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Walter Hale looks at digital signage and asks whether this blockbuster technology is something you need to be paying more attention to?

If you drive from the centre of Moscow to the airport, it’s impossible to miss Samsung’s Godzilla-sized LED billboard promoting its new Galaxy S7 Edge phone. Set up on the side of the Gidoproekt building, in a part of the Russian capital where there are no other skyscrapers, the LED sign - which is 260ft tall and 130ft wide - is seen by 800,000 people a day and is visible a mile away.

This audacious application of digital signage shows that, sometimes, print just can’t compete in the poster and billboard business. By 2020, the global market for digital signage will be worth $20bn, according to research from Radiant Insights. That is a conservative estimate - other analysts say it could be worth much more. Radiant forecast that demand is likely to grow significantly in retail, which already accounts for 40% of digital signage spend, and among healthcare providers and hospitals.

Though LCD displays are predicted to retain a major role in digital signage, environmental considerations are expected to encourage the use of LED backlit panels in signs, because they save so much energy. Similar considerations are encouraging the use of digital signage to prevent waste paper - although the term ‘waste’ might not be appropriate as so much stock is recycled. The French artistic duo known as Zim & Zou went one further some years ago, creating a billboard with a slot in it for passers-by to dispose of their waste paper which they then recycled into a poster of a phoenix.

Digital signage has become ubiquitous. David Bawarsky, who has written a book about the technology’s use in retail, says: “Eighty percent of American residents aged 12 or older have seen a digital display in a public venue in the past month; 62% recall seeing one in the last week and 19% said they made an unplanned purchase after seeing an item featured on the screen.”

In retail, where the competition for every customer and sale keeps getting fiercer, such unplanned orders could make a significant difference to the bottom line.

Like any digital technology, signage is still developing. Some trends are already clear. The quality of the images on display will get better and better - Sharp is showcasing the next generation with 4K and 8K resolution signs that offer a wider range of more accurate colours. New organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are already being used by LG to show off displays that are so thin they are barely there, well suited for luxury retail applications.

Software is developing rapidly and, although the market is not dominated by a single supplier, it is intriguing that even a company as ginormous as Google is testing the market to gauge its potential.

Digital signage will become more user-centered and user-friendly, enabling viewers to interact with them using touch technology or mobile devices, a development that could yet revolutionise the industry. They may also integrate with each other across devices. In 25 European music stores, Yamaha is letting shoppers use their smartphones to access product information videos and promotions on large display screens. The obvious appeal here is that the customer feels in charge of the media - and the message - and Yamaha say it has already helped them close sales.

It should be noted that print can play this game too. A recent poster campaign on London buses to promote the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ contained a secret ingredient: beacons that enabled passengers to use an app to watch the film trailer and book cinema tickets on their smartphones. And in the retail sector, there is interest in combining print and digital signs.

In a development that sounds as if it has been ripped from the pages of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, these signs will recognise faces, or the kind of viewer and select contextually-relevant content. Indeed, this is already happening. Lord Sugar’s company Amscreen has developed a technology called OptimEyes that scans the eyes of customers to determine their age and gender and selects the most appropriate adverts to show them. The technology probably scans more than 130m shoppers worldwide.

You can understand the appeal to advertisers who, in the past, have had to rely on best guesses to calibrate public exposure to their messages. Yet not everyone is a fan. Fred Crawley, who reviews graphic novels for the ‘New Statesman’, complained: “Now when we gaze into the abyss of direct marketing, it will gaze back at us. And it will come to know us. How wonderful.”

Inspired by a friend who changed her gender on Facebook to male because she was tired of being flooded with weight-watching messages, Crawley suggested that consumers should buy an Alan Sugar face mask - yours for only £2.79 on Amazon plus postage and packing - and wear one when staring into the OptimEyes abyss. So far, few British consumers seem to have heeded Crawley’s advice but surveys do suggest consumers are concerned about being spied upon. Tesco’s 2013 deal with Amscreen inspired a lot of negative publicity, with some of the stories exaggerating the scale of the monitoring. There is also a risk of alienating some consumers, by seeming to patronize them with the choice of ads - why shouldn’t men get weight-watching messages?

Yet brands, retailers and advertisers remain fascinated by the potential of this kind of technology. Facial recognition software developed by US start-up Emotient categorises faces into seven primary emotions: joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and contempt. Even though one UK study suggested that 68% of the said they found this monitoring “creepy”, this software is already a $100m business and could be worth as much as $10bn by 2020. How long can it be before posters talk to us, as they did in the Tom Cruise sci-fi ‘Minority Report’?

So what does all this mean for print service providers? It is critical to note that, no matter how sophisticated, flexible and user-friendly digital signs become, they are unlikely to replace print in the near future. Surveys suggest that, in the UK market, print would still account for 40% of in-store POS activity and that, given the size of the retail sector, is a lot of print.

The other point that is often overlooked is that high tech is not always better. Pepsi famously discovered this in 2010 when it decided to spend the money it usually invested in a TV ad during the Superbowl in social media in a campaign called the Refresh Project in which it promised to fund the most popular ideas that would improve society. The metrics looked great: millions of likes on Facebook and thousands of new followers on Twitter. The only problem was that, over the whole of 2010, Pepsi, Pepsi Cola and Diet Pepsi lost 5% of their market share, a calamitous loss.

Similarly with digital signage. Some customers may want to download apps, or load content on video screens. Yet many won’t. A minority, but influential, view in the advertising and marketing industry suggests that advertising has one primary duty: to make us remember the name of the product - and be interested by it. To do that, simple and succinct slogans may work better than more complex, time-consuming processes. As one executive at drinks giant Diageo told the ‘Financial Times’ last year: “After 10 or 15 years, f***ing around with digital, we’ve realised that people don’t want to engage with brands because they don’t care about them.”

Some PSPs, who have positioned themselves more as content providers, may see digital signage as an opportunity to diversify. Many - possibly even most - will be deterred by the relative expense of the investments and the cold hard fact that digital is a completely different world, which is dominated by the big creative agencies. A few might decide that the best way to exploit the opportunity is to partner with - or acquire - a company that is already in digital signage.

What is absolutely certain is that printed posters will always be with us. One of the most iconic, best remembered billboard ads of all time was a picture of Eva Herzigova in black underwear and the words: “Hello boys”. There was nothing digital, technologically advanced or time-consuming about Wonderbra’s campaign but it successfully relaunched the brand in style.


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