Think about what constitutes a network of screens in banking centers, and your mind is going to immediately start ticking off a bunch of technological tools — displays and media players. But the most important component in any digital signage network’s technology plan doesn’t contain silicon or copper. It’s content.
The programming on those screens when the network starts, and over the three to five-year operating window of the hardware, directly shapes the decisions around what technology to use. Not just the displays, but the pedestrian stuff as well, like connectivity and the little boxes and connectors that move content around a facility.
Here’s why: The type of content, its resolution, the amount of it, the frequency it gets changed, its style and tone, and many more variables, all contribute to decisions on what’s going to be needed for an optimal, impactful network and viewing experience.
You could launch your screen network feeling great about the tiny media players and easy-to-use software, only to learn neither can handle the data-intensive visualizations wanted by year two in your company’s customer contact centers.
You could build a whole plan around gorgeous new 4K displays, and buy the expensive hardware to do that, only to learn the bank network doesn’t have the capacity to move those huge ultra HD files around.
You may have found your answer in one sleek playback device, only to learn you have more content at any given time than the device has onboard storage.
So before you make decisions on technology, first acquire a solid understanding of what’s going to be on those screens when they light up, and look well beyond that launch period. Have your programming shape your technology decisions, or risk your technology putting constraints on your programming possibilities.
With your network’s communications objectives settled and programming model roughed out, you can start looking at the main components of a typical retail banking digital signage network.
The software platform that allows users to plan, develop, manage, schedule and distribute content on a digital signage network tends to also be the network’s hub. That same software — from a top solutions provider — will have rich tools to fully manage most or all of the devices that are deployed around the network.
What often gets lost when end-users look at different user experiences and functionality is the applicability of a platform to the businesses run by those end-users.
Scores of content management systems can do the basics of digital signage, but almost all systems are purposefully designed to be general systems. A handful are focused on precise verticals, with user experiences and functionality aligned with the industries they serve.
Aside from an industry-focused design and user experience, deep, sophisticated remote monitoring and device management capabilities are the most important considerations for a CMS (Content Management System). A great system controls operating costs and maximizes screen and player uptime.
Many Content Management Systems are now marketed on a Software as a Service basis — meaning users effectively rent the software and infrastructure that drive a network. Users pay a subscription fee month to month, device by device. The attractions are that the impacts and demands on their IT departments are minimal. End-users don’t have servers or databases to worry about, nor do they need IT to learn how to support the CMS.
Far fewer software companies sell Enterprise CMS licenses, which typically sees end-users install and manage the software, databases and server hardware in their own data centers. Some large organizations mandate enterprise, on-premise solutions, wanting to minimize risks by keeping all IT-centric solutions inside their corporate firewalls.
For end-users, most CMS platforms are managed now using a Web browser, though several companies have dedicated “client” applications that need to get installed on users’ computer desktops.
Behind the scenes, most servers and media players are running Windows or Linux operating systems. In the last two years, driven by hyper-competition, scores of companies have debuted players that use the Android operating system, removing the cost of a commercial software license. Many software experts stress Android is a steadily changing system built for smartphones and tablets, and isn’t well suited to the requirements and remote management needs of digital signage. Android video-wall technology, synchronizations and resolutions are not yet mature. Nevertheless, Android players are an evolving area of digital signage and one that warrants attention from banks and digital signage vendors alike.
More Than Just Displays
The retail banking industry has for years thought of digital signs as the displays hung inside on walls, in digital poster stands and at interactive stations, as well as the large LED spectacular displays that take over much of the façades of some bank’s flagship branches.
But today, digital signage networks should also be thinking about the tablet displays being put in the hands of branch staff, and the increasingly large smartphone displays carried around by consumers. They’re all potentially part of the content mix for what’s referred to these days as omni-channel marketing. What gets published to a big screen can also run on a small screen, or be part of an interactive, mobile-driven engagement.
Year by year, displays get larger, thinner and lighter. Conventional LCD displays dominate digital signage, and their picture frame surrounds — called bezels — have grown narrower with time, making it possible to tile them together in attractive, visually dominant video walls.
The professional display industry is aggressively marketing ultra high-resolution 4K displays these days. While inarguably stunning, 4K introduces complications for most digital signage operators. Full 4K video files are huge and risk consuming bank bandwidth when they are distributed. Media players are more costly and very little original material is currently produced in ultra high resolution, so much of what will run on these screens will end up being the more familiar 1080P (2K) material.
