Screen-based space invaders: why digital signage is about to make our lives suck

Digital screens are coming to a space near you, and the operators are pretty excited about it. But Robett Hollis is sounding the alarm bell and says the industry needs to think hard about what to put on them.  

So you’re telling me technology is about to make our lives worse, not better? Pretty big call to make but I’m gonna go ahead and say it. Why? Let me explain by telling you a little story.

Last year I got invited to a digital signage convention and I decided to go and check it out. Why? Because I had a single pressing issue in my mind and I wanted to see if that issue would be addressed by the brightest minds in the industry. Plus, I always love getting clued up and examining the state of play in different lanes (truthful translation: ‘I’m just nosey’).

It was a sunny day in Auckland and the smell of curved 3D displays and augmented reality was in the air. I arrived at the convention centre 20 minutes early so I could ‘people watch’ and within ten minutes I was engulfed from all angles by a sea of ageing suits. Not that I was judging the suits, but I thought that the target demographic of a digital signage tech convention would have been different (truthful translation: ‘younger’). I obviously presumed wrong. Scanning the scene I could tell that about 90 percent of those at the convention probably didn’t even know what Tinder was. Not that I use Tinder or anything. Just saying. You could feel those in attendance weren’t the trendsetters or thought leaders in the space of next level tech. It actually looked like it could have been a convention for lawn bowls or cable ties and no one would have known the difference. The vibe was weird. Real weird. Or maybe I just have no idea what a corporate convention should be like. Yeah, probably that.

Anyways, unfortunately for me, being a 6’ 2” balding 100kg maori with glasses who rocked up on a bright fixie bike with a pair of fresh Air Jordan’s, XXL Burton hoody and Raiders Mitchell&Ness cap, I stuck out like a sore thumb. So naturally I took my spot at the back of the bus and watched the proceedings with my weathered Moleskin ready to grab some pearls of wisdom that would set my heart afire with the promise of the inspiring digital signage future. Unfortunately this was not to be the case. After the copy-paste welcome, the five minute blah yarn from Mr. Council and the same hoo-ha from Mr. Government, the day got cracking with the line up of speakers. We took a break, the remaining speakers did their thing and the day finished off.

At the end of the convention when it was time to ‘network’ (truthful translation: ‘beers where strangers force conversations to figure out who they could milk something from’), I was milling around the back solo (probably looking like I was trying to snake the 80 inch display panel) when out of nowhere I got approached by an elderly gentlemen. Dressed up in a dapper dark blue suit that would make Harvey Spector proud while he sipped away at his glass of sav, this 60 year old boss really had a rad bit of swag. “So what’d you think?” asked the aged business warrior. I looked at him and quickly replied “Honestly?” and then I let rip. “All today taught me was two things. 1) in ten years everywhere you look, instead of posters and billboards, we will see digital screens. Screens everywhere. Bathrooms, buses, trains, buildings, lobbies, on the street, in windows – EVERYWHERE. We already knew this. 2) More importantly, not a single person alllllllllllll day even mentioned what will go on the screens”. Old mate looked at me with a blank stare that translated into one of two things. 1) I was an idiot. Or 2) I had just blown his mind.

You see, this is why life is gonna suck with digital signage in the next decade. Because all these people are thinking about the platform of screens and not how they will actually fill that network of new technology with content. The issue, and answer is content. I’ve said it about 47 times now and it’s still more true than when I made it up last month after a few balcony beers. With not many thinking about this we run the risk of a bunch of ageing suits investing millions into rolling out thousands of screens all over the country with no plan or strategy around content. Screens will be forcibly placed into every nook and cranny of our lives and if they don’t have a clue at what really is going to go on, it’s going to be really horrible for all of us.

Digital signage or content strategy in general isn’t like a magazine where your agency can smack out a full page ad three times a year and you’re done. Digital signage is a full-time thing, always on and always cranking. Can you imagine how crap it would be watching a digital screen rotating the same three static jpeg adverts all day every day for months at a time. It’s gonna be disgusting. It’d be like getting forced to watch a crappy Freeview channel which features talkshow repeats from the ’80s. And if the ad pisses you off enough you’ll probably end up hating the brand that’s advertising on the screen, which will do more harm to the advertiser than anything. And that whole scenario doesn’t seem like a win-win for anyone.

All I’m saying is that I can see this wave of screens coming and I’m getting a little nervous. I’m nervous because if the dude buying them doesn’t even know what Tinder is, or have some clued on cats around him to have some strategy around content, then I am sure he’ll have no idea what to put on the screens and it will be a shit show. 

My simple answer to solve all of this can be described in one single sentence: “Create Constant Cool Content to Consistently Convert your Community into Customers”. Alliteration overload. That day of the convention was a huge day for me personally. Why? Because when I pedalled away on my fluoro fixie I knew that our business was set for good because we create content—and creators will always have value. Always. 

  • Robett Hollis is founding director of Frontside
  • This story originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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