How Do Digital Signage Systems Work?

You see screens everywhere these days. In all kinds of public spaces, from shopping centers to corporate hubs, there are digital signage displays showing information that people find interesting and useful. They could be static digital signs, they could be interactive touchscreens, or there could be a big video wall. Or there could be a combination of all of these.

At its most basic level, digital signage is a screen of some sort (probably an LED or LCD screen), some kind of visual messaging presented in a digital format, and a way for the screen to show the messages.

The Basics

Technically speaking, if someone wanted to put a few PowerPoint slides on a thumb drive and play them in rotation on a flatscreen TV, that is digital signage. That’s about as basic as it can get. But the digital signage industry, which gets bigger every year, is clearly offering more than just that.

How do digital signage systems work? Here are the basic things you need:

  1. Content – a way to design and create messages, as well as how the overall screen layout will look; could be special software programs or the design tools from another program (like PowerPoint); this can also include data feeds and subscriptions.
  2. Management – a content management system (CMS) that organizes, schedules and delivers your messages to media players or playback devices; this software can be housed on a native content server on site or cloud based.
  3. Playback – a media player is a PC or appliance that pushes the content to the display; the player software handles visual rendering of the messages and feeds in a content playlist, and distributes it to one or more screens.
  4. Display – screens of some sort (usually flatscreen TVs, LCDs or LEDs) that are wall-mounted or contained within a kiosk; could be interactive touchscreens for things like wayfinding and menu boards; can also be several screens networked into a video wall.
  5. Infrastructure – this is all of the mounts, cabling, network connections, etc. that enable the messages to go from the content server to the media players to the displays; could include internet connection to show live web pages, social media feeds, real time data feeds and more.

Most companies who offer digital signage software cover the first three items on the list. Usually, an audiovisual integrator or IT reseller can help with the screens and infrastructure, as well as identifying the best software solution for your environment. Although some software vendors don’t provide the playback hardware themselves (frequent with cheaper cloud-based systems), you’ll still need to have some sort of media player to get content to your screens.

When companies talk about enterprise digital signage solutions, they usually offer all five components (either in-house or through AV/IT partnerships), as well as professional services and support. Oftentimes, these digital signage providers will offer content feeds, design services, training and consulting for content and engagements strategies.

At its most basic level, a digital signage network needs:

  • a way to make messages
  • a way to organize and schedule those messages
  • something to push those messages to displays
  • the displays and other hardware needed to get your messages in front of your audience

Here is a little more detail for anyone that’s just getting familiar with digital signage and what’s in a system:

What is Digital Signage Content?

Content is any piece of information you want to put on your digital signs. It could be a message announcing a new employee, an event schedule pulled in from your Exchange calendar, a subscription that shows safety reminders, a countdown to an important deadline, a video clip from a folder on your network  – just about anything you can think of that your audience might want or need to know.

When designing a digital signage message, we like to use the 3×5 rule – 3 lines of text with 5 words per line, or 5 lines of text with 3 words per line. The font should be easy to read from a distance, and the background shouldn’t be too busy.

Adding an image makes any message more interesting and will probably attract more attention. Making the image move, or using a subtle animated background will have the same effect, only more so. Including a call to action – something in the real world for your audience to do (like go out to a webpage for more info) – will increase engagement and let you see which messages are most effective. The more times the action is taken, the more successful that message is.

But that’s only part of the design process. You also need to think about the look of the digital sign as a whole, which is called the layout. Will the message be fullscreen, or in a content zone with other things on the screen at the same time? Maybe there are two messages up at once, one message playlist that changes and one event schedule that doesn’t. Changing layouts from time to time is another way to keep the content feeling new and fresh, and keep your audience interested.

What is a Digital Signage CMS?

This is the main software that you will use to organize your messages, layouts, data feeds and other elements that will go on screens. Many CMS platforms have a design program included for creating messages, templates and layouts. Some come with their own premade templates you can use.

Your CMS also lets you create playlists and choose what order your content plays on screens. Some systems allow for dayparting as well, so you can choose the days and times that certain playlists play and when they stay dormant. You’ll also be able to choose specific media players to target with specific playlists, so messages play only when and where you want them to.

You can have a CMS that you download and that sits on a computer, or you can opt for a cloud-based system that sits on servers elsewhere. Cloud systems are usually cheaper at first, with a low entry cost and then a monthly subscription fee. The software is always up to date with a cloud system, since only the newest version will be available in the cloud. However, because of firewalls and other security concerns, a native CMS might suit you better.

What is a Digital Signage Media Player?

The CMS “talks” to the media players, which are small PCs that actually play the content on the digital signs. Depending on the outputs, a media player can feed one or multiple screens at the same time.

Standard media players can feed the same layout to several screens at once. If you want to show different screen layouts, you’ll need different media players. If you’re using a video wall, you’ll need a special media player that can send the right content to the right screen in the cluster.

What is Digital Signage Hardware?

There are the displays themselves, there’s the media players, and then there’s the infrastructure that enables them to work correctly as digital signs.

Displays are usually flat panel TVs, either LED or LCD, but they can be anything, really. Several screens grouped together, acting like one big screen, is a video wall. Interactive screens, either on the wall or inside of a kiosk, lets people search for information on their own.

Interactivity can greatly expand the range of the types of content you can offer your audience. There are even voice-activated interfaces you can use, where the audience simply speaks their instructions to the digital sign, and it displays what they ask for. Interactive digital signage can also be used for things like menu boards and donor boards, as well as wayfinding maps that are always accurate and up to date. Obviously, all these displays need power.

Unless your displays have System on Chip (SoC) playback capability, you’ll need media players. Your media players will need network cabling to talk to the content server with your CMS. You’ll also need internet connections (or wifi) if you’re going to pull data from the web, or show webpages, or allow people to use the digital sign to immediately get more information on the web (if the screens are interactive). The media players also need to connect to the displays.

The displays themselves might have power-saving devices inside them, so they reduce screen brightness or even go into sleep mode at certain times of the day. They might even have the capability of switching themselves off automatically at the end of the day.

How Much Does Digital Signage Cost?

Even though a digital signage system is only five components, there are many ways to combine and configure them. This is why digital signage systems are unique to each company, and why most vendors will tell you that there is no easy answer to questions like “How much does digital signage cost?” The answer is “It depends.” The best way to find out what kind of software and hardware you need and how much it will cost is to get an IT or AV integrator to walk you through the options and the costs. The power of digital signage is how flexible it is, and how versatile. It’s just a matter of finding the right system for you.