Commentary & Analysis
Signs and Wonders: Digital Begins to Transform Indoor and Outdoor Displays
Smart screens that look back at their onlookers are only the beginning of the changes that digital technology will bring to signage and display markets that used to belong to—but now must be shared by—conventional print.
By Patrick Henry
Published: June 18, 2015
They’re not nearly as controversial now, but there was a time when they were the form of printed matter that some Americans most loved to hate.
Billboards—still the icons of the $7 billion out-of-home (OOH) advertising segment—used to be derided as tasteless eyesores that stood for all that was wrong with materialism, consumerism, and other isms that the billboard-bashers of those days were up in arms against. A slew of federal, state, and local regulations aimed at curbing their pernicious influence remain on the books as relics of that quaint phase of America’s culture wars.
If you’re a latter-day disdainer of conventionally printed billboards, you may get some satisfaction from what a new white paper from Smithers Pira has to say about the decline of their importance in the point of purchase (PoP)/signage industry. But, a better use of “Print vs. Electronic Media – 5 key threats and opportunities for printed signage” is to read it as a guide to how far the meaning of graphic communications has been stretched in all of the formats that now greet our eyes when we venture into the great outdoors (and even greater indoors) of display advertising.
The paper summarizes responses by printers and print customers to an online survey conducted by Smithers Pira last month. Participants were asked to say how much loss of share printed signage was likely to experience from replacement by electronic and digital alternatives. They also ranked key influences on the demand for printed signage/PoP and forecasted spending, utilization, and run length trends.
The results indicate the respondents’ belief that conventionally printed displays inevitably will lose some ground to digital substitutes. “The interactive and data collection capabilities of digital signage are becoming ever more desirable and are something that printed media cannot easily replicate,” the authors of the paper write. But, Smithers Pira also sees opportunities for the two forms to complement each other and observes that for some kinds of printed displays, the competitive damage will not be crippling.
The latter point doesn’t apply to billboards. Two-thirds of the respondents expect their revenues from the big signs to decline through 2020, and an additional 18.2% think that the loss will be significant. Outdoor posters also will take a hit, with almost 44% of respondents predicting declines in this format.
Although outdoor signage may be what comes to mind first when we think about the OOH market, it plays only a supporting role. Of all printed PoP/signage output in 2014, says Smithers Pira, 72% was used in indoor signage applications and 28% in outdoor. The indoor segment is less vulnerable to digital displacement than outdoor, although here, too, digital installations will find ways to gain ground.
According to the white paper, the interactive and information-harvesting features of digital displays will be too attractive for retailers and other signage customers to resist. The report contains a number of examples of how digital technologies have been woven into signs and displays that can watch and react to observers at the same time that the observers are watching and reacting to them.
The U.K. supermarket chain Tesco deploys in-store displays equipped for facial recognition to tailor offerings to shoppers based on gender and age. In Germany, Adidas used touchscreens and monitors to transform its storefront windows into fully interactive shopping experiences. At cafés, universities, and other locations in Australia, temperature-detecting displays flashed promotions for iced tea when the weather grew hot.
Because they can do so many things that their conventional precursors can’t, “interactive displays are a threat to printed,” the white paper declares. But, some segments will be more threat-resistant than others. No respondents thought that PoP displays holding product—actually a form of packaging—were in any danger of being entirely replaced by digital screens. And, cultural influences could have a say in adoption as well. In China, for example, a hotel belonging to international chain won’t use digital screens for event displays because of their “less tasteful” association with sports bars.
The white paper concludes with several tables of data from the survey responses. In one of them, ranked as the top three factors that will influence the demand for printed signage/PoP over the next five years are the requirement for faster turnaround times,the increasing fragmentation of above-the-line media (i.e., mass media), and economic trends.
Exactly how these and other forces will reshape the market for displays and signage isn’t known—“mixed” is the word that white paper falls back on to describe the outlook for print in OOH applications.
But, the report is full of clues about where changes in demand are likely to occur, and they don’t necessarily betoken bad news for print. As it turns out, even conventional billboards and posters can be given an extra kick of interactivity by equipping them with behavior tracking devices that let them keep a sly eye on those who are eyeballing them.