How Digital Signage Technologies Are Adapting to COVID-19

EPISODE 54 | Guest: Bradley Cooper, Editor for Digital Signage Today

2020 presented a number of challenges, but also a lot of opportunities. Organizations of all types are finding new and improved ways of getting their message out to audiences. New digital signage technologies are being adopted and adapted to meet post-COVID needs, and will point the way forward far into the future. Agility, versatility and integration are key to navigating the new communications landscape.

In this episode, we talk to Bradley Cooper of about how companies and retailers have already adapted, and what we might expect in the coming year.

  • Learn about new touchless solutions for interactive screens and kiosks
  • Gain insight into how communications are becoming more targeted and personalized
  • Discover how digital signage is using AI, IoT and facial identification
  • Understand the emerging omnichannel communications method
  • Explore how organizations are using digital signs for safety and to control traffic flow
  • Hear real-world examples of dos and don’ts

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Get updates on news, events, trends and people in the digital signage and digital out-of-home industries at Digital Signage Today.


Derek DeWitt: So, needless to say, last year was quite an interesting year for a lot of people, quite a difficult year. For organizations and businesses, a number of challenges presented themselves. And there are a number of solutions to those challenges. To talk about some of the lessons we learned, or maybe should learn, from the year 2020 in the organizational communications world, I’m talking today with Bradley Cooper, editor for Digital Signage Today. Hello, Mr. Cooper.

Bradley Cooper: Hi, how are you doing?

Derek DeWitt: Good. Good, good, good. Thank you for joining me today.

Bradley Cooper: It’s a pleasure to be on.

Derek DeWitt: I’d like to thank Mr. Cooper for talking to me today, and I’d like to thank all of you for listening.

So, Digital Signage Today is… What is it? It’s like a news organization that kind of focuses on digital signage, but you guys do other things too, right? You look at kiosks and AI and other sort of digital communications technologies.

Bradley Cooper: Yes, that’s correct. Digital Signage Today mainly focuses on digital signage, but we also look at things like digital out-of-home and touchscreen kiosks, and all the latest trends in those industries, such as touchless.

Derek DeWitt: Right. You’ve seen it all. You’re up to date on the state-of-the-art. You have a pretty good idea of where things are heading in this space and so on.

Bradley Cooper: Yes, that’s correct.

Derek DeWitt: So, 2020. Wow! What a year, huh?

Bradley Cooper: Oh yeah, definitely. It was definitely a really crazy time.

Derek DeWitt: It’s kind of unprecedented, I think, isn’t it?

Bradley Cooper: Obviously, I think the word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a lot, but it definitely has applied to this year in many ways, especially in our generation and in our lifetime.

Derek DeWitt: Hmm. That’s true. So what are some of the things that have come up in the digital signage and digital communications world, and some of the challenges that the whole COVID-19 debacle sort of presented? Obviously, the number one thing is, wow, not a lot of people were physically in their workspaces or at their university or things like this. And so digital signage: did we even need it?

Bradley Cooper: Right. That was the big issue. I’d say the number one issue is just the fact that during the shutdowns, digital signage’s biggest market, retail, took a big hit. Either a) because of some of those retailers were shut down during the whole COVID stuff, or b) those retailers took a big hit to their revenues. They didn’t have that extra advertising money. So that was probably the biggest hit. And also, as you mentioned, just certain places like universities and entertainment venues like sports arenas being shut down as well, to begin with.

Derek DeWitt: Right, yeah. Cinemas, obviously nobody’s going to the cinema, nobody’s seeing your digital posters you spent all this time designing, so on and so forth. So how did different companies adapt to this? What did they do? Did they transition their digital signage to, like, online, to try and reach customers and their audience that way?

Bradley Cooper: So, they did a number of things. And the first really big one is, is they just went back and looked at their solutions and asked this question: in what way can our current digital signage offerings meet the needs of companies right now during COVID-19?

