1. Before you start …
There are multiple uses for digital signage. Prices of screens and systems have tumbled over the past few years enabling any organisation to advertise and promote their products, share news, their successes or simply showcase products and services much more easily than ever before.
Your objectives will be driven by the type of organisation or business you carry out. A local authority will want to share public information and might plan its output on a departmental basis, whereas an engineering company is more likely to display details of its history, products and projects it has undertaken. Schools and colleges are great exponents of digital signage and employ multiple approaches to communicating information to a variety of audiences. They frequently need to remind students about future events and ‘the rules’. But they also want to share their sporting and scholarly achievements, year group project work, exchange or field trip details and other information designed for visiting parents and governors and yes, other staff members.
LiveSpace digital signage has an original and innovative feature which provides additional capability to local managers. Whilst the content displayed on the screens is managed centrally, local managers are given options to select from a list of promotions to display on designated screens. Which promotion(s) they choose and when they choose to display the offer is left to their judgement. A coffee shop manager might choose to promote croissants at a discounted price to minimise wastage. The promotion is replaced with an alternative when stock is sold or the company’s rules on wastage are met.
Do you anticipate showing the same information displayed on all screens? If not, and the content is different across the organisation, can it be grouped by department, premises, geographic location or other criteria? For example, a mix of factory floor staff and office staff using shared canteen facilities, each have different requirements. Alternatively you might display fixed menu prices on one set of screens but your promotions and special offers on another screen. Make sure you choose a system that makes these concepts available if you need them.
Can I automate the display of content on the screens? Carousels or Playlists are by far the simplest way of ensuring your system is dynamic and eye-catching. A good system relies on its scheduling function to automate the changes in content. If the scheduling function is easy to understand, simple to operate then that is a big tick in its favour. What’s required is a simple and effective way of queuing the system to play the chosen pages, carousels or playlists, scrolling messages and TV content at a future time and date of your choosing, without further intervention. Its purpose is to provide you with confidence that the screen assignments will run automatically.
Once a system has been implemented and has settled down there is a danger that those sponsoring its introduction withdraw and move onto new projects. We recommend the system remains under continual review to ensure content never becomes stale and always remains relevant, informative and fun for the audience.
2. Who takes on the responsibility of managing it?
Making a single individual responsible for overseeing the contributions of others is a good idea; it adds consistency, helping to ensure your own rules are followed. But large organisations may choose to purchase a managed solution, ceding responsibility to us here at MRG Systems or choose a third party to run it on their behalf.
Whichever sector you work in you know your audience and what they need to see (and hear!). If you manage your own system then the person you assign to the task was probably employed to undertake other tasks in their role with the company. The person chosen to run the system should be interested in what they do and understand the importance of managing it properly. Implementations fail when they are poorly managed and the person running the screens has little interest in the task assigned to them. It is important that the system you choose can be learned quickly and is not too complex to operate but is capable of producing eye-catching and dynamic displays.
Templates simplify the choice of content to be used leaving the operator to concentrate on the words, placing them and formatting them as required. Better still, if the whole thing is supplied as an image with all the design elements that a good graphics artist can provide, resulting in a polished advert, attractive to the target audience.
LiveSpace digital signage manages multiple data feeds from third party systems. For example, this might be prices from an EPOS system or meeting information data for a large organisation or property details for an estate agent. The system is configured to display the information pre-formed correctly without any intervention required. Your advertising becomes immensely powerful if your prices are displayed in your adverts but linked to your back-office systems. When a price or discount changes it is automatically displayed on your screens. Where operator input is required they should always ask themselves the following;
- Who is the target audience for this advert or series of adverts?
- How long do you have to capture interest? Is it at the tills whilst customers are queueing?
- Are they in a public, shared space with other distractions e.g. airport or is it private within the confines of your own premises, e.g. health spa? Consider the methods that work in these environments.
- What is the best call to action? Will you ask them to visit your website, go to the aisle where the product is stocked, scan a QR code, speak to a member of staff or pick up a leaflet?
Many solutions have their own content creation software and it is this area of the system that could determine which system you adopt. LiveSpace digital signage has customisable templates upon which text, images, slideshows, video, weather, social media feeds and TV, just about anything you want can be added. Updates are quick and simple, and once edited and saved the screens update themselves automatically.
