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Electronic Signage: The Future is Now

What Every PSP Needs to Know

By Thomas Franklin

Brands like LG Electronics, Panasonic, SAMSUNG, and Sony USA may not roll off a print service provider’s (PSP) tongue during the course of a business day, but chances are that these, and others, will loom much larger in the business lexicon as the market for electronic displays heats up in upcoming years.

Electronic signage will mostly complement, not consume, print signage. There are sufficient limitations to electronic signage—size, cost, complexity, and energy requirements—that will ensure a healthy life for print.

"We see electronic signage complementing print graphics," says Teresa Young, CEO, Sign Biz, Inc. "We first embraced digital printing in 1994 and thought it would cannibalize vinyl, but it was really just an additional medium for the client. There’s just more overall dollars in signage than ever before."

An electronic display is a catchall for several technologies—anything from an LED billboard to a 42-inch flat panel, down to a tiny digital price display embedded on a retail counter. Behind the glass, there’s usually a media player or an engine that drives content to the screen. It could be as straightforward as a DVD player or as complex as a centrally managed network reaching out to hundreds of individual displays and controlled through a Web browser or desktop software application.

"Digital signage will be a $19 billion industry by 2010," predicts John Melillo, president, Diversified Media Group, a firm that engineers, installs, and manages electronic signage networks.

Growth of electronic signage is driven by a number of factors. First, the price of flat panel displays fell quickly thanks to consumer sales, says Chris Connery, VP, PC and Large Format Commercial Displays, DisplaySearch, a market research firm. This, in turn, led panel manufacturers to develop new markets to diversify their product lines.

"Electronic signage is really just another advertising channel," shares Eric Primack, CEO, Mass Integrated Systems (MIS). "The opportunity in electronic signage is substantial, given its logical extension to the online advertising market."

MIS, based out of Newburyport, MA, is a full-service integrator of electronic display systems. The company provides electronic display hardware, and if needed, will outsource to a third-party software manufacturer to create an optimal solution. In Primack’s opinion, electronic signage’s largest growth sector is currently the hospitality and transportation industries.

Compared to a static print poster, electronic signage is able to promote several advertisements at once. This works best in hotels, airports, and train stations thanks to an immense amount of foot traffic. During various parts of the day consumers view programmed advertisements. Software developers create products that not only switch between advertisements, but also track how many people are taking the time to read them. These counting capabilities allow advertisers to tailor their message and says Primack, "reach people from multiple channels, which is very similar to advertisements placed on the Web."

Another factor, particularly outdoors, is limited real estate, explains William Hewitt, regional account executive, Lamar Outdoor Advertising. Because ads are changed frequently, even daily, a single display can do the work of multiple print boards. "This signage is still in its infancy," he adds. "Nationally it’s about one percent of our outdoor market. But the growth is exponential."

Electronic signage made the most headway indoors, with retail and quick service restaurant channels being the early adopters, says Jeff Blankensop, business development director, NEC Display Solutions—a leading supplier of flat panel displays and electronic signage solutions for the commercial market. Transit hubs, banks, and corporate lobbies—essentially any indoor location with a captive audience—are prime targets.

As a sign of the growing awareness, Connery points to a recent move by the Washington DC Metro system, announcing the swap out all of its printed signage for an electronic display network, following a similar move in Chicago, IL.

But perhaps the biggest driver is the capabilities of an electronic display. The content is dynamic, it moves, and also offers audio. Because displays are typically networked, it’s easy to change content, which in turn makes advertisements relevant for many different promotional environments. The content can also be customized and distributed quicker, says Melillo.

"If you’re a vendor, and you’re looking at your in-store communications, electronic displays give you a three dimensional conversation with the customer," says Richard Fisher, president, Premier Retail Networks, a company which manages a network of 250,000 screens for Wal-Mart, Circuit City, and other leading national retail chains. "We noticed recently that retailers are now viewing in-store electronic signage strategically. That’s a big change," and a sign of the category’s maturity.

"A big chunk of the above-line media dollar is moving below the line," says Young. "They’ve moved into the store, where the last 12 inches of marketing takes place. That’s valuable real estate."

Networking doesn’t just mean fresh content. It also allows for better auditing. "In the point of sale world no more than 50 percent of point of purchase (POP) signage gets to where it needs to be," says Blankensop. "With an electronic sign, that’s not the case." If a sign is down, the network will alert you.

For outdoor applications, electronic signs are attractive not simply for their commercial appeal, but for community benefits, explains Brad Miller, technical manager, Lamar Outdoor Advertising. The company’s electronic signs are used to display AMBER alerts and other government warnings, which have the added benefit of endearing them to local municipalities that would otherwise be suspicious of outdoor signage, he adds.

Got Electronic?
Print providers shouldn’t fear the onset of electronic signage, Young reinforces. Instead, they should embrace it. "There is such tremendous potential here," she continues.

Young added the LobbyPop division to Sign Biz, Inc. to bring "industry specific content in a very cinematic quality to small businesses." The goal, Young says, is to provide businesses with a waiting room that entertains and educates customers. LobbyPop targets small business chains but is scalable to much larger establishments, she adds. The offering is customizable and includes a widescreen display—typically LG Plasmas, a DVD player, and a set of custom multimedia DVDs created by LobbyPop. The product can be outfitted with custom print signage as well.

Clients can submit content—still images, animated logos, text, royalty-free music—that LobbyPop edits into a looping video. The length of the production varies by the nature of the business and typical lobby wait times. Clients can drive the creative process through templates or have LobbyPop design off their files.

