How digital signage has evolved over the last ten years

Digital signage is all around us. Ubiquitous and multi-coloured, on advertising billboards, walls of buildings, at railway stations and flashing by on as we ascend the escalator at Oxford Circus. Digital signage has its origins in the early 1970s, when it was used for basic, functional displays like the stock exchange, motorway speed limits and waiting numbers in queues. Since then, it has evolved in line with the features made available by advances in display technology and the reduction in cost these innovations have brought.

In many ways, digital signage has transformed the way we interact with our rapid, tech-driven world. When we look at the world imagined in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, today’s signage isn’t too far away from that film’s vision of sensory envelopment. The practical and creative ways digital signage is used today shows how quickly technology has become an integral part of our everyday lives.

Early drivers

The most high-profile use nowadays is the digitisation of the consumer world. It is becoming easier for companies to deliver personalised, effective displays in retail outlets, public transport hubs and other prominent public spaces.

Although digital signage began life as a humble information delivery channel, it is now capable of providing targeted information based on region, time of year, and other demographics. As cost-effectiveness, personalisation, and flexibility of retail digital signage progressed, it began to take shape as a highly effective way to promote brand awareness and pull consumers through the conversion process from digital to physical points of sale.

Breaking down barriers

As long as the early impetus for the industry was focused on display size, the big players at the time (remember Sony’s “Jumbotron”?) were the display manufacturers. Barriers to entering this market were simply the limitations of size, graphics quality, readability and, especially, cost. When cheaper panel displays with higher-definition graphics started becoming available, these barriers fell and the market grew. Organisations with strategic vision saw the cost benefits of digital signage as opposed to paper-based menus, leaflets, flyers and so on. Once consumers latched onto this qualitative change, they started to expect digital sophistication.

Content-driven digital signage

In the early days, the supply of original content was minimal, given the non-existence of the technology required to scale up graphics-rich content to the size needed. Once that technology became widespread, displays could use content from other media such as print, web and television. In many cases, this information was unsuitable – the message in a digital display isn’t suitable for the same target as someone sitting and watching a TV ad. It needs to be more concise and punchy in style and design.

Many early digital signage networks were limited to the content-driven powers of a still relatively static interface. To engage a moving target to look at it, sites began boosting content by displaying customized feeds with real-time rolling news and weather information (for example, at large train stations).

Context rules

Existing ways of interacting with media shapes our expectations. The evolution of smartphone-driven communication and targeted content is a boon for the digital signage industry, but also provides a significant challenge  – viewers now expect context and control over messages in public spaces so the message is more relevant to them.

Nowadays, context can be multi-dimensional – for example, environmental, ethnic, geographic, political or generational – but it all boils down to one thing in the end. Personalisation. Over time, we have seen one-size-fits-all signage morph into a phase of dynamic tension, where the providers want to reach as broad a base as they can, but the viewer wants an individualized message, just like they get on their phone.

Industry insiders refer to a three-phase model for digital signage; infrastructure, content and context. At phase 3 (which is where the industry is approaching), the aim is becoming how to aggregate diverse demographics by devising a smooth transition in focus towards a viewer-focused experience. These examples show just how far this industry has come in a short space of time.

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