Digital Signage Health Check

How healthy is the pulse of your digital signage network?

Your company has digital signage. Maybe you even participated in the installation of the system. The system works – mostly – you think. But what are you really getting out of it? Are you maximizing the company’s investment by using it to effectively engage employees and change behavior? Is it really best in class? Fully optimized? Firing on all cylinders? Hitting home?

Maybe it’s time for a digital signage heath check. Heck, you probably had your own annual physical this year – or are planning to. Doesn’t your company’s digital signage deserve the same?

Here are a few simple questions to get you started towards optimizing your digital signage and realizing that huge ROI.

1. What is important to your company?

Review your corporate and brand values, corporate goals and objectives and look for challenges and opportunities for alignment. Does the content on your digital signage network accurately reflect those goals and objectives? Have you defined objectives for your digital signage network that are in harmony with your corporate objectives?

2. Who is your audience?

Identify all the audiences, groups and individuals your signage reaches. Is your digital signage strictly employee facing or are there customer and guest facing digital signage displays? Do you have lobby signage that makes a stellar first impression on visitors and potential employees? Is your signage located in areas where certain departments, roles, or teams view it? Are you addressing the gamut of audience members (by demographics, psycho-graphics, department, role)? What is the feedback from your audiences? 

3. Who are your content contributors and administrators?

Most organizations group content contributors into at least two or three basic categories: corporate, regional and/or departmental. Can you further subdivide contributors on other criteria? Who are your administrators, publishers, contributors and do they have the appropriate levels of access and control? While you’re at it, list the sources of content across your organization and who controls access.

4. Are you limited from achieving real-time message alignment?

Think about the data that drives productivity and engagement in your organization and ask how relevant and timely is the digital signage messaging. For example, are you taking advantage of APIs in your enterprise systems to show real-time service levels to customer support department or to display overdue receivables alerts to the accounting department or quota attainment metrics to the sales department? How difficult is it to tap into these data streams and display them – intelligently and compellingly – to viewers? Note any limitations and opportunities to improve.

5. Are displays optimally located and in working order?

Audit displays by location, model, and age to identify any risks or opportunities for improvement. You may find digital signage with physical display issues – dead pixels, improperly scaled content – or find out of warranty equipment nearing end of life. Are there under or over-served locations and opportunities to relocate or add digital signage to reach other audiences more effectively?  

The questions above aren’t a complete annual physical but they are a great start towards optimizing your digital signage. Some vendors provide their clients with customizable digital signage health checks and health plans to get the most out of their communications investments. At my current employer, RMG Networks, we’ve helped many clients review, (re)design, (re)deploy and optimize their digital communications to help better engage and motivate employees.  

Tips for Productive Sales Calls

Whether you are a seasoned sales pro or getting started in your first job as an inside sales rep, several tried and true practices increase productivity and increase your chance for successful calls.

From a high level, the name of the sales game is numbers. Do what it takes to fill each section of your sales funnel, right? Nurture your prospects and move them down the funnel towards closing. Of course markets and the people that make them up are unique, so there are a variety of methods for filling the funnel. For some consumer goods markets and even some B2B product/software markets, content marketing and inbound strategies may work well. For other markets however, direct sales (phone work and face to face meetings) still net the most fish.

But let’s set aside theory and the macro view and consider sales from the seller’s perspective.

A recent software launch I worked on required me to make a high number of cold calls in a short period of time. I spent almost two weeks going through product and industry training with the company. I familiarized myself with all of the features and benefits and how to position the software (and company) in front of prospects. Then I turned my attention to readying myself to call strangers and try to convince them give me enough time on the phone to take them through a software demo.

Now, let me say I’ve been on the receiving end of more sales calls than I care to remember. For the past five years, I was a B2B software provider’s prime suspect. I’ve heard probably hundreds of fast-pitch phone introductions, power voicemails, and “FOMO” (fear of missing out) pitches. For many of them, I either politely declined to take anything past the intro call, passed the caller to a colleague (guilty!) or in very few cases where a caller was too persistent or pushy, offered a curt “No!” and hung up. Thinking back on those calls – the unsuccessful and successful ones – has been a helpful form of self-advice. What was it about the ones that got past the first few breaths and pregnant pauses and caused me to say, “Sure, I’ll listen.”

