Thoughts on five years …

February 4, 2011 by Dave Haynes

Tomorrow, Feb. 5th, is the five-year anniversary of Sixteen:Nine – five years and closing in on 2,000 posts about the digital signage and digital out of home sector.

My first post didn’t say a whole bunch more than, “Hello??? Anybody out there?”

Five years later, I know there are indeed people out there. I just had a record month for traffic, even though work and travel commitments meant I did not write as much as I wanted. I also try not to just write for the sake of getting something, anything posted. I skip most industry “news” because there are plenty of good outlets for that.

Given its a natural milestone for reflection, I was thinking about what’s changed and what hasn’t in five years.

Certainly, the industry is much, much bigger. There are serious, billion-dollar companies active in the space now. Retailers – particularly food services firms – seem to be really taking this stuff on board.

The news that comes out these days tends to be a little more about real rollouts, as opposed to trials that have the vague POTENTIAL to roll out into something substantial.

The BS factor – of start-ups announcing mass rollouts and lofty revenue targets – is way down. Those clowns are still around here and there, but few people are entertained by them.

Knowledge levels up

I’d say the general knowledge level in the industry is much, much higher. The efforts of the two competing trade shows to drive education are laudable (yes, there are more, but DSE and CETW are the North American “majors” specific to this sector). I get the whirlies thinking about ALL the education sessions at DSE this year … we’re talking dozens and dozens and dozens. It’s a wonder education director Richard Lebovitz hasn’t started losing his hair … oh, wait.  ;-]

The technology is hugely less costly on the hardware side, and also better and more reliable. The software is much more sophisticated and some – certainly not all – of it is also much less costly. I don’t, however, see the drive to zero pricing happening so much on the hosted software side.

There is most definitely a market for free or very low cost, and companies who have plans around that. But there are also many end-user businesses who understand they need to spend real money to fully meet their business communication needs, and also sleep soundly at night.

I’d say content is better, and people understand its central role. But I’d also argue the great examples of content are too often related to big-budget or landmark projects. I still don’t see a lot of great day-to-day stuff out in the wild, on regular old DOOH and retail screens. That owes, in part, to creative still being pretty expensive to steadily feed the content beast that is an active signage network.

Wrong people get mikes

I also see – too often – entirely the wrong people doing content workshops at trade shows. We need CREATIVE people who actually do CREATIVE work. Not software CEOs, and not people who couldn’t launch After-Effects if there was a gun trained on them. It makes no sense. There are good people out there with great things to say, but they don’t have the budgets or inclination to buy booths at trade shows or sponsorships at conferences.

One thing that I have really noticed lately is that the best companies in this space tend to operate very quietly, and just tick away profitable quarter after profitable quarter. I am aware of companies that rarely turn up at trade shows or make a lot (if any) marketing noise, but have 150 people and money in the bank. I am working with one company that has a massive, highly sophisticated, rock-solid network that few people even know exists. I know other guys who work JUST in their little niche, and are making real money.

Too many people making decisions and influencing people in this sector wear rose-colored glasses and shake pom-poms and say the sky is the limit for digital signage and DOOH. Not enough people recognize digital signage is just one part of a much larger communications and marketing solution, and that fewer and fewer RFPs and purchase orders will only say Digital Signage on them.

If you are not looking at mobile and how your company works with that technology, start. Mobile is a LOT more than SMS integration.

If you are not paying attention to emerging online technologies – not just the media playback thingies, but real-time ad buying, digital planning platforms and data mining – you need to start.

We all need to acknowledge that some of the best work being done in this sector is produced by people who operate outside the sector, and ignore the notion of limitations or acceptable practices. They just look at the objective, and make something happen. Your competition – no matter what you do – may have never read a paragraph about “digital signage” but they know all about digital communications.

Stop just talking about standards

The industry – particularly on the ad-driven network side – has to stop just talking about standards and guidelines and start using what’s been developed.

Just this week, I was talking to a VERY senior guy at one of the godzilla agency holding groups – the ones that control about half of all global media spend – and he said it is still SOOOO weirdly hard to plan digital out of home … because if he sees three networks in a row, he’ll get three different variations on audience size and measurement. That’s usually, he said, after they’ve led off the pitch talking about how many screens they had, which media people could care less about.

The whole issue of how this stuff gets bought and sold has not received a lot of attention, and I plan to spend more time looking at this whole issue and its dynamics. My media sales experience amounts to a few agency calls and the investment in a decoder ring to figure out what the hell some of those people are going on about (they have their own overworked, polysyllabic language). But I do know lots of people who will help me navigate through this particular forest.

Thanks very much for reading me for five years, if you have. Thanks to those who are newer readers, as well. The notes I get and chats I have when I get day-passes and go to trade shows are always encouraging and fun.

I plan to keep on writing, and also tweaking sixteen:nine. I like the look, but as more and more people read posts on devices other than desktops, I may streamline things. The number is teeny right now, but growing.

Hope to see many people at the Preset mixer (sold out) and throughout DSE in a couple of weeks.

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