3. Where does the content come from?
Where do those great images come from? These assets consist of templates, images, videos or data from third party back-office systems. Most digital signage systems like LiveSpace accept a variety of standard formats.
If, at some level, you are responsible for a digital signage system then you need to ensure the person managing it on a day-to-day basis has some creative juices flowing. With such an expressive, graphical medium it needs to be handled sensitively by someone who understands not only what your audience needs, but what works and what does not work. If you don’t have the in-house skills to create your own displays, then you should probably consider buying them in, a fact that is often overlooked when budgeting for a new system. Here at MRG Systems we work closely with a graphics company who will supply the content designed just for you.
If you do decide to create your own content there are many programs available for purchase that enables the creation of dynamic displays. But these represent an additional cost. Some systems offer a highly functional display editor that assists the user to design their own pages with appropriate content. The content may include slideshows of images, vertically scrolling text or live TV. In conjunction with a mixture of different transitions you can easily generate eye-catching displays that everyone can enjoy.
How often does the content need to change? If customers visit infrequently, say a bathroom showroom then the displays need not change very often. But a garage forecourt sees its customers regularly and the content needs to remain fresh to retain customer’s interests. If you have regular visitors but only change the content infrequently then an audience can lose interest in your message. Showing dynamic, automatically updating content, such as news and weather is a good idea. It may not sell anything but it enhances the perception that the content is current for that day. In return people will pay more attention to the screen and the other messages surrounding it.
A common mistake is to try to display too much by generating displays which are too busy. A short punchy message frequently conveys more to the audience than a long description because the brain has the capability to fill in the gaps. Don’t fall into the trap of adding everything you think needs to be shown on the same screen, it just doesn’t work. Try to break things down into bite size chunks. It is better to have a series of pages running in a carousel than doing it in one hit.
Consider the font type and size, contrasting colours and big images. Consider how much time your audience has to view the screen(s). A screen in a shop window only has seconds to attract a customer’s attention as they drift past your premises. But screens in a waiting area or an area where queues form has more time to address the audience. Calculate the average dwell-time and make the most of this for your audience to soak up your messages.
4. What are the network requirements?
The first option is to run the digital signage system over your organisation’s network. In most cases this is probably the best option as the infrastructure is already supported by your IT division. The server could be in the cloud or you might elect to host the system yourself. Another option is to have a completely independent network running on a 3G/4G connection.
In general, non-networked systems (e.g. USB dongle type devices with no intelligence) are suitable for those who do not need to update their displays regularly; say only once a month or less frequently. This may apply to brand promotions within the retail environment where the same message remains for long periods of time. These systems are also more suitable where full screen video or images are used routinely. But networked solutions like LiveSpace have more advantages, some of which include;
1. They can be updated from a centralised location.
2. Their performance can be monitored.
3. The reliance on local staff to update the content is removed so ensuring consistency across all screens within an estate.
4. These systems place multiple varieties of content onto the screens, some of which can be dynamic e.g. RSS feeds, including news, sports or weather reports.
5. Automated and complex scheduling can take place which maximises the display of content for your audience. Experienced users will ensure that the right messages are displayed during particularly busy times when there is a greater footfall and more potential to address a bigger audience e.g. At lunch time and the start and end of a day.
Bandwidth: A good system has the bandwidth to transmit large files or large numbers of files to the screens on the network. Sometimes it is necessary to schedule content overnight to minimise the impact on the network.
Costs: Don’t cut corners, buy the best you can afford not the cheapest you can obtain. If the infrastructure is in place use what you can rather than purchasing new. Some organisations feel they need to demonstrate they have the latest and best. If your organisation is less concerned about this aspect then re-using older TV screens will provide savings on the final cost of a new system.
Security: All organisations should have a security policy that third party systems are expected to conform to. Some organisations will not consider a digital signage system sharing their corporate network, for example banks. A separate, discreet network for non-critical business systems like digital signage might be made available.
Future proofing: Use a company that offers support and updates throughout the life of the product. This is cheaper than discovering your system has remained static in developmental terms and out of date within a few short years, needing an expensive upgrade or possibly requiring a replacement.
SaaS or Self Hosted? Software as a Service (SaaS) is cloud based whereas self-hosted is installed and managed within your organisation. These days the option to self-host might depend on the number of screens being addressed. There is a break-even point at which it becomes cheaper to self-host rather than pay for each connection to a cloud server.
