More than Semantics: Defining Digital Signage End-User Applications

Do all of the various names that we use to describe this industry properly represent it? I am increasingly struck by the inadequacy, or in some cases inappropriateness, of the terms “digital signage” or “digital out of home (DOOH).” There are a number of other names that some people use, but these are the two most common. My concern is that all of these terms obscure the real purpose and application of what many in the industry do, and can actually lessen the impact on the end user.

If we break down the two most common terms, I find that “digital out of home” is vague and “digital signage” conjures up images of a static sign advertising some product that is now converted to a digital display format. Some will say “so what!” and argue that “digital signage” is to the first order an updated means to convey advertising. With no disrespect to our brethren in retail, advertising, and marketing, this is but the tip of the iceberg in what our technologies, software, and content can accomplish. My point is that, by making it sound like it is only related to retail, we tend to ignore all the applications and business models that rely on return on objective (ROO) instead of revenue generation and return on investment (ROI).

While no one can argue that retail digital signage (where that name fits the best) is not the most visible application to the majority of the population, statistics show that non-retail applications in corporations, education, healthcare, and security already outpace the retail niche in terms of system rollouts. While not as glamorous and PR worthy as retail, these applications can serve a greater good. This begs the question of how “digital signage” can be used beyond the mall and convenience store or, for that matter, your smart phone and portable device.

From small businesses to large corporations, we need to go beyond the display at the reception desk that welcomes important guests. If we dig a little deeper, we realize that the sales department can use “digital signage” to provide departmental messages for the staff. Sales numbers, product flow, back orders, and sales by territories can be shown all during the day to ensure that the team has all the information all the time without the need to access it from the network on a case-by-case basis. In the finance department, the display can show cash flow, bad debt, revenue, gross profit, and even estimated net profits on a continuous basis. Human resources can use displays to update everyone on the new benefits plan, provide new employee orientation, and do training. If the company has a factory as part of it, displays in the plant can be used to show raw materials being received, the status of component manufacturing, and the status of products released to shipping. It boils down to a form of continuous communications and ensuring that necessary information is available for everyone in a department and the company overall as the executive team deems appropriate.

If we turn our attention to healthcare, the obvious use of “digital signage” is the display in the waiting room to reduce the impact of waiting for the doctor. As with corporations, let’s dig beneath the surface a little. The 800-pound gorilla in healthcare is patient registration. By utilizing interactive displays, the process can be expedited and the records are accessible from any location that has permission to do so. This saves employee time and reduces patient stress and perceived wait time. Also consider “digital signage” for patient training after a doctor’s examination and also for training the doctor’s staff. More interestingly, there are digital signage systems going in hospitals, specifically into inpatient hallways, corridors, and holding areas, that show the status of patients in transit from, say, surgery, to post-surgery care rooms.

Our last example is digital signage in education. I will be the first to admit that there are applications inside K-12 and institutions of higher education that fall under the traditional definitions of an advertising-based signage structure, but once again this does not describe its use in other areas such as the classroom. In today’s schools we have a serious problem of overcrowding in most school districts and even in higher education. When we as teachers go beyond 15 students in a class, the degree of assimilation and retention by students goes down rapidly and the percentage of graduates is declining in front of our very eyes. One way to address this problem is through digital signage.

Take a class of 45 students and consider how to make education meaningful in this environment with true hands-on relationships with the teacher. Software developed for our industry can help. The teacher can divide the class into sub groups and each one has an assignment. Each sub group will become a mini-class. The teacher can now monitor the sub groups and know who is participating and who is not, and act accordingly. Information can be allocated to individual groups and assignments are available in real time and online for 24/7/365 access. Scheduling, distribution, and even testing can be monitored and controlled from a central point: the teacher. Multiple displays in a room can provide visual connectivity for the groups and a larger display can act as the interface when the full calls needs to be addressed. Our displays and software can be the tools that bridge the widening gap in education and the next phase in portable connectivity that we see so predominantly in all the social networks.

What we call digital signage may end up spanning new forms of communication that don’t even relate to traditional print signage at all! There are ways these new technologies can tie together home entertainment, computers, out of home data displays, and even smart phones into a cohesive network that allows individuals access to information and interaction in entirely all encompassing, maybe even universal, terms that may not even have a single iota of advertising value.

You can call digital signage or digital out of home what you wish, but in my opinion we need to match what we can do with it to the names we use to describe it. As some people say about art, they know it when they see it, and as I see the current names, they are not enough. For those out there with a talent for naming things, let’s come up with something more descriptive of what we do as we evolve as an industry. The end user needs to be offered solutions that clearly, succinctly define the technology and approach be offered.

Alan Brawn (alan@BrawnConsulting.com) is a principal of Brawn Consulting LLC an audiovisual and IT consulting, educational development, and market intelligence firm with national exposure to major manufacturers, distributors, and integrators in the industry. Brawn is a member of the Imaging Science Foundation and managing director of ISF Commercial. Alan is CTS certified and an adjunct faculty member of InfoComm, sitting on their PETC council and chairing the ISO/ANSI Projected Images Task Group. Most recently he became director of the Digital Signage Experts Group, certifying professionals in the digital signage industry. (Visit www.digitalsignageexperts.org for information about the Digital Signage Certified Experts program)