Communications Planning for Digital Signs

EPISODE 13 | Guest: Debbie DeWitt, marketing communications manager for Visix

Digital signage is about reaching people, engaging people, and getting them to do something. Don’t get bogged down in the technology. Don’t get bogged down in day-to day tasks. You really need to think strategically about all stages of the communications process.

In this podcast, we’ll give you a good grounding in the basics of communications planning to help make your digital signage more efficient and effective.

  • Find out why you need a communications plan
  • Understand each stage in the communications cycle
  • Get real-world tips for strategic messaging
  • Learn the six Ds of communications
  • Explore how to craft a written communications plan

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Learn more about this topic in our Masterclass Guide 2: Digital Signage Communications Planning


Derek DeWitt: We’ve spoken before on this podcast about the need to plan out your digital signage system, but I kind of want to go back a little more to basics, to something more fundamental than that. And that’s the talk about how to plan out communications as a whole, and how digital signage fits into that overall sort of concept of flow in communications. So, to help us analyze and examine different aspects of this, we’ve got Debbie Dewitt, the marketing communications manager for Visix. How’s it going, Debbie?

Debbie DeWitt: It’s going great, Derek.

Derek DeWitt: Marvelous. I’d like to thank Debbie for joining me, and I’d like to thank all of you for listening.

Derek DeWitt: So I mean, again, we’ve spoken a lot about how, if you’re going to communicate with someone, you have to understand who they are. You can’t just throw out general messages, especially in something like internal communications. You know who your audience is, and if you don’t, you should find out who they are, and you need to find out what motivates them, what’s important to them, right?

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. And we talked a little bit about this in another podcast about understanding audience motivations. You have to remember that communications is a dialogue. It’s [a] two-way street; it’s not one-way. You’re not just pushing stuff out. A lot of people do that, unfortunately. But you have to know who your audience is, and what they care about, especially with digital signs, because it’s very easy to ignore those screens on the wall if you don’t care about what’s on them.

Derek DeWitt: Everybody has a screen with them, they have their phones. So, your digital signage is in many ways competing with people’s phones and tablets. You need to be more interesting, more compelling, more relevant to them in that place at that time. Then whatever goodies the internet can throw their way and distract them from that environment….So you really have to just pull that attention right then and there.

Debbie DeWitt: Absolutely. And you know, you can think of it like… all of communications…a lot of people have paid attention to this with social media or even email, in the fact that people know that the receiver is the one who puts the tone, puts the spin…

Derek DeWitt: …in text messages and emails and things like this. Yeah, that’s why, I hate them, but that’s why emojis exist.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly. So that you can go, I know I sound terse. Here’s a smiley face, so you know I’m happy. And really digital signs are no different, because you know your audience has different viewing patterns, different preconceptions, a lot of distractions, like you said.

Derek DeWitt: Very often they’re going from one place to another. They’re not thinking…they’re not in the corridor going, “And now I’m here in the corridor to look at the digital signage.” They’re going somewhere, they’re going to lunch, they’ve got a meeting, their boss just chewed them out, whatever.

Debbie DeWitt: Right, exactly. So it really does behoove you to really carefully plan out communications. And this can be a single communication, like a single message, a campaign, but better off, you’re really wanting to plan out your processes, your whole communications plan. You know, every organization has goals for this quarter or this month or that even this year, if it’s broader. But you really need to think about this in terms of an overall communications plan, so that you can break through those barriers and deliver enticing, engaging communications to your audience.

Derek DeWitt: One of the interesting things about digital signage to me is that, from the audience’s perspective, it’s a wholly voluntary participation. They choose to look at your screen. You can do all, but you can’t, you’re not going to stand there with armed guards going, “Hey, look at the signs, look at the signs!”

Debbie DeWitt: Right. It’s very different than email, which, you know, most email is in a company, obviously, an organization, and you’re expected to open and read those emails, and if you don’t and you miss something, you get scolded or whatever. But this isn’t that.

Derek DeWitt: Pay docked.

Debbie DeWitt: This is very much, and we’re talking about, you know, a lot of times digital signs are used for retail applications or in a campus environment where you’re trying to attract people. But this is also internal communications. Your staff does not have to look at that screen when they’re in the break room if they would rather watch a video on their tablet. And so, you really have to pull that focus.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Cat videos are the number one competition for digital signage.

Debbie DeWitt: That’s another podcast – How to Use Cats in Digital Signage.

Derek DeWitt: So, talk to me about this concept of a communications flow. What do you mean by this?