And for some of them, that was pretty easy. Some of them, for example, if they already had a content management system, that was very, um, (oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?)… very versatile. They could simply offer, okay, here are some COVID-19 safety messages. We’ll put them in a template. We’ll give you like a package of content so you can update your displays to say, hey, customers, keep six feet away, wear your mask, wash your hands and all that.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Don’t sneeze on each other.

Bradley Cooper: Right. Right. And the rest had to look at what new solutions can we develop to meet those needs? And some of those solutions include things like deploying displays right outside the entrance to let people know, okay, we’re at capacity, you can’t come in, or we’re not at capacity yet, come in, sort of thing.

Derek DeWitt: So, like leveraging a queuing system.

Bradley Cooper: Yeah. And kind of like a green light, red light sort of system. Whereas other vendors, what they did, and this is especially in the kiosk side, is they began to look at, okay, people aren’t as comfortable touching touchscreens anymore because all the germs and COVID-19 and all that, so what’s like a touchless option we can add? So customers can still interact with that kiosk or that interactive digital signage, but still feel comfortable doing so. And there’s been a lot of them. Like I saw a lot of companies have been developing gesture control.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s the thing. We’ve all been waiting for that. Right. We all saw the movie Minority Report, and we’re like, okay, where’s that?

Bradley Cooper: Yeah. It’s, it’s slowly coming into play now. Obviously with that technology, it’s going to run into some accuracy problems from the very get go. I mean, COVID 19 sort of catapulted the touchless side of things to the forefront. And so that market, which was in development, but hadn’t really hit its own, is starting to really go on its own, if you know what I mean.

Derek DeWitt: I think maybe for a lot of companies, a lot of people might’ve just thought, oh, that’s kind of cool. It’s a little bit of a novelty item. I don’t know that we really need it. Oh, here comes a situation now in the real world where actually we do need some kind of touchless solution.

Bradley Cooper: Yeah. Right. And one way they’ve tried to do it, to make it easy, is to do things like put a QR code on their displays, which people can just go on that, scan it, and then they can control the kiosks or digital screen from their phone.

Derek DeWitt: Oh, that’s interesting! So the QR code doesn’t take you out to some external webpage, it actually takes you to sort of an operational dashboard.

Bradley Cooper: Yes, that’s correct. Now what’s interesting about that is that the effectiveness and how many people use it, really depends upon the transience of the audience. Because a lot of times, like if you’ve got an audience that’s very, you know, transient, like at an airport; they’re in and out, they probably won’t be there for another year or maybe more. So they might not be as willing to scan a QR code. But if you have an audience that’s more settled, like a university, they’re much more willing to do it. So that’s, that’s a big pain point with that touchless technology.

Derek DeWitt: And then of course there’s voice, obviously, too. I think voice user interfaces, VUIs, are also sort of becoming more popular.

Bradley Cooper: Right. And much like with touchless, voice had begun to be talked about in the industry before COVID-19 all hit. I remember, I think there was a blog someone posted on Digital Signage Today last year (well, two years now) about how voiceless is the story of the future. Because we’re already all talking to our Alexas. So it only makes sense. Hey, let’s use that with a screen..

Derek DeWitt: Well, that’s exactly right. I’m always talking about how, you know, the goal is to create a “more consumer-like experience”. And if the digital signage technology isn’t at least as good, engaging and easy to deal with as my phone and the stuff that I use all the time in my home and so on, then, you know, it just looks old-fashioned, even though it’s this modern way of doing things. So, this kind of stuff just seems like a natural progression to me.

Bradley Cooper: Right, definitely. That’s definitely a big component to it. And especially with digital signage in general, it’s really been trying to catch up, if you will, to the way the internet has done advertising. For example, if you log in to Facebook today, the ads you see are going to be tailored to what pages you like, what your comments are, what your political views are, what your religious views are…

Derek DeWitt: What your shopping habits are.

Bradley Cooper: Yeah. What your shopping habits are. So digital signage vendors have been trying to find a way to catch up to that. So we’ll give that Minority Report style, give the feeling of the Minority Report without the creepiness.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Please don’t steal my eyeball!

