Jason Ault On How Coffman Media Tunes Digital Signage Solutions To Customer Needs

September 5, 2023 by Dave Haynes

Jason Ault was working in the traditional sign business back in the late 2000s when a customer contract came along that required a digital sign. He had an IT background, so he stuck up his hand and took it on.

He caught the bug, so to speak, and has been in digital signage ever since – putting together an initial team that launched in 2010 as Coffman Media. The Columbus, Ohio-based solutions provider has found a niche in the middle of buying market – not the little guys who can’t offer much scale, and not the Fortune 500s that are going to opt for a national integrator, major software firm or even a giant consulting firm.

Coffman is particularly active providing a solution, plan and services in workplaces and in regional and mid-sized QSRs, notably coffee chains.

Jason and I chat on this podcast about its services, how the marketplace and needs have evolved, the gulf that still exists between conventional and digital sign companies, and the steady need for educating end-users.

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Jason, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me a bit about Coffman Media and your role there? 

Jason Ault: Absolutely. Coffman Media is a digital signage integration firm that we started almost 14 years ago and I am the co-founder and chief operating officer.

You guys are in the Columbus, Ohio area and then down in Jacksonville as well? 

Jason Ault: That’s correct. We just opened the Jacksonville office just over a year ago. But servicing customers all across the US, Canada, and Mexico. 

How did you get into it? 

Jason Ault: Back in 2008, I was with a traditional sign company, and we were doing a big mall redevelopment project, and some of that scope called for digital signage and back then, my background was computer information, so we decided to say yes to that part of the scope as well. Took it on, partnered with CoolSign way back then before Haivision acquired it and really caught a bug for the industry, started formulating a team that we wanted to put together, and launched the shingle of Coffman Media in February of 2013.

It’s interesting, that the traditional printing industry seems like this is something that they have to go towards and evolve into, and while we’ve seen some of it, it still seems like an industry that’s not really made the jump or evolved into it.

Jason Ault: I absolutely agree, and we see the same thing as well. Just knowing that industry, from my previous life and also working with a lot of traditional sign companies, it is a struggle for them to get into because it does require some computer skills and some networking skills. Obviously, they may have some content chops and metal fabrication chops, but they still need that networking and computer element. 

Is that something that you guys help out on? 

Jason Ault: Absolutely, everything from traditional sign companies to managed service providers, because they don’t know the signage side, even they don’t know the IT side, architects, really anyone trying to get into digital signage side, we can help them in pre-sales support, demos from CMS partners that we have, training up their clients, passing it off, supporting their clients, really however far they want us to go into the weeds with them, we can help them out. 

So you start all the way at the ideation stage with some customers and can take them all the way through managed services?

Jason Ault: Absolutely. It depends on where they want to jump off and take over. We can come in under their banner; we can come in as partners with our logo. This depends on how they want to present us as a partner to the end customer.

It’s interesting because the digital signage market, particularly the software companies tends to present their products as being very easy to use, and very intuitive. They spend a lot of time explaining use cases and everything else but still seems to be a big leap for traditional companies who don’t think about this stuff sometimes. Why is that?

Jason Ault: At the surface level, we are right in some aspects, it is easy to use but as digital signage use is evolving, content is getting dynamic. People want to integrate into data that’s living out on the web somewhere or integrating into a point of sale or a plethora of other things that you can plug into. That’s where things get lost and they need someone to come in and help tie all those things together.

I refer to companies such as yours as solutions providers as opposed to integrators, which sounds like an arms and legs hang and bang situation. Is that a term that fits?

Jason Ault: Yeah, at the end of the day, we are a solution provider. We live on both sides of the world, but at the end of the day, we’re always starting with the end in mind, working backward, and figuring out what solution fits that customer’s needs. We’re not just one CMS partner shop. We’re not just one hardware shop. It really is what fits customers’ needs the best.

And so you don’t have your own software, you don’t have proprietary hardware or anything else, so you’re able to just look at a job and figure out, okay, based on what Mr. Customer’s tell us, here’s what we’d recommend. 

