8 Steps to Plan a Digital Signage System

EPISODE 2 | Guest: Sean Matthews, president and CEO of Visix

Digital signage is only as good as your plan for how you’ll use it. Not just what’s on the screens, but the entire deployment. Defining what you want to achieve, who will contribute, and how you’ll physically install and connect the system are all critical parts of successfully deploying any comprehensive digital signage system. In fact, these things need to be planned out before a single screen goes live.

This podcast gives you a step-by-step plan to follow before you start taking bids for your digital signage system. If you already have a solution in place, you can still review these eight steps to see where you might improve operations.

  • Learn how to assemble your digital signage team and set goals
  • Know how to define your audience and the content that will attract them
  • Review important networking, software and hardware considerations
  • Find out what to budget for at time of purchase and over the life of the system
  • Avoid the most common mistakes and misconceptions with digital signage

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


Derek DeWitt: Your digital signage is really only as good as your plan – so you have to plan. It’s not just what’s on the screens, but it’s the whole deployment, and there’s a lot of back-end stuff that you have to consider. You need to know what you’re going to achieve. You’re going to need to know who’s going to make which contributions, how are you going to physically install and connect this system, and how it’s all going to work. You’ll have to plan out a bunch of stuff before you get a single screen going up live. This is not just an out-of-the-box kind of a thing.

So, the question you might ask is “How do we make sure that the deployment goes as smoothly as possible?” And the answer of course is planning. To that end, we’re here with Sean Matthews, president and CEO of Visix. Hello Sean.

Sean Matthews: Hello Derek. Again, appreciate you having me in here today. It’s funny. When I received the email from you about this, I thought, “What am I going to talk about here?” And then I kind of started sketching stuff down on paper, and, to your point, you have to plan. I put down eight little bullet points that I felt like, “Hey, we need to cover these eight things.”

Derek DeWitt: That’s great – you had to plan to talk about planning. I love that! Well, thank you for coming, and thank you everybody for listening.

Derek Dewitt: So, let’s get right into your eight steps. What’s the first step?

Sean Matthews: Well, if you’re going to have a plan, you’re probably going to have to involve other people, and it’s a key piece.

Derek DeWitt: It’s not a one-man job.

Sean Matthews: It’s not a one-man job – the army of one isn’t really scalable. So, we figured that we would have more involved. You do have to have a team.

And – I’m not going to pick on the IT people – but I will say this: we often run into deployment situations where it sort of takes over the entire project because, in most cases, these devices reside on the network and they’re tied to displays, and the sort of blur between AV and IT certainly happens everywhere. And so, what we try to avoid when we talk to people about putting together a plan is not just letting IT run the show. Obviously, it has an important part in the plan. But you also need the content people – those people that are responsible for creating and maintaining the content that appears on screen – how it looks, how it feels, and how often it’s going to be updated, and the tone that it conveys. It’s extremely important, and that has nothing to do with IT. It just doesn’t, right?

Derek DeWitt: They’re probably from marketing or something?

Sean Matthews: Yeah, so MarCom and often HR people are involved in that conversation. You might have people from facilities that are responsible for fire alarm systems and other things like that, providing direction and guidance. You might have productivity teams that are involved in the conversation because they want to show productivity information, And really all of this, you really need a champion that’s sort of spearheading the motivation among all of these departments to be involved, so that the material that ends up on screen is powerful and meaningful, and it causes changes in human behavior.

Derek DeWitt: Right. So you just have to have somebody who just thinks this is the best thing since sliced bread.

Sean Matthews: I mean, you really do. You have to have somebody that just loves what they’re doing in terms of what ends up in the hallways and on the manufacturing floor and then the dining hall.

Derek DeWitt:  Right. Number two

Sean Matthews: So, I thought about number two, and I was trying to put it into some kind of logical order, So I may not be completely in order. But, as you assemble the team, the next thing that you need to do is really decide on what are our goals. Like what are we trying to do? What are our objectives? You know, I ask this question often, “Why are you putting in this digital signage medium?” And sometimes you get the response which is, “Well, we just think we should.” And when you start drilling into that it’s because…

Derek DeWitt: “Our competitors are doing it.”