The following will help you to choose the best solution for your organisation;
SAAS – Cloud based:
- Easy to set up; the hardware simply requires internet access.
- Low initial purchase cost.
- Upgrades are automatic. Whilst you continue to pay the subscription you have access to the latest version.
- Any computer with internet access on your network can access the software, subject to authentication.
- This is the most secure option and brings network management in-house.
- Uploading content to the system is marginally faster over a local network, but most users do not need their displays to be time-critical. Even those who do the difference can be measured in milliseconds.
- If a support package has been purchased the system will receive upgrades automatically.
- Any computer on the local network can access the system, subject to authentication.
Whichever route you choose make sure it is suitable for your purposes. We offer both options with LiveSpace digital signage and we will advise you on the solution best suited to your requirements.
5. Hardware Choices: What is the most suitable?
Choosing the correct hardware can make the difference between a reliable digital signage solution and losing revenues through lost opportunities. These systems can be a big investment, so you need to be confident that it is both reliable and effective.
Bear in mind that the maintenance of these units depends very much on where they are sited. Are they in a dusty atmosphere, what about heat and air flow. During maintenance will the unit be accessed easily or will part of the premises need to be cordoned off from the public for health and safety reasons or will access for maintenance only be allowed during out of hours?
There is a plethora of solutions available but if the one you adopt has not been designed specifically for the purpose of running a digital signage system you may be introducing unnecessary and avoidable problems. Solid state hard drives have no moving parts, run cool and use minimal power. In comparison to other solutions they will run efficiently and relatively trouble-free in most environments. But even a system designed with a mechanical hard drive is better than one using a PC designed for domestic use or worse, a home-grown solution, both of which should be avoided.
There are a variety of options and you may want to seek help making the best choice for your purposes.
- A USB device with little or no intelligence. These invariably provide a basic solution with few frills and need to be manually swapped for a new device when content changes. This is time consuming and not a perfect solution if you are a large organisation who requires certainty over a planned roll-out.
The following are all available with LiveSpace:
- A small form factor PC server which distributes content to clients PCs. Capable of high definition and 4K resolutions.
- A cloud solution whereby all the software sits on a server in a bunker somewhere, servicing hundreds of different clients with different audiences. At the client (screen) end sits a PC that is addressed by the server.
- A Plug-in PC is a small device which plugs into the HDMI input and introduces HD quality web browser to any TV. They are capable of running the LiveSpace digital signage system but they have limitations.
- A smart TV has an In-TV browser capable of connecting to the internet and displaying content distributed to it from another source. Cabling requirements are minimal. Currently there is a mismatch between the resolution of the screens and the browser which is a lower resolution. It is hoped TV manufacturers will resolve this soon.
In general, the software solution you prefer dictates which hardware solution is employed. They all have their plus and minus points but your software provider will either recommend the best solution or sell you a hardware solution which has been specifically designed to maximise its own capabilities.
6. Screen size and placement
Large flat panel screens are now ubiquitous, with many households owning TV screens many times larger than ten years ago. Choosing a screen of the correct size for its surroundings is important. A 40” screen in the grand foyer of a large organisation is unlikely to impress and therefore the intended impact it was meant to have is lost.
If your premises fronts onto a wide open aspect in a shopping mall or open pedestrianized shopping street for instance then choose one of the new ultra high brightness screens for your window display. These screens can easily be three times brighter or more than a domestic TV and will draw customer’s attention to your shop.
Consider the viewing angle of your customers and how far from the screens they are; will they be in a queue? Are they able to see prices and descriptions from a reasonable distance? This is especially important for digital menu boards, conference information, advertising and more. If you cannot read the message clearly, have the screens been mounted too high or do you need to reconsider the font type, font size or the screen size?
With today’s LED backlit screens there is no problem mounting the screen in portrait rather than landscape to make it look like a poster. This different aspect immediately attracts attention simply because of its different orientation. LED backlit screens run cooler and use less power than their predecessors with fluorescent tubes, so there are both savings and ecological advantages in choosing the latest technology.
The resolution of the screen will be determined by its function but most installations now use HD (1080p) or 4K. If your digital signage requires you to use lots of text rather than images then curly characters such as 6, 8, S and G, etc. will still look smooth and clean. On older, lower resolution screens these characters can look ragged and blocky and you should consider replacing them. Transport information screens and other areas where the content is mainly text information of one sort or another would benefit from the new 4K resolution.
