Published March 2009
Building Key Alliances
Expanding DS offerings with maximal efficiency.
By Shonan Noronha, EdD
Sensory Technologies teamed up with a content software provider to enable Lucas Oil to push and manage content remotely from its production facilities in California to stadium-based servers in Indianapolis.
Want to grow your digital signage (DS) business? Technologies and applications in this rapidly evolving area require specialized, up-to-date expertise. Through partnerships and alliances with manufacturers, service providers, reps, ad agencies and associations, you can expand your DS offerings with minimal increase in fixed costs. Although these relationships usually call for some commitment of time and other resources, they can produce many long-term benefits.
The most important potential partners are often behind the scenes in your customer’s organization. Even though your primary contact may be in senior management or marketing, it is important to understand and acknowledge the role of IT professionals in the purchasing and deployment process, and to seek their involvement and approval at key stages of the project.
Here are a few points to keep in mind when evaluating partnership opportunities, and insights shared with us by AV integrators who have taken different approaches to partnering in the DS space.
• Be the Brand Holder: Whenever possible, package and sell the partnered products and services as your own branded solution. Several OEMs will brand a display screen with your company’s name if the quantity is significantly large and the lead time sufficient.
In “Sign Age,” February 2009, I wrote about DS content software that can be self-branded. Use every opportunity you can to promote and grow your brand.
• Keep Your Customer: Position your company front and center with established customers by making your company the primary contact point for customer support and billing.
AV distributors and reps traditionally keep the integrator in front of the customer. Watch out for situations where a turnkey DS solution provider or other DS vendor inadvertently (or intentionally) could acquire your customer. Team up with service providers that have flexible programs that allow you to control the customer relationship.
• Good Fences Make Good Partners: Digital signage projects can be complex, and the larger ones typically involve several companies. Make sure you have a clearly defined statement of work when participating in multivendor projects. You can always decide later to be a nice guy and reach out with additional help, but fuzzy boundaries are an open invitation to finger pointing and extra costs if the going gets tough.
• Know Your Limits: As mentioned earlier, digital signage is a rapidly evolving field with many techno twists and turns. To avoid embarrassments, know the limits of your company’s expertise and resources. For example, if your company does not have the advanced IT capability necessary for network customization or upgrades, partner with one that does. Know when to look for outsourced help, and when to “just say no.”
• Multiple Alliances: Unlike many high-end AV manufacturers, DS vendors typically do not require an exclusive agreement or a minimum sales commitment. This makes it easier to form alliances with several providers. One size does not fit all, and sometimes even the most powerful and versatile system is not the right tool for a particular job. Hence, the need to form alliances with several companies and get a handle on how each solution may fit specific requirements. But beware of spreading your human resources too thin, and keep in mind that it is your time and that of your employees that probably will comprise your biggest investment.
For instance, there are numerous software solutions for content creation, distribution and management. How much time should your staff spend learning the various software packages? Will relationships with several software companies enable you to call upon the appropriate one for each specific job? Would it be more efficient to focus on developing in-house expertise with only one or two solutions and pursue a vertical market niche?
• Technology Partners: Technology partner programs sponsored by hardware vendors offer training, certification, business development resources and marketing services. Most manufacturers also provide pre- and post-sale technical assistance.
Distributors, dealers and rep firms offer additional benefits, such as the ability to deploy a super-sized, multi-location DS project quickly. An alliance with a distributor eliminates inventory commitments and resale agreements with manufacturers. There’s also the advantage of a wide variety of manufacturers’ products from which to choose. These firms can offer help with system design, and some distributors even offer guidance in developing a business plan for your company’s expansion into the DS market.
• Associations: The AV community is aware of InfoComm membership benefits (www.infocomm.org), so we’ll mention two other organizations that also address the needs of the DS marketplace: the Digital Signage Association (DSA, www.digitalsignageassociation.com) and POPAI (Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute, www.popai.com), the global association for Marketing at-Retail.
Associations enable professionals and end users to connect at chapter meetings and annual conferences. They provide fertile learning and sharing environments. DSA recently published Content Best Practices for Digital Signage Networks, and has plans to develop certification programs. Certification offers the credibility for which customers look. POPAI’s Digital Awards Signage Contest acknowledges excellence in retail digital signage. Such recognitions of outstanding work can help boost sales efforts.
• High-Def Video to DS: Traditionally, AV integrators develop relationships with AV design consultants, architects and construction companies. Andrew Sellers, CTS, Principal of Sensory Technologies, told us that his company recently gained a new DS client, Lucas Oil, from its relationships with the architect designing sponsor spaces in the Lucas Oil Plaza (within the Lucas Oil Stadium) in Indianapolis IN.
