How To Shop For Digital Signage Software

GUEST POST, DEREK DEWITT, VISIX

DEREK DEWITT

You walk by a screen with a cool image (maybe a bit of animation), and a short message with an easy-to-follow call to action. It attracts you. It engages you. It’s fantastic, and you think, “I want that for my organization.”

And then the next thing you think is “I wonder how much that’ll cost.”

Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends.” Which sounds like a cop-out, but there are a lot of factors to consider that will impact the answer.

And a lot of organizations go about it the wrong way, causing themselves problems down the road, and even negatively impacting the effectiveness of the very system they are trying to implement.

The first thing is to think about is the software. Not the hardware, but the software. That’s what people will be using every day; that’s the thing that drives the whole deployment. Hardware is just hardware – pretty easy to source and pretty basic specs to match. We’re talking about screens, cabling, maybe a server, and internet. But the software is where the magic happens.

So, how do you decide which CMS out there, of all the hundreds of companies in the marketplace, is best for you? You have to think ahead a bit and answer a few questions.

What’s the overall purpose of the digital signage? 

The more specific the answer to that, the more focused you can be when deciding which way to go for your CMS. Is it only for organization communications, meaning an internal audience? Or will you also have some digital signs out for the public and visitors to see? Workflows differ depending on what the purpose of the system is. Buying software that’s designed and optimized for someplace like a retailer or an airport probably isn’t going to do the trick for a large college campus or corporate hub.

Should you get a native application? 

This will probably limit you to a single computer. If more people are going to be creating content or managing the system, then maybe that’s not such a great idea. A web-based CMS lets more people contribute, since anyone with a web browser and the right user credentials can access the system. Should you house the system yourself, or go with cloud hosting for your server? Cloud-based system are usually cheaper up front, but have annual subscription fees. However, there’s no way for your data to ever be lost, since it’s stored offsite on secure servers with multiple backups. Also, you get software updates automatically, and someone else takes care of maintenance.

Is the software interface friendly? 

Is it clunky? What are the workflows like? It’s very probable that the person or people using the system regularly will not be IT folks, so it should have intuitive workflows, well organized screens and navigation, and easy tool like drag-n-drop importing and ordering. Can you design in the software or only import files? Can you day-part schedules to show things certain days or time of day? Can you create templates with the software? It’s important to think about what you’ll show, when, and how you’ll manage it, then compare that plan to what’s on offer.

Can you pull in data from outside sources? 

The number one thing shown on organizational signage is event schedules. Will the software easily integrate with your calendar app? What about incorporating things like feeds for news, weather, social media? Can you show and control the formatting of webpages? Can you further the reach of your Office tools like Excel and SharePoint? How about automatically pulling from XML or JSON files? Software that makes sharing data from the tools you’re already using can really take a load off your content managers, since you can bring in data that automatically updates with no extra work on their part.

Is there an alert mode? 

It’s hard to think of an organization that wouldn’t want the capability to override displays quickly in case of some sort of emergency. Not just things like severe weather, but even something as commonplace as an interruption in phone service. Can the software interface with alerting suites like Alertus or Rave Mobile Safety? What about CAP compliance, which can really speed things up in a stressful emergency situation?

Can you build in interactivity for touchscreens? 

Maybe you already know that you want interactivity, so that’s something else to be on the look out for. But even if you aren’t planning to have touchscreens or kiosks at the beginning, there’s a good chance you will in the future. It would be a mistake to buy software that doesn’t support interactivity and then need to replace with a system that does later down the road.

How easily can you expand your system? 

The chances are very high that you will upgrade and expand your offering as people become more engaged with your digital signs. This could be, as mentioned above, adding interactivity, or could be simply expanding to more locations, more buildings, more screens. If you bought a simple software package that can’t handle that kind of a load, or doesn’t have an option to upgrade to an enterprise-wide solution, then again, you’re going to regret it. Even if you don’t go for the highest level of capability, the software needs to scale without technical or licensing issues.

What are your purchasing options? 

When shopping around for a vendor, see if they have bundled solution that include both software and hardware. Or maybe you already have all the hardware you could ever need and need a software-only solution. Do they offer that? What about a cloud-based subscription? How many different playlists do you want to show at any given time? This will decide how many media players you need. Can you get a bulk discount or site license?

What’s the support like? 

Do they update the software regularly, or only every once in a while? Do they offer hands-on training, or do they just have a handful of online videos to watch? Will they give you technical support or does that cost extra? Do they have a hardware trade-in system for when screens and media players finally give out (as they always will)? Can they help with content, either taking the whole process off your hands, or doing one-off custom projects? Having that as an option could be very beneficial both at the launch of your system and further down the line. Do they offer consulting and guidance versus just technology? Make sure your vendor can partner with you for whatever may come up, so you’re not left with a lot of tech that doesn’t do much.

How big is your budget? 

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking shortsightedly; budget for at least 18-24 months, if not longer. You’ll also need to do a networking survey to cover all potential costs for installing the system. This means getting qualified IT people to look at power, network connectivity, and security policies, as well as hardware and structural alterations to accommodate the system. Do this before you go hanging screens all over the place. It would be really unfortunate if you put a bunch of screens up and then found out that you can’t get cabling to them.

What about free software? 

There are a lot of companies advertising free digital signage. But is it, really? Oftentimes, companies give away their software, but the proprietary hardware that goes with it is expensive. Worse, the software features are limited and there’s no real services or support for the product. This might work for a small single-screen deployment, but don’t try to manage communications for an entire campus with PowerPoint slides imported from a single desktop. You’ll be setting yourself up for failure.

Who needs to be involved in the buying process? 

You can’t rely on just one person to do everything – certainly not at the beginning. And the biggest mistake is when an IT person buys a system and then hands it off to someone else to use. That person is blindsided by software they’ve never seen before, and it might not do what they want it to, or in the way they want to work. You need everyone who’s going to touch the system (even if just for a short while) involved right from the start. And it’s best to always have a group instead of an individual. Having a good team means you have continuity no matter what happens with staff, so your digital signage is always operating at its fullest potential.

This is all the stuff you have to think about and nail down before you go shopping for software. Once you have that picked out, then look into your hardware options. Make sure your budget is comprehensive yet flexible, including things like maintenance, upgrades and training. And be sure the system works for you and that you aren’t having to create a bunch of workarounds to accomplish your goals.

As you address these questions, your buying criteria will likely change, so be flexible. As you go through this process with your team, your digital signage deployment will take shape in the minds of those who will be involved. Everyone will be on the same page, and everyone will be ready for when launch day finally rolls around. And then your audience will reap the benefits of all the hard work you and your team have put into it.

Here’s an infographic you may find helpful (click here to view a larger version) …