Brown, who is moderating a panel at the expo of use case successes and digital signage expectations in the years to come, was surprised through 2012 that ultra-thin, 55-inch displays became the hottest hardware item purchased by transit operators. To him, that indicates that transit managers want a “wow factor” with signage upgrades as well as advertising potential in their central terminal and congregation areas.
Bigger than those big video wall screens, though, will be the onslaught of analytics. Marketers and startups are enamored with the potential to cull business wisdom from various data points to and from digital signs. With leaps in analytic technology and methodology — think IBM’s “Jeopardy!” supercomputer Watson meets Jonah Hill’s character in “Moneