13 Ways to Fail at Digital Signage

EPISODE 15 | Guest: Sean Matthews, president and CEO of Visix

Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of systems get installed with lots of excitement and high expectations, then languish or fail altogether because the client didn’t ask for advice. So, we’re being preemptive with this podcast to explain the most common digital signage mistakes and pitfalls.

Usually, no one’s to blame for bad digital signage. It’s simply a matter of not understanding the tool, and what’s required for success. Just like the table saw you got for your birthday, you need to educate yourself on the dos and don’ts before diving in.

Sean Matthews gives us missteps he’s seen clients take when deploying and maintaining their systems. These real-world examples can be cautionary tales for anyone who either uses or is considering digital signage as a communications tool.

  • Learn about the most common mistakes people make with screens
  • Get advice on what NOT to do, based on years of real-world experience
  • Understand why good layout, contrast, imagery and animation is essential
  • Discover how tailoring content and calls to action can increase engagement
  • Explore best practices for playlists and message scheduling
  • Consider future-proofing your teams and processes

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Learn more about this topic in our Masterclass Guide 1: Digital Signage Systems Overview


Derek DeWitt: We’ve been talking an awful lot, we write a lot, we’ve been doing podcasts, we have a lot of communication with clients and potential clients about best practices and what you should do and what you could do, and how to make things very, very effective. And yet sometimes it’s illustrative and useful to think about what not to do and think about mistakes you’ve made. To help us look at it from that skewed perspective, we have Sean Matthews, president and CEO of Visix. Hi Sean.

Sean Matthews: Hello Derek. Thanks for having me here again today.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you. And thanks Sean for coming and talking, and thank you everybody for listening.

Derek DeWitt: What are some ways I can really screw up a digital signage deployment? Tell me, tell me how to fail.

Sean Matthews: It’s funny because a year before we started talking here, we sat down, I kind of made some notes. I’m like, all right what’s our number here? I can come up with 13 based on some things that we talked about.

Derek DeWitt: That’s an inauspicious number. That’s perfect.

Sean Matthews: So you know, digital signage systems can be, they can be complex. Because if you think about [it], it’s a mesh of technology and communications, which are two different things. It’s IT people, left brain versus right brain, you know. And two different parties are often responsible for making it work, not just technologically speaking, but how we communicate. And so, no one’s really usually to blame for the bad digital signage stuff.

But over the years, we see a lot of systems that get installed and everybody’s fired up and they’re excited, and some people even go so far as to cover the displays with brown paper, and it’s printed on the front “Coming Soon”, you know, that kind of stuff, and they peel off the papers. So, that’s kind of cool, yeah? They start off with all this excitement, and then I go back six months later and I’m like, “Hey man, what do you think?” “This is okay.” Whoa, you know? It can’t just be “okay”.

Derek DeWitt: “We don’t make an ‘okay’ product.”

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. And so, how it’s used, definitely it’s important. And so, I thought about that number one thing that starts with the physical deployment, and that’s just bad placement of the screens. And the most common problem I see is placing the screens so high up, way above hallway intersections and particularly big hallway intersections, where the screen kind of gets dwarfed by the gap between the top of the door frame and the ceiling above. And you know, some people say, “Well we put that there so that people can’t jump up and touch it.” Well, I could see that maybe…

Derek DeWitt: Is that really that big a problem?

Sean Matthews: You know, I wonder, I really do. But you know, placement is bad and that’s a problem. And of course, tied to that is if you have placement that doesn’t meet ADA guidelines, particularly when it’s for interactive type of things. That’s certainly a problem. So screens at eye level, just a little bit higher, that’s where you really want.

The second thing that’s a common thing that people do that ends up not really helping out in the situation is using audio where you shouldn’t. So, we’ve all been someplace where, you know, CNN or Fox News or something like that is just running all the time, and we know that it’s the same story, slightly modified, over and over and over again.

And so that’s really challenging for people that work near those displays. If you’re not using domed speakers or something that channels the audio to the area just in front of the display, you know, having just ambient audio fill the space, it doesn’t do anything to attract viewers, and in fact annoys people in the space around them. So that’s a challenge. And you know, you never really want to incorporate loops, short little loops with audio clips associated with them, because it becomes so repetitive that it’s even worse than the news story being repeated every 30 minutes.

