To adopt a Digital Signage solution primarily means to select the right technology for you. Even if you are sub-contracting your Digital Signage deployment to a service provider and you do not have a say in the technology they will use, it is important to understand the options out there and make sure you shake hands with a team equipped with proper technology.
In this section we go through the main components of a Digital Signage solution so that you can understand it as a whole and make sure you make the right choices.
Content Management Systems
The Content Management System is probably the core part of any solution. The main role of any CMS is to manage the content being sent to the Digital Signage screens. Managing content means content delivery, content adaptation (e.g. ensure proper encoding), setting up playlists, combining content into multi-zone layouts, and such.
Besides that, a Digital Signage CMS also allows you to do monitoring and reporting on the Digital Signage Players connected to it. Although this can be thought of as a completely separate function of “Device Management”, it is usually embedded within the CMS itself as a core feature.
The most important dilemma when it comes to the CMS is the “cloud vs on-premise” question. Most CMS are on the “cloud”, provided as a ready-to-use service directly from the vendor. Others are built as stand-alone software that need to be downloaded, installed on a server, and properly configured. This is a complex issue and that is why we discuss it in detail in the next section. One thing is for sure: for the vast majority of you reading this guide, the “cloud” is the way to go. Anything else is too complex and/or too pricey.
Digital Signage Players
To show anything on a screen, you need a Digital Signage Player. These are devices with software that communicates with the CMS, retrieve content, and play it back on the attached screen.
It might seem that these Players are not required nowadays, with all the multimedia capabilities that modern TVs have. Unfortunately, they are still needed. We will go into greater detail later on.
Finally, there are screens that have embedded Digital Signage Players inside their chassis. They are professional Digital Signage displays. Some are based on specific platforms, others are open with interchangeable hardware.
And, of course, the screens. It might seem straightforward, but it is not.
There are several types of screens, each with pros and cons. Simple PC monitors, consumer-grade TV screens, professional Digital Signage displays; all will work. But some have features that other lack. And, in the end, it all boils down to cost. We will discuss all the different types of screens later on.
Cloud vs On-Premise
What is the difference?
A Cloud Digital Signage solution uses scalable, cloud technologies to deliver the service. Internet access is the only non-negotiable with this solution, but of course we’re online, all the time, absolutely everywhere we go so this requirement is easily met.
On the other hand, on-premise solutions can be deployed on a server locally so that the devices do not need Internet access and can work solely through the local network.
Besides the different delivery model, these two different types of solutions are usually based on different licensing models. Cloud-based Digital Signage platforms are provided as a service, with a recurring monthly or annual service fee. On-premise solutions are usually licensed as traditional software, with a combination of upfront cost (a perpetual installation license) and an optional recurring cost (support, update & upgrade fees). This might look like a purely financial choice, but it is not just about the cost.
Below we present the benefits for each option. Remember that the benefit of one option is a drawback for the other, so make sure you read both sections to understand both pros and cons.
Benefits of Cloud Services
Here is a list of reasons to opt for a Cloud Service:
- Try before you buy. Cloud Signage platforms usually allow you to try out the platform instantly. With the low upfront cost, you can even setup a single Player and see it in action.
- Zero setup time. You can start almost immediately – without setting up servers or software and without any plan-ahead configuration.
- Accessible from anywhere. You can have your Players located anywhere using just a simple Internet connection and manage them from the comfort of your home, as well as when you’re on the go.
- Scalable. Forget about server sizing. Cloud technologies allow you to add as many devices as you need, without downtime and additional costs. And you can get unlimited storage and bandwidth to serve your needs.
- Affordable. If you have a handful of screens, you certainly cannot afford servers and costly licenses. And most cloud solutions can be deployed effortlessly, even by non-tech personnel, so there is no setup cost.
- Pay as you go. You do not have to commit to a large license. In fact, you don’t have to commit to anything. Most cloud platforms allow you to start small, make zero commitments and grow down the road. Some even prorate your usage and charge you only for what you need.
- Taxed as an expense. Using a service instead of purchasing a license can have an impact on your taxable income. With the software-as-a-service option, you book fees as expenses, so payments are deducted. No assets or depreciation here.
