Insight and Wisdom for the Digital Signage Industry

Dave Haynes

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Making the Right Digital Signage Software Decisions

Twenty things to think about

There are some 300 companies out there selling digital signage software, and Lord knows how many more home-grown, in-house solutions. So ... how do you make sense of it and make the right decision for your company?

I sell the pots and pans for one of those software firms. That means I have a vested interest not only in winning business but also steering people to other solutions when it's clear my pots and pans aren't the ones to use. I can't afford to chase no-hopers. And I have also spent way more time in the industry being on the other side of this – launching and running networks, and sorting out what way to go with my own company’s technology choices. I am by no means THE expert on this stuff, but with a new year approaching, tightened budgets and tough, tough investors, this is as good a time as any to provide some guidance.

For the purpose of this exercise, let's talk in terms of real networks with real rollouts, with some complexity in how things need to be done across the estate. If you're going to be putting up three screens in your school or office campus, just get whatever winds your watch.

And let's assume all the platforms do the basics of distributing media content over a network, and playing it back in some sort of order.

1 - Avoid relying on reports, ratings and rankings lists

Such reports and lists do not and probably cannot represent objective opinion or thorough research and testing.

They are mightily shaded by sponsors and business partners or by a personal bias or agenda. Thinking logically, how would any company faced with such a wide spectrum of products be able to make a fair, reasoned and thorough assessment?

Trade publishers are not going to bite the hands that feed them. You will see head-scratching news items and opinion pieces posted, at times, for no other reason than the sponsor/advertiser insisted, so any review of “top” or “best” companies or platforms needs to be greeted with suspicion. They may well be the best, but they may also represent business relationships and “understandings”.

Consulting and research firms don't do things for giggles, and you will see industry reports and forecasts from them that include references and quotes from companies that, usually, paid to be there. That's why much of their work is sponsored.

And bloggers don't have the time to truly be the last word. It would take a dedicated lab, seasoned, objective technical people, and much, much time for a proper look. I obviously write a blog, and I sell software. As hard as I try here, it’s likely my point of view is skewed on this advice … without even trying.

2 - Look at the track record

What's the company's history? What's the installed base? How many clients does that represent? This is a growth industry, even in this economy, but a LOT of the companies now in this space will either be out of business, hanging on by threads, or in acquisition talks over the next year. This is probably not the time to roll your company dice on a little-known company with no real track record. Their financial problems rapidly become your problems.

Everyone, even companies that just completed fundraising rounds and would seem to have walking around money, is being careful with spending right now. Even a year ago, there were some pretty well-known companies looking to get bought. There are more of them now.

Don’t base your research on the rumor mill – which is at best unreliable and lately, a little ridiculous. Ask the vendor directly.

3 - Insist on references

Good companies with happy clients will pony them up. And don't be satisfied that the company was comfy enough to pass on names and contacts. Make the calls, and ask real questions. You need to hear much more than how Brand X "has some great guys."

4 - Test drive

Get a production account on a managed platform, or an eval license on shrink-wrapped software. Use it, learn it. Think about the resource implications that come with it. Pay attention to the level of support and customer service you get, or don't get. You shouldn't have to pay for that eval if you can provide comfort you are a real company with real prospects. Some companies may try to charge you to keep away the no-hoper nuisance accounts, so you may need to be insistent. If they insist on a fee, there’s a red flag for you.

5 - Create a minor calamity

Screw something up in your testing and then ask for help and support. Nothing catastrophic, just a problem needing help. Analyze the process involved. Watch who gets involved. Track response times. Consider the quality of care. Keep in mind this is what life will be like post-contract, and if it was frustrating or chaotic, there's a big screaming clue for you. If it was orderly and smooth, there's a better clue.

6 - What do they really do

The big thing I hear over and over again is turnkey solution. Find out what that means, and how much is REALLY done in-house and how much turnkey is really just outsourced, with 15% added on. Some companies base a lot of their revenue on margin from hardware and service fees.

7 - Is there a development roadmap?

Is there a careful plan that looks ahead and considers the marketplace? You will find a lot of companies, particularly in a tough economy, where the sales tail wags the company dog. In other words, roadmap equates mostly to whatever customers want ... NOW!

That sort of thing may give the customer short-term goodness, but it's not good for the overall company and customer base.

8 - Ask for a current staff list

Seriously. It's a great way to assess how many people really work for the company and what they do. You may find the five-person support team is the same set of people as the five-person software development team, and the same as the five-person IT team.

9 - What's the process?

How is the product developed, tested and released. Are there formalized release processes? What's the timing?

10 - Forget the shiny buttons and dancing bears

There's usually a reason something is graphically pretty and dead easy to use. It doesn't actually do much. While the user experience is important, and I think sometimes given short-shrift by developers, the real keys to software in this space are:

- stability of the platform and particularly the playback engine
- efficiency for industrial use: as the network gets bigger, does the workload also grow at that rate? If so, move on
- accountability: what reporting can be extracted from the system, and at what level of granularity? Doers that reporting match up with your needs. Your target industry’s needs?

11 - Don't get hung up on the gadgets

I remember a Dali-esque episode about five years ago when my fledgling company almost lost a contract because a new competitor came in and said it could do its network delivery using Wi-Fi. I said, "Yeah, so?"

For me it was just one way of doing the network, and definitely not the best. For the other guys, it was their whole pitch, and five years ago, it sounded REALLY cool to my client. Eventually, I talked the client off that particular ledge.

The point is that debates over things like cellular delivery, wireless video, all-in-one panel PCs, interactive screens, Bluetooth and so on are all interesting. But the bigger question needs to be what works for your needs and your budget.