Aside from the consumer units we use at home there are two other categories of screen manufacture. Commercial grade screens are designed to run 24/7 in environments where the screens are rarely turned off because of the nature of their function e.g. a hospital A&E department. A recent introduction has been the Hospitality grade screen. These are designed for use of up to 16 hours a day. Choosing the correct screen for your purpose is important and could ultimately save you money despite the apparent high, upfront cost.
Your new system has to look professionally installed. There is nothing more distracting than an installation that looks untidy and amateurish. It is no exaggeration to say that your message may be missed because some customers are distracted by trailing wires and wonky screens. A well-executed installation is often taken for granted and simply merges into its surroundings. So, no plaudits, but you quickly learn what people’s views are if it has been badly installed.
Cutting corners usually results in future problems and ultimately higher costs to have them rectified. How much business might you lose, or confidence in your abilities because you are perceived to cut corners?
The best position for a screen defines how it is to be mounted. There are many options from which to choose. These include flush wall mounted, tilting, extending swivel, swing-out, ceiling and floor mounted to name a few.
We always make a point of asking about infrastructure. Are there convenient power and network points. If we have visited the premises to survey it, we discuss where the screens are going to be sited and make recommendations to maximise their impact.
We have a large number of screens in the UK Parliament and Portcullis House. Great sensitivity was given to ensuring the screens conformed to the specifications placed on us by the Architects and English Heritage. The implementation of cabling, mountings and many other aspects required an understanding of the environment and the daily requirements of the audience who made use of the screens.
Consider the network you hope to use; are you expecting to use wifi to transfer data to the screens? A cable connection offers almost guaranteed connectivity whereas wifi can be unreliable, though thankfully this is changing. If you think you can use your existing wifi but know it is close to saturation or swamped at bust times you should reconsider your options.
8. Support: How does that work?
All systems have a few problems to snag during the installation process and it is important that during this period remote access is proven to work as this is by far the best way to support the system.
Choose a company with a good track record of retaining its clients; If the website demonstrates customers’ remain with your chosen supplier for long periods, then they evidently know how to look after clients and their products are well supported.
Does the system you are considering have simple methods by which you can determine if it is working correctly? In the LiveSpace digital signage dashboard there is a live preview of all available screens. Each screen automatically updates periodically to show the changing content on the displays, providing you with the confidence to know it is working correctly. For installations spread across a large estate the screens are arranged in groups in the dashboard. The tree display may then be collapsed or expanded, as required.
We have clients who require very specific security protocols to be observed and our support staff may have to remotely access and support installations through a variety of different methods. With the exception of those installations where remote access is denied, say a maximum security prison, (yes we have one of those), the majority of problems are addressed by remotely logging onto the clients system.
Either you need in-house skills to support your system or choose a digital signage company that will provide you with a support contract. We’ve all seen the Windows ‘Genuine Advantage’ or, ‘Cannot connect to Google Chrome’ message. Don’t let this happen to you. These embarrassing failures should not be displayed on screen and can be avoided.
Reducing the downtime and effort required to support a system is a combination of choosing the right equipment in the first place and a company with efficient procedures in place to correct it when it goes wrong.
9. Future expansion … making room for growth
This is the last post in the series but it is a serious one to consider before you make your final decision.
What is the likelihood that your system will grow in the future? Whilst this normally involves additional screens, it may also involve adding greater complexity to the content you wish to display through the addition of video and other attributes that basic systems are unable to offer. After all, it is only natural for you to become more sophisticated with your requirements after a period of exposure. If you think this is likely then make sure the things you want to introduce are readily available to you. Some of the simpler, cheaper players and USB type devices might provide you with a solution from the outset but is it really the long-term solution you are going to need?
Do you have the time and resource to visit every screen to load updates via a USB flash drive. If the units driving the screens were networked would that be a better solution? Consider the likelihood that you will want RSS feeds, video or live TV in the future. These are frequently standard requirements for users of digital signage. Will your chosen system look as exciting and relevant as some of the other solutions adopted by neighbouring organisations or competitors? You should satisfy yourself that the system you install is fit for purpose in a year’s time. You owe it to yourself and your audience to look at all the options.
Prior to purchase ascertain if there is continuity between old units and new units to provide the expansion you hope to make. You don’t want to add new features to your system if managing the changes places restrictions through incompatibility between hardware versions. Difficulties may be faced when operating the system as a result and training new staff to use the system becomes complex.