- It’s a complete service. No need for managing backups, monitoring servers, hardware redundancy, and so on. Everything is managed by the provider and as a part of their offering. Smaller IT departments prefer this option, since it reduces their effort or commitment, while it shifts technical ownership (and associated responsibilities) of the system away from them and towards the provider.
- Always up-to-date. Since you pay for a service and not a license, you always enjoy the latest version of the software, with all the latest bells and whistles. Usually, updates are released every few weeks, compared to most on-premise solutions that release new versions every 6-12 months.
- Support is (usually) included. Providers want you to stay on board, so they do their best to (remotely) support you. You can get demos and training in order to revisit features anytime.
Benefits of On-Premise Solutions
Although it is considered a more traditional way of using software, an on-premise solution can have significant benefits:
- License ownership. When you buy a license, it is yours to keep. The vendor might disappear and you might not get updates (usually optional at a price), but you still have your licensed software.
- Security. With an on-premise solution, you do not have to worry about security measures that others are taking to protect your data and installation. It is your responsibility to make your installation secure.
- More room for customization. Since you have a separate installation, you can also get more specialized customizations that are not possible with a cloud service.
- Sense of control. You can get your IT department to buy in more easily, if they feel uncomfortable with deploying a cloud service.
- (Potentially) Lower total cost. Buying the license and dropping the ongoing updates/upgrades cost might keep the total cost fixed, keeping it lower than Cloud Digital Signage services after 6-8 years. Keep in mind that this might be the case for larger installations only; if you need 10-20 screens, it will probably be way more expensive than a Cloud platform.
What should I choose?
It depends on what your needs are. Generally, more companies tend to move to Cloud-based software, so overall the cloud is the trend. But this should be a “mantra” for all cases.
If any of the following statements are true, you should definitely go for a Cloud Digital Signage service.
- You need to manage up to 20-50 screens.
- You are not an IT professional skilled with setting up enterprise software and want to set this up yourself.
- You want the minimum upfront cost or the highest impact on your taxable income.
- You do not have an IT department, or they prefer not to undertake the task of setting up new software.
- You want to minimize upfront cost and prefer a “pay-as-you-go” model.
On the other hand, if anything below holds true, you should consider an on-premise solution, but it might turn out that the cloud option can work out just as well.
- There is a strict corporate or government policy for using cloud software or for allowing new Internet-connected devices (Digital Signage Players) to your network.
- You have (or are part of) a skilled IT department and they prefer to setup and manage a new software system on a local server, than using a cloud solution.
- You need some serious in-depth customization that cloud providers can’t provide. (Important: Make sure that what you need cannot be delivered by a cloud platform. A lot of cloud-based digital signage software allow for large customization, with customized apps. Make sure you reach out first with your requirements to see if a cloud provider can serve you.)
Without being biased, a cloud digital signage system is the best choice for the vast majority of deployments, so chances are that you too should go in that direction. But it is good to know that there is an alternative path, if cloud is not good for your case.
Content Management Systems
Deployment & Cost
Deploying a Digital Signage CMS may be as simple as signing up on a cloud provider through an online form, or it can be as tedious as buying licenses, setting up servers, installing software, configuring it, and more. It depends on the dilemma we saw in the previous section “Cloud vs On-Premise”.
For a Cloud Digital Signage platform, costs range between $5-$50 per month per screen. As you can see, this is a huge variation. In the lower part of this range, you want solutions that provide a horizontal solution, targeting any kind of business, and are usually deployed in any number of screens, either 1 or 1000. The upper part is usually dominated by more vertical solutions targeting specific industries or niche markets, and are usually deployed in lower numbers, between 1-100.
Here are some facts to give you a feeling of what is out there.
- There are cloud services that allow you to manage content for 1 screen at no cost. This way you can easily evaluate (or just keep using it, if you have just one screen). You can even ask for an online demo by a sales rep before you buy.
- There are a handful of solutions that provide discounts for their own Players (or even provide them for free) if you get an Annual or a multi-year contract. This can be a huge savings.
- All providers will provide you with a discount for higher volumes than what’s covered on their pricelist. Reach out and you might save.