Richmond, VA-based Keith Fabry Reprographics is celebrating over 50 years of business, long enough to see technologies come and go. In 2006, they jumped onto the electronic display bandwagon with its KFR Player business—an electronic signage solution that integrates LCDs from seven to 32 inches in size. Custom displays larger than 32 inches are also available, as are options to incorporate printed signage.

"We produce a lot of POP and interior signage and my thought was that the trends seemed to be pointing toward electronic signage," says Jimmy Keith, president, Keith Fabry Reprographics. "It was just a better product for us to offer to the end user. We didn’t want to miss the boat on the revolution."

Now, the company is riding the wave. The KFR Player comes in four options and uses a memory card—similar to those in a digital camera—to playback multimedia content. They can be outfitted with printed materials, typically produced on the firm’s Océ Arizona 250 GT flatbed, and support a number of technologies—motion activation, touch-screens, DVD playback, wired/ wireless networking, and directional sound, to name a few.

"Our customers were happy to see it," Keith says of his electronic displays. "It helps them look better than the next guy." Since many of the KFR Player designs include integrated print signage, the firm is finding many clients coming back for prints.

"Today, electronic signage is a small part of our overall business," Keith continues, "but there’s a lot of growth and we think this is where the future is."

Looking ahead, Keith sees increased interest in touch-screen, interactive capability. Keeping up with the latest technology is a challenge, but to Keith, it’s the fundamental nature of the business. "That’s why we got into electronic signage. We knew in the future we’d need to offer print and digital so our customers would keep coming to us first."

Look Before Leaping
While sign shops should embrace electronic signage, Young recommends they mustn’t take it lightly. "There’s a whole new skill set involved," she says.

"You need to understand computer technology, networking, and software," seconds Ricky Shannon, product development manager, KFR Player. "You’re moving from a CMYK world to an RGB world."

"On the back end there is a complex set of protocols you need to understand," explains Young. "Do you want a sound cone or sound to fill a room, are you distributing content or do you give the end user control of it. You need to understand your display technology and non-linear editing to create that content and format the images for clients to display," she adds.

Given the projected size of the electronic signage market, and the fact that it overlaps the traditional display and IT fields, there are many companies offering to partner up to provide needed expertise. Firms such as Dynasign, which offers a technology platform for managing an electronic signage network, partner with traditional signage companies like Sign-A-Rama to help capitalize on this emerging market. "It requires a real commitment from a traditional signage business to enter the display market," says Jimmy Dun, business development manager, Dynasign. "But it can work."

One challenge in electronic signage is confusion over what constitutes a commercial-grade display, says Connery. Many panel makers like Sony USA or Sharp Electronics will sell consumer panels through IT or ProAV distribution channels, he adds.

To sort a commercial display from a consumer television, make sure it has a long warranty, RS-232 bi-directional controls, and a commercial housing, shares Rey Roque, VP, marketing, Westinghouse Digital, a panel maker.

Commercial grade panels are specially constructed to hang in portrait mode and stay on 24/7, Connery notes. These include LG Electronics’ M10 Series, NEC Display Solutions’ 10 line, SAMSUNG’s X-Line, and Sharp Electronics’ PN Line. "If you can buy it at Costco, it’s probably not for commercial use," cautions Connery.

"The flat panel is the least expensive, longest lasting part of the infrastructure" in a large signage network, says Fisher. "It’s the servers and infrastructure underneath that cost money and are complicated."

"We’re always hot-rodding software," Melillo seconds. Firms such as 3M Digital Signage, Omnivex Corporation, Navori, Scala, Inc., and others provide signage software for the market.

For outdoor displays, particularly billboards, the frequency and type of content that can be used on an electronic display is also an issue, says Hewitt. Some municipalities limit the frequency or type of ads that can be displayed on a digital outdoor sign. "We are a big proponent of no motion," he continues.

There are three basic business models supporting electronic signage, says Blankensop. Some retail establishments purchase their own displays and partner with a company to manage the content. The retailers and manufactures then cooperate on advertising. Another option, a provider will sell the displays and a contract to manage the signage network. Still other retailers will view it as a branding play, comments Blankensop, adding digital panels to their store to promote brand awareness.

"We still see the overwhelming use in branding," says Melillo. Banks were early adopters of branded digital displays and remain one of the prime markets, he continues.

Electronic Revolution
Electronic signs are still in their infancy, and a host of capabilities still lie in wait. Blankensop points to an electronic signage network in a Chicago, IL hotel that reads RFID tags from trade show or convention badges and displays information relevant to that attendee. A recent New York Times article detailed how some digital billboards are being outfitted with digital cameras to collect demographic data on who is staring at them, and for how long, allowing advertisers to better target their pitch.

"There is a sea of change coming from passive systems to interactivity," Fisher predicts. Using an IPTV network and touch-screen controls, systems will allow electronics retailers to provide consumers with an interactive display where they can review television specifications side by side. Then, using the touch-screen, consumers select television models on the show floor and send a video feed for a real life comparison on the models they’re interested in, he adds.

While these capabilities are cutting edge, electronic signage has a lot of headroom to grow. Those in the print business should not despair. "I don’t believe digital signage will ever replace print. Each has a place in the marketing advertising mix. What we’re seeing is convergence," shares Melillo.

If you are wary of adapting electronic signage into your digital print shop, outsourcing may be an option. This guarantees a job well done to your client base and does not incur many of the costs that go into setting up an electronic signage display. Once critical mass is up, then consider bringing the job in-house.

Remember, many companies not only help create the software that runs the display, but the actual installation as well. If you are not comfortable learning how to install displays, outsourcing just that element might be an option to consider.

In all instances, it is important to regard electronic signage as a complement—not a threat—to the digital large format print market. Not only can you as a PSP offer your customers more options, but in the long run, you will gain too.  

Aug2008, Digital Output

 
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