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Installing digital signage often means creating a complex network of technology, spanning both software and hardware.

While digital signage networks are increasingly simple, fast, and efficient, it’s still important that you understand their components and how they work. This is especially true because digital signage installers can often install everything on your behalf, handing a simple package solution, without you ever having to do more than share needs and system requirements. Understanding what’s involved will give you a better idea of what to look for and why.

Importantly, not every digital signage network has the same requirements. Some solutions only require a few basic elements. Others require a complex range of hardware and software to manage data, display quality, and screens across thousands of displays, geographic locations, or with vastly varying content needs.

Most digital signage networks include two basic components, hardware and software. These can each be broken down into additional elements, most of which have a significant portion of overlap. For example, connectivity requires both a hardware and a software solution. Presentations require both a hardware and a software solution.

Hardware

Digital signage hardware is composed of physical devices such as displays, cables, media players, etc. These devices range in quality and cost and most organizations benefit from choosing a mid-range solution.

  • Displays – Physical displays, typically LED, LCD, or OLED. These displays must be chosen to meet environment, display quality, and budget needs. 
  • Media Players – Media players range from large and powerful computers to tiny USB plug-ins or even System on a Chip solutions built into the display. These players come with different operating systems such as Windows, Ubuntu, or Linux as well as in various HTML5 formats, typically running iOS, Android, or Google Chrome. Choosing one depends on your digital network’s required power, the complexity of display content, and network load. 
  • Servers – Network servers manage display data, transferring it to and from displays, managing network load, and ensuring content goes up on time. Servers affect both data load (the volume of data that can be shared across networks) as well as network load (the number of displays the network supports). 
  • Mounts – How and where will displays be mounted? These should be chosen based on practicality, building-design, and environmental needs. 
  • Cabling – What are your connectivity needs? Will displays offer remote access? How large are display files? Are you using mobile technology? Are displays interacting with real-time data? 

Some systems will require all of these components. Others might require a single media player, a few displays, and cabling, with no additional hardware. The larger and more complex your system or the more complex your display needs, the more hardware you need to support it.

Software

Digital signage software is increasingly sophisticated but also increasingly easy to use. 10 years ago, most updates were manual, many required code, and updating a display was often time-consuming and tedious.

Today’s software manages network loads, redirects traffic, automatically stores local data, and enables instant updates to displays even across large geographic distances.

Software is often designed for different types of digital signage applications, so most choice will depend on your specific needs, wants, and compatibility with your hardware.

  • Playback Software – Playback software, also known as a viewer tool, literally plays media on your device. It typically installs into your hardware media player to directly allow access to files shared over your network. Playback software can offer different features such as local display storage to prevent outages, some scheduling, and remote backups. However, your primary consideration will likely be compatibility with your hardware. 
  • Device Management – Device management software allows you to manage displays, servers, media players, and other devices on the network. Depending on the program, it may allow for remote optimization and updates. Device management primarily functions on a network level to prevent outages, optimize memory usage, and manage data loads. Device management solutions should be chosen based on factors such as network size, hardware types, and actual expected load on your network. It’s also important to consider future growth, because you want your solution to remain suitable for some time after installation. 
  • Content Management – Content management is one of the most crucial aspects of your digital signage software, because it allows you to easily upload and share content. In some cases, your CMS will also allow for content creation. The CMS might also include scheduling tools although these may be available separately. In some cases, your CMS will also include user access management, online portals, etc. Here, you should look for solutions that offer either a package deal with everything you need or that already includes everything you need. You’ll also have to choose between on-premise and cloud infrastructure solutions

Depending on your organization’s needs, you might need wildly different software. The simplest solutions function as media players with minor content management capabilities. Other solutions might offer automation, advanced network and user management, logic-based rules, advanced device control and optimization, and much more. The larger your network, the more sophisticated your solution should be.

Bringing it All Together

Your digital signage network should ideally meet your needs within budget at a quality that offers value to customers. Unfortunately, many people struggle with identifying needs or setting a budget.

What are you trying to achieve with digital signage? – What’s the ideal end-result of installing digital signage? How is it driving value? How will it pay for itself? Once you identify objectives, you can better identify how to reach those objectives. 

What should your network look like? – How many displays do you have to deploy? What kind of content are you sharing? Are screens static or mobile? How are you pushing updates? Where are you installing displays? These questions are all important because they dramatically affect your software and your hardware choices. 

What about content strategy? – While most people don’t want to think about a content strategy before purchasing signage, it’s important to do so. Content types will impact which media player you need, which display options best suit your needs, and your networking and server options. If you intend to create most content yourself, you need a strong digital signage software solution with plenty of tools to create content. 

What about budget? – It’s important to understand what digital signage costs before setting a firm budget, simply because you don’t want to ask for more than your budget can achieve. Gartner identifies budgeting issues as one of the primary bottlenecks to effective digital signage installations. 

Digital signage has come a long way in the last few years alone. Today’s displays are thinner, cheaper, lighter, and more sophisticated than ever before. Digital signage networks connect to sensors and real-time data to update instantly and remain relevant or connect with customers. They also reduce costs over printing and posting ads, decrease mistakes, and can drive real value to consumers.

Digital signage networks are more complex than ever before, with an increasing range of choice, solutions, and features. However, choosing one is often about selecting solutions that meet your needs and budget. Once you do so, you’ll quickly find that digital signage networks are relatively simple, even without the help of an installer.