A Blinking, Flickering Landscape

Contact: The Blinking Flickering Landscape

You see them everywhere now -- video screens flashing like beacons in public spaces, asking for your attention. What started as an absolute niche product a decade ago is fast becoming part of the landscape. These screen networks reach us for one particularly compelling reason: They can take the rich visuals of television and the dynamic capabilities of online and mash them together in the most contextually powerful moments -- when people are actually in stores shopping, or in places like medical clinics, when targeted messages can be particularly meaningful.

There are now well over a million screens in North America, but that's only the beginning. The retail industry is just starting to drive rollouts, and the simple math tells you even a 1,000-store chain adding 10 screens means another 10,000 screens out there. It's huge, as is the audience.

This is part of a brand-new, on-demand experience that reaches people across multiple touch points. Activities that might start on one medium get broadened by other media and then, using public screens, reach right into where people are gathering.

They are steadily replacing printed material and backlit signs, ranging from small screens running at the product shelf-edge in grocers and even on lapels on sales staff, to giant LED boards in city squares and along major highways. Storefronts in major pedestrian areas are now morphing from simple window displays to fully interactive multimedia experiences blending large-format print graphics and interactive projections. Screens are gradually taking over not only because they offer more possibilities for designers and planners, but also because the financials warm the cold hearts of accountants. Digital costs have come down and capabilities have come up to such a degree that screens that can run multiple ads and be updated via the Internet beat the overall production and distribution costs of static print signs.

In pure marketing terms, it has always made infinitely more sense to advertise goods in the immediate vicinity of where goods are sold than on mediums such as television. Marketers get more excited by the notion of advertising when people are shopping than they do pitching people when they're comfortably lodged on a sofa. There is now plenty of evidence, from retailers as large as Walmart, that placing screens in a retail environment has a fully validated double-digit lift on promoted items.

Forecasts are just that, but industry analysts like PQ Media and BIA/Kelsey both predict high growth rates for digital out-of-home media spending. PQ Media expects a compound annual growth rate of 9.4 percent through 2014 in the United States, while BIA/Kelsey says the medium will be a $3.7 billion business by 2013. That kind of growth comes with expectations that the industry will continue to get its act together. The digital out-of-home sector has gone through many years of teething pains and seen many networks come and go, but hard-won lessons are helping the industry stay organized and aligned. Umbrella groups are establishing standards for technology, creative and most important, audience metrics.

The digital out-of-home sector started as a push medium, creating what amounted to targeted, place-based TV networks. But that is rapidly changing as operators look to drive consumer participation and engagement. There are plenty of examples in the field of networks using interactive touchscreens, augmented reality, Bluetooth, SMS messaging and polling, Flickr integration, and even geo-location social tools like FourSquare and Gowalla. But widespread usage has been slowed by budgets (a lot of what's been done has been tests) and the challenges of making things work across scores of different digital-signage software platforms.

The sector is also rapidly evolving. Paired with mobile, search, location-based marketing, local offers, and social media tie-ins, this blended medium is creating the equivalent of a digital purchasing funnel - where the sum of various parts leads to the most compelling result - sales lift.

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