Digital Signage Industry

13 Digital Signage Software Features

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...that Could Make (or Break) Your Content Strategy

Nearly as pressure-filled as getting the first crack at a fresh dozen - choosing a Digital Signage software is a critical choice. And yet there are a crazy number of options to choose from  (Chris Reigel of Stratacache claims he tracks 5,000+ different software globally).

So, how do you narrow them down? How do you know you’re picking the right one?

Well, I’m here to help you weigh your options in the coming weeks by discussing the differentiating features - from the content perspective. To start, I'm sharing a brief rundown of each key feature. Then, in the coming weeks, I’ll begin to release in-depth articles of each feature.

Subscribe now, and buckle up  

1. Sequential Timeline vs. Smart Playlist

Your playlist structure options will be a massive differentiator from one software to the next. Choosing a sequential timeline playlist can be great if you have a simple playlist structure that will have a consistent loop length and modular timeline to play images, video or HTML back to back on repeat.

A smart playlist structure however, introduces automation to a dynamic content playback strategy that is “rule-based” and very flexible to play media based on scheduling priorities such as: ‘triggers’ (weather, sports scores or traffic speed) or ‘weight’ (ex: Randomly play item 33% of the available time slots) or ‘category’ separation (ex: preventing Pepsi and Coke ads from playing back-to-back). Depending on your choice, you could find yourself severely limited or overwhelmed with 'feature fatigue.'

Will smart playlist capabilities be useful, or will the simplicity of sequential playlists do just fine?

2. Ability to Automate Use of Dynamic Content

Ok, we’re biased, but this is on the list because most content strategies (not all) can truly be assisted by the help of outside content sources - Screenfeed or otherwise. The biggest benefit of working with a 3rd-party content provider is the ability to increase viewer attention with content that is cheaper to subscribe to than create. Infotainment can be a massive help to your network operator by keeping your screens fresh and your audience engaged day-in and day-out. Other data-driven content could be sourced from right under your nose. Leveraging data like KPIs from your own network to populate dynamic content and infographics can really go the extra mile in freshness and relevance.

Keep in mind, not all software support commonly-accepted integrations or make it as easy as it should be with options like Media RSS delivery (different than RSS). And if they say they do, they may not cache the content on your device, so if the internet goes out, you’re out of luck. Do yourself a favor and verify if your software has features to connect to external XML or JSON data sources. For those looking to display KPI information, direct integrations with apps like Google Sheets, Salesforce, and the like, should be a requirement on your software feature list.

3. Caching. No Internet… Still here?

Another factor here is caching. As we all know, the internet is not perfectly reliable and anything from a router having a bad day to IT personnel getting ‘firewall’ happy can make otherwise great content go dark. Unless you plan ahead. Verify that your software is actually downloading the content to the player and storing it locally. Not just images and video uploaded directly from your desktop but also any 3rd party data feeds and HTML. We have been involved in projects using software that rely on “browser caching” for their dynamic content delivery, rather than “hardware caching” which can rear its ugly head via loading bars or black screen blips during playback from one content item to the next.

Tip: Just because software says it supports HTML (or caching), it's important to find out exactly how it works.

4. Powerful HTML Playback

There are a lot of factors that determine the quality of HTML playback. Hardware and player software are significant. You can do side-by-side tests with the same HTML code on two devices and have vastly different playback quality because one player has much more powerful processors or is using a modern web rendering engine like Chromium. However, the quality of your HTML code can be the most important factor. We have discovered there are ways to dramatically improve playback performance (even on very low-end devices) using different coding techniques.

Make sure your software/hardware configuration doesn't lead to choppy playback...

Tip: Since content will play differently on your software/player than your developer’s PC or laptop, we recommend running frequent playback tests on the player itself during the development process.

5. Playlist Interrupts

One of the most valuable “hidden” benefits of Digital Signage is its ability to allow the network operator/owner of the location to push critical or time-sensitive messaging. The traditional example for this feature is a school or corporate communications network alerting the audience to a fire or shooting by displaying an image to the escape route or best course of action. Historically, this feature is supported by a network operator logging in to a software and “manually” initiating a playlist override. Alternatively, some software support “triggers” meant to automate a playlist interrupt. One example would be using the EAS (Emergency Alert System) for broadcasters to disseminate warnings such as Amber or severe weather alerts… Screenfeed will soon be announcing our own playlist interrupt trigger product that will act as an EAS platform - stay tuned!

Other examples of triggers could be confetti being triggered by reaching a Salesforce milestone or, a 2-for-1 sales promotion around the local sports bar initiated whenever there is an upset during March Madness.

6. User Permissions/Multi-User Access

If your network has the potential for two or more people logging in to manage it, this feature could be crucial. The ability to assign permission control can allow for more departments to get involved. It can cut out a middle man, and, make people more likely to contribute if they can publish their message right away. While at the same time, it allows for the network admin to manage appropriate levels of rights, by user, to ensure the brand is preserved.

The ability to control different user’s access is critical for simplicity sake as well. The admin can build out on-brand templates and make them editable and available only to select location managers. This allows local managers the ability to log in and manage specific tasks without being overwhelmed with every feature available in the software. Many software offer this feature but many do not. If you find that this is a listed feature, dig a little deeper. You may find that they do offer user permissions, but only offer two levels of permissions or, permissions are set to fixed feature sets and won’t allow you to give a particular manager more latitude in uploading media or creating additional users.

Will your software allow you to easily hand the keys to the right team members?