Bradley Cooper: Right. And so one way they’ve all been trying to do this, and this is something that’s been fermenting for a while but starting to gain fruit, is the idea of dynamic digital signage.

Derek DeWitt: And by that you mean sort of more individualized and tailored to the specific person viewing it?

Bradley Cooper: Right. And like you mentioned before, how you see a lot of these static screens and it seems kinda, ehh, it seems a little outdated. Well, with dynamic signage, it’s going to look at things like a) what’s the time of day. So, if it’s middle of lunch, let’s rollout some content for lunch. You know, maybe a coupon for coffee or something like that. And b) it might look at something like what’s the demographic of the individual looking at the screen? Is it someone who’s old, young, what’s their gender? And beyond that also what’s their mood?

And this, I actually saw a demonstration of this. Sometimes this can be really simple. If someone approaches a screen with like their head down, they’re usually maybe a little sad. So you might tailor your message that way. Whereas if their head is sort of tilted, they might be, seem a little angry or a little bit, you know, irritated. So, you might tailor it for that. So it’s very interesting the sort of things people are doing with these displays. Just as a side note, a lot of them are trying to avoid the facial recognition side. Now…

Derek DeWitt: Because it’s creepy. It’s creepy. Right?

Bradley Cooper: Yeah. So the distinction between facial identification and facial recognition is a subtle one. Facial identification is more about just identifying what type of person is looking at the display. Whereas recognition is more about who is that person looking at the display, if you know what I mean. That’s a big issue because once you get on the side of really identifying who that person is, like, here’s that identity, you run into all sorts of legal problems or potential legal problems.

Derek DeWitt: And there’s also just the creep out factor. I mean, who knows maybe, you know, 50 years from now that’ll be commonplace and no one will think twice about it. But certainly right now, if I walked up to a screen, if it said, hi, Derek, how are you? How was your burger last night? I would run screaming into the hills.

Bradley Cooper: Yeah, exactly. And that’s the key point. It’s almost like…there’s a term called the Overton window for AI and artificial intelligence where, can you tell what it’s doing or not? Or is it, does it just feel natural? So like, for example, with that, that creeps you out because it’s almost like there was a stalker staring at you through the windows. Whereas if it’s, for example, new, based on your loyalty program that you had a burger last night, it might give someone like, hey, you know, here’s a coupon code for burger, and not mention anything about it. That’s a little bit more subtle if you get what I’m saying.

Derek DeWitt: Right, right. Instead of saying, hey, I’ve been watching you pal, it just kind of goes, burger? And it knows that there’s a good chance you’re going to say yes.

Bradley Cooper: Right, precisely.

Derek DeWitt: As opposed to if it somehow knows from your, like you said, your loyalty program that you’re probably a vegetarian, then it might not serve up “burger”.

Bradley Cooper: Right. Exactly. And you’ve seen a lot of restaurants start to use this with their menu boards. Especially, I know McDonald’s has toyed around with it a lot is the idea of tailoring the content that shows up on their menu boards based on what the person has ordered before. So that way, if this person say, for example, never ordered a Big Mac, it won’t show Big Macs on the menu display,

Derek DeWitt: That’s interesting because you would have thought, at least certainly in the 20th century advertising mindset and business mindset, you would have thought that they would say, this person needs to be shown Big Macs so that they will perhaps also get interested in Big Macs.

Bradley Cooper: Right. And that’s, that’s the very interesting thing. Like, the previous model of doing advertising looked at, okay, this person isn’t interested, let’s find a way to make them interested. Whereas the new model still has some of that, but it’s also okay, they may not like Big Macs, we know they like this, but let’s get this in front of their face. More of like a tailored experience rather than just sort of a one-size-fits-all, let’s try to get them to love our product.

Derek DeWitt: I think part of it is too is, with the online world or the digital world and smartphones and mobile devices in our pockets and hands, we’re just consuming so much content, we’re interacting with so much content on a daily or an hourly basis, that in many ways we don’t need to start from scratch like, say you did in the 1950s where you’re putting in a newspaper ad and you’re trying to get people to come to your clothing store. It’s assumed, hey, this audience already has clothes, they know how to shop for clothes, they know what they like, and so we’re going to help them fine tune the preferences that they already have. As opposed to manufacturing a preference from whole cloth.

