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Here we’ll walk through how to create signage experience that’s appropriate for your space, and delivers information that your customers need when shopping. We’ll take a high-level overview of where traditional marketing communication meets digital signage hardware, controllers, and content management systems. Our hope is you walk away with inspiration and know-how for engaging customers with an in-store digital display presence.

Have you ever walked into a showroom and thought, that display is way too big! It doesn’t happen very often. Usually mistakes happen in the other direction, when retailers pick displays that are too small for the message and the space where readers view the screen.

Bigger isn’t always better. Simply hanging a large screen on a pillar near lots of foot traffic won’t necessarily deliver the results you want. All marketing communication should have a specific purpose. Each purpose requires a different screen, and there is no one-size-fits all digital display for the job. Each screen must serve customer needs in a deliberate fashion.


What information does your customer need where they stand?

Think from the customer’s perspective, specifically how they navigate the retail space while they shop. Anywhere a question might arise during shopping is an opportunity for digital signage. Is the customer in a large group, or waiting in line? Are they browsing on a more personal, one-on-one level? Answers to those types of questions shed light on how large a screen should be, and where it should live.

Merchandizers engage shoppers with digital signage a number of ways.

  • A menu behind a point of purchase
  • A large screen or a wall of screens for branding a store section
  • A touch screen inventory directory used for navigating a large store location
  • A self-serve checkout kiosk
  • A screen for inspirational content and ideas about how to use products on sale

Each screen should show content attuned to a specific moment of engagement. You want to make sure the menu display is large enough to see from the end of the line. Place branding screens so they’re visible from the store entrance. You need the touch screen tablets to withstand customer wear-and-tear.

If you’re collecting data from shoppers respect their privacy with a small screen with limited viewing angles. It’s the one time smaller is better.

Where are customers standing? Understanding foot traffic with data

You might not realize every well-traveled lane in a store until you measure properly. The latest people-counting solutions combine video and thermal sensors into one piece of hardware. Thermal sensors alone can gather multidirectional data with accuracy rates of 95% or higher, and software contextualizes data in a heat map showing traffic patterns. Store management deciding where to place merchandise and signage has valuable insights to drive content decisions.

If you’re handy with circuitry and maker boards, you might build a DIY Laser / IR person counter with an Intel Arduino and an old Android phone. If DIY isn’t your thing, a web search will find you a slew of systems integrators that offer people counting systems.

Once you figure out where your customers gravitate while shopping, learn how you should hang your displays. Take a deep-dive here: Digital Display Deployment for Dummies. Topics include:

  • How distance between the viewer and the screen affects content design
  • How brightness and viewing angles are related
  • Proportionality between screen size and the room

See Arduino and other development boards

What’s the difference between commercial vs consumer screens?

Can you use a standard flat-screen TV for digital signage? Would iPads work for touch-enabled, individualized signage and data collection? Sometimes, but not always—it depends how much you intend to use consumer tools in a commercial capacity. What’s the difference between the two?

Manufacturers design commercial digital displays for long hours of use in a range of environmental conditions. A robust cooling system, and an IP5x-certified build that can withstand a short blast of water and resists dust and fine particulates, provides greater MTBF (mean time before failure). Screen wash features remove phantom image or “burn in.”

Durability features also lower the cost of running the display while protecting against downtime. Non-glare panels reduce ambient light interference and ensure better continuous readability that contends with natural lighting changes throughout the day. Many have tamper-resistant features like user lock-out.

The back panel of a commercial display has a vast assortment of inputs

From a functionality standpoint, commercial displays are designed as “monitors first,” so they’re optimized for computer resolutions. The screens have remote management features designed for one or several screens. This means that a display screen can connect to a server computer or specialized media player that pushes out content and software updates to networked screens.  In addition to HDMI support, a commercial display will generally accommodate a range of inputs, including serial ports (RJ232, RS-485, RJ45) useful for daisy chaining.

Small-screen displays and tablets with ruggedized builds are designed for constant handling and all-day wear and tear. Durability is the biggest problem for self-service devices; a proper mobile computer for retail has high-quality tempered glass, robust housings, and a VESA-mountable cover or case. You might find consumer tablets with retail add-ons are less expensive than an Android retail tablet by Zebra or Elo, but in a store setting, the consumer models simply will not survive the beating.

Hardware for controlling your digital signage

Newer commercial digital displays have embedded mini-computers that run the content management system. These displays do not require additional devices to communicate with the media server. The CMS is often proprietary, but manufacturers make the source code open for third party development. TIZEN is a Linux-based operating system built to run HTML5 applications that several display manufacturers (most notably Samsung) use to design their CMS. Others build with Android, others Windows.

With these displays you’re not bound to the manufacturer’s CMS. You may connect commercial displays in any ecosystem you choose using a small form factor computer (Intel Compute Stick, Intel NUC, Chromebit, Chromecast, and others) and porting them into the display.

You’ve got a lot of options with the hardware. Set-and-forget solutions tend to be more expensive, while inexpensive DIY setups take some technical prowess to set up and configure. In every case, the setup must:

  • Decode video streams, simultaneous streams if needed, at the resolution you want.
  • Render the content you create.
  • Connect the display to a server using wireless technology like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or use a wired Ethernet connection.

Mini PCs are great hardware controllers

Simple, inexpensive hardware for digital signage

The quickest, simplest DIY solution probably is a miniature PC with a PowerPoint viewer installed. Simply create your signage on PowerPoint, and stream the slideshow onto a screen. Another popular entry-level DIY setup uses a Raspberry Pi with Google Chromebit, with ChromeSign Builder or Screenly OS as the CMS. These setups allow for simple creation and management of content, albeit are comparatively limited.

Choosing a content management system for digital signage

Depending on your needs, you will find a cornucopia of applications for building and showing dynamic content for a store audience. Your hardware and CMS should share compatible operating systems; many run across several different environments: whether that’s Windows, OSX, iOS, Android, or another Linux variant.

Proprietary solutions usually charge per media player license. They might be free to start, but fees start if you want any customization or flexibility. A lot of the useful functionality—like storage space— tends to live behind the enterprise subscription paywall. If fees are a turn-off, there are many open source options available if you have technical aptitude and simpler needs.

How to Create Digital Signage That Engages Customers
Article Name
How to Create Digital Signage That Engages Customers
Here we’ll walk through how to create signage experience that’s appropriate for your space, and delivers information that your customers need when shopping. We’ll take a high-level overview of where traditional marketing communication meets digital signage hardware, controllers, and content management systems. Our hope is you walk away with inspiration and know-how for engaging customers with an in-store digital display presence.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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