Sean Matthews: …the Joneses are doing it. We’re trying to keep up with the Joneses. And so, that just doesn’t really work. I mean, you can get it off the ground that way, but you’re not going to be very productive and effective over the long haul if that’s what you choose to do.

So, plan out some goals. How are you going to use the technology? What are your strategies? What are your tactics? Are you going to do campaigns? Are you going to use one-off ads or are you going to use one-off messages? Are you going to segment your organization so that different people see different things? You want to really nail down with all the stakeholders – what does facilities want to do versus HR versus sales versus production. You need to nail it down for sure.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Because they’re not necessarily going to have the same goals or desires.

Sean Matthews: Right. And of course, IT fits into this conversation because if you said, “Hey, we want to import or connect to data sources that are outside this facility”, well, IT definitely has a responsibility there, because they’re going to want to know “How is this technology leaving this facility, going out into the cloud or out on the web, and pulling data back into our facility?” So, IT certainly has a role in this, and don’t want to diminish that at all. But you want to make sure that when you’re thinking about a team, it’s not just technology people, it’s HR people.

You want to draw out the workflows in terms of how these people are going to contribute to the technology, and as they contribute, what does it look like on screen. And it has to make sense for your organization and how your organization operates, and how those people interact with these workflows.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Next up?

Sean Matthews: So, I guess this is number three. Okay. So now we have the technology, we have a team, we all have our different objectives, and then we want to define our audience and what it is that they’re going to see on screen. What kind of content are they going to see? How are they going to fit in to all the other communication channels, like email, web, intranet, whatever social media technologies or platforms you’re using? How much detail are we going to provide on these signs versus directing them to other platforms? Should our messages be very clean and simple on these displays, but directing them to our Twitter feed or Facebook, intranet, whatever? You want to list out as much of the content that you want to include as possible.

Here’s a great example: so the MarCom departments might say, “We want to put these public service announcements up on the screens.” Well, the reality is unfortunately, marketing team, those public service announcements are two minutes long. And we have a vehicle here that people are just going to pass by. If I have about seven seconds, maybe nine seconds, to convey a message in an elevator bay area, they’re not going to watch a two-minute public service announcement. So, you’ve got to think about the types of content that you’re going to show on screen.

And often we run into situations where it’s not just long videos, but somebody says, “Well, we want to incorporate PDFs.” So, think about this gorgeous display, and then there’s a white page that appears on this display with tiny text, right? Eight point, ten point font that nobody can read. So think about those content sources. And then, of course, what you really want to do is focus on data integration with other applications, so that as changes occur in those applications, those changes show up on screen and there’s no additional human intervention. So, it’s not like we have to go back to Derek to change whatever message.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Because it’s been set up and it just goes automatically.

Sean Matthews: It automatically happens, which reduces the workload on the team to keep the content fresh, which really ties into things like subscription feeds and other content sources. You know, subscription feeds – you can think of it as being like, “Well, that’s just boring stuff that we’re paying money for.” But it’s not really.

People pass by digital signs that have stock information on them and they’re wondering, “Is the stock market up or down?” Maybe they didn’t have a chance to see the news or they didn’t think about it. They also maybe want to know what’s going on in world events. And I’m not talking about blood news. I’m talking about news that’s relevant and important, and it keeps me abreast of what might be going on socially, politically, or just in the world around me. And that’s an important thing because those feeds come from reliable sources that end up on screen. And they’re often hooks that get me to look at the real message, which is “productivity is down”, right?

Derek DeWitt: [Laughing] “Get to work. Stop looking at the sign. Get to your office.” Number four.

Sean Matthews: I was thinking about it and there’s a lot of display technology out there, and where would we put these displays? And I mentioned just a few minutes ago that elevator bays are a great place. Any place where people congregate, those are important places to have electronic signs or electronic information, right? It can be projected, it could be on displays – big displays, small displays, electronic-ink displays – it doesn’t have to be LED. They can be see-through displays. All these display technologies are changing dramatically.