Bradley Cooper: Right. And I think you see this as well with online advertisements. Like, for example, back in the day, I would have never, ever clicked on a Facebook ad. And I still barely do. But every once in a while, it will tailor an ad so closely to things I enjoy that I might even click on it. I’m like, huh, that sounds interesting, like, oh, that t-shirt looks interesting. And I think it’s the same principle with dynamic digital signage, because I mean, unlike in the previous days, we are now just bombarded with advertisements from every angle you can imagine. So, if one of them is going to get through, it has to be something that in some way is tailored to that individual’s experience.

Derek DeWitt: Without getting too invasive.

Bradley Cooper: Yes, exactly.

Derek DeWitt: That’s your balancing act. So companies are starting to find out ways to create more touchless interactive digital signage through gesture, through mobile apps, through voice, and also trying to make their content a bit more relevant to the individuals based on types (you know, you’re a man, you’re a woman, you’re this, you’re that.) What else are organizations doing to try and adapt to this new environment?

Because the thing is, even once, let’s assume everybody gets the vaccine and everything kind of reopens, it goes back to normal, I don’t think it’s going to be the same; I think it’s going to be altered and shifted. I think a lot of companies are going to start having a workforce that is at least part time, if not a lot of the time, working remotely, I think we’re going to see this with universities. We’re going to see a whole sort of sea change in the way that we deal with spaces and organizations made up of lots of people.

Bradley Cooper: Right. And I think one way the digital signage users specifically have tried to adjust is part of an older trend. And that’s the idea of the omnichannel communications model. And what that is, is okay, let’s take all of our marketing and communication tools. Let’s take our digital signage, our website, our app, and let’s make the experience seamless so that it seamlessly delivers the same message across all platforms.

And that’s been something that’s been a big learning curve for organizations. I mean, just look, for example, how many organizations have struggled to communicate effectively when they move to a model where a lot or everyone is working from home. So that’s been a huge learning curve. And so, I think for digital signage, it’s about how can digital signage interact with, and sort of be a part of, that whole pastiche, if you will, of the omnichannel experience.

Derek DeWitt: Well, you know Sean Matthews, the president and CEO of Visix, is very fond of saying that digital signage is, it’s purpose is to influence human behavior. That’s what it’s trying to do. It’s trying to get people to wear a mask or sign up for the 401(k) program or attend the meeting, or use some of the onsite facilities like the cafe or the spa, or what have you. Obviously it depends on the type of facility we’re talking about. But it’s all about influencing people’s behavior in some way.

Bradley Cooper: Right, definitely. And that’s, that’s an important component to keep in mind. Because as a communications tool, it really needs to be speaking to customers’ needs where they are at. And the only way to really do that is to have a strategy that is updating your content on a very regular basis.

And I’ll give you actually a pre-COVID-19 example of a display that didn’t do that. I was at this retail gas station once and they had one of those displays within the POS little display kit. So as I was looking at that, it was giving me content for food from July. And it was the middle of winter. And I’m like, why are you giving me the summer content? And that’s sort of a more severe example of the idea that the content really needs to be tailored, not just to the individual, but to the situation.

Derek DeWitt: Right. The place, the time.

Bradley Cooper: Right. And I saw, for example, a few digital billboards really do this right. For example, when COVID-19 was just coming into being, and a lot of places were shut down. A lot of digital billboards would donate their space to say, hey, thank an essential worker or thank healthcare people. Or for example, I saw this a lot, the students who weren’t able to have a graduation, they’d put up their picture on there and said, congratulations to this graduate and it would have their name beneath their picture.

Derek DeWitt: Huh. That’s very nice. Because again, what you’re doing is you’re still training your audience to, when they are physically in the space or near your digital signs (whether they’re billboards or whatever) that they get in the habit of looking at it regularly, because there’s something up there that’s worthwhile or might be worthwhile.

