If you are just looking for a way to show content on one or more screens in an efficient and reliable way, then this guide is for you.
We wrote this guide to address the most basic of questions we have been answering since 2016, when we launched Yodeck, our cloud-based Digital Signage platform. Questions that do not just have to do with our service, but with Digital Signage in general.
Either for one screen or a thousand, this guide contains useful insight for newcomers that could prove indispensable going forward. We made an effort to keep this guide vendor-agnostic, but a few brands are mentioned as examples. We are not affiliated with any of them, besides our very own Yodeck.
What is Digital Signage?
Digital Signage is a combination of technology that allows you to reliably show diverse content on one or thousands of screens, and centrally manage everything.
Let’s analyze this definition.
Nowadays, displaying content on a screen is pretty straightforward. You can use a PC or laptop connected to a screen. Or you can use the Media Player feature that almost all TVs have, along with a USB flash drive.
But what about hardware reliability? Playback should always restart automatically after a power outage. The media playback hardware should be reliable and not break down as often as a PC or a laptop. All Do-it-Yourself solutions have these kinds of issues. And almost all can handle only full-screen videos and images; no other file types or combined content are supported.
Then there is the question of digital signage content management. With a single screen, a DIY solution might seem fine. But when more than one screen comes into play, keeping everything up to date starts getting tricky. And if we are talking about different locations, DIY solutions just don’t cut it.
A Digital Signage platform has been designed to address all of the above. It allows you to show a large variety of signage content, consistently and with minimal playback interruption. It allows you to manage everything centrally (usually through the Internet), no matter where your screens are located, using content that goes beyond just videos or images.
And if you think Digital Signage is not for your small business that just needs a couple of screens, you are wrong. Costs have dropped significantly and you can now find professional display solutions that you most certainly can afford. At Yodeck, our direct customers have an average of 10 screens for signage each (used to be 6). Eighty percent of them have less than 4 screens.
Digital Signage is not just for the big boys with thousands of displays. Even one signage screen will do just fine and small businesses will greatly benefit from digital signage.
Some people opt for a Do-It-Yourself option. You can’t go wrong with a free solution, right?
First, let’s make a distinction. There is the DIY Digital Signage internal project for up to 5-10 screens within a business. And then there are the DIY Digital Signage integrators that want to save money for projects in the scale of hundreds of displays. These are two completely different cases. But both are miscalculated.
DIY Digital Signage has only one advantage; zero software cost. That is true. But are there any hidden costs or drawbacks?
Let’s see what the most common DIY options are.
USB Flash Drives
The poor-man’s signage hack. All modern consumer TVs have embedded Media Players for home entertainment. The easiest way to display content is to prepare a USB flash drive with the video and images needed, plug it in the TV, and use the remote to start playing back your files. Easy and cheap, but with a few caveats.
- If the TV is powered off (e.g. due to a short power failure, powering off at night or because of an energy-savings timer), it does not come back on automatically and playback does not resume by itself. Someone needs to turn on the TV, navigate the menus and start playback.
- Updating content means that a) you need to stop playback, b) remove the flash drive, c) update the files on it, d) plug it back in, and e) restart playing back your files. Having to do that for more than one screen can be a real chore. And think of the mess it will cause if you need people at remote locations doing that on your behalf. People just won’t do it.
- Transitions are far from nice. It might take 1-5 seconds to go from one video to the next. Professional Digital Signage players do almost instant transitions, without black intervals.
- (Ugly) informative messages are shown on screen when proceeding from one file to the next. These include things like filenames, file duration and progress bars. Things that no one wants to see on a signage screen.
- You have zero feedback on playback status. You do not know if remote screens are working properly, nor do you have playback reporting.
- Media files (mostly video) need to be compatible with the Media Player on the TV. This is rarely an issue since most modern television sets support common formats. But still, it might happen that your files will need manual re-encoding to be compatible with each TV set.
PC/Laptop Without Digital Signage Software
What is more straightforward than connecting a PC or laptop to a screen and starting up a standard media player application? This DIY solution presents the same issues as the USB flash drive option. If you drill down to details, it might be a bit easier to update content, e.g. using TeamViewer to remotely access the computer and transfer files. But, still, most of the issues above remain.
The really bad thing with standard computers is that they tend to break frequently. Everyone has experience with their computer malfunctioning; imagine a computer working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Additionally, you waste much more electricity than using a specialized Media Player, either embedded in the TV or an external one.
Custom-made Digital Signage Software
Sometimes, we get users migrating from DIY setups that are a bit more elaborate than simple USB flash drives or standalone computers. They go to the effort of setting up a server and writing code to do the content delivery and some basic scheduling. They use PCs or SBCs (Single Board Computers, like the Raspberry Pi) with some custom code, using a server to sync media files.
Of course, not everyone can do this. This is usually a route followed by integrators doing a single, one-off, signage project. It might work and save them money. Or not.
At Yodeck, one of our first Partners had previously developed their own software. It turned out that their custom solution was failing, costing them a huge amount in terms of on-site support and customer dissatisfaction. While their lack of additional features didn’t effect any drastic change on their sales. It was much more profitable for them to migrate all of their customers to Yodeck, a market-proven Digital Signage solution, rather than keep using their own custom software.