Good content starts with good planning

September 8, 2011 by Dave Haynes

I have never worn a beret and it has been years since I donned a turtleneck, so therefore, I’m not a content guy.

That, and when I open up something like After Effects, I just kind of twitch … utterly lost.

But I do have a sense of what’s important in designing content for digital signage networks. The choreography of visuals and messages is really what it’s all about, however that work shouldn’t be started until the content designers have a baseline understanding of what’s going on in the environment.

Great creative can fail dismally if it doesn’t sync up with the venue environment, the audience and the objectives of not only the campaign but the network.

The best networks out there tend to be those that have been truly thought-through, with the displays in places that make sense, programming that respects the audience, and creative that’s in tune with the venue’s dynamics.

Much of what industry newbies see out in the marketplace is, frankly, badly executed on all levels – and all those bad ideas keep getting repeated because the newbies see it and assume, “Well, I guess that’s how this stuff is done.”


Probably the most important thing anyone can do in starting to design and develop a digital display network is to pretty much forget about everything they’ve seen to date. There are some terrific examples of well-considered projects, but even those aren’t necessarily what others should do.

Instead, content programming plans should start with nailing down the display network’s objectives. Why is the network being developed? What do the stakeholders want to see out of it? How is success measured? Who is the audience?

Simple stuff, but anyone who has been around this sector a few years can tell you how many networks started for reasons not much more sophisticated or fleshed out than “Making money from advertising,” “Making the store look more futuristic,” or “Our competitors have screens now. We should, too.”

Be logical. Figure out what that set of objectives is, and then be able to quantify it. Chances are your CFO does not want to sign off on a project budget with a bunch of zeroes after the dollar sign unless there is a lot more substance than: “This will enhance the customer experience.”

Agreed-to objectives absolutely drive your content planning. If it is as soft and squishy as enhancing the shopper experience, then how will that happen? If it is about driving sales on promoted goods and services, what needs to be running on the screens that will have that influence? And above all else, how will all this messaging set up in the targeted environment?

To come up with a solid programming plan and content strategy, you need to spend a lot of time in the venue.  You are looking at how people move through the venue, where they rush around, where they slow down, where they stop and when they are focused, and when they are looking for stuff. And help.

Then you are determining where the screens are going and what that means to the content plan. Unless this is a new store build or a renovation, it’s likely the ideal spots for displays are already occupied and non-negotiable. The store designers who came before you did the same thing and determined the best places to put feature fixtures and lightboxes. Those things probably aren’t moving to make way for screens.

You are likely left with some compromises, and longer sightlines and shortened dwell times are just part of the deal and something to be factored into the content design. Longer sightlines mean bigger fonts, for example. Shorter dwell times mean fewer words and tighter, shorter spots.

For things like traffic flow, you want to understand how people enter the store or venue, and then how they move around. Supermarkets have racetracks, and people tend to shop the edges of the store and are less inclined to head up and down the aisles. How they travel that store should influence the programming plan, including the timing and type of content.

Getting things like heat maps that track consumer movements in a venue using video analytics used to be something only retailers and brands with very deep pockets could tap into, but that technology is almost commoditized now, and entirely affordable. With a few well-placed cameras, it’s possible to get a real sense of where people are going and also how long people are looking at things.

There’s a decidedly lower-tech version that is also important in planning – talking to the people who work at the venue. They know how people move around and what interests them. And they also – often – will have their own shopper or visitor data.

With some understanding of what’s going on, your programming plan should consider things like audience attitude and emotion.

There are display networks that are set up to almost pacify or distract audiences – essentially trying to delay or remove the conclusion that waiting in a line or in seating is taking too long. That’s a potentially agitated crowd that needs to be respected, and the programming should deliver real value. If not, viewers might be even more irritated about the waiting time.

Very differently, there are places in venues where the emotion is confusion and frustration, because of the size of the store footprint and all the people and stuff … everywhere. The right screen and the right message, that directs people and offers genuine help, can be really powerful. Placed somewhere else in s tore, it might be pointless.

Some areas of a store scream interactive programming because of a complicat6ed product offer. Other areas can be all wrong because of store traffic flows and the mission shoppers are on at that point in their journey.

The programming plan also needs to consider how much time people actually spend in the venue – store or otherwise, and how often they return.

In a long dwell-time environment like a waiting area, a programming loop that is only five minutes long means people who are there for 30 minutes waiting to see someone will have to sit through the same rotation of messages six times. That’s not such a bad thing for the advertiser in terms of frequency, but not when viewers mentally checkout when they start seeing the same non-advertising content for the second time.

In short dwell time venues,  the content design needs to factor in that people are likely on the move and more likely glancing, as opposed to staring, at screens. Video analytics in retail deployments suggest that people look for 2-3 seconds, before looking elsewhere. That means easily digested statements and key information – like the brand – that needs to stay on the screen no matter the spot length.

When the key driver behind a network is sold advertising, the length of the programming loop – the amount of time it takes to run through the full cycle of booked ads – should be timed to at minimum match up with the average amount of time that viewers are in the presence of the screens. If the programming loop is 10 minutes and the average dwell time is five minutes, that means the average viewer has the opportunity to see only half of the booked ads. If anything, you want to flip that around so the average viewer was around long enough to see the same ad twice.

Before you fully put the plan together, take the time to research and read the growing body of knowledge that’s out there about how to design content that has a genuine impact. While there is a lot of crap running on screens, there is good stuff. That doesn’t typically mean stuff with wild transitions and over the top imagery. It more typically means stuff that takes into account the venue, the audience, the circumstances and objectives.

Think of it this way: in a busy environment where people are only glancing, will an advertiser have more luck with a high-production value spot that has stuff flying around a screen like a pinball, or a vivid but dead-simple spot with a value statement, product shot and call to action.

I’m thinking the latter.

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