Many small digital signage networks try to use consumer-grade TVs, but professional-grade monitors are a much wiser, though a more costly option. TVs are not engineered to run all day, and even 24/7, like professional monitors. They aren’t designed to run in non-standard orientations like portrait mode. They also lack the connectors in the rear of panels that are essential for remote monitoring and management.
There are many options for interactivity, most typically using touchscreens. The key to using touchscreens effectively is to ensure what you are offering as interactive is valuable to consumers, and make the experience intuitive and familiar. Touch is now inherent to phones, so people will expect to be able to flick and swipe on-screen elements. Not all touch technologies support that.
Connectivity is Critical
There are multiple options for moving content around and managing networks, all with their benefits and challenges:
Corporate LAN/WAN. Ideally, your solution is designed in such a way to allow the digital signage network to leverage the existing banking center connectivity, without impact on core operations or risk to security. That saves substantial operating costs and eliminates the need for new equipment to budget, deploy and manage.
Third-party broadband. When a network needs to run independent of corporate connectivity, there are three primary options.
- Cable/DSL: Reliable and widely available, however nationwide networks usually require multiple service providers, multiple equipment types, project management costs to coordinate installations, and actual installation costs, which can include additional wiring.
- Wireless: The rise of 4G networks in many countries means data can now be moved reliably on the backs of networks built primarily for consumer mobile users. However, data transfer costs can be high and potentially prohibitive for networks moving a lot of content month to month. Reliable wireless data modems — as opposed to finicky consumer data sticks — are also very costly (but essential).
- Satellite: Content delivered via satellite can be very cost-efficient, and enables delivery to remote sites that are not well-served by other options. Satellite networks however, have high-upfront costs for the equipment and installation, and require a separate return connection (usually cellular) because satellite delivery is only one-way. In monitoring status and collecting reports, you need a “back-channel.” Two-way internet satellite is costly.
Wrangling the Infrastructure
End-users planning and budgeting digital signage networks also need to factor equipment and labor that’s largely unseen, but critical.
Mounts. Every monitor, unless it is resting on a credenza or counter, requires specifically engineered mounting brackets that securely hold the panel in place, manage the cables and deter tampering or theft.
Cabling. The amount and file size of programming, the types of media players and displays and their connectors, and the physical layout of the facilities all shape what may be needed for cabling. Some set-ups may work well, as is. Others may require long cabling runs and specialty equipment to split, transmit and receive video signals. The systems integrator involved in the project typically surveys the sites and presents options and costs.
Facility Infrastructure. Often forgotten, the physical infrastructure of banking centers shapes network design. Is there available electrical infrastructure where it needs to be? Will the walls and ceiling support heavy, suspended screens? What’s needed to get proper connectivity to the playback devices? Where does equipment need to be stored (such as data closets), and what are the rules and regulations around cabling? They can all add unplanned costs and turnaround time.
Ongoing maintenance is another important facet of digital signage systems that is easy to overlook. A clear maintenance plan to diagnose and address problems as they arise in the network will ensure your bank’s screens are never in the dark.
Equally important are software tools to remotely monitor the network and provide automated fixes for problems as they arise. Good remote monitoring software can pick up and resolve many problems before you are even aware they have occurred and can save the significant cost of field visits from technicians.
Technology choices can go off the rails quickly if the playback devices are proprietary and only work with one provider’s unique software. If the end-user needs to switch, it’s unlikely a new provider can do anything with that hardware. We spend a lot of time talking to clients about picking up the broken pieces of networks that were started and run using different technology partners. We’ll go in and take over a network, and get it working properly.
It’s also critical to work with a service provider that is maniacal about documentation, and has the systems within its platform to do things like asset management, trouble ticket tracking, site by site history, site contacts and all the other little things that can make the difference between a conversion to a new provider taking days or months.
Besides programming, the other key component to a solid kit of parts is people. Networks thrive when human resources are allocated, properly trained and given the time and approval levels to make digital signage programming and management their focus.
Increasingly, end-users are taking advantage of turnkey services that outsource much of the day-to-day work. It allows retail bank marketers to focus on message, customer experience and results, while leaving core operations — from technical management all the way to agency-quality creative — to focused third-party partners.