I’ve learned for me there are a few key ingredients to getting in the right mindset and kicking a day of calls off on the right foot:

  1. Develop and maintain a mental and physical edge. To be a peak performer, you need energy. For me, this means finding time each day for exercise and also for thinking/meditation time.
  2. Write an honest script. By honest I mean one devoid of slick sales pitches. Just figure out the quickest way to explain in plain terms why it is you’re calling.
  3. Smile when you dial. This is an old and often used phrase and for good reason. It works. If you don’t believe me, read Smile by Ron Gutman.
  4. Be positive! Think positive thoughts but not at the expense of ignoring reality. There is definitely a point of diminishing returns.
  5. Adopt a consistent approach. Have the conviction to make the next call even when the last one really sucked. Be persistent.
  6. Listen more than you speak. This quote from the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus is great advice – “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” You’ll learn a lot about your pitch just by listening to how prospects respond.
  7. Throw out the script! Once you know the material, you shouldn’t need one anymore.
  8. Practice! Role-play and rehearse your pitch with someone. Ask for their critical feedback. This also helps you develop key phrases to overcome common objections.
  9. Tweak your speak! Revise and optimize your pitch as you make calls. By listening, you’ll pick up what phrases and cadence works and what doesn’t.
  10. Have fun with people. It’s ok to joke and be jovial with prospects but don’t ever make them feel like you are wasting their time. Get to the point quickly but do it with a smile.

Books that have helped inspire and motivate me recently include the following:

Software that helps me stay productive and organized:

  • Trello
  • Google Docs
  • Pocket – For bookmarking articles and sites I need to read.
  • Skype – For keeping in touch with team members and making calls.
  • TeamViewer – for desktop sharing and presenting demos.

What helps you stay productive?

Don’t drive off that cliff!

Pike's Peak Highway
Pike’s Peak Highway

On a recent trip through Colorado, my family and I took the opportunity to drive to the top of Pike’s Peak. If you haven’t visited Pike’s Peak and get the chance, I highly recommend it. One of Colorado’s famous 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet), Pike’s Peak (a National Landmark) features both a highway and a cog train to the top. These two routes give many people relatively easy access to reach a height they otherwise might not be able to. Of course for the more fleet of foot or sadomasochistic, you can always run or bike to the top.

As we slowly ascended the mountain in the family SUV, the air grew thinner and my palms grew sweatier. Struck by the relative lack of guardrails on many of the exposed turns, I wondered if the Park Service didn’t employ a sort of Darwinistic approach to road design when building the road. If you’re dumb enough to drive too fast at 14,000 feet, maybe you should get what you deserve.

We approached the summit on the exposed last gentle curve and my mind struggled to think about what lay over the edge. I saw road seemingly ending in sky in front of me, and to our right the precipice beckoned eerily at my mind. I realized the absurdity of a flipflop-clad right foot (poor choice of driving shoe) separating us from death and straddled the yellow line while praying we wouldn’t meet a descending automobile. Just as I felt the urge to floor the accelerator and turn the wheel to the right, we safely pulled into the parking lot at the top.

Turns out the urge I felt isn’t that unique and there’s even a name for the psychological phenomenon that many people feel in similar high places – High Place Phenomenon (HPP). A couple of years ago (2011), researchers began to conduct studies on the phenomenon to try to understand why some people feel the urge to jump when they find themselves at heights or on ledges. What they found was that anxiety prone individuals feel the urge as a sort of self-preservation (fight or flight) response. Just as the urge triggered me to straddle the yellow line, scientists postulate that the anxiety serves as a mechanism to prevent us from doing anything stupid.

In my work-life, I’ve always appreciated the motivation that comes from stress and anxiety associated with a deadline or big meeting. And stepping outside of the office bubble and experiencing it in a real world situation definitely makes you feel alive!