The correct choice of software is imperative when thinking about growth. ‘Free’ solutions may have hooks that draw you into accepting a suboptimal relationship with your supplier. This may express itself as a limitation of the hardware’s capability or expensive ‘Add-ons’ i.e. additional functionality purchased separately to provide you with the system you really need.
In conclusion; the system you choose should be fit for purpose and should be able to grow with you as your confidence, capabilities and sophistication grow. The solution you choose should be reputable and have proven capability.
10. LiveSpace digital signage … technical information
LiveSpace is an information display system based on MRG’s experience of working within the betting industry to provide real time display systems capable of providing live updates to thousands of screens. LiveSpace is based on a centralised server providing HTML data to client screens in many locations over the internet. It uses the latest web technologies to ensure that updates are rapidly transmitted to every screen while minimising the network traffic and therefore the bandwidth required at each location. The user interfaces to control all aspects of LiveSpace operation are written as web pages that interact with the core system processes and the administration interface provides a full set of features while still capable of being operated using a tablet or even a mobile phone. One particular feature of the way that LiveSpace has been built is the ability to easily create control interfaces. These provide the ability to control the features shown on a particular template, including the ability to update any data fields without the complication of using the full user interface. As the control interface is another web page written in HTML it is possible to easily tailor the display to make it as easy to operate as possible.
Admin interface: The user interface provided for the control of the system requires a user name and password before users are allowed access. The admin interface has been designed to work well on either a standard PC desktop, a tablet or even the browser on a mobile phone. With the admin interface users can;
- Add and remove client screens
- Add and remove pages
- Create and edit playlists and carousels of pages for immediate display
- Scrolling marquee and RSS feeds
- Schedule pages, playlists or carousels to be displayed on a screen at a future time and date
- Display live data from a data feed in real-time if required
- Monitor the status of connected clients
To add live data into LiveSpace a data connector is required. This is a process that either polls for data or receives it as a feed from another source and then stores it in the LiveSpace database as data objects. When new data arrives the system checks it against the existing data and only sends updates to those screens whose content has been affected. This not only minimises the traffic on the network but also increases performance as changes are published immediately.
Data Shapers: It’s possible within the system to have more than one template displaying data from the same source but in a different way by using a control interface to select and sort the data. To provide this functionality a “data shaper” is created which takes the original data and creates a manipulated version to be stored separately. When data updates are received any derived objects created in this way are tested so that templates using the derived data also get updated if required.
Client screens: An installation normally consists of a Mini-PC supplied by MRG driving a TV screen or monitor. The size and resolution of the screen depends on the requirements of the installation and can be provided by the customer or supplied by MRG. We would recommend that for most installations the resolution should be at least HD (1920 × 1080) but the system also supports 4K screens (3840 × 2160) which are becoming available at reasonable prices and provide a much better image. Each client PC is loaded with MRG LiveSpace Client software and runs a web browser to generate the display on the screen. In order to manage connections and verify their authenticity the software generates a unique hardware code that is transmitted to the central site when it first connects. It can then be authorised and added to the list of connected clients. This unique code is used by the system to identify each client and control the content of the display.
Local Selection: When a playlist is selected for display the normal operation is for each page to be displayed in turn. An option exists, however, for the displayed page to be selected locally using an infrared remote control or a keyboard. This could allow a local operator to select the offer best suited to the local area from a menu of national offers for instance, or could be used to select different views of the available information in an office context.
Local Overrides: Whilst all the collateral and templates are managed from head office local managers are provided with a control interface that can be accessed via a unique username and password. A local operator can have more control over their own display, or group of displays in their unit. This gives the local user the option to override the contents of one of the data objects in the database for the purpose of managing special offers and promotions etc. that appeal to their customers and so drive more sales. The local data is combined with the rest of the template to provide the final page to be displayed. Uses could include:-
- Setting a local price for a special offer
- Changing the name of the local manager in a playlist of information pages
- Advertising a local winner of a competition
- Other types of override which have been identified and are scheduled for future development
Grouping: This is a feature we developed some time ago and is built into several of our products. Systems operating within extensive retail estates or large organisations need to define their screens in a multitude of different ways. For example they may be defined by geographic location, department, size of the store or the capability of the hardware employed on site etc. Any combination of these will ensure screens are managed properly and campaigns are fine tuned to the audience.