics systems, web applications, mobile applications, POS and more. The  core of this digital media distribution beast is the digital signage platform. Ideally, it will take in data from some applications, send it to some, and exchange it with others. That makes it a strategic system, and not another island of content capture and management. This is an important distinction for our industry.

Integration has always been the digital signage equivalent of self-actualization on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow said, “What a man can be, he must be”. For a technology to realize its full potential, it must integrate with other technologies and applications. Integration amplifies the impact and value of digital signage software. It turns the software into strategic platforms.

Digital signage has established a marketplace, attracted the attention of technical and non-technical media, created the need for focused consultants and made very large companies pay attention both as owners and customers. It has become clear that we are ready to become strategic. Part of that process is ending the madness of the self-deprecating usage of “CMS”. I am going with Digital Signage Platform. Feel free to dive in as well. Or like my family, overrule me and opt for the same old thing.

(Note: Thanks to Jason Broom for nurturing the idea, creating the image and some editing help.)