Top digital signage software: End-users need their own list

March 17, 2011 by Dave Haynes

For the last few years, my fellow blogger and arch-enemy (kidding) Adrian Cotterill does a review of the Top 10 digital signage software vendors out there. It generates a lot of interest and no end of debate about its validity, as well as the presence and absence of certain vendors.

The stated criteria for the DailyDOOH list, new one coming Friday, are: global presence; management team; financial stability; track record; product roadmap and development team size; breadth of solution; customer service; and the sophistication of the technology options.

Adrian is really the only one to lay out, beyond that, how he and his team arrive at this list, and that will undoubtedly be covered off in the 2011 post. It is globally-focused, so as has been pointed out in the past, some North America-only guys don’t even get consideration.

The list has a significant role, certainly, in helping end-users new to the sector sort through which firms they might want to look at for their software. It beats the hell out of comparison guides that don’t get beyond a checklist and offer no real analysis. At the core of what DailyDOOH is asserting is that the little features and the marketing-speak promoted by companies does not matter all that much. What really does matter is the business legs of a company and its past, present and future ability to deliver on promises and innovation, as well as demonstrated experience servicing particular needs (aka verticals).

Making Decisions

I get asked all the time by end-users (and it happened again last Friday) who, I thought, the go-to companies were in this sector. And what about this Top 10 list they’d heard about? Is that the de facto list of who they should be talking to???

My response to that sort of thing is always pretty simple and blunt. Don’t get fixated on just a list, or some marketing bumph you’ve seen, or people you’ve chatted with and liked at a trade show. None of that begins to matter until an end-user has a clear idea of what they want to do, how they want to do it, and their level of tolerance for risk (and ability to recover from risks gone bad).

Let’s use the example of a hospitality industry greeting, marketing and meeting room usage system.

There are companies that are really good at that stuff, but may never make a Top 10 list because they’re too small, regional and operate pretty much off the radar screen.

There are others that may make a list – or are well known in the marketplace because they’re good at making noise – that can also do the work, but may have an operating or licensing model that’s not a good fit for how the end-user wants to carry on. Or their product might only do part of what is needed, or take them down the wrong walled-garden path.

There may be several start-ups out there that can do what the end-user really wants to do with this kind of a system, but the company may in fact be two guys working out of a Starbuck’s. They could disappear just as easily as they could be the next big thing.

And there are companies that do other elements of hospitality back-office work, like meeting room management, that might have a module that can do everything needed – with no mention of digital signage in the solution. The programming challenge of getting a set of files to play one after another, and then repeat that, is hardly daunting. And there are open source (free) media players, like Ayuda’s, that can provide that puzzle piece if needed.

Change the vertical or business requirement from hospitality to just about anything, and the same sort of variables spill back.

The List You Need To Cover Off Before You Read Lists

As an end-user, here’s what you really need to think about as you start researching technology choices.

1 – Objectives: Seems obvious, but nothing should happen before this is clearly, thoroughly defined. To use the hotel/hospitality example, the objective may be to make wayfinding and meeting room location work more efficient in a hotel group that typically has a lot of booked meeting space at its sites. The goal is to largely automate the process and ensure it is timely and compliant, and relying very little on human factors.

2 – Strategy: So how is that going to play out? Does the hotel group have a common meeting room booking system? What does it do? What does it output? Could it do this? Does the vendor have partners? Is this the time to review the incumbent booking system vendor? Do you even need something labelled as digital signagte software?

Then there have to be strategy questions about how the hotel group wants to handle this and how it will be managed hotel by hotel. The hotel group may, in fact, have only an influence on what the independently-owned hotels that operate under the banner may do. Does the hotel group’s IT department want to manage the central software and hardware? Do they want to buy it? License it on a SaaS model? Is the group a Windows only shop? Or Linux only? Do they know??? Does the group even have a central IT department?

The strategy needs to fully plot out how this plan will work and go a long way to exposing what is needed in a software and hardware solution, as well as resource requirements.

3 – Programming: Objectives and strategy will lay out what a company wants to do and roughly how, but the technology choices cannot be made until the end-user understands the volume of content programming needed and how it will be produced. The volume of content and its granularity location by location (or on the flip side, its ubiquity) can define the transport mechanism (type, speed and cost model of broadband). If you need to move a LOT of content a mobile 3G solution may be a breathtakingly bad (read costly) idea. Or it might do just fine. Localization may mean the software needs built-in, front-end tools for simple content authoring, which not all platforms have. There may be a strict need for dynamic Flash updating, or a desire to integrate external feeds. Again, all that needs to be defined.

Then you need to understand who’s going to be doing the scheduling and how long it takes, as well as how much training is needed. A system that is perfect in every other respect may fall down because it would take too long, or too many people, to execute on plans.

Only then, with objectives, strategy and a programming model sorted, should an end-user even start researching suitable vendors. The DailyDOOH Top 10 list can then be a substantial filter in the vendor research process. But it’s just one filter.

I know the DailyDOOH folks well, and am pretty comfortable they’d agree that for some – if not many or most end-users – the ideal vendor may not be on the Top 10 list. But in making decisions, any end-user needs to balance finding the perfect vendor to serve their needs with very deep due diligence on that vendor’s short-to-medium term business prospects. The marketplace is seriously tilted to supply over demand, and that means even great little companies with great little products have suspect (at best) prospects.

On the other hand, there are companies in and around this sector that attract very little attention and just quietly go about their business – turning profitable quarter after profitable quarter without much notice. They might not be on a list, but they may be a safer bet than some companies who are there, and have managed to keep their financial distress quiet.

An end-user should be thinking at least three years out and probably five, and feel assured their chosen vendor will be there. If that’s not possible, then the technology choice should factor in some way that you can change solutions remotely – as the cost of physically touching scores, hundreds or thousands of units to change software is just too ugly to even contemplate.

Bottom line: Know what you need, and need to do, before you even start considering your software options, and use lists like the DailyDOOH Top 10 as a strong due diligence resource. But do not limit your choices to that or any other list.

Make your own list of what you need, and what matters for your business, and then when you start looking over options, ask tough questions.


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