Although often relegated to the back seat, the process of content creation drives the success of a digital signage program. It is therefore essential to develop a mental map of each component stage, from strategizing and budgeting, through development and optimization, and to address the unique requirements and challenges of each one. With a clear plan in place, potential stall-outs are easily avoided, and obstacles, overcome. What follows is a collection of tips and tricks that we have developed in the course of our experience, and found helpful in navigating some of the difficulties that inevitably accompany a creative undertaking. We here pass them on to you to help better position you for your next endeavor.
Obstacle #1: Project Ownership
The nature of project ownership is critical and, unfortunately, often blurred in understanding. Is the person being said to “own” a project responsible, by definition, for all aspects of its design and production? In a word: no! Rather, they manage and monitor the numerous interlocking parts of the creative engine – the gathering of assets, messaging, design, and approval – each of which is the domain of a different person, or team. This last, the granting of approval, is generally understood, and intended as the concluding step. However, its finality hinges upon the clear delineation and coordination of the preceding steps, without which requests for further changes are far more likely to arise. Changing even one textual element could disrupt the flow, look and feel of the whole product, and force the designer to go back and rework it from the ground up to accommodate the change.
Obstacle #2: Content Strategy
Designers create content within “closed environments;” they alone experience, and interact with their creations during the design process. Yet given that their creations are ultimately destined for display in “open environments” subject to such variables as viewing distance, demographics, audience journey, time of day etc., it’s important to keep in mind that every content piece adhering perfectly to fundamental principles of design in the abstract carries no guarantee of effectiveness when it goes “live.” All these variables, and more, should be researched and applied to your content: type, structure, design, refresh rate etc. as they will deeply impact the audience engagement with, and effectiveness of the intended message.
Obstacle #3: Playlist Strategy
Optimizing your playlist requires the delicate counterbalancing of numerous considerations, all within the framework of your budget and network objectives. Loop length, for example, must be in step with audience dwell time. Make your playlist too long, and it will be a waste of network resources; too short, and you will forfeit network opportunities. Couple dwell time with the return rate of your audience; multiply by an effective frequency of 4-7 (the number of times a viewer needs to be exposed to a message before it is thoroughly communicated); and add to that any wish to day-part, or employ triggers, feeds, or logic that activates different content depending on the time, or viewer body-language or demographics and you will begin to get the measure of what it is to develop a strategic plan that truly capitalizes on the possibilities of digital signage.
Obstacle #4: Gathering Assets
The process of gathering assets is more complicated than the phrase would suggest, as they are not, in fact, necessarily useable simply by virtue of being “digital” – a reality difficult to concede for clients unfamiliar with concepts such as image quality, and display resolution. Fortunately, a little proactive education explaining such fundamentals within the specific context of your plan to develop content for a client (using which editing program, and in which output format) often goes a long way towards bringing about the submission better-quality files, even if they are not all vector graphics, files of 300dpi or more are ideal. Of course, there is always the possibility that there are no usable assets to uncover. Sometimes the image quality of a graphic is too poor, or the asset does not exist in a version that supports editing, requiring you to start from scratch. The bottom line is: avoid assuming anything about your client’s level of knowledge or organization, and be prepared to explain why their idea and/or materials may need to be scrapped or revised.
Obstacle #5: Content Licensing
Content licensing does not abide by the “finders, keepers” rule. Possession of an asset does not necessarily confer the right to display it in a commercial setting, even if it was acquired “for free” – a reality sometimes difficult to accept in a world where side-stepping costs is so often possible. However, several lawsuits over the years have been brought against digital signage companies whose network owners failed to negotiate an agreement (either in the form of a one-time payment, or an ongoing subscription) with the owner of every asset in their playlist. Given the costs incurred by such a lawsuit, it’s essential to address licensing costs early and often, and to ensure that a line item appears in the budget from the very beginning. “But that CNN feed says that it’s free…” Look again at the terms. Free news feeds, and most free or inexpensive weather feeds are available only for non-commercial use.
Obstacle #6: Creative Budgeting
Talking money is like talking politics: everyone has an opinion, and no one is right. The question of budget must therefore be addressed both early in the development process, and regularly throughout the lifecycle of a project, for content carries a cost not only to create, but to maintain. The viewing frequency, and relationship it bears with its physical context give it a limited shelf-life, and while you would ideally have a surplus of content from which to chose, and/or assets with an automated feature, the project will, in fact, require ongoing programming, editing and management. True, most CMS (content management systems) now support advance scheduling, but someone still needs to oversee that task. The success or failure of a digital signage project therefore will depend on the project owners ability to accurately and creatively manage the fixed initial costs and variable ongoing costs to collect, license, and schedule content assets all powered by the most costly line item: human capital.
Obstacle #7: Stretching the Dollars
Were money not an obstacle, we would all simply hire ABC or Lucasfilm to build out our playlists, and keep them fresh. But money is an obstacle. Budgetary constraints come into play for everyone at some point. That is why I am a proponent of building playlists with an eye to maximizing value, as opposed to maxing-out one’s resources. This can be done in a variety of ways, including investing up-front in custom templates; reusing assets that your company originally used elsewhere; leveraging user-generated, and data-driven content; strategically recycling content; and outsourcing parts of your playlist to licensed feeds or competitively priced creative agencies.