Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Digital signage owners should look for the fine line between ambient and not

Digital signage gets a lot of lip service these days because like other forms of POP these screens can deliver marketing messages to shoppers while they're in a buying (or at least shopping) mode. The allure of being able to advertise so close in both time and space to where a purchase decision will be made makes the store a lucrative target for advertisers savvy enough to use it to its fullest potential. Unlike most other forms of POP, though, digital signs have a few other things going for them that make them unique, most notably that they can use both audio and animation to grab a shopper's attention.

While the marketing possibilities abound, there's a significant problem with a lot of today's in-store networks: they can be pretty annoying, for shoppers and employees alike. Building out an in-store media system that's effective while remaining unobtrusive is tough, even for marketing and merchandising experts. That's why this blog entry from the guys at Motorola (courtesy of this post from Experentia) caught my attention this morning. While Motorola is focusing on ways to create unobtrusive, ambient displays for the home environment, in reality they could be testing their techniques in stores as well. They note that their effort revolves around solving two fairly complex problems:
Over the past few decades many researchers have built devices that use light, color, sound, or motion to convey information about people, activities, and places. These devices let people see information at a glance, without the need to go to another device or navigate an interface.

...There are two big challenges in this space from a research perspective. The first is to create displays that are truly ambient and don't interfere with the home environment. We want to ensure that we can provide useful information without distracting people from their home lives. The second challenge is all about finding the most useful information sources for these displays. Obviously, the two are closely tied together and are a big part of our research into ambient communications.
The displays they favor aren't necessarily traditional big, flat panels, but instead encompass a broad range of devices from simple colored lights to small embedded screens. The display of a particular type of information is optimized for each device.

Visual clutter and a competitive POP environment will make ambient media a tough sell in retail right now, but as more retailers tighten down on what will and won't be allowed in their stores I'd expect these techniques to become more popular. I also expect to see "traditional" digital signage systems become more integrated into the retail environment, and the research being conducted by Motorola (and others, surely) will likely yield content creation and optimization techniques that will allow these systems to behave more like a part of the store instead of a bolted-on appendage.

To truly be effective, though, ambient media still needs to be noticed, even if it's typically in the periphery. Perhaps retailers will train shoppers to mentally correlate images, shapes, colors and sounds with the different types of information that might be displayed. A retailer that settled on a standardized set of visual and audio cues to help visitors connect with their in-store media would have the advantage of being able to quickly yet unobtrusively connect with regular shoppers. The problem of course, is that infrequent visitors would be unfamiliar with the cues, and if the media is a bit too ambient, would thus be more likely to tune it out entirely rather than be engaged by it.

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Alli said...

Thanks for your article. I was wondering whether there might be retail environments where static signage will be valued over digital signage -- e.g. lightboxes would be chosen over networked LCDs? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks,

Bill Gerba said...

Hi Alli,

I think that when it comes to advertising product, motion is going to be a tough gimmick to top, at least for a while. Thus as the cost of materials like OLED and electronic ink drop, I think that even simple shelf toppers and display stands will start to incorporate moving imagery -- it's simply more noticeable, and that's what counts when you're trying to move product.

Experience-driven stores, on the other hand, will probably stick with static signage, light boxes and the like, and in fact at some point in the future that might even be a way to differentiate one's chain from others. I'd expect to first see this happen in higher-end stores or very design-driven stores (boutiques, high-end fashion, maybe even Apple stores, though they have lots of screens around for other reasons). Similarly, if such a trend were to emerge in big-box or grocery, I'd expect it to be in stores targeting more affluent consumers, so a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's before a Walgreens or Kroger, for example.

Alli said...

Hi Bill,
Thanks for your reply. That makes a lot of sense that static might prevail in some stores trying to cultivate a less cluttered, peaceful environment for consumers.

Do you have some ideas about types of stores or other spaces where the cost, content management, or other issues of installing and maintaining digital signage is acting as a barrier to adoption? I read that initially some felt specialty stores might be a harder sell for digital signage, but then I read (maybe in your blog?!) that there is one company creating a programming channel specifically for vet clinics. Although I wasn't sure if the vet clinics were all under the same umbrella or whether the signage and channel had been marketed individually to clinic owners.

I'm also interested to learn about "sneaker-net" digital signage adoption. Do you see many companies going with this model or is everyone moving directly to large networks?

Thanks again for your thoughts and your blogs, I am just learning about digital signage and this is very helpful.