Jason Ault: Exactly. We’ve got three core CMS partners that we’ve formulated over the years with Signage Live being our longest tenure at 13 years running, and then hardware runs the gambit to whatever that platform supports, and then we pick from that bucket. 

So, why would you have three software partners?

Jason Ault: This depends on the customer. Sometimes a need is going to lean towards their benefit more. So if we need a native POS integration, we can look to engage Spectrio. If we need a lot of data binding, we can look at Wallboard, but our largest partner is really Signage Live because they approach it from an API-first headless perspective so we can do a lot of unique things with them and we developed really great projects over the years, so that’s the standpoint but again the need is justifying the partner that we bring to the table for that total solution. 

That’s interesting. I obviously have a relationship with Spectrio and know their product very well because of the ownership position. But the Signage Live component when Jason Cremins, the CEO of Signage Live, told me three years ago now, that he was going down the path of headless CMS, it was early days for that, and I had to ask him to tell me what that is and he did, and I thought I could see the marketplace moving towards this thing just because of the flexibility that it presents. Is that what you found? 

Jason Ault: It is, and then it correlates to what came out and the Invictus reports last year or this year, I can’t remember which one it was, where it’s talking about the new wave of architecture that’s gonna have to come down the pike for CMSs partners and that’s really where I think Signage Live was a little bit ahead of the curve and had already gone down that path of headless API first and how they were going to market three years ago.

Yeah, I think Stefan from Invictus describes it as the old style is very monolithic, and the new style is composable, where you can come at it from different angles and inject content and make things happen. Plus, you can use your own tools. 

Jason Ault: Exactly. 

Have you found over 14 years that customer needs have evolved?

Jason Ault: A hundred percent. I’d say 30% of our business this year will be Gen 2, and Gen 3 digital signage partner relationships for us. And it’s not because they were unhappy necessarily with their partner, but the infrastructure or solution that they had in place for however many years, it’d be no longer able to suit their needs.

Everything from being able to ingest outside content in unique ways, supporting new hardware that has security measures being able to pass all these, security requirements now. So everything is secure from the customer’s standpoint. Those kinds of things are changing quite rapidly.

 Yeah, and you’re sitting up above this.

I’m very curious because you have your software partner, and I’m sure you spend a lot of time looking at everything that’s out there. I’m curious, if you find that a lot of software companies are stuck in their lane and don’t have the mechanism to expand and make what they have more open.

Jason Ault: Yeah, I think it’s absolutely true. Whether it comes down to how it’s built or just where they’re in the market and they can’t really move past it. They do have their niche and that’s just where they stay. That’s where I think we have three great tools in our tool belt that can handle pretty much anything thrown at us, from a unique perspective one of mail digital signage to something that’s experiential.

I talk to companies a lot about the importance of identifying the marketplace understanding, what you do, and what you’re particularly good at versus general offers. 

As a solutions provider, have you started to focus on particular vertical markets, or is it somewhat generalized? 

Jason Ault: We’re starting to focus really in the last 12 months, and that’s really between corporate communication and quick service restaurants. We had some really great wins in each of those sectors and found our identity in those, but that’s still not to say that we won’t serve other opportunities that come to our direction either through partners or just by knocking on the door.

Those are two incredibly competitive markets to go after. How do you set yourself apart?

Jason Ault: It’s a great question. In a way, it’s hyper-competitive. So, we are not necessarily fishing for the whales or maybe not even the tunas, but in that mid-market space, someone with 100 locations, or maybe they’re just coming up to that three-digit all the way to approaching the four-digit mark, we really found a nice little lane where we can help them out from setting up what a total solution should look like, rolling it out and being that consultative arm for them, vverything from clearance bars through headsets to digital signage, really every piece and stack that could be around that whole ecosystem, and we’re bringing it together as one package. That’s where we’re setting ourselves apart from and then serving that kind of middle market. 

Yeah, I suspect when you talk about the whale accounts in QSR and even in Fortune 500 companies for workplace communication, the large ones are not as price-sensitive. They’re somewhat conditioned to working with big consulting companies and just large service providers versus, as you described, the regional ice cream chain or whatever where those kinds of companies come in to see them. They’re looking at them like, you want two extra zeros from us, and that isn’t going to happen.