Debbie DeWitt: Well, it’s understanding the whole communications cycle really. And even if you’re a professional communicator, even if you’ve been doing digital signage for a while, it doesn’t hurt to go back and review and just take a look at these steps to make sure you understand it.

In marketing, we talk a lot about a benefits approach versus features. Like, if you’re selling a widget, you can either say “it comes in this size and it’s this color and it does this”, but better you want to communicate “if you use it, you’ll get this, you’ll feel this, you’ll have this advantage”. And so, you need to think the same way in communications. You need to shift your focus from “What do I need to say?”, to “What do they need to know?” You really want to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and think the way they would.

Derek DeWitt: Right. You’re trying to affect their behavior.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly, exactly. So, I’ve kinda got six steps here, you know, to think about how this process works.

Derek DeWitt: We love numbers. We love numbers. Give me the six.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, everybody loves lists, right? So, the first thing is, it obviously starts with the communicator. Understanding your audience, having some best practices in place, having that data at the ready, so that you know who you’re talking to. And really when you look at that audience, you need to figure out what kind of a need or an opportunity are you trying to communicate to them, you know?

Derek DeWitt: Aah, opportunity‘s a nice word.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, and it’s really about have a goal. This is the other thing that we say a lot in these podcasts. You’ve got to have a goal. Don’t just say…. What happens a lot, unfortunately, is someone walks in the office to the digital signage manager and says, “I need you to put this on screen right now” instead of saying, “We’re trying to increase participation in the 401(k )plan”, or “We’re trying to get more people to come to this event.” They don’t say why or what the goal is. They just say do it. So, you really need to address those goals first. And as you do that, you’ve looked at your audience, you look at what you’re trying to communicate and why. And then you need to know, what do they need to know? What do they need to do once they get your message?

Derek DeWitt: We’ve said this multiple times and we’ll continue to say it multiple times – you’ve got to have some kind of a call to action. It can’t just be “Hey this is happening.” What do you want them to do? Send them someplace, get them to do something. ‘Cause, again, you get measurable results, all of that.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. So the first step sits with the communicator, and it’s really all of this planning that we’re talking about.

And now number two is the message itself. So, obviously you want to design attractive media and messages that people care about. Again, plugging another podcast, we’ve got two digital design primers online. They’re great; they’re done by our creative services manager. They give you some great design tips and how to think about design.

Derek DeWitt: Because here’s the thing, I think a cheesy looking…I mean low-res is a choice, a lot of people go for that low-res look, especially if they’re dealing with IT folks, ’cause they, you know, programmer art and things like this, they like that kind of a look; it appeals to them. But, if you’re trying to communicate something and it’s …just the fonts are all screwy or the colors don’t work, you’ve got some clip art little birthday cake, whatever; it detracts from the authority and the legitimacy of the message.

Debbie DeWitt: Unless that’s on purpose. If that matches the mood of what you’re trying to convey, great. But yeah, I mean, again, not going into details, but it’s really about being clear, concise, understandable, and attractive.

And attractive can be different things. Like you were just saying, it can be funny, it can be shocking, it can be interesting, or it could just be beautiful, or it could just be branded. But, you know, there should be a purpose behind that.

And when you’re looking at your message design, think about it in terms of solving a problem for your audience. Now granted, you’re going to say, “I’m telling them about an event they don’t know about.” Well, that’s the problem, is that maybe they want to be more a part of your community or your events. You know, even if it’s not something that they already know about, think about once you show it to them, what is the problem you’re solving for them?

Derek DeWitt: And, of course, the fact that you’ve just informed them of this now has a new series of problems, which is – I wonder where it is, wonder how I get there, I wonder what time it is, I wonder if I can make it – things like this as well. So, you have to give some kind of details somehow, either in the message or someplace else.

Debbie DeWitt: Right, exactly. That’s what it means by being clear, concise. You know, the old K.I.S.S. Rule – Keep It Simple, Stupid. So, that’s number two. You’ve got your communicator, then your message, and now we get into the method.

Number three is method. And that’s basically deciding how am I going to communicate this to people? Because obviously we’re a digital signage company, we’re talking about digital signs, but maybe that’s not what this communication is best for.

Derek DeWitt: Or not only.

Debbie DeWitt: Right. And that’s the thing: for every communication, there’s a best medium to deliver it. It might be social media, it might be on your intranet, it might be…

Derek DeWitt: Carrier pigeon!