And so, you have to decide if you want touchscreens. Are you going to do video walls? Are you going to do kiosks for interactive self-service? There’s a lot of stuff that you can think about there. But certainly, hallway intersections as people walk down the hall, they may look forward and see those messages. You can do long murals along the wall that, as I walk, the information flows with me or maybe the opposite direction. Elevator bays, you know…people congregate in break rooms. There’s a lot of places when you think about it where people congregate.

Derek DeWitt: Lobbies…

Sean Matthews: It’s interesting that you bring up lobbies, because a lot of people talk about lobbies. And often, that’s one of those things where they say, “Hey, our competitors are doing it.” But when you do produce a big lobby video wall, that content is often not geared to me as the employee. Because in big organizations, a lot of employees don’t even come through the lobby. They use other entrances, right?

And so, when you think about where you want to put information, also think about what type of information you’re going to put on those specific endpoints. So, in one company we could have a manufacturing arm in part of a building, that massive building; we can have dining areas inside of that building. And manufacturing productivity information is different than menu boards in the dining areas, right?

And then, of course, in other parts of our facility, we might have office workers that really have nothing to do with production or manufacturing, and they’re going to be better influenced by other types of content at other intersections in their building. So, displays I think [are] certainly an important piece of the puzzle. And that kind of rolls into… we’ve got a handful to go… I think I said had eight bullet points.

Derek DeWitt: You mentioned interactive screens and kiosks, too…I think it’s actually required in the United States [that] you have to be ADA compliant, as well. And that’s a whole factor that will depend on where you place them, and a lot of choices will be made and affected by something like that as well.

Sean Matthews: You’re right. If you’re going to incorporate interactivity, to meet ADA compliance, they have to obviously be mounted at a certain height, or you have to provide that person with equivalent access to that information. And of course, a lot of people are creating content with customization in mind, so that my onscreen experience can be different while I interact with that screen, particularly in wayfinding or directories and that kind of stuff. So, that’s a certainly a valid point there.

Derek DeWitt: So now we’re on number five.

Sean Matthews: Okay, so networks. I was thinking about networks and people always ask, “Can it be wireless?” And yes, it can be wireless. It can be wired. But you do have to conduct a network survey. “Where is this stuff going to reside in our building or buildings plural? Do we have good wifi coverage there? Do we want to expose these devices to the wifi channels that we have on our network? Do these devices need Internet access or not?” So, certainly a network survey is important. Or, “Are we going to use power over ethernet to power these devices?” “Do we have enough switches to provide those powered endpoints?”

Then of course the hardware component of it. “Where’s the hardware going to live? Who’s going to maintain it? What about in the future – who’s going to manage the life of the hardware?” Because if you think about any device, you know technology ages out pretty quickly, right? You think about your mobile devices or anything in your home, with the exception of the basic television. But even since the advent of LCD TV, if you think about that, you started off with plasma, then LCD or LED, and then we just keep going, and you went from standard definition to high definition to 4K to 8K. I mean it changes quickly.

Derek DeWitt: I just heard… I just read this article… It was something stupid like 80K or something some company has just developed, and they’re going to start making it available commercially like next year. That’s preposterous. I don’t even know if the human eye can see all that.

Sean Matthews: Well, what I’ll tell you is a pretty fascinating thing – if you roll back just about 15 to 18 years ago, when plasma first started coming out on the market, even plasma televisions were $10,000, $15,000 for one television. And so then, ultimately LCD comes along, and you end up with LED and you have all these other technologies that continue to advance. But the time from plasma to LCD, in terms of consumer adoption, was quite long. But then, when you start moving from HD to 4K, that timeframe got collapsed dramatically.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, it was short.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, and it’s going to be short from 4K to 8K. And so, that poses a challenge for the people that are responsible for maintaining the hardware lifecycle, because the technology is going to age out pretty quickly. And the creative teams that are putting content on screen, they’re going to want to know why it’s not 4K or 8K or whatever.

Derek DeWitt: You would design a little differently for those resolutions?

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. Yes. If not, you’re scaling up.

Derek DeWitt: [Laughing} “We can’t do that on that. What are you crazy? It’ll look terrible.”

