A friend, external to the industry, made the statement, “it seems to me that digital signage is one of those ‘bleeding edge’ industries that is getting a lot of hype at the moment.” While many of those who actively pay attention to the industry information portals would disagree, I believe I am not too assumptive in stating that digital signage is still on the “bleeding edge.” Not that the technology is particularly new, or that we’re seeing only “gear heads” as industry champions, but because it’s an industry still in its infancy–an industry which still subsists on VC and angel funding.
If you’re wondering what constitutes a “bleeding edge” technology, you may wish to consult with Wikipedia:
Bleeding edge is a term that refers to technology that is so new (and thus, presumably, not perfected) that the user is required to risk reductions in stability and productivity in order to use it. It also refers to the tendency of the latest technology to be extremely expensive.
The term is formed as an allusion to “leading edge” and its synonym cutting edge, but implying a greater degree of risk: the “bleeding edge” is in front of the “cutting edge”.
Those within would most likely disagree that digital signage is even “cutting edge” let alone, “bleeding edge.” But taking an less-biased external view would most likely reveal that we’re sitting on the cusp of puberty. While digital signage may not be “bleeding edge,” investing in the technology–at least in the minds of customers–implies an element of risk. They assume a high expense without a sure-fire ROI. Sounds a bit like “bleeding edge” to me, don’t you think? Let’s discuss some of the issues we’re facing as a providers of “bleeding edge” solutions and how we can mature as a solid provider of technology solutions for the coming decade.
Problems with the “bleeding edge”
Unproven, unproven, unproven. Not unproven in the eyes of industry leaders, but more importantly–unproven in the minds and hearts of customers and clients. And, isn’t the customer always right. [George E.] “Scott has done in the country what Marshall Field did in Chicago, Wannamaker did in New York and Selfridge in London. In his store he follows the Field rule and assumes that the customer is always right.” Hence, thinking a technology is proven, when in fact, it is not (think of who’s right again) is dangerous because you’re blinded from seeing things as they really are. A great example of not getting the full picture was pointed out by Dave Wienfield in his recent critique of an OOH investor on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” To understand the bleeding edge further, let’s consult with Wikipedia once more:
A technology may be considered bleeding edge under the following conditions:
- Lack of consensus — competing ways of doing some new thing exist and no one really knows for certain which way the market is going to go.
- Lack of knowledge — organizations are trying to implement a new technology or product that the trade journals have not even started talking about yet, either for or against.
- Industry resistance to change — trade journals and industry leaders have spoken against a new technology or product but some organizations are trying to implement it anyway because they are convinced it is technically superior.
The rewards for successful early adoption of new technologies can be great; unfortunately, the penalties for “betting on the wrong horse” (e.g. in a format war) or choosing the wrong product are equally large. Whenever an organization decides to take a chance on bleeding edge technology there is a good chance that they will be stuck with a white elephant or worse.
The only proof we have is from internal warriors hoping to champion signage to the top. No external pessimist is going to take the time and spend the money to investigate whether the recent hyped DisplaySearch study was legit. It would be fool-hearty. Industry-types still get excited when people refer to shifting media winds, while almost never referring directly to “digital out-of-home” or “digital signage.” Even more difficult still would be to have an “industry” blogger tell some story about how digital signage failed to inform, educate, and inspire. It would be against their best self-interest. Most of the news sites would avoid it as well because they are acting in the interest of an industry that will still smile at you one moment and shoot your grandmother while your back is turned.
And, then there is the proof of effectiveness. I have a good friend who worked for five years as a creative at Disney in Orlando, FL. About three years ago, Disney decided to do a small television network which would act as a corporate communications device to employees. These screens were placed in all of the break rooms across Disney’s wide complex. For about four months my friend was responsible for extremely regular updates to this small internal signage network. He would create new content and perform a sneaker net upload to the screens several times a month. Once he complained to superiors that no one was watching the screens and that his efforts were going to waste (he had an interest in them and thus would watch and see if anyone was looking while in close proximity). Because he was not a Disney “yes man,” voicing his concerns brought a negative response from his superiors, “Of course they’re effective, people love them!”
As a personal experiment, this pal of mine decided to perform his own survey of the Disney employee break room visitors to see what information he could glean. While his survey was probably contained errors and lurking variables and was not a simple random sample, it did give some interesting insight. He found that although people knew the screens were there, almost no one watched them and an even less than half of one percent could even perform any type of recall at all. Talk about disheartening!
His mind is still not sold on the idea of digital signage being a 100% effective tool 100% of the time. But, interestingly enough, he now spends a good majority of his time focusing his content creation efforts in the digital signage field.
Ironic huh? I think the greatest issue digital signage faces is not the economy, but the proof. Prove to me that XX% saw the loop and that their view time was XX:XX. I know that even the most effective content, coupled with a proper installation, along with a proper loop length will still only reach a hyper small fraction of what has often been referred to as the captive audience. And then there are the recall rates–whose percentages shrink the effectiveness down even further. Not to mention the actual sales revenue increases that effective signage supposedly can offer. I could go on, but I’m sure those of you who actually read my posts are probably a bit angry at me by now.
Bandaging the “bleeding edge”
Now you can say Nate Nead is a pessimist. I would much rather hear “realist.” However, over-optimism can be a precursor for bankruptcy court–something none of our friends in the industry want. I recently watched–for the umpteenth time–“Rudy” with Sean Astin. I simply love that movie. At the end of the movie Rudy decides to give up his dream of performing in at least one game of Notre Dame football because he doesn’t make his complete goal. In other words, he shot for the moon, but hit the stars. His older friend, the landscape manager, gives him a few words of advice, which I believe are fitting here. “You’re five foot nothin’, a hundred and nothin’, and you’ve come out here and played football with the best team in the land! In a hundred years you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody except yourself!”
This is how I feel about digital out-of-home. Proof must come from within before we reach out and try to force others to believe. Pilots with feasable numbers must become more frequent. Case studies need performed on many more projects, and pilot program stats need to be performed more by those from without and shouted less by those from within. If the medium works, it will prove itself in time. If it doesn’t, all the shouting will may just make us all horse.
Because I feel we’re sometimes dealing with a luxury item, and that digital signage is more often about increased ambiance, it’s hard to see the current economic situation as a lighted candle. However, we DO seem to be surviving through the drought. Although it seems as though this survival is somewhat unnatural–given the fact that venture funds seem to currently make up the industry’s “revenue”–it may be a good thing that champions from without see potential in owning digital real-estate for when the dearth abates. Otherwise industry maturation may bring your organization to its knees in a veritable business seppuku. My advice: husband resources, reduce costs within your organization, reduce prices without, keep moving, and don’t assume that the touted 100% growth in five years means your company is going to experience it along with the industry at-large.