IMG_0942

 

Agile Daily Scrum for Non-developers

Photo Credit: Bruce Cowan
Photo Credit: Bruce Cowan

Years ago I approached a senior developer at work and asked him what he thought of Agile development methodologies. With a slight smile (Or was it a smirk? We were a Waterfall shop.), he responded that Agile was only useful for Agile consultants and authors. At the time, Agile was still relatively new when compared to waterfall based methods but the number of books, groups and consultants starting to materialize signaled its rapid growth. While the pros and cons of Agile methods may still be debatable today, Agile’s popularity over the past 15 years point to its efficacy for software development.

Without going into too much detail, Agile methodologies (as laid out in the Agile Manifesto) espouse four core values and twelve principles for better developing software. The Manifesto (shorter than implied by its title) is definitely worth a read – even for non-developers – as the values and principles provide sound advice applicable to other business areas.

Recently, marketing and project management teams have adopted certain Agile processes for their use. A burgeoning Agile Marketing LinkedIn Group exists and another group recently published the “Agile Marketing Manifesto”, a take off of the original Agile Manifesto. 

Personally, I’ve used Agile Scrum in both development/product management environments and in customer service/operations teams. I haven’t explicitly used Agile with marketing campaigns (yet), but some of the best practices I’ve utilized (like test, launch, measure, review, revise) overlap with Agile values and principles. 

As director of operations for a digital signage network operator, I latched onto one of the Agile Scrum processes – the daily scrum meeting (aka stand-ups) – as a great tool to make sure our customer service team stayed focused on improving our KPIs. We met each morning at the same time and quickly answered our own variation on Agile Daily Scrum’s three easy questions:

  1. What did I do yesterday to contribute toward our goal?
  2. What am I doing today to contribute towards our goal?
  3. And what do I need help with/what obstacles do I foresee?

While the daily scrums typically focus on supporting a development sprint, non-development teams still garner benefits from the daily scrum format. 

Setting aside time each day for a scrum allows team members to stay focused during the rest of day on individual tasks and provides a disciplined approach to sharing information. Interrupting a colleague during the day to ask a quick question often seems innocuous. But consider recent research findings that it takes the average adult 25 minutes to return to the original task after interruption and you see how dangerous interruptions really are to business success (see Brain, Interrupted, New York Times, 2013).

If you follow the rules of the daily scrum, you start at the same time everyday – no matter if a team member is absent. Many scrums are held standing up, to prevent folks from getting too comfortable and digressing into a meeting. You quickly go around the room and each team member answers the three scrum questions (or some variation of, as mentioned above). If a team member hears something pertinent to their sphere of influence or a team member has a problem you can help them with, you might quickly mention it but generally save it for discussion after the scrum. Again, you don’t want the scrum to turn into a full fledged meeting.

Daily scrums also build trust amongst team members and managers by providing transparency into team member’s work progress. Since team members come each day reporting what they accomplished the day before and what they’re going to work on that day, shirkers can’t hide. You do what you say and say what you do, essentially, so clock watchers and lazy team members aren’t tolerated.

The flip side of the daily scrum is that a daily meeting – even a quick one – can sometimes be too frequent for some projects. I’ve read comments on some developer blogs that point out the daily scrum takes too much time away from busy developers. But I’ve also been part of development scrums with as many as twenty people that took no more than four or five minutes to complete. For operational teams tasked with delivering the same service each day, daily scrums may also be inconvenient for an entire team to attend.  In these cases, I suggest trying every other day or at an interval that provides enough transparency without burdening the team.

Components of an Internal Communications Digital Signage Network

ds_components

The digital signage industry provides business solutions to many different vertical industries from retail to transportation to healthcare to financial services. In general, these solutions can be broken down into external (public facing) or internal (employee facing). Most of the solutions are comprised of a core set of similar hardware and software components with differences in content based on the audience and purpose of the network.