Sean Matthews: Yeah. So, that’s a key component which really leads right into building a budget. So, you’ve got this initial deployment, which is probably going to be some kind of operational expense – OpEx expense – it’s going to cost money to get it up and running. But really beyond that is, how do you keep it alive for three years, five years, whatever your timeframe looks like, before you reevaluate the technology? Because you’re going to have things like ongoing services as you expand the technology. You’re going to have installation fees to deploy these other technologies. And people always forget about this.

There’s training, right? So, we train a staff of people – let’s say it’s three, five, 10 people – up front, and they all kind of get it, and they understand the technology. But there’s turnover to every business, right? And so we lose a key person. How do we train up the next group of people? And so, ongoing training is always important, not only because of turnover, but because features change in these technologies. There’s always evolution.

Derek DeWitt: At the very least, there are bug fixes.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, there’s always going to be feature enhancements and feature improvements. And in fact, there can be just brand new features that didn’t exist before, and there might be a steep learning curve to whatever those features look like.

We have one feature in an upcoming release that…what the whole interface is designed to do is tied to room booking and the interactivity between room booking, but the little widgets that we can drop onto this display from our design tool…there are more than 400 properties in these widgets that can be manipulated to create an experience that’s unique and different for your business versus somebody else.

Derek DeWitt: So, that’s why you have to plan it out in advance and say, “Okay, what are we trying to accomplish? Who are our audiences? Who are we communicating with? Why are we communicating?” so you can make those decisions. Because you can’t stick all of them up there. That would be ridiculous.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. So, we’ve kind of gone through the hardware stuff. Then I was like, “What’s more important, hardware or software?” And I’m not going to say that it’s more important, but I would choose the software first, because there are a lot of hardware technologies out there for driving video walls and endpoints and all kinds of stuff, but if you choose software for organizational communications that was originally designed for retail deployments, then the workflows don’t really make a lot of sense.

Because in an organization…what we’re tasked with doing in an enterprise organization, we’re tasked with getting information up on screen about 401(k) open enrollment, safety statistics, safety advisements – information that is succinct and to the point, which is not the same as the workflows that might be associated with an ad agency that is putting really cool Clinique ads on displays at Clinique counters in shopping centers, right? Two different things.

Which, if you think just simply about flight information, display systems at the airport, the workflows to produce that data on screen are very different than what might be associated with days without incident on our manufacturing floor. It’s just different in the way it’s delivered and how it’s set up.

Derek DeWitt: Plus…that’s the thing, I mean somebody is going to have to use the software every day.

Sean Matthews: Yep, every day. And the last one, in terms of it making sense, you might not be convinced that this is going to make sense for your organization. So, I know our sales teams would hate that I would even mention this, but you should consider a pilot.

You know, companies like ours and others, they’re not overly excited about pilots because they often take a lot of time, and it’s often difficult to get the client to really put down their goals and objectives on paper before you start the pilot. It’s kind of like, “We just want to see it work.” We all know the technology works right?

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, we see it every day.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, but what do you want it to accomplish in your organization? And so just seeing it work – I don’t really call that a pilot. That’s like just a proof of “does it work?” It’s not even a proof of concept.

But if you put a pilot in place, you can identify areas of weakness in your own organization, your organizational workflows. Democratization may not exist in your business model. And therefore, it might be hard to get unique groups to contribute to the content creation process, which might lead you to say, “Huh, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to dedicate a body or a portion of someone’s time, or the full-time equivalent to actually do this work.”

Derek DeWitt: There must be… you must have in the back of your head a sort of a ‘top mistakes’ that people make. There must be boo-boos that people make that they can avoid when trying to buy digital signage.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I think one that stands out, and I alluded to it at the very beginning, and that is not getting the people involved who are actually going to use the system. It becomes a technology-driven conversation, and that’s the number one shortcoming. Because I have gone back to clients six, seven months after it’s up and running, and I ask, “Hey man, so what do you think?” And they’re like, “It’s okay.” It reminds me of those commercials on recently, it’s like “It’s good.” Like, “What do you mean, it’s not great?” You spent a bunch of money with us, it should be great, right? And then when you go out and look at the content, and you realize that it was a technology-driven discussion and the right people aren’t involved in maintaining the content, and it looks like it did the day we left and it hasn’t changed since. And that’s the big mistake – just not involving the right people.