Through developing in-house expertise in digital signage, Sensory has also formed alliances with select DS vendors. On the Lucas Oil deployment, Sensory teamed up with DS vendor X2O Media. “Our client needed to manage its high-end graphical content deployment from its production facilities in California, so we integrated X2O Media’s remote content management application into the DS solution,” Sellers explained.
Acknowledging the benefits of forming strategic alliances, Sellers reported, “On other signage projects, we’ve partnered with content developers with expertise in interactive interface design and graphic designers, as well as firms specializing in advertising.”
Aware of the dilemma an AV integrator might experience in selecting partners, Sellers noted, “Although many digital signage providers have experience in specific aspects of the DS market, they often profess to have experience in all aspects. Our challenge is selecting the best-qualified provider for each specific aspect of a digital signage integration.”
Sensory actively encourages its employees to acquire useful accreditations. “We’re proud of our Diamond Level AVSP from InfoComm,” noted Sellers. “With CTS and CTS-I accreditation by ANSI [under ISO/IEC], these credentials are widely recognized. But network certifications weigh in highly in the signage space. Our engineers hold certifications from Microsoft, Cisco and others. That helps us manage the network side of digital signage.”
• Planned Expansion: Anticipating growth in the digital signage area, several AV companies have either spun off new business ventures or expanded their AV practices toward signage. In doing so, they have forged alliances with multiple DS vendors. Vince Faville, CTS, DS Market Development Manager for Advanced AV’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), told us that, by partnering with multiple DS software providers, his company is able to provide the right solutions for their clients.
“We are software agnostic,” Faville stated, “and because we know the capability of each package, including CoolSign, Dynamax POV, Scala 5 and Carousel [Tightrope Media Systems], we are able to select the best one to meet the specific needs of various clients.” He also noted, “Five years ago, our company established an IT-centric division, ATG, and that has helped increase our DS business exponentially.” ATG has helped its repeat customer, University of Pennsylvania, deploy a 30-endpoint DS Stores, to deploy a digital menuboard solution consisting of two rows of four 46-inch LCD monitors for each of its 12 new “brand format” stores starting this year.
Talking about the role of associations and other institutions offering certifications, Faville reported, “In the IT world, people are still unaware of AV certifications, such as CTS. [IT professionals] are more familiar with, and are reassured when they see, CompTIA [the Computing Technology Industry Association], MCSE [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer] or VBrick’s VCNE certifications, to name a few.”
Faville said that IT department heads usually have concerns about what is being added to their network, and DS is no exception. “Their issues can be anything from streaming video content to holes in the network’s firewall required to make a solution work. In most cases, they don’t know how the digital signage solution works, and it’s our job to help them understand. We’ve even gone a step further to stem concerns by using technicians with network experience.”
• Focused on DS: Several AV companies are focused on their core markets, be it corporate, education or government, and expand into digital signage as their clients’ needs evolve. Discussing the DS marketplace, Tom Johnson, CPMR, President of Digital AV, who also serves as the Digital Signage Association’s Vice President, Integrators & Pro A/V, said, “The marketplace is so diffracted that we began to recognize a need for some sort of organization to our common cause. This is how the Digital Signage Association got started. The digital signage market is a growing force and partnerships are critical to its sustained growth.”
On the topic of multiple alliances, Johnson noted, “[Digital AV] has an exclusive relationship with Scala, and that helps us to focus. Too many people try to be everything to everyone in this market, and that usually doesn’t work. Digital signage tends to be a vertically directed market with specialty and niche markets and sub-markets. Our specialty is corporate and academic clients. Others do retail; it’s usually fairly specific stuff.”
• Reach Out: There are many ways to grow your signage business, and partnerships with companies that have complementary skills can make this expansion easier and more profitable. As with any project, partnering with a client in a consultative role helps to achieve that client’s objectives, and that spells success. Ultimately, your own creativity and business vision will light your unique path to digital signage success.
We invite you to share your DS ideas and opinions with us, because one of the most organic partnerships in AV/IT may be the one that has developed over 50 years among the readers and writers of Sound & Communications.
Shonan Noronha, EdD, is an award-winning writer/producer who has designed and produced networked multimedia content for a broad spectrum of clients from Wall Street to Fleet Street. She consults on the applications of new media technologies for training, marketing and corporate communications. Send comments, questions and suggestions to her at email@example.com.