This article tackles the cost components associated with building out a digital signage solution for an application that spans multiple vertical industries – the Internal Communications Digital Signage Network. Before we get into the components, I do want to remind the reader of some of the purposes of digital signage in Internal Communications:

  • Maintain or increase positive employee engagement
  • Motivate a workforce (performance management dashboards)
  • Educate and inform employees on company events, policies and procedures
  • Entertain employees and visitors in lobbies

So what are the cost components of such a network?

I break down the components into seven categories: 

  • Media Player Hardware
  • Software
  • Screens
  • Content
  • Connectivity
  • Installation/start-up costs
  • Network Operations/ongoing management

Media Player Hardware

Digital Signage media players range from special purpose Linux and Windows based appliances to small form factor PCs and rack mounted servers. Environmental installation constraints, content requirements (think ultra high def video or interactivity) and budget often dictate the type of hardware utilized. In the past several years many networks have adopted low cost (and low power), ultra small form factor players that can be mounted behind the displays.  This sometimes allows for reduced costs over PC towers or servers with stacked video cards and expensive video splitters and cabling. Media Players come in a variety of OS and software configurations. Recently Chromeboxes and other low cost Linux based hardware (HDMI sticks in some cases) have gained popularity in the industry.

Most of the media player providers in the industry sell pre-configured media players that are plug and play with their own Content Management Systems. However, you can purchase stripped down and “bare bones” systems. You may save a little money by rolling your own media player, but you’ll likely spend more time and money loading, configuring and testing someone else’s software on the boxes once you choose a content management system.  

Digital Signage media players from a variety of suppliers start around $300 (Google Chromeboxes start at $229) and go up to well over $1,000 depending on CPU, memory, storage and specific OS and software configurations. A short list of some of the providers is listed below (in no particular order):

  • AOpen
  • Brightsign
  • Broadsign
  • CAYIN
  • ComQi
  • Nexcom
  • Scala
  • Real Digital Media
  • Haivision/Coolsign
  • Mediasignage
  • RMG
  • Digitalsignage.com

Media Player Software (includes access to Content Management Systems)

Digital Signage Media Player software ranges from free (or freemium) to ~$25 per month depending on the purchase volume. Predictably, the per node pricing has dropped over the years and veteran software providers in the industry have increasingly moved to provide additional bundled services (content, support, training, etc.) in order to stay afloat. All the way back in 2009, Dave Haynes, author of the popular 16:9 blog, reported that industry prices for SaaS were settling around “$25 – $30 a month in low volumes”. Recent conversations I’ve had with friends in the industry confirm things haven’t changed much since then.

On average, budget $25 per player per month for software and CMS. This may or may not include support from some vendors.

Screen Hardware

LED screens, monitors, TVs, displays – call them what you want but they are the most visible part of your digital signage network. Prices range from $300 for consumer/prosumer versions up to tens of thousands for large format ultra high-definition and outdoor displays.  Size and features affect price, of course. Manufacturers like LG, Samsung, Planar, Sharp, NEC, ELO and many others have a variety of models with different features.

Rather than go into all the details on how to select displays here, I’ll leave it at this – displays are a commodity. Find a manufacturer or reseller that provides a solid product, good warranty support and the features you need and stick with them. For commercial/corporate applications, don’t head to Best Buy or Tiger Direct and pick up the cheapest refurbished unit unless you’re ok with replacing it in a year when it fails and you don’t have a warranty to fall back on.

I also won’t go into the All in One (AIO) offering space here since I broke out media player hardware in the section above. Just know that there are models with integrated CPUs that retail a little higher than models without a CPU.

Assume $400 – 500 per display for a 42″ with a good 2 to 3 year warranty.

Content

“Content is king,” as declared back in 1996 by Bill Gates. No doubt many others have echoed this phrase over the years – and for good reason. Without content on your digital signage network, all you’ve really got is a bunch of monitors and computers. The digital signage industry highway is littered with the remains of failed network pilots and deployments because too little attention was paid to content. I’ve personally seen or heard of dozens of projects fail after a few months because of the content (or lack thereof). Content is hard to get right. It takes research, surveys, planning, more research, production, curation, testing, and more research to get it right. It’s hard to know what motivates people and how to keep their attention in today’s frenetic business world. Emails, mobile devices, meetings, project deadlines all compete for an employee’s attention.

