What is digital signage and how does it work?

Digital signage is a collective term describing everything that has to do with public TV screens, LED signs and similar - indoors and outdoors. It is often also referred to as "digital out of home" (DOOH) and in some countries as "narrowcasting". It is used to communicate directly to a local audience with a single message or a sequence of messages. Well known examples are:

  • Large screens with advertisements in a mall
  • Digital menu boards in a restaurant
  • Screens at the hospital with general information
  • Arrival and departure times at public transport hubs

Digital signage at an airport

Components of digital signage

The content

It all starts with the content: single message or -more often- a sequence of messages (presentation) that you like to present to your audience. In its simplest form these are a sequence of static images or videos created by creative professionals in regular design tools.

The content management system (CMS)

The individual messages are loaded into software called a content management system (CMS). This is where you put the messages in a sequence to form a presentation.

In the digital signage CMS you also have an overview of all the tv screens under your control that you can publish your content to. When you publish a presentation, it will be sent TV screens you select where it will start running at the time you chose.

Digital signage CMS’s come in all sorts of forms. The simplest ones just allow you to put uploaded media files in a playback sequence. The actual content creation needs to be done entirely in external tools. Then there are the high-end tools for creating all sorts of slick presentations with hundreds of variables, effects, timelines, etc. These target the content professional that work with these kinds of tools daily. In the middle you will find tools that enable you to upload media, but also add and manage your own content in, just as you would in a Powerpoint presentation, for example. These target the people who like a decent degree of design freedom whilst benefiting from the system being easy enough to use for virtually anyone.

A computer to create and manage content with

As a content creator and/or manager you need a computer with which you create and manage your content. In a very simple setup this is one computer on which the digital signage CMS is installed. When you create your content you immediately publish it to the relevant playback devices, shutdown your computer and go home.

Digital signage with single workstation

In its simplicity lies its main limitation: practically, there is only one user that can manage the content. Also, that user needs to install the digital signage CMS software and keep it up to date herself.

A central server to run the digital signage CMS on

If more people need to be able to create and manage content then it makes more sense to move to a setup where the digital signage CMS runs on a central computer (server) to which you log in from your computer.

Digital signage with server

Even though it’s clear that you gain flexibility with this setup, you also see that the complexity increases: you now have to buy and maintain a server as well and install the digital signage CMS software and keep it up to date. Luckily internet has brought a lot of good to the world, including “software as a service”. Instead of fiddling with hardware and digital signage CMS software yourself you can choose to use a web-based digital signage CMS. All you need is a web browser on your computer and you log in to a website where you create, manage and publish all your content.

Cloud based digital signage

This gives you less hardware to buy, manage and maintain. Morevoer, you are always guaranteed to run the latest version of the software without having to install anything.

Playback devices or "media players"

A playback device is a little computer that runs software that can read the content you created in the digital signage CMS and display it on the (TV) screen it is connected to.

Digital signage media players

There are different types of playback devices:

  • an individual small computer mounted to the back of each TV screen;
  • a small computer built into the encasing of the TV, for example a consumer smart TV running Tizen (from Samsung) or WebOS (from LG) or a professional TV screen running Android or even Windows;
  • a central computer running one or more presentations simultaneously and sending each to one specific screen. In most cases this requires extra hardware to communicate between this central computer and each screen.

Many digital signage CMS’s require you to buy specific playback devices, mostly at relatively high prices for type of hardware that you are getting. Other digital signage CMS's only work with specific playback software that needs to be installed on the playback device. However, some web-based digital signage CMS’s will playback in any standard web browser. This not only saves you from having to install and manage vendor-specific software but allows you to choose from many different types of hardware to fit your needs and budget.

TV screens and other digital displays

A TV screen or another digital display, like a large LED screen, is what your audience sees your presentation on. It will display the output of the playback device.

Digital signage TV screens

In many cases a regular consumer TV can be used for digital signage purposes. But not all environments are well suited for a consumer TV, for example:

  • a store window that catches a lot of sunlight needs an extra bright screen for its picture to be sufficiently visible;
  • an outdoor screen needs to be weather-proof;
  • an unattended screen in a sports stadium needs to be "vandal proof";
  • professional screens are available longer should one of an array of the same screens need to be replaced.

Conclusion

There are many approaches to setting up digital signage. Each with its own pros and cons. We wouldn't be surprised if this brief overview leaves you with some more questions. In that case don't hesitate to ask. We are more than happy to answer them for you.