Another one, of course that happens is there’s just too much going on screen. We’ve all seen this where, if you turn to Bloomberg News or Bloomberg Television, and the tickers are going in opposite directions because they represent different markets or different countries or whatever, right? There’s so much going on, and I guess if you’re a financial trader, and that’s what you do for a living, all of that information simultaneously might be useful. But for those of us that are passing by a sign in the lobby…

Derek DeWitt: Thinking about something else.

Sean Matthews: Yeah! I can’t get anything out of that; it’s overwhelming. It’s just a bunch of noise. So that’s another failure point there.

Derek DeWitt: So, audio noise and then visual noise. All right.

Sean Matthews: Another one that we’ve run into [is] just poor quality of images. You might not be able to employ a staff of people to create really high-end artwork all of the time, but you could hire people and/or outsource the creation of templates, that allow people to fill in the blanks. Those kinds of things that look good because the associated artwork is really well done. And so, I’m just kind of filling in the text blanks of, you know, welcoming our most prominent visitor or our best client or what have you. But I’m just there filling in the blanks and the artwork makes it really sell.

Derek DeWitt: What do you say, though? Person B is creating these messages and she thinks they look awesome. She thinks that bright green text on an orange background is awesome, and that Comic Sans is amusing and charming. What do you do?

Sean Matthews: Well, you really have two choices or two options. You could certainly enroll that person in some classes that are associated with graphic design.

Derek DeWitt: Get some training.

Sean Matthews: Not everybody can be a master of Photoshop. But PowerPoint is certainly much more user friendly and most people are very familiar with that, that work in organizational environments. So, you’re providing some basic guidelines and techniques for contrast and color and style. You might be able to help train or educate that person into what might look good on this medium versus what they think looks good personally. And so, you kind of take it away from their lack of understanding or artistic preference, but focus on the medium and what looks good on this medium.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Because if it looks good, even if it looks good in print, it might not translate that well to digital signage.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, most definitely. And of course, beyond that, you could add restrictions that don’t allow them to publish until you approve it. But then that puts you in the middle of this approval process.

Derek DeWitt: Stifling them!

Sean Matthews: Yes. I mean to what you just said, you know, no contrast could be a problem. That’s another common thing. We see a lot of deployments where the artwork just doesn’t have a lot of contrast. It looks very “artistic”, but there’s not enough visual contrast to convey the message.

Derek DeWitt: You trying to win an award or are you trying to communicate that there are cookies at the cafe?

Sean Matthews: That’s correct.

Derek DeWitt: And you also get, this with…something like 8% of American males are color-blind or have some kind of color-blindness, are born with it, most of them are red-green, and people mistake it: they think it means that they see grey. They don’t. It means that between red and green, the eye has a hard time differentiating. So red text on a green background may say Christmas to you, but to a color-blind person, it’s just a smear of confusion. And you also get the same thing. It’s like, well, I have red but then darker red – to someone who’s color blind, there’s no difference. Because the other thing is, they can’t differentiate between shades of a particular color. So that’s another thing to think about.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, contrast is key in terms of this medium. A lot of people talk about this, and even we talk about it, the fact that you can incorporate animation or movement on digital signs, which is an advantage to printed signs.

The problem is, is when you start adding all kinds of just quirky animations If you can rely on the transitions and the platform that you’re using, that adds animation itself. You could certainly incorporate some video backgrounds, which are subtle movements. You might reflect on the same subtle movement that you see when you look at a weather app on your mobile device. When it’s raining outside, you see the little subtle rain drops on the backside of your screen or clouds in the background or whatever. And so that sort of subtlety works. But when you just start adding animation for the sake of animation, it just becomes this awkward thing that appears.

Derek DeWitt: It starts to look like a morning children’s TV show.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. So, you know other things that are more important, and we see this all the time, and … I’ll kind of lump these three together. It has to do with how you communicate and what you communicate, so not knowing your audience, being completely out of touch, let’s say with millennials, for example, and you’re conveying messages that don’t really make sense to them.