- For typical usage, i.e. roughly 95% of the usage scenarios, paying more than $15/month per screen is probably too much. Unless there is a very specific and important feature worth paying for.
We will not get into much detail concerning pricing of on-premise solutions. The cost varies immensely, from opensource software that is available for free but might not work, to license costs in the order of tens of thousands. You can get quotes from vendors and see if it works out for you.
Typical features for a Digital Signage CMS include:
- Uploading and delivery of multimedia assets, like video, image and sound files.
- Managing web content (online or offline) to be shown on the screen.
- Compiling these assets into Playlists.
- Using/Creating layouts with zones, and splitting the screen to multiple areas, with different content on different parts of the screen.
- Scheduling content to be displayed during specific blocks of time.
- Monitoring players, including screenshots and online/offline reporting and notifications.
- Showing tickers (scrolling text), with support for an RSS feed as a source of data.
- Supporting screens both in landscape and portrait orientation.
- Mass player management, through player groups or tags.
Indicative Advanced Features
There are advanced features that not all platforms support. Most of these have to do with content management and interaction, and we will just scratch the surface of what is out there.
- Sub-playlists, with complex inclusion/exclusion and sorting rules.
- Campaigns, for setting media activation timeframes, aggregate playback reporting (how many times or for how long(seconds) a Media has been shown on screen) and producing automated reports.
- Conditional content, to show up on specific events or triggers from user interaction or external triggers (cameras, sensors, etc).
- API for the CMS, to automate content management and integrate with other systems.
- Multiple CMS users, with granular access control for specific items by specific users or user groups.
- Enhanced security features, like Single Sign-On, Two-Factor Authentication, IP address ACLs, and such.
- Centralized content assignment, based on Groups or Tags such as state, store or section for a network of screens where each is located in different places.
What Should I Look For?
As always, your requirements are your best criteria. But everything has a price. Balancing your needs with your budget is pretty important.
Also, keep in mind that the CMS selection is not irrelevant to the media players or the screens you will use. There are CMS solutions that support only a specific type of media player (PC, Android, Raspberry Pi, etc), while others work without a player but with specific types of digital signage screens (WebOS by LG, SSSP by Samsung, Raspberry Pi embedded in NEC, etc).
How should you move forward then?
First, make sure that the CMS solution you choose has all the basic features we mentioned above. These are the absolute minimum for any type of project and it covers the vast majority of use cases, so it is very likely to cover yours as well. Then, from the advanced features section above or from your own desired features list, write down those that are crucial to your case. Make sure you only include the ones that you really need and cannot do without. This is your “must-have” list. From that point, there a lot of “nice-to-have” features you can note down, which might make a difference in your final decision.
In addition to features and pricing, you should definitely consider how easy to use the CMS is. If you are non-IT or you are setting up a solution to be used by non-IT people, then it is important that the CMS is user-friendly. It should allow people to effectively manage content without special training or needing to jot down step-by-step notes with steps and so on. The basic CMS functions should be self-explanatory, in order to make it easier for any type of user (HR, Marketing, Management, etc) to use it without any assistance going forward.
Finally, most commercial solutions provide a free or trial account that you can use to evaluate their services. Get your hands dirty, it will pay off.
What Should I Watch Out For?
Here is a list of pitfalls you should really watch out for.
- Make sure that the CMS is constantly under development. This will ensure that you will get more value down the road as the market and technology progress.
- Ensure that your investment (both in time and money) will last at least 5 years.
Digital Signage Players
Players come in many different flavors. You will see providers making heavy statements, promoting their hardware solution as the best-in-breed and the way of the future. Well, things are simpler than that.
Digital Signage Players are separated manly based on the computing architecture they work on. And so, they fall under the following categories:
Intel / x86: By far, the oldest and most expensive solution, regular computers can be used for running digital signage player software. These include standalone players as well as specialized players that are embedded in the screen itself, or are slotted in the screen.
Android: Android players dominate the mid- and low-end of the market. Vendors provide an Android app that you can (likely) deploy to any Android-powered device and use it as a digital signage player. On top of that, using the app with some specific Android players recommended by the vendor, allows you to do more advanced things remotely (like configuring system settings, wifi, reboot, etc). On the plus side, you can also use Android tablets with a built-in touchscreen for touch-interactive applications.