Jason Ault: Exactly. A lot of the time, those mid-market franchise orders are struggling with the balance of how do I either roll this into the total package for new stores or they want us to deal with the franchisees directly, and a lot of times, that can be very cumbersome for an organization, but we take that on, and yes, it comes with our own licks, shut doors and we don’t get paid, or we are served bankruptcy papers but we’ve been able to make some wins at it. 

We are hyper-focused within the QSRs side, and we found a home with coffee chains, I don’t know how they fell in, but it just started to snowball.

I think it’s one of those cases where they don’t quite understand what they’re asking for and why they need it, but if they can see an example of another chain that they compete with or are familiar with, they can see, okay, this is what they did so yeah, we want that too. 

Jason Ault: It’s kind of a way of Keeping up with the Joneses’ aspect, and that’s where we’re able to show them, here’s the package that we do, obviously skewed for their particular organization, but helping them along the way, getting them familiar with understanding what they’re asking for and then making sure that the value is perceived from the dollar they are spending.

The pandemic and the lockdown compelled QSR, in particular, to start looking more at this because maybe they had to do drive-through, which they didn’t do in the past, and they had to do self-service kiosks because staffing became an issue. 

Jason Ault: It did, and it didn’t. We actually had a couple of partners that reverted away from digital because they were now just doing takeout as more on the piece of the side where they were having dine-in. They just realized that it’s not going to change. They’re doing a lot more just from the mobile pickup delivery, that kind of aspect. But then, on the other flip side of more traditional quick-service, absolutely, really force them into thinking how we can work better in the current market?

And then that’s just propelling it forward three years later.

I still see pretty substantial QSR chains out there that have issues with what’s on the display and that they’re not integrated fully or properly with their restaurant management system. So they’re doing things like putting stickers over the top of items that aren’t available or wrestling with them, do I stroke something out on the screen, or do I make it disappear? 

Are those things pretty elemental?

Jason Ault: It is, and it is a struggle, and seems to me, the larger the organization is, the less process there is in order to ensure that screens are operated in the correct fashion. We see it all the time, whether it’s a drive through which I’m personally going through or one we’re trying to win the business up. You can set things in motion, and one of them starts with integration and giving some autonomy for people to fix the screen. That way, your corporation does not necessarily have to be the big brother that’s managing everything. 

There are roadblocks to put in place to stop those things from happening. Physical tape is a little bit harder unless we shock somebody when they touch it, but there are ways to put those stops in place.

When you’re dealing with the small regional to mid-size chains, is it more challenging technically because maybe they’re not standardized on restaurant management systems, point of sale systems, that sort of thing?

Jason Ault: It’s a little challenging. One thing that we try to do is bring in partners if that is the case. Talking with point-of-sale companies, they don’t necessarily go that route, but at least we can bring in some people to help in that scenario. We do like to at least have them unified on point of sale, so we’re doing only some kinds of integrations, but it is a struggle for sure. 

Even a chain of a hundred stores we’re currently working with, they’ve got two or three points of sales because some people are still on legacy contracts and things like that, and we just have to work with those as they pop up.

Do you have to spend a lot of time educating franchise owners that this is why you want to do this, because they really don’t wanna drop $15,000 on a drive-through display?

Jason Ault: Hundred percent. Pretty much every partner who a customer, whom we are aligned with, at their annual conventions talking, teaching, and explaining the value, because we just had one that was doing dual lane drive-through, and that obviously doubled the cost.  They went static rather than digital. They just didn’t see the extra value of spending the 50 grand to do all of that. So, it still needs to improve the current partners that we have today. 

I’m curious about the workplace side where you’re seeing traction. Like how is it being used?

Jason Ault: That’s a great question. We do a lot of manufacturing right on the plant floor. Keeping those folks up to speed on what’s going on, and then we’re also doing a lot of just traditional workplace communication, between multi-sites and multi-silos within the organization just to generalize workplace communication. Still, manufacturing has had a pretty big uptick. Everything from screens down at the machine level to doing some video walls on the plant floor that everyone can see with some workplace KPIs and things like that to get some real-time information to the floor folks. 