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah! It might be printed. But, like you just said, I would always ask the question, why not everywhere? Or if that’s just too much work or it doesn’t make sense, you know that people don’t open email then don’t do an email for it. But if you know that people are on social, on your intranet and look at digital signs, cross-promote.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, and it’s a fine line I think between, like really promoting something…so let’s say it’s an event of some sort, you’re doing a charity run for your company and you want to have as many employees participate as possible. It’s a fine line between, “Hey, we’re really promoting this to let you know that it’s really important to us that as many of you as possible participate in this”; the line between that and “Oh my God, they’re nags, they’re nagging me. It’s annoying.” Like, if it was everywhere, all the time, if you put somebody on social media every single day about it, I just would refuse to do it personally, that’s my personality, just out of spite.

Debbie DeWitt: Well yeah, how often and where you place your messages, that’s all part of prioritizing communications. It’s also…in advertising it’s always that people need, the stats change, but 12 times exposure to something to notice it. So it’s always been sort of the marketing policy to put it as many places as possible.

But where and how often you show it tells the people the weight that you’re putting behind that communication. So yeah, if it is, “Hey, the benefits enrollment deadline is coming up” and you’re not seeing enrollment, then yeah, people are going to know, “Oh, this is important, because I’m seeing it constantly and everywhere.” And that actually leads perfectly, thank you very much…

Derek DeWitt: You’re welcome.

Debbie DeWitt:  …into number four, which is the environment. This is…something we use a lot in our copy is – target the right people, at the right place, at the right time. Because you don’t want to show everything to everyone all the time.

Derek DeWitt: You can’t! Unless they’re all standing in the line crowded around a screen, how could you?

Debbie DeWitt: Right. But how this plays out in the real world is someone has a playlist on their screen, it starts with ten messages and then they add ten more and ten more and they schedule everything for “always” and for “forever”. Like in our software you can say “always” and “forever”, and basically it’s on there forever. And so three months in, you’ve got a hundred things on that screen that are just constantly showing.

Derek DeWitt: Right at 30 seconds a pop, do the math!

Debbie DeWitt: Right, no one sees all of them. A worst-case scenario, someone keeps seeing the same one and it’s six months old and they’re just tired of it. So, they just stopped paying attention to your screens.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Again, you lose legitimacy. You lose authority by having, not just ugly content, but outdated content.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And you can send different playlists to different screens. You know, don’t show your student communications in staff break rooms and vice versa. You can also use dayparting.

Derek DeWitt: That would be terrible: “Hey, a bunch of our students are cheating. Here’s how we’re going to make sure they don’t cheat on the test. Oops, we sent that into the student dorm!”

Debbie DeWitt: Right, exactly! Every decent software CMS has dayparting. Which is simply you get to choose the days; you get to choose the time of day.

Derek DeWitt: And frankly, if the CMS, if you’re shopping for digital signage and dayparting is not an option, you seriously might consider going someplace else…

Debbie DeWitt: Visix.

Derek DeWitt: Visix! That’s the first shameless plug ever in one of these….

Debbie DeWitt: I’m the marketing manager; it’s my job. Alight, so I think we’re at number five. Number five is the audience.

Derek DeWitt: This is what I’m getting at. How people are going to react, right?

Debbie DeWitt: Right. Because you have to think about…this is the flow of the communication. So, obviously we’ve thought about it, we thought about where to do it, we’ve designed it, we’ve delivered it, and we’ve dayparted it, and now the audience gets the message. Now, that audience is going to have their own perceptions, their own mood. They’re going to put, like you said, maybe they’ve seen it too many times. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve seen it, and they’re very excited about the content. So you need to try and anticipate how they’re going to react.

But really this one isn’t so much in the communicator’s control. This is about the audience receiving your message. But consider that. And you can even A/B test, you can even survey people, get a couple of people just come in and look at it and say which is more engaging. So, try and anticipate your audience’s reaction.

Derek DeWitt: I’d say this ties into localization also. I mean, very often corporate headquarters in, I don’t know, Manchester, sends out company-wide globally to all the branches, all over the place. And it turns out that, you know, hey, having a cat on somebody’s head is very funny (and I’m just making something up), but having a picture of a cat on somebody’s head is very funny in Manchester, but in Hong Kong it’s rude or something like that. So again, you can do some research and find out – you just ask people in a pinch, how they might react to things.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, I mean there are cultural differences and then there are simply geographic, like, I don’t need to know what’s going on in Manchester if I’m in the New Jersey office, if it’s a fun run happening for the Manchester team. Now there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to show pictures of what happened at corporate headquarters in Manchester to all your branches later to show, “We’re having fun here” and “Hey, we’re rolling this out, you’re going to have your own fun run later.” I mean, it always depends on the message.