There is a constituency out there, for example, that believes PC-based platforms are old school and prone to failure, and that solid state appliances are the present and future. Trouble is, they are not all that cheap (some are crazy expensive, actually) and most don’t do much. Forget Flash (except transcoded to video). Forget running more than MPEG2 video. Forget flexibility. Forget much in the way of device controls or open architecture.

What fails in the field are hard drives and fans. Solid state drives keep dropping in cost and power consumption on CPUs makes fanless much more affordable. And then you have a platform that is not so limited. And frankly, there are a few guys out there with things that are being passed off as appliances or “digital engines,” when they are really just PCs in small, industrial packages or set-top box looks.

OK, that was a little more hardware-centric, but important.

12 - What's your vertical?

As a sales slob, my job is to get people to buy my stuff. But I emphatically believe the best sales people are those who don't mercilessly try to pound their square peg into the round hole of an opportunity.

If your network is all about mapping to an airport departures and arrivals database, look for companies like Omnivex with direct experience in that. Guys like Capital Networks, Chyron and Harris (Infocaster) do great broadcast graphics. A lot of people like Scala because they can do content creation within the application. WireSpring and EnQii are among a short list of companies that are Linux-centric. And so on.

While it's likely any software could pull off the basics, somehow or other of what is needed, there will be quirks and you are far better off with a vendor who's been there and done that, and has a development roadmap focused on that.

13 - Does it suit YOUR customers' needs?

The biggest networks out there are supported by advertisers or brands, and prosper or perish at the whim of the media planning and brand communities. They have their own language, and expectations around things like audience measurement. Hospitals and health care facilities have different dynamics and language. So do retailers. We’re starting to see companies get more specialized, largely out of necessity. They can get good at certain things, rather than trying to be all things to all prospects.

14 - Open sesame

Is the architecture open, so that if you need functionality that the software vendor is not going to get to anytime soon, the tools and hooks are in place to allow you or a third-party to get that bit done? Ask if they have an API, and what it is for.

15 - Is it safe?

If your network is compromised, you are either dead or breathing badly. Look for a solution that encrypts all the control data and protects against tampering. And also ask how the playback software handles security. This is the sort of thing best handled by a propeller-head. If you have no idea what you're asking about, find someone who does.

16 - What model works for your business?

There are two core approaches to software these days - shrink-wrapped or managed. With shrink-wrapped, you buy it once and pay an annual license/support fee. You almost always run the platform on your own servers, and have IT people making things tick. With managed, also known as Software as a Service, you effectively rent the software and the platform, and all the services are covered. Your in-house IT needs are minimal.

There are arguments for both models, but the industry is trending towards SaaS because upfront costs are reduced and a lot of the headaches for small media companies are outsourced.

There is also an emerging free or stinkin’ cheap model out there, largely coming from emerging markets. From what I have heard the applications aren’t too bad at all, but like any free model the idea is to get you to upgrade from limited to full functionality. Suddenly, the free model looks very much like paid subscription models out there. Guys who do the free model need to build market share REALLY fast if they are to hang on and eventually prosper.

17 - Player, heal thyself

The big, largely hidden cost with these networks is with field maintenance. Sending a tech on-site to fix a media player is costly and time-consuming, and just a bad thing. Look for software that is largely self-healing, meaning it deals with lock-ups and crashes and codec errors and so on, ideally before they happen and almost always remotely.

18 - Future-friendly

This is a very fast-moving industry and the lines with other media are blurring, as well as with other technology. It's very likely you will find requirements come up to enable interactivity and to talk to complementary technologies, like wireless handheld devices and POS systems. And it's very likely there is stuff coming along that hasn't yet been contemplated as part of what's now called digital signage.

19 - Consider the circumstances

Are you going to be using cellular for broadband? If so, are the best compression codecs supported by the software? If not, think about what that means for your per site broadband bill (which will be ugly). Do you want to work with GPS? Do you need triggering of content? And on and on. There's often MUCH more involved than getting something to play ads over and over.

20 - What does your exit strategy look like?

If your plan involves running out a network and then selling it off to a much bigger media company, so you can spend your days on a beach waving at Paco to bring you two more frosties, your chances are much better if you are running on something the big boys know and like. If you have 1,500 sites running on something they've never heard of, they may walk … or at best they will reduce your valuation because they know they are going to have to replace it all with stuff they like or trust. If you are on something they're comfy with, and like what you're doing, the beach beckons.

I could probably add another 20, but this should be some solid grounding for anyone just now wading into this space. The biggest advice I always give people is to put their Bullshit Filters on and set them to High. The competition is very aggressive and the pressure very high on sales people to deliver contracts. The net result is a lot of people saying "Yes" to whatever prospects ask, and then dumping those promises on the poor developers.

This is an industry in which every company seems to somehow or other call itself the global leader. The reality is there are maybe a dozen or so companies who have the great majority of the market share, and maybe, maybe they could be dubbed global leaders. A second tier is carving out a niche (with other services) in things like fast food and wayfinding, and that's a really smart way to go. I have seen some stuff put out by smaller companies that is phenomenal and perfect for the market they are after. And then there's a big wash of smaller guys, or large companies with side projects, scrapping away on a shoestring or with limited corporate buy-in. They either need to get very focused, or figure out that niche.

You can get free networked screensaver software for Windows that will do the very, very basics of digital signage. Some people even use PowerPoint! But if this is your core business, and you are going to place a big money bet on starting a network, don't cheap out on the glue that holds it all together.

These are challenging times, but still full of opportunity when projects are thoroughly planned out and the people behind them take the time to seek advice. Hopefully, I've provided at least a little.

More Stories By Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes is one of the most seasoned professionals in the still young digital signage industry, with deep experience in everything from business development and sales to technical operations, product development and start-up strategy and fundraising. These days he is extensively working on business development and consulting for an industry big on enthusiasm but still a lot short of experience and know-how.