Oftentimes, people fall in love with hardware because it’s kind of like the new iPhone. Well, you fall in love with the new iPhone because of the features that are built into the hardware (but I’m not picking on iPhone). But over time, what really drives the iPhone are all the other apps that show up on that phone. It’s not just the camera or just the facial recognition, right? Those are hardware pieces that – over time you’re going to use those – but new hardware features are going to come out on other platforms and you know, just…

Derek DeWitt: “How come mine doesn’t do that?”

Sean Matthews: Yeah, you’re dead on. So, falling in love with the hardware and then trying to find software to fit on that hardware, I think that’s a mistake. That’s one that we see. And then of course, a little bit of this we do see is relying on one person to do at all.

Derek DeWitt: “Here you go Josie. Good luck!”

Sean Matthews: Yep. And oftentimes, what’s interesting is it becomes like someone who’s a mid-tier IT person – because it became an IT project – and, all of a sudden, they now are the owners and they’re supposed to be the evangelists. They weren’t ever the evangelists. I mean, they were the guys that said, “Hey man, yeah, we’ll make this happen.”

Derek DeWitt: “We can make it work, but I don’t care.”

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And so then, all of a sudden they’re stuck with being the one person that’s responsible for it all.

Derek DeWitt: And, frankly, they couldn’t give a toss.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And well, their real job is to maintain the network infrastructure in the building or whatever. And this doesn’t really fit. So, that’s not the only mistake, but then, there’s even misconceptions with this technology.

Derek DeWitt:  “It’s too expensive.”

Sean Matthews: Yep, it’s easy to say it’s expensive. If you think about the CapEx expense up front of putting a bunch of displays and infrastructure in a building. There’s an upfront cost to get it up and running. Whether you choose a cloud service or not, there’s hardware expenses. Now you can lease that stuff, you can amortize it, you can do all kinds of things.

There is some cost to do it, but when you compare the effectiveness of this technology versus just printed signs – and the byproducts of printed signs and the labor associated with installing, taking them down, all that stuff – this is actually a relatively cost-effective way to communicate with transient audiences in your building. You have tried email, you’ve tried intranet, you’ve tried social media. Try to get your employees to follow your social media accounts and engage in those accounts, and it’s tough to do. So, you have this passing audience, and this is a great vehicle.

A lot of people think it’s complicated to set up. It’s not really that complicated. I mean, we do it every day and it’s easy for me to say that, but when you get down to it, truly the three main pieces aside from design – there’s a content management server, either on premise or in the cloud, and there’s a media player tied to a display, and there’s a little network infrastructure, and then that’s it. I mean that’s it. So, it’s not that ineffective from a cost perspective. And you know, it’s not complicated to run. Most of these technologies by most companies in the space right now – a lot of cloud-based interfaces or browser based interfaces that allow you to login and schedule when, where, and how long you want content to play. And it’s basically that simple.

Derek DeWitt: What about environmental concerns? I could see some people… Obviously paper degrades, it’s got ink in it, it goes into a landfill, it leaks into the earth and nothing grows there for two generations, on the one hand. On the other hand, this is using electricity – quite a bit.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. It is using electricity. I mean, all technologies use electricity. But in the world that we live in today, and as we continue forward over time, we’re not going to be depleting natural resources. We’re going to rely on solar energy and wind energy and lots of other things. So it does consume electricity, but the amounts that it’s consuming, when you look at LED consumption versus plasma consumption, in terms of power, it’s far less. And we’re not burning as much coal, and it’d be better if we cut down fewer trees.

I don’t have any data with me to indicate how much less it consumes by comparison, but I think we can all agree that technology is ubiquitous, and the ubiquitous nature of that technology is that it all consumes power.

Derek DeWitt: I think we can see that it is here to stay – this is the technological age. So, you can see really that you’ve got to plan a digital signage system. You just have to do it or else you’re doing yourself and your audience a disservice, and you might be wasting time and money.

Thank you, Sean, for talking to me today.

Sean Matthews: All right. Thank you Derek.

Derek DeWitt: And thank you everybody for listening.