7. Analytics, Audience Tracking and Reporting

One of the biggest no-nos in digital marketing and communications is the lack of ability to measure the effectiveness of your content. Make sure your digital signage software has the ability, integrations or partnerships in place to give you the data you need to make intelligent content decisions. Many software won’t have all the features you will need built in, but rather via integrating with 3rd party partners like Quividi, Quantcast, Linkett, Geopath and AdMobilize, to name a few. There are three main methods used today, to my knowledge, in order to have real data on your network audience and content effectiveness.

Some partners like the ones listed above will leverage cameras to track audience data such as demographic data, dwell time, and impression count.

Secondly, others will track mobile phone data to see demographics, impressions, travel patterns and even help you re-target the same viewer while they're browsing online later.

Lastly, some networks will choose to keep things old school by using classic market research methods via qualitative/quantitative quarterly interviews from random sample sizes of the network. The key is to have your content metrics and plan to track them in place before you choose your software.

8. Network Monitoring with Alerts and Player Management

Second only to bad content is the deadly “black screen” or “error screen.” The screen on the wall that is “black” or, even worse, displaying a “cannot connect to source” message is an eyesore and not only reflects poorly upon the space that hosts the network but also represents opportunity costs for your network objective and ROI. Therefore, it is imperative your software has a reliable network monitoring feature suite including, if possible, automated alerts to your email or phone when things are down. If this seems outside of your wheelhouse, consider outsourcing it to service providers who've built entire businesses on managing the daily network operations for networks large and small.

9. Easy-to-Use Interface

This can be subjective. So, after evaluating the software, ask yourself if it makes sense to you? How quickly will your colleagues understand it so the workload can be shared? If only one person attended the 3-day training and came away understanding only 50% of the features…let's hope they took really good notes and/or never resign! Also, if something is difficult to use, are you more likely to log in and create new/fresh content every day or more likely to busy yourself with other priorities?

Could a convoluted UI discourage you from making the most of your content investment?

That said, a user-interface may at first seem overly complex however, your network objectives may be equally ambitious which just might require all those bells and whistles as the network grows. The warning here is clear, while a software might be easy to use for the first year with a smaller network and team, you might end up feeling stuck if you ever need to scale or pivot your business model. Especially if you've invested heavily into your network rollout and realize it can’t do half of the things you need.

10. App or Widget Store

Software that have started to include content templates and feeds into their software with easy integration and customization are definitely headed in the right direction. They’re doing what they can to become a “platform” which is exactly what I would be trying to do if I was in the Digital Signage software space. As a platform, they will gain momentum as users and content professionals begin creating solutions for their customers which will compound the value of their platform. In this scenario, you win too. What’s the greatest thing about Apple and Android? It’s not the technology and the built-in features per say - it’s their app store because creative people have built businesses around leveraging the platform to create great content for its users.

If others are making content for you or making it easier for you to create great content, you win.

11. Multi-Screen or ‘Any-Surface’

Many software today have this feature built in. But not all of them. Make sure you consider your future network and potential projects. Traditional 16:9 or 9:16 screens are a great start for a lot of networks but as time goes by, there will continue to be a demand from the audience and your management for more of a “wow” factor that may require bigger video walls or even completely custom shapes/sizes via projection mapping. Be careful though, and be sure to test this feature within the software you plan to use. The software may “say” it is a supported feature but some will require a single player per display or only power up to a certain resolution with content zone/layer restrictions. If you want a glimpse of the future to where this is going, take a look at the ‘canvases’ used by the Moment Factory in this demo reel video from our Inspiration at New York Digital Signage Week 2018 blog post.

12. Interactive Touch Screen

Think about this - could interactivity be a feature to help achieve your network objective? Museums, retail self-service and way-finding environments absolutely need their software solution to knock this out of the park. Some solutions make “mapping” your space for way-finding a core feature of their product while others “support” via HTML5 but have little to no experience supporting robust interactive experiences with complex data needs. The real challenge can be for those networks looking to use a mix of some interactive screens, some video walls, plus a number of other traditional screens.

Lastly, stress test your desired interactive software. I had a recent experience with software that had every feature I needed and more, but when I tried to use the interactive content I built, it ground to a crawl. My test was performed on a seriously upgraded Macbook pro - making every desired mouse click and drag-n-drop torture (note, I did find improvements in performance while using a PC).

13. Content Creation Tools

A network operator needs to plan their content creation workflow before selecting their software. Many networks, especially larger ones, will create content outside the software, then bring it in. Some digital signage software have built WYSIWYG tools that are even more powerful because they’re built, from the ground up, specifically for Digital Signage needs like live-data feeds and dynamic updates. Whatever your content creation workflow, consider your objective and make sure the tools will scale to your needs. Do not assume the ability to draw shapes, upload a logo and a background in a content layout will be sufficient for your needs for years to come. Consider asking your software what their development timeline looks like and what new features they plan to add to their built-in tools. Or, just ignore this feature altogether in your selection process if you plan to do all your designing and building outside of the software.

Closing TIP

Let's be honest, no one can anticipate all the features that might be needed in the future. Therefore, my best recommendation is to choose software/hardware partners that have been around the industry for a long time and support a substantial group of customers within a similar niche/business vertical: corporate communications, ad network, transportation, etc. There's a good chance they've already built everything you need now or will need in the future because they're already hearing the same demands from 10 other customers as well.

Over the coming weeks, I'll take a deeper look at each point - subscribe below and stay tuned for more on feature #1 above - Sequential Playlists vs. 'Smart' Playlists.