digital signage content

By Steve Bumstead, President of PixelFire

The seven steps of highly effective screen owners and how to avoid digital sign mediocrity.

As the cost of LCD and LED goes down we are rapidly approaching a time when paper or backlit posters, static billboards and static art will be as foreign to the next generation as the rotary dial phone and a world without an internet are to our children.

Increasingly architects, building & property managers and internal marketing leaders look to public spaces like lobbies, long halls, ceilings and other large areas of what would otherwise be covered in drywall as opportunities for engagement with large digital screens.   These areas play host to large numbers of eyeballs attached to humans providing blank canvases for the creation of excitement, engagement, shock and awe moments and beautiful art that comes alive through motion.

This is, in this writer’s honest – although biased – opinion, a wonderful thing.  However, this promise of a dramatic change in the status quo comes with an enormous challenge to those conceiving of, designing and building these spaces.  That challenge is understanding that they, in fact, are creating their own private TV channel which has a voracious appetite for great content and programming

Many that venture down the path of large public screens do so with the zeal, avarice and ignorance of an 11 year old attempting to fly a helicopter for the first time after watching a YouTube video on the subject.  This may seem like a ridiculous analogy but hundreds of public screens littering today’s urban landscapes running full screen CNN are a testament that the analogy is not far off. If you would prefer to plan and operate your screen(s) like a veteran apache pilot keep reading.

There are 7 steps I feel are critical to landing your screen in the rarified air of a public screen that becomes a destination “must see”; a public screen that hits viral numbers on social media channels; a public screen that accomplishes all of those things that were racing through your mind(s) as you envisioned it in that bar on the back of a napkin.

Step 1: Ask Yourself Why

The first, and most important, step in creating a successful public video screen is to ask yourself this question:  Why? Why are you doing it? If your answer is just “because it would be cool” I’m willing to give you 20:1 odds that in 2-3 years it will be no more interesting than a couple framed prints from  Having a clear vision of why and committing to keeping those who hold that vision involved through the entire process is critical to success.

Is it to appeal to Millennial tech employees so you can lease up office space?  Is it to inform your audience with useful information? Entertain them? Advertising?  Bring nature indoors? Add energy or calm to a space? Show your collection of cat videos?  Whatever the reason it’s really important that you answer this question before you start your quest for public screen excellence.

Why is your starting point.  It is the strategical base on which you’ll build your public screen masterpiece.

Step 2. Analyze Your Audience

The second step is to analyze your audience.  Is the space your screen will occupy a transitional space where people are just passing through?  Is it a waiting area where dwell time will be long? Is your audience one that sees the screen on a daily basis or is it tourists that may never see the space again?  A combination of the two? Maybe it’s a daily audience of employees in a private corporate lobby.

Your audience characteristics will tell you how much content you need, what kind of content your need, and how often you should refresh it.

For example, an office building lobby, predominantly, has a daily audience that sees the screen day in and day out, month after month, year after year.  They mostly will be moving through the lobby in short periods of time. This should lead you to a strategy of frequent updates and a short playlist. This keeps the content fresh on a regular basis without requiring a long playlist of content.

Another example on the opposite end of the spectrum would be Times Square.  It has an average dwell time of almost 3 hours but it’s filled with tourists.  Here you should be thinking about really telling a story. You have a captive audience and if your content is good you have a chance of communicating a lot.  On the other hand the tourists will leave and might not come back for several years so It’s not necessary to refresh the content frequently.

For over a decade my company, Pixelfire, has managed and created digital content for the visual cacophony that is Times Square.  We routinely see brands spend ridiculous amounts of money on buying the ad space only to repurpose a TV commercial for content because it’s the cheapest and easiest option.  This is, in large part, due to a lack of continuity and vision within the DOOH market but that’s a completely different essay.

Another example would be something between the two previous examples; a train platform.  Here you have, mostly, daily commuters but your dwell time is longer. You have more time to entertain, inform and engage but, unlike Times Square where tourists dominate, you need to keep the playlist fresh frequently.

Now that you have an answer for why and you know who your audience is and what that means for your content appetite you can move on to more pragmatic considerations.

Step 3. Capital Budget vs. Operational Budget

Step three is to understand and deal with the difference between capital budget and operating budget.  Most projects that we’ve seen, over the years, are part of a capital improvement program or part of a new construction endeavor.  The capital budget is typically where the 5, 6 or 7 figure investment in the hardware comes from that pays for the screen.

The challenge arises when no one tells the group that has to operate the screen that there’s going to be a screen or that they may want to allocate a budget to feed it with content.