Bradley Cooper: Right. Exactly. And that’s been what digital signage vendors, I think, they’ve done a pretty good job at COVID-19, is just how can we help this business survive through all of this? And I remember there was one campaign, I can’t remember the name of it right now, it was very early on in 2020, that essentially donated digital out-of-home advertising space to small businesses who would obviously be suffering the most under all these COVID-19 restrictions and the illness itself. So they’ve really stepped up to sort of help businesses not just survive and to thrive through it.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Just because things got difficult or got weird for a while, doesn’t mean that it’s all over. It just means, I think agility is very important for modern companies, even before COVID.

Bradley Cooper: Right. Agility is definitely important. And also communication is just more important than ever as you touched upon. And especially during, you know, COVID-19, it became very important to communicate with your audience and your customers. Like, for example, here’s our new hours or here’s our new expectations for you, or we’re only open for pickup and things like that. And I’ve noticed that some companies could have really benefited from having a display.

For example, there’s been some times I’ve gone out to go to a business because their hours on their website say they’re open until seven. I arrive there and all the lights are off. And then I drive up, there’s like a little tiny paper sign that says, oh, we closed at five. Well, if you’d had a display there that might’ve been a little bit easier to see. And if you would integrate that more effectively with your website and your Google, then it’s really just important to stay up to date with your customers. Sometimes businesses really underestimate how much that will affect a customer’s perception of them. A lot of people might get a little wrong with digital signage because a lot of people look at it and will say, oh, that’s just a sales tool. So, I’m just going to throw my ad of the week.

And that’s fine for some occasions. That’s especially fine if, you know, it’s a digital billboard and you only have a few seconds. But it goes beyond that. It’s not just for advertising. It’s also for how we build a nice customer experience or, on the employee side, how do we train employees? And that’s been another thing where digital signage has been very effective during the pandemic. Because if you’re a retailer, how in the world are you going to train all your employees who are probably coming in and out because of, you know, sickness or just because they quit. How are you going to teach them, here are all the new procedures, here are all the new cleaning procedures?

Derek DeWitt: Yeah.

Bradley Cooper: Yeah. And that’s definitely one way digital signage can help by just reminders of do this in this order. Like first wipe down this area, then wipe down that area, yada, yada, yada, yada.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Until it becomes rote, until it becomes a habit. Yeah, because a lot of this stuff is new or maybe the procedures change. Maybe, hey, we found a new way to do things.

Bradley Cooper: That keyword there is change because there is, especially during COVID-19 but it continues, there is constant change in both, like, government requirements and just the overall state of virus and the state of what people are comfortable with. So having something that can communicate to people right away is incredibly important.

Derek DeWitt: If we can have that kind of Omnichannel presence from say our favorite restaurants or whatever, it helps us navigate the new landscape after it shifts.

Bradley Cooper: That’s been probably the biggest positive for digital signage throughout all of this is just the fact that, like you mentioned, the things can change at the drop of a hat. Regulations can at change the drop of a hat. So just having a screen that says, okay, something very simple like, a) wear your mask, b) keep socially distant, or even like, hey, here’s the new regulations on how many people can be inside the building at once. And it also saves companies money on having to keep employees out there to count the people coming in or prevent people coming in.

So, it would be much easier just to have a display that says, we’re at capacity. And it says to wait, essentially, until one person leaves the building, the sensor goes off that communicates to the display, hey, now we’re not at capacity.

Derek DeWitt: Do you think that we’re going to see more AI integration into sort of the backend side of digital signage? I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to create little AI tools that sort of help semi-automate, in an intelligent, adaptable fashion, the process of, not creating content, but at least scheduling it and figuring out how to daypart, how to do this, how to do that without a human having to do every little step and make every tiny decision.

Bradley Cooper: That is a very, very big trend that we’re seeing a lot more of. And I can give you an example. So, this one company did some work with McDonald’s in Sweden to help them add some AI to the digital menu boards in the background, so that the AI would automatically update content based on, you know, dayparting or, you know, the conditions outside.