Pure HTML5: Some providers choose not to bind to any specific hardware platform and use an HTML5 playback webpage that you can use with any browser on any type of Internet-enabled device.
Embedded Players: Most vendors provide a CMS along with Players. But there are hardware manufacturers that build digital signage players alone, to be used by the CMS provider as their platform. These are specialized pieces of hardware, designed specifically with digital signage deployment in mind. Some of them use HTML5 as their core technology, while other use specific open or proprietary protocols for integration with the CMS platform.
Single Board Computers (SBC): Single Board Computers, like the Raspberry Pi, are new to the game. These are essentially embedded devices for general use, but work as digital signage players with the right software.
Deployment & Cost
Deployment is usually easy. Plugging the Player into a typical network without any Internet restrictions, and it should work immediately. But there are cases where the network is not typical. And it is the network that can make deployment a nightmare.
For example, configuring the WiFi to the Players can be a challenge. Or bypassing network filtering to get the Player to connect to the cloud platform can also be painful. It is a plus if you can get Players preconfigured before you ship out to the different locations, or even before the supplier ships the Players to you.
Concerning cost, this varies enormously.
- High-end PCs go over $1000 per unit, or even more.
- There are standalone digital signage Players that are priced between $200 and $1000, which will work with many different digital signage software.
- Most low-cost Players are based on Android, and are priced between $100 and $300.
- A complete Raspberry Pi unit costs around $70-$90.
It is important to understand that hardware cost is not always related to features or capabilities. It has more to do with software requirements and how vendors built their solutions. For the vast majority of projects, all options above will do just fine.
Finally, with a few vendors (including Yodeck), you can get the Players 100% for free. It is included in the subscription fee. You might need to pay annually, or you might need to commit to a 2-3 year contract. But you pay only your subscription fee and nothing more. Cool huh?
Your Top Requirement: Reliability
When looking for a Digital Signage solution, some focus only on the features list. Others try to find the cheapest option. But the truth is that the single most important thing you should ensure is reliability.
If you are planning for 3-4 screens around the office, that you do not mind having problems with, that’s fine. Go ahead and pick anything. It won’t make much of a difference if screens go down 5 or 10 times per year, you can handle it. But what if you are planning for 50 screens? And what if they are dispersed at different locations?
Using a reliable solution is crucial for everyone. Nobody wants to have screen downtime. Make sure that the solution you select has a reliability track record. Here are some factors to consider:
- Less moving parts, means less failures. Do not use solutions with cooling fans and hard drives, like PCs. Mechanical moving parts are the prime source of failures in modern computers. Having an external power supply is also a plus.
- Power failures should not be an issue. Even if electricity is fairly stable in your area, outages do happen everywhere. (Trivia: at Yodeck we once had a partner automatically switching the power on and off every few minutes for a week, to test the stamina of the Player).
- Players should deal with high temperatures. Digital Signage Players are usually tucked away in confined spaces, so you need to make sure that they can take the heat building up. Keep in mind that content used can greatly vary the amount of heat produced by the device.
- If possible, always use Players with an Ethernet port. WiFi is convenient, but down the road it will make things more complex than good old wire.
- Avoid using low-quality OEM hardware. Cheap Intel PCs or low-end Android set-top boxes have low reliability and will have you running around repairing or replacing hardware.
Coupled with CMS features, Digital Signage Players are mostly multimedia devices. So the basic features focus mostly on their multimedia capabilities, along with basic playlist playback and scheduling. Here is a short list with the most basic of features.
- Video Playback — this is really important though. Smooth video playback, without any kind of glitches or hiccups, is essential.
- Full-HD (1080p) video support. You want excellent image quality that supports all the latest broadcasting protocols/standards.
Screens Types & Cost
Screens are separated into two big categories: consumer screens and professional displays. Depending on your deployment size, usage scenario and budget, you can go with either. But make sure you know what you are doing.