A few years back Pixelfire was involved with a national retailer that put a beautiful video screen in one of its top performing stores.  In this case a round of initial content was purchased along with the capital purchase of the equipment. The audience characteristic of this store was one where the same customers would visit it one to two times per week.  Ideally a plan to refresh content once a month or at least once per quarter would have been ideal. However, four years later, the inaugural content now acts as visual white noise to the local customers that stopped paying attention to it 3 ½ years ago.  There are hundreds of examples like this one littering the landscape of public screen projects that started with, “wouldn’t be cool if……” and never went much further.

It is a great idea, once you’ve assembled the team of people on both the capital and the operational side, to identify what you believe the useful life of the project will be and create a content plan that stretches past the first year – past the honeymoon phase – to the full end of the identified life of the asset.  If you’re not sure how long that is you can at least start with your accounting department and ask over what period the company will depreciate the asset off the books.

You should now have enough information to start formulating a plan for how much content you’re going to need.  The best way to think about a public screen is that you’ve purchased your own TV channel and it needs to be filled with programming 24/7.

Step 4. Find a Winning Content Partner

This is leads us directly to step four; find and involve a content partner or a turnkey solution provider that employs or brings with it an experienced content partner.

Identify, if you plan on generating content in house, what that means to your in house team.  Do they have enough bandwidth to keep your channel full? Do they have the experience? If your team spends all of their time in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign your team probably isn’t going to have the chops to make awesome video content.

If you think you want to outsource go find a content partner that understands creating content for public screens.  The guy or company that produces your explainer videos and standup internal training videos in HD resolution is probably not going to do well with an 8K non traditional aspect ratio LED screen or video wall.

Our company, Pixelfire, Obscura Digital, ESI Design, Digital Kitchen, Leviathan and Moment Factory are great choices for amazing content.  These are all companies that understand public screens and their unique needs.

You’ll notice that I haven’t suggested you go get quotes on a screen yet.  That’s not an accident. If your goal is to have a successful video screen project for its full useful life you need to know and understand the content piece of the budget that makes sense for your screen before the hardware is even investigated.

Step 5. Developing a Content Budget

This is step 5.  Work with your content partner to create a realistic content budget.  If you have a $100,000 budget that magically appeared out thin air shortly after the, “wouldn’t it be cool if……” conversation and it’s supposed to buy a 500 square foot display and cover content costs for 7 years I would suggest you go back to bar and see if you can fish out the napkin bearing the “what if” drawing and make a smaller rectangle where the screen is.

If you create your content budget and there’s still some money left over; awesome!  It’s now time for step 6.

Step 6. Start Producing Content

Step 6 is actually where most people start the process.  A rectangle is drawn on an elevation plan or on the back of a napkin and sent out to A/V integrators or screen manufacturers asking for bids.  Starting here would be a grand idea if system integrators or screen manufacturers created content but most don’t. Because they don’t they end up making decisions that directly affect your content creation pipeline without understanding what a content creation pipeline even is; let alone what yours is.  Starting here, at step 6, can lead to years of headaches and limitations for the you, the end user / producer of your public screen channel.

When your content partner is part of the physical screen design process they will be able to tell you what the content production implications of an LCD wall vs. an LED wall will be over the life of your screen.  They will be able to tell you whether you can get away with a $300 Brightsign player or if you need a $200,000 live production studio or something in between. They will be able to tell you how the shape of your screen impacts its ability to enthrall your audience or put them to sleep.  They will help you understand the trade-offs between resolution and creating impact (hint: size does matter). The important part is that they will explain all of this relative to the actual stuff that will play on the screen; your content. It may seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many screen owners, in their evaluation stages fixate on tighter and tighter resolutions.  500 square feet of 4mm LED will have significantly more impact than 200 square feet of 2mm.

The smartest integrators and screen manufacturers know all of this and routinely introduce a competent content partner early on for those who, not knowing any better, start with step 6.  If you’re lucky enough to be working with one of these great integration partners I would advise letting the content partner they’ve brought in take you through steps 1 – 5 before you make your final budgeting decisions.

Step 7. Get Creative!

Okay.  Now it’s time for the fun part, step seven, creative.  This is where your content partner earns his/her weight in gold.  It’s time to break out the napkin sketches, mood boards, reference videos and system diagrams.  It’s time to throw out all of your, “wouldn’t it be cool ifs”.

Sometimes step seven needs to come before or in conjunction with step five but the important part is to take advantage of the companies that are paving the way into the future of public screens.  Not tapping into the creativity of companies like the ones mentioned above is like taking your 6 year old to Disneyland only to stand on Harbor Blvd staring at the parking lot sign from the Denny’s across the street.  Bite the bullet and buy the 3 day pass. You won’t be disappointed. These companies have more creativity and technology up their sleeves than Seigried and Roy – I think I just dated myself.

Don’t let your legacy as a screen curator be CNN cable TV because it’s only $50/month.  Fail!

Follow these seven steps and earn your star on the public screen walk of fame.

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