Yeah, that’s always struck me as more useful in many respects than white-collar environments like offices because there are typically ways to communicate to people all the way down to the level of a manager walking out and talking to somebody, but when you’re in a desk-less environment, and you’ve got a whole bunch of workers who maybe don’t even have English as a first language, how do you reach these people? How do you tell people what’s going on? How do you motivate them? All those things. 

So it’s encouraging to see that now, really starting to get some traction.

Jason Ault: Yeah, absolutely, and we’re also seeing a couple of the real estate players that are in the commercial side, taking a look at putting in digital signage as part of these packages to make it an entire scene for someone coming into renting the warehouse for the manufacturing business.

So, it is just part of their infrastructure? 

Jason Ault: Exactly. So it’s, “Hey, this is why you should choose me over the competitor’s space. We have this great infrastructure”, and then when that tenant leaves, they can wipe it all clean and have it ready for the next person.

Do you have to future-proof those sorts of things? Because if there are tenants and they sign a five-year lease, and somebody else comes in, are the screens still in the right place, or maybe a five-year window is enough, and you don’t worry about that? 

Jason Ault: I don’t know if we can have the right data for that. We’ve only been doing it for about two and a half years in that space. We’re keeping it at a five-year warranty window for those particular devices going in once a year, doing some maintenance, doing some checks on those particular locations. But time will tell as the next two-and-a-half-year cycle comes up on what we have our hands on.

I’m curious about very elemental digital signage in office environments.

I’ve got another press release today from a CMS company that’s integrated with a video streaming platform. This one’s with Zoom, but I’ve seen at least three companies integrating with Microsoft Teams. The idea is that you can use the video conferencing collaboration displays in meeting rooms as digital signage screensavers. But it strikes me as interesting, but awfully elemental, and what does that really accomplish? 

Do you fight with that at all? 

Jason Ault: We don’t necessarily fight with that.

We have some CMS partners that can do that with the Mersive solstice pods, with the Barco click shares, and turn it into some digital signage when that is not in use for the huddle rooms or the conference rooms. But it’s not been a huge adoption, at least from our book of clients.

Yeah, it just hits me, and some of it, I suspect, is probably pretty good, particularly those that started with a full-throated digital signage, CMS. But some of the particular ones that the companies like, maybe Mersive, I have yet to see their stuff, but I assume it’s pretty basic. I wonder if it’s if the end user customers look at it and go, that’s all we need.

Jason Ault: In those situations, even when we’re doing the ones with Barco click share and putting signage live on those devices, when it’s not in use for its screen sharing capability, they have the full-fledged option to treat it as a traditional screen.

But, sometimes, these are in huddle rooms with a door that may not be open. I wouldn’t put, “Hey, there’s a fire alarm going on”, because someone may not be in there. So, in our opinion, an odd industry because those rooms were not in use. Are they ever seen? It really depends on the client. We have a client, Washington Prime Group, here in Columbus, Ohio, that has glass conference rooms and huddle rooms, and it makes sense for them because everyone can see as you walk through, and it’s above the privacy shelf.

Yeah, I was curious about an announcement by Mersive. They were going into a whole bunch of WeWork co-working locations, and I thought what they were doing was interesting because it’s probably quite elemental, but their whole business rationale is they’ve got sensors that recognize that somebody’s coming into the room, and when that happens, the screen goes on and says, hey, you need to book this, or have you booked this?

If not, it needs to be booked; get the hell out. It didn’t say that part, but it’s all about addressing operating concerns just in the same way that meeting room displayed when those started coming out about 6-7 years ago, addressed a pain point as well. 

Jason Ault: Absolutely. I think tying it into a sensor could definitely alleviate that concern.

It also gives you analytics on how much it actually is being used. 

Jason Ault: Exactly.

Let’s talk a little bit about AI. It’s on everybody’s minds these days. Have you looked at that as something that can help support your customers and support your business, or is it something you’re just kind of watching?