As a consumer yourself, you are likely familiar with consumer TVs and computer screens. These can be used for digital signage, but there are drawbacks. Consumer products are designed to run a few hours a day, perhaps up to 8-10, so they might fail quickly. Also, all of these products are designed for landscape usage. And their warranty will not cover inappropriate usage or using them in commercial environments. Finally, TVs always come with a tuner, which might raise regulatory issue in some countries when installed in public places.
On the other hand, most professional displays do not carry tuners. They are designed to work mounted in any orientation, for 24/7 operation, and their (usually longer) warranty covers all that. They also have other features that come in handy, like smaller bezels (the visible frame around the screen area), lock-down options, sturdier metal frames, and more. They are much more reliable and do last longer than consumer TVs.
Professional screens cost something like three times the cost of the equivalent consumer TVs. That sounds like too much. But if you have more than 4-5 screens, the cost might be worth it. As we explained earlier, reliability is your top concern, especially when you have screens in more than one site.
Screens can be challenge to deploy. First, you need to plan for the location and size of the screens. And that’s no easy task. There is a lot of science behind grabbing viewers’ attention. In any case, you should always make sure:
- Viewers are able to actually see the screen within their natural line of sight, if they are looking for info — this sounds weird, but we have seen cases where the screen was placed so high that nobody noticed it.
- In many cases, you should place a screen in such a way that the target viewer comes across it at the right time: Advertising your breakfast? Put it right next your diner entrance. Promoting sales in the men’s section? Make sure shoppers see it as soon as they walk into the men’s department.
- You should always make sure the screen size is the right one for the viewing distance you want and your content — for video/image content without a lot of text, screen size should be 1/3 of the viewing distance (60” screen for 12 feet viewing distance), while for text-heavy content your screens should usually be larger, just about right to read text without difficulty
- Mounting height should almost always be at eye-level or slightly higher — never lower and never too high, forcing the viewer to crane his or her neck to see it.
After you figure out the size and optimal spot to deploy your screens, you need to figure out how you will put them there. For most cases, you will be looking at mounting screens on walls. Standard wall mounts are a good option and usually work fine. You can get mounts for any screen size, just make sure that the mounts can support the screen weight; professional signage displays are heavier than consumer displays and TVs, so make sure the mount can support the screens you use.
Besides wall mounts, there are also other options than can be useful in different environments. Stands are one of them. You can find simple stands with wheels suitable for indoor use, while you can also go for outdoor enclosures than can sustain abuse and adverse weather conditions. So, if standard off-the-self mounts are not suited for your case, search online for other options.
Deployment of screens usually also includes the cabling. You will be needing at least 1 power outlet behind each screen. If you are using an external player and you will be mounting it behind the screen (which is the usual case), you will need either 2 plugs or just a power strip or power plug splitter, so that you can power both the display and the player. Finally, you also need to consider network cabling. Most digital signage hardware supports wifi, but if there is any way you can get an ethernet cable behind each display, do it. WiFi is much less reliable than wired Internet access, you will save time down the road.
Of course, the whole process of mounting screens and setting up cables can be tedious. For small size deployments, you could get a professional A/V technician to do it for you. It might cost more, but it will be worry-free.For larger installations, you should get a digital signage integrator to do everything, including installation, on-site support, the whole works. We’ll go into detail later on, when we go through the services you can get from third parties. Just reach out to your vendor of choice and ask for a qualified partner.
Screens can have many different technical specifications depending on the target market or usage. With most screens, you should focus on the following basic checklist:
- Make sure the native resolution of the screen is 1920×1080, also called Full-HD or 1080p. Screens that advertise HD resolution or 1080i (and not 1080p) usually have a native resolution of 1280×720.
- Go for LED backlit screens. These dominate the market now, just making sure.
- Depending on your usage, you might need to check for an adequate viewing angle. IPS-technology panels are state of the art for this, with wider viewing angles available (OLED too, but they are extremely expensive). Just check how the screen looks when you are not exactly in front of it and try to simulate the viewing angle in your actual setting and usage.
Indicative Advanced Features
- 4K resolution, that is a resolution of 3840×2160 (also known as 2160p or Ultra-HD/UHD), is currently still considered an advanced feature. Most professional display vendors are slowly transitioning to 4K. You should be looking into 4K if the viewing distance is small and if you are planning to show textual content.