Derek DeWitt: Retirement plan!

Sean Matthews: Retirement plan’s a good one. Or no tailored content. It’s just generic content. It’s like “We’re the Acme Corporation and we’re great.” That doesn’t really say anything, you know? It becomes yawnable; I’m going to tune it out pretty soon. And then of course, no call to action. I kind of put all of these together because you’re out of touch, it’s boring and there’s no real call to action.

Derek DeWitt: Well, how can you have a call to action if you’re being so generic, you know what I mean? “We’re great!” What am I supposed to do with that?

Sean Matthews: Yeah. So those three together really add up to being things that can create failure in a very short period of time.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. And I think you get this with localization, too.

Sean Matthews: Yes!

Derek DeWitt: You know, the corporate office in, let’s say Boston, sends out all this information, and a lot of the information they’re sending out is completely irrelevant to the Seattle branch or whatever. You know, the Seattle people would like to have things that are relevant to what they do in their area. And let’s not even talk about international companies, where different languages, different cultures; “Oh, you think that means this? Well, not in this culture it doesn’t; it means something rather rude.”

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And I mean the simple representation you just used then, the people in Seattle don’t really care that the company has tickets to the Mets playing at the Red Sox in Boston because we can’t go.

Derek DeWitt: We’ll just go right out; I’ll just hop on a plane!

Sean Matthews: So, I’ve got just like four more here, but really three of these I would lump together as well. And that is if you let the messages get stale, if you don’t have communication stakeholders involved, and you really not maintaining or updating the content. All three of those things just create an environment where the content on screen is pretty… and in fact, there’s all sorts of contrast in the text, and the imagery is beautiful, and it does actually convey something, but it’s the same message that’s been up there for weeks on end.

Derek DeWitt: Or months.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. It only takes a day or two before people really start to tune it out. And then once people start to tune out your platform, it’s very difficult to get them back.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Because they don’t trust it.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. And it doesn’t matter if you’re responsible for websites or digital signs, those same rules of thumb apply because people visit a site once, and if it’s not compelling or it doesn’t change the next day or day after that, it becomes boring. And people go somewhere else.

Derek DeWitt: And you could make the argument, “Yes, but we have so much stuff there” and you’re like, “Yeah…” It’s a little bit like, you know how you pay $120 a month for 200 cable channels, and yet everything that you want to see you’ve already seen? It’s all just reruns? [This] is the same idea. You know, there’s nothing fresh here. This is why people continually add more things to their cable packages because they want more, they want new, they want variety, they want something interesting, they want something fresh.

Sean Matthews: Yup. The last one here…in some of these discussions we’ve had, we’ve talked about things like future-proofing technology and that kind of stuff. But beyond future-proofing technology, we run into this quite often, and this is the tipping point for a failure when the system and its utilization had been really, really well done for many years, but yet all of a sudden there’s turnover in staff, right? And so a key person leaves, and not only does a key person leave, but then other people leave, or they change roles or responsibilities, and they move, within the organization.

Derek DeWitt: Or they graduate if they’re university students.

Sean Matthews: Sure. And so now there’s nobody to take over, and you’ve not planned for training. You’ve actually had no succession planning whatsoever. And so now someone’s forced to adopt this system who in many cases is completely out of touch with it. They’re not a lot of evangelist at all. In fact, they don’t get it in, and they don’t want to get it because they have other things to do. And you’re just adding this to my day job. So you know, not planning for the future in terms of who’s going to own it, run it, and live it. That’s a certainly a point for failure, despite many years of success before that day.

Derek DeWitt: Right. So, it’s not just anticipate that one day you’re going to have to get a new display. You might have to have a whole new set of people someday running the system.

Sean Matthews: Yep.

Derek DeWitt: All right. So that’s how, straight from the horse’s mouth, if I may call you a horse. Sean Matthews, president and CEO of Visix, telling us 13 ways we can absolutely screw up a digital signage deployment. So, if you’re hell-bent on failure, do those things. Thank you everybody for listening.

Sean Matthews: Thank you, Derek.