But it’s really just about anticipate how your audience might react to try and do the best you can with that. And then you need to have a call to action. I know everyone who listens to our weekly podcast is tired of hearing this, but it’s just something…

Derek DeWitt: They shouldn’t be tired of it because it’s true!

All right, so far we’ve gotten through five of the six. You said you have six steps of this flow. So, you’re thinking about it, you design, “What do we want to do?”, we design it, we figure out the best place, we figure out the best way, we think about our audience, we deliver the message, they react; we’re done, right? What could number six be?

Debbie DeWitt: Number six is probably the most important and also the most often overlooked. Number six is follow up. As you’re thinking about how the audience is going to react, you have to be able to measure those reactions, so that you can improve your digital signage strategy as you go along. Your job is not finished when the message goes out. Again, this is a two-way dialogue. You have to have some way for that audience to be part of that dialogue.

Derek DeWitt: Well, it’s a two-way dialogue kind of. One side gets to do most of the talking and the other side is just kinda like…. The audience isn’t actually talking to the content creators or the people who are coming up with all of this stuff. Or could they? I mean, what about polls, surveys, things like this? Are those stupid? Do people do them? Do they work? .

Debbie DeWitt: They do, they do do them. So, dialogue can mean a lot of things like you just said. But basically, I mean no, they’re not speaking back to you or crafting their own message back to you, but they are reacting to your message. That’s why the call to action’s essential. If you think the dialogue is “they get excited”; that’s not a dialogue. The dialogue is they answer that poll question. They participate…they text an answer for a trivia question.

Derek DeWitt: They go to the landing page.

Debbie DeWitt: They go to the landing page. You give them a URL, they scan a QR code, they take a picture of the screen and show it at the bookstore. These are all calls to action and that lets you know people are engaging with this message. It lets you know people engage more with URLs than QR tags. It’s all a way for you to understand that they’ve seen it, they’ve understood it and they’re actually interested. And if they’re not, it lets you adjust, and it lets you A/B test and it lets you get some feedback. And if you’re using a poll or a survey, that’s even better because you can actually just ask those direct questions about….Which of these designs did you like better? Which of these do you remember seeing? Which offers caught your attention?

Derek DeWitt: And if you’re not getting anybody taking the call to action – no one’s going to that landing page, no one’s filling out the form – then that also tells you something. It doesn’t tell you what you need to change, but it certainly tells you, you’ve got to change something.

Debbie DeWitt: So in any A/B test, what you want to do is be very controlled. Don’t go changing the design and the call to action and the landing page…

Derek DeWitt: …and the wording…

Debbie DeWitt: …and the wording and everything. So, one thing at a time. You change the design. See if that does better. Hmmm, we want to further tweak it; let’s change from a URL to a QR code.

Derek DeWitt: Or change where we’re showing it or when we’re showing it.

Debbie DeWitt: Exactly. Your scheduling could be part of the issue. So yes, this sounds like a lot of work, but this is the only way to know that it’s working…

Derek DeWitt: Of course it’s a lot of work – it’s a job! And that’s something to think about. This is a full-time job. This is not something that someone can just do for 20 minutes a day. To do this correctly, it requires at least one dedicated person, I think, in any decent-sized company, a hundred people or more certainly, and very often a whole team.

Debbie DeWitt: We see three scenarios. The first one is the worst scenario which is someone has a full-time job, and then they’re handed digital signage and [told] “Here, deal with this.” The second one is that you have a digital signage manager who has communications experience. Maybe they’re not a designer, also; it’s a lot to ask for in a single skill set, but they have resources, they have a design team or somebody. The other thing that we see is sometimes you have your communications or marketing department craft all the campaigns, figure all of this strategic stuff out, and then your digital signage manager just worries about getting the message up there and scheduled.

But the biggest thing to remember when you’re talking about analyzing feedback or results is that you need to concentrate on outcomes versus outputs. You don’t want to say, “This is awesome – we published 30 messages this week!”

Derek DeWitt: Oh, that’s an output.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, so what? Yeah, that’s great. That lets you know that you’re not paying someone to do the digital signage that isn’t doing their job, but it doesn’t tell you that it’s working at all. It doesn’t tell you if it’s worthwhile. Are you getting any return on that investment? Because digital signage isn’t cheap. Even if it’s a simple one screen with one player system and someone’s running PowerPoint, that’s time for that person.

Derek DeWitt: And that person’s being paid. They’re not volunteering.

Debbie DeWitt: And it is equipment, it’s an additional expense, so use it to its fullest.