Jason Ault: We’re playing with it and watching it. It has not made it to assisting our customers at this point, that something is coming down to the pipe with Signage Live and some of their offerings, where we can do some AI-generated things. But probably the first thing that’s going to help our customers is an AI driven chat bot for our support team, to take the load off of them and then see if we can drill down some response and some resolve times.

So somebody comes in and if they can get a question answered just by going through the chatbot prompts and delivering a solution or at least some information to them without having to wait for 5-10 minutes for one of your support people, that helps? 

Jason Ault: Exactly. So that’s probably the first thing that we’re playing with and, of course, just like everyone, we’re playing with it from a marketing and writing perspective. But just still watching it on how we can best utilize it by putting it into production for customer sake. 

Yeah, my son is heavily into AI to the point where he is doing consulting for some people on what tools to use and everything else, and I’ve got him doing some work for me, and I’ve looked at things, and the image generation is interesting, but it’s still very weird and surreal in certain respects, and on the writing side, it’s great for people who can’t write to save their lives, but for people like me, I’ve been in journalism for 40 years, it’s like this stuff is so elemental and it can crank something out in 30 seconds, but it’s not very good.

Jason Ault: It’s definitely still a jumping-off point, but it’s gotta have someone of skillset to reread that and fix those mistakes or add in professional tone or the writing tone of the organization. 

We’ve talked about headless and AI, obviously. Are there hardware sides of technology that you’re watching and thinking it is going to be a big deal going forward?

Jason Ault: We’ve pretty much set in our lane from a hardware perspective. Of course, we watch Direct view of the market that’s evolving there. But, we’re really just watching the products of our current partners, the big three screen manufacturers, and seeing the products that they are rolling out, coming off the line with, that we can put into the marketplace, but shiny balls and things like that, not really. 

I try to keep my blinders on so no one gets confused or takes us too far down a rabbit hole. So we try to just keep main hardware partners, and main software partners and run the race. 

To me, the thing that’s going to be interesting is when micro LED gets to a level and maybe complementary technologies or very similar technologies that you start to see, non-traditional display services, whether that’s architectural glass or even countertops, that you can start to see content arrive on and be crisp and visible and everything else.

Jason Ault: Yeah, I definitely think that can go a long way with micro LED and the cost being affordable at scale for sure. We are getting more architectural requests, flying things on the ceilings, and whatnot. So we’re watching in that regard just to see how we can help those architect partners that we talked about earlier on in our chats, fulfill some of their needs, that they design it.

When you bump into new customers or potential customers and they ask you, alright what’s a good reference account? What’s something I could go check out? What do you tell them that you’ve done?

Jason Ault: Yeah. We take a look at obviously, who they are, and if they’re talking about quick service, we’re pointing them in the line of Biggby Coffee or an up-and-coming chain, Crimson Cup Coffee. If we’re talking about retail and malls, we’ll take a look at malls for Washington Prime Group, and their 120 malls across the country.

When it comes to Directview LED, we’ve got a couple of convention centers in Columbus and Texas, and then some adjoining hotels that have some direct view installations. If they’re looking at cameras, we can tell them to jump into a number of hundred different areas across the country to take a look at. So we’re not short on pointing people in the right direction, that’s for sure. 

Okay, if people want to know more about your company, where do they find you online? 

Jason Ault: They can find us online at coffmanmedia.com or on LinkedIn with our Coffman Media company page.

And where’s the Coffman coming from?

Jason Ault: So, we weren’t really creative 13 years ago. So there was a founding family in Dublin, Ohio, the Coffman family, and we decided to make it a regional name play. 

Fair enough. Is the Coffman family still involved? 

Jason Ault: No, they were never involved. We just decided to name it after them; they probably don’t even know it. Everyone asks, is there a Mr. Coffman who started it? No, there’s not. Sorry, it’s a boring story. 

I know, but you can blame it on him. “Coffman did that, but he’s gone.” 

Jason Ault: Good point!

Alright, Jason, thank you.

Jason Ault: Alright, thanks, Dave. I appreciate it.

  1. Danny Hagen says:

    Good interview, Dave and Jason.
    Insightful, direct, and relevant.
    Thank you for the shoutout and well done to Jason C.

  2. Tim Ault says:

    Excellent interview, Thanks Dave

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