But content is where you get your bang for the buck and your ROI from digital signage – so don’t skimp on content quality or the content strategy.

What should you budget for content? It’s tough to generalize content costs – even for Internal Communications – because the sources of content vary just like the purposes of different networks vary. But let’s make some assumptions and consider the following the variable components (and sources) of content for most networks:

  • Content Planning/Strategy – Successful networks factor in time and money before deployment to sit down with a content consultant or in-house expert and and map out a sustainable publishing plan. To keep your employees engaged with your displays, you need a variety of informative and entertaining content. Agencies might charge anywhere from $3,000 – 10,000 for a discovery meeting (or meetings) plus a detailed content plan that helps you achieve your goals. If you do it in house, you should still budget the time and headcount to understand your sunk costs that go into the network.

    On average, budget ~$6,500 annually.
  • Content Production – Successful networks also budget headcount or outsourced expenses for regular customized content production. So whether you rely on an existing employee or use a free lancer or agency, let’s assume $65 – 90 per hour (fully loaded) for graphic design with motion graphics and digital signage system expertise. Assume you need 16 – 20 hours of production per month for your network. On average, budget $1,395 per month. If this seems high, budget it anyways and you can treat your team to pizza when you come in under budget.
  • Syndicated Content – The Digital Signage industry spawned several syndicated content sources over the past few years. Companies like ScreenFeed and AccuWeather provide a variety of curated content templates for everything from entertainment news to sports, financial news and stocks, trivia and of course weather. ScreenFeed’s website does a great job of providing easy to understand per player/per month pricing and is a good resource for budgetary content planning. Again depending on what your network content objectives are, you could spend anywhere from $15 per display per month up to $100. At a minimum, assume you want some weather and basic news/sports feeds to keep things interesting.On average, budget $30 per display per month.
  • In house data sources – Many internal digital signage networks are set up for the sole purpose of making key performance indicators visible to employees. It’s long been known that giving employees visual indicators of progress against goals can be a motivating factor. Companies use digital signage to setup real time dashboards to track everything from individual and group sales against goals to production line information and project milestones. Data for much of these metrics come from a variety of systems – both in-house and third party. Taking advantage of APIs, many digital signage software platforms offer integration with popular business intelligence, CRM and workforce management platforms. Since many of these systems already exist within a corporation before the digital signage network’s introduction, the costs can sometimes be considered sunk or at least outside the scope of the digital signage. However, there may be some one-time costs for custom programming to integrate the systems.
    On average, budget $2,500 for integration. This is a one time cost.

Connectivity

Media file storage is generally provided as part of the Content Management System. However, media file transfers between a digital signage network up to the Content Management System server(s) and then back down to networked media players often traverse the public Internet so bandwidth usage costs should not be ignored.

Bandwidth utilization is a function of several variables:

  • Playlist/loop lengths
  • Media file sizes (function of bitrates)
  • Feed data (weather, sports, news, etc.)
  • Other player/server data communications (player to server housekeeping – this should really be negligible)
  • Playlist/loop update frequency

Once you’ve determined your content matrix and playlist needs, you can calculate values for the variables above and come up with the necessary bandwidth required to get files up to your network server and down to your media players. If you’re running everything behind the corporate firewall, it’s possible that server to player communication and file transfers may occur over your corporate WAN instead of hitting the Internet. However, your weather and other syndicated feed data will come from outside (unless you’re  manually creating your news and weather feeds in house – painful!).

I tend to ignore connectivity costs because I think of Internet access and bandwidth as sunk costs within a corporation. Most (but not all) Internal Communications Digital Signage is pretty light on the quantity of high bitrate video and instead makes more use of data feeds and motion graphic content which can be less bandwidth intensive than video. 

Note: I may come back and edit this section with some example data.