So, having that artificial intelligence integration can really help, like with, you mentioned, just almost automating the digital signage. So, you don’t have to have someone necessarily extra on the backend going into the CMS and I’m trying to figure it out and try and approve all of it, and trying to figure out what’s the best for each time a day. Just having that AI tool to automate that makes it a) much more seamless, but b) far more dynamic.

Derek DeWitt: And even just the technology that even exists today, I think it can be leveraged into new uses. Like it occurs to me, facial recognition technology. Like, can’t it be used to tell if somebody is wearing a mask or not?

Bradley Cooper: Yes. And that’s definitely one tool that several vendors have utilized to just identify, and some of them can get very complex, like could identify what type of mask are they wearing. Are they wearing a cloth mask? Or I forget what it’s called, it’s like the C97 (I probably butchered that) but the ventilator.

Derek DeWitt: Right, right, right.

Bradley Cooper: Yeah. And it can tell, like, are they wearing it actually over their entire face or have they got their nose exposed or something like that. Now what the business does with that information is up to them. They could say the display would be like, Hey, put your mask on. Or if you want to get real fancy, you could just refuse people entry until they do it. And some places have actually integrated it, like with their door system, where the door will lock until the person like, you know, puts the mask all the way on.

Derek DeWitt: Really? That’s very sophisticated.

Bradley Cooper: It’s just kind of almost like a smart home type of application.

Derek DeWitt: Talk about the Internet of Things!

Bradley Cooper: IoT has always been on the horizon, but it’s got a little extra boost now that businesses realize they need to be smarter about the way they communicate. And also tracking customers, honestly, too. Because figuring out what the footfall pattern of a customer is like through the store is very important if you want to enforce social distancing.

There is going to be, I think, a lot of movement, like we mentioned the AI space. But I think the keyword that I would focus on is “integration”, because companies and vendors are finding all sorts of ways that integrate their solutions into sort of an all-in-one deal. One example I can think of is Coinstar, which those are those kiosks where you can drop off your extra coins.

Derek DeWitt: Oh, like at a supermarket. Like I’ve got, I don’t know, it $18 worth of pennies.

Bradley Cooper: Yeah. One thing they’ve done is they’ve now started integrating displays on top of the kiosk, so that businesses can advertise their product on that kiosk.

Derek DeWitt: Well, why not?

Bradley Cooper: Yeah, why not? It’s an extra tool for revenue, both for the kiosk itself and a way for companies to make a little extra money. And since if someone’s approaching the Coinstar kiosk, they’re already an active invested customer anyway, because they’re coming up to use it. So, I think integration and capturing and meeting audiences where they’re at, that’s a trend that’s just going to keep going.

Derek DeWitt: So, the year 2020 certainly presented a lot of challenges, but in kind of a weird way, it also presents some opportunities. And it has acted as an accelerant for trends that were already in the works. We’re going to see in the next few years, a lot of integration with the digital world. We’re going to see digital signage get smarter and more tailored towards our interests and who knows what else? But it’s been a super, super stimulating conversation.

I’d like to thank Bradley Cooper, editor for Digital Signage Today for talking to me today. Thank you, sir.

Bradley Cooper: Thank you so much.

Derek DeWitt: And of course, Digital Signage Today, you can check the episode notes for a link to that. They also have webinars, they have podcasts of their own, and it really is sort of a one-stop-shop for the digital signage realm.

What’s going to happen with Digital Signage Today this year? Anything interesting coming up?

Bradley Cooper: Well, we definitely have a few podcasts coming down the line; we’re definitely still working on pieces on trends, both for 2021 and for just how these companies are going to be using digital signage going forward. And we’re going to, especially with a focus on AI, we’re especially going to be looking at what is AI going to do with this year.

Derek DeWitt: So, to keep abreast of the situation as it unfolds, make sure to go to Digital Signage Today. Again, check the show notes for that.

Thank you, again. And thank you everybody for listening.