Digital Signage Industry

Digital Signage Software: Sequential vs. Smart Playlists

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Choosing a Digital Signage software is a critical choice. And yet there are a crazy number of options to choose from. Our 13-part series kicks off with a look at weighing the difference between a fundamental function of all software - playlist management.

Welcome back, and read on!


One of the factors in choosing your Digital Signage software is considering what options it offers for playlist scheduling and management. To simplify the options, I’m grouping them into two categories: Sequential Playlists and Smart Playlists.

Here are my personal definitions of the two playlist structures:

Sequential Playlist: A list of one or more media items that play back-to-back as specified by manual timeline scheduling.
Smart Playlist: A list of media items that play automatically based upon specified rules, tags or other metadata.

They may not be perfect definitions, but they're a helpful starting point.

Every software has its own nomenclature which means we have to dig in deeper to the wording and feature sets to understand what each software does offer and what it does not. Even within the Sequential Playlist category you may see things like “Nested Playlists” or “Playlist Merging” which appear to be "Smart" but actually function as a form of Sequential Playlists, so, keep your eye out for options like that as well. For example, a Nested Playlist (very similar to Playlist Merging) will leave the default timeline to play a “tangent” playlist of media items (sequentially or shuffled) before returning to the main timeline.

TIP: A few software options offer both Smart Playlist AND Sequential Playlist features so you can feel confident that you won’t be limited in the future.

How to Spot Software With the Sequential Playlist Features

Sequential Playlists may be all the horsepower you will need if you manage a simple playlist featuring a consistent modular structure. Sequential Playlists follow a logical timeline that is easy to understand since item 1 is followed by item 2, then 3, etc. Many software make this an easy “drag-and-drop” scheduling experience that is very intuitive and visually comprehensible.

What does a Sequential Playlist look like in its simplest form?

Schedule item A for 15 seconds, then item B for 30 seconds and then item C for 15 seconds. This completes your 1 minute loop.

How to Spot Software With the Smart Playlist Features

Smart Playlist structures introduce automation to a dynamic content playback strategy that is “rule-based” and very flexible. Some keywords to look for when identifying Smart Playlist features in your software review process include:

Tags, Metadata, Dynamic Playlist, Dynamic Pacing, Playlist Generation, Weighted Playlists, Time-Based, Repetition-Based, Loop Share, Content Variables, Triggers, Playlist Conditions, Playlist Scripts, Loop Fill, etc.

Like I said, a lot of nomenclature, but they point towards the features you just might need if you plan to run a large network with an ever-changing-dynamic playlist that may become too complex or time consuming for a human (or even a team of humans) to maintain.

TIP: Some software support content “tags” or “metadata” but this is only used when manually selecting the content via a manual search. This is very different from being able to use tags and metadata to automate the playback of media items in a playlist.

What does a Smart Playlist look like?

Setup: Schedule Item A (Ford Ad) and B (Pepsi Ad) for 15 seconds each. Set the Ford Ad to have a weight of 1 and the Pepsi Ad to have a weight of 5. Then apply a tag of #automotive to the Ford Ad and a tag of #beverage to the Pepsi Ad. Schedule both items into campaign #1 already containing previously scheduled content items.


Playlist result: Campaign #1 has a category separation assigned to it so it won’t schedule the Ford Ad back-to-back with your previously scheduled Chevrolet Ad, or the Pepsi Ad next to your Coke Ad. With a weight of 1, the Ford Ad will play in the first loop and with a weight of 5 the Pepsi Ad will play in the second loop (lower the number = higher item weight). A smart playlist will never allow any of the rules to be broken so it can account for item weights, category  separations and any other variables* all at once.

*Other variables include a ‘triggered override’ or ‘slot fillers’ plus ‘item prioritization’ based on last modified date – to name a few.

This example accounts for 4-6 items being calculated to play back on a single player. Imagine the complexity if you were to localize this control across a large network with a unique playlist of 100+ items dynamically shuffling based on these rules and you get the picture of how complex, yet powerful smart playlists can be...

Which one is right for you?

Here is my general rule-of-thumb.

If your plan is to launch a network with a defined sequential content strategy and scope - keep it simple - go with a popular sequential playlist software.

If you’re an ad network, choose a smart playlist solution, everytime.

If you’re ambitious and plan to grow and develop your network with an open-ended scope of business use cases and quantity of players, I would strongly encourage you to consider a Smart Playlist software provider.

What playlist management lessons have you learned in testing or implementing digital signage software? If you've run into any interesting use cases, we'd love to hear more about it - let us know at

Be sure to subscribe below and stay tuned for key digital signage software feature #2 - Ability to Automate Use of Dynamic Content.