Installation/Start-up Costs

Depending on the desired screen locations, installation costs can vary wildly. In my experience from managing installations in both retail and corporate locations, you could be looking at as little as $125 per screen to as much or over $1,000 per screen. For corporations with in-house maintenance and IT resources that handle installation, some of the cost of hanging screens and mounts may be minimized. But in general, you need to consider several factors:

  • Is any construction labor required? For example, to flush-mount or recess screens into walls.
  • Is electrical needed or already present at the screen locations?
  • Are the media players being mounted behind the screens? If so, you don’t have to worry about A/V cabling labor costs.

On average, budget $350 per screen.

Network Operations/Ongoing Costs

For ongoing costs, you need to consider the care and feeding of your network. We’ve already discussed monthly content costs but you also have to take into consideration the labor costs to keep the network running smoothly. Even with software automation, people are still needed to oversee content curation and publishing from time to time and for troubleshooting and break-fix.

The types and sources of content you use on your network can affect your Network Ops costs. If you rely on a lot of manually produced content, you’ll need someone to load up the content, review it, schedule it for playback. If you use mostly data feeds and subscriptions, you’ll spend less time and money on the publishing aspects of Network Ops.

Most of the Content Management Systems for digital signage have some level of device monitoring built into their player software components. So depending on the platform you use, network monitoring may be more or less reactive instead of proactive. In other words, some systems will send you an alert when a screen is offline or down. Some won’t and you have to come up with ways to monitor – including third party monitoring software.

To estimate labor costs for Network Operations, I take an employee’s fully loaded salary and make a guesstimate as to how much time they’ll be working on digital signage. For some large networks, it’s common to have a dedicated employee that owns the Network Operations Management function. For smaller deployments, several hours a week of someone’s time may be enough.

For argument sake, let’s say a $80,000 employee will spend 1 hours a day managing content and verifying connectivity on a mid sized (10 – 100 screens) network. This assumes some good software, a solid network and a well oiled content production process. Let’s add 20% for overhead on the salary and then divide by 2000 (50 weeks * 40 hours). We get $48 per hour. Multiply that by 20 and you’ve got your monthly estimate of $960. You can divide this back out by the number of media players and come up with a pretty reasonable per player cost. Obviously, using this logic the cost scales pretty well but experience tells me that once networks get above a few hundred players, the management time goes up as well.

You can make educated guesses on screen and media player failures based on published mean time between failure (MTBF) data from manufacturers. In my experience using at least 2% for hardware failure on the first year of a deployment is a safe and conservative number. For issues caused by human error (someone dropping a screen while hanging it, for example), rates may be higher during installation phases. Players going offline due to environment factors should hopefully be minimal in corporate settings but you’re reliant on the network connections on your media players.

Internal Communication Digital Signage Network Sizes

There are several questions that are useful in determining how many screens to deploy (and what sizes are needed) to be effective.

  • How many employees are grouped in areas that allow them viewing access to screens?
  • What are the foot traffic patterns of your floor/building? 
  • Where are the common areas and meeting rooms and how many do you have? 
  • Are you going to send content to displays in the meeting rooms? Are you going to install door displays that feature room scheduling information outside conference rooms?

Let’s assume you have roughly 5 common areas per 100 employees. Common areas include kitchens/small cafes, departmental cube farms/work areas, large meeting rooms, lobbies and large hallways – anything not a bathroom, office or elevator/stairwell.

For definitional purposes:

  • Small Business = under 100 employees
    • Assume ~5 screens in common areas
  • Medium Business = 100 – 999 employees
    • Assume ~35 displays
  • Enterprise = 1000 employees and up
    • Assume ~100 displays

Summary

The assumptions and advice given in the sections above are based on my experience operating digital signage networks and working for digital signage software and service providers. No matter what the software and hardware vendors say, there is no such thing as a silver bullet or one size fits all solution for digital signage networks. Take time to carefully plan all aspects of your network, especially content and the ongoing operations and your network will provide you with a valuable return on your investment.