Derek DeWitt: So that’s six things to think about. Quite a lot to digest.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Well, I have a very easy way to remember this. We’ve come up with a little moniker called the Six Ds of Communication.

Derek DeWitt: Is this another six things?

Debbie DeWitt: It’s the same six things, but kind of, basically, put down into six words.

Derek DeWitt: This is the digital signage message version of the six aspects of communications planning!

Debbie DeWitt: That’s absolutely right. We can just take two pages of notes and pull it down to some bullets. So, I’m going to go through these very simply. This is a wrap up of what we’ve just spoken about.

The first is distill what you need to convey down to its simplest form.

Derek DeWitt: And that means minimal words, but it also means sort of using the real estate on the screen most efficiently I think, too.

Debbie DeWitt: Yes. Okay. Number two is define who needs to get your message. Number three is detail exactly what you want the viewer to take away with them. Number four is deciding on the best medium to deliver that information. Five is pretty simple – deliver the message.

Derek DeWitt: Send it out there.

Debbie DeWitt: Yep. And then number six, determine your success by measuring that ROI from your call to action.

Derek DeWitt: So distill, define, detail, decide, deliver…

Debbie DeWitt: …determine.

Derek DeWitt: Determine.

Debbie DeWitt: Yes. And for anyone who didn’t get all of that, we do have a transcription of this podcast on our website.

Derek DeWitt: Any closing thoughts?

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. Basically when you’re doing a communications plan, whether it’s formal or informal, don’t just think about it. Write it out.

Derek DeWitt: Why?

Debbie DeWitt: Because you need to have it handy.

Derek DeWitt: I’m smart!

Debbie DeWitt: Ha, yes. But you need to have it handy. And the fact is personnel change, duties change, technology changes what you’re capable of doing. You may get new software with new features. You may have hired someone in your graphics department that can now do video work that you didn’t have before. So, you want to write it down and then…

Derek DeWitt: And update, though. If you’re going to write it down, make sure to update it.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, absolutely. ‘Cause your objectives are going to change over time.

Derek DeWitt: Sure, as you tweak and get feedback and so on. Sure.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. And it’s a kind of a corporate attitude, but even as a marketing professional, I go back to whatever goals I’ve set out for my department minimum every quarter. Then say, “Are we still focused on that?” Because day-to-day tasks just can steamroll over what you’re actually trying to achieve.

Derek DeWitt: They pile up.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. So but, but keep in mind, just because you write down a plan, and it doesn’t need to be formal. It could be some bullet points, you know. But even though you have a plan, it needs to be flexible, because you still want to be able to be spontaneous. You don’t want to have someone walk in and say, “Hey, we want to really, you know, drive information about this event.” And you go, “I’m sorry, we’re planned out for the next six weeks.” You don’t want to be that.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. Talk to me in November.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah. So, you have to allow for last-minute situations, new goals, business disruptions, whatever might come along.

Derek DeWitt: Anybody out there who works using plans and scheduling things out and things like this, if you’re prepared (you know, chance favors the prepared mind and all that), if you’re prepared, you can be agile.

Debbie DeWitt: Absolutely.

Derek DeWitt: And react to things as things come up. Hey, guess what, you know, we’re a university and a new study just came out showing… Like, I just saw an article not that long ago about how university students today seem to be unaware of things like phishing schemes and things like this. And suddenly, even though you’ve got your plan for the next month or two months on your digital signage, “Hey, I didn’t realize this. Let’s ask our students. Oh, we did a little survey [and] it turns out they don’t actually understand what a phishing scheme is, they don’t understand how to really use email. Maybe we can use our digital signage to help promote digital literacy and help them out with this”, for example. And you can kind of insert that into your plan.

Debbie DeWitt: Yeah, because if it meets your goals… You know it always goes back to it; that probably is in line with your goals and really every time something comes up or, say you review it quarterly, what you want to do is you start with why, “Why are we doing this? All these tasks that we have on our list, all these communications we’re talking about doing – why are we doing those? Do they actually directly address those goals, what we’re trying to achieve? Do we need to change our goals because these are important?” So like you said, be flexible but have it there, so that you have something to reference, so that you have sort of a guiding light as you’re going forward.

This is about strategy because – we’ve said it before: digital signage is a technology, it’s a system made up of hardware and software and IT and network, but it’s about communications. It’s about people.

This is communications, and communications is about reaching people, engaging people, getting people to do something. Don’t get bogged down in the technology. Don’t get bogged down in day-to day tasks. You really need to start thinking about strategy and communicating with people better.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you very much, Debbie Dewitt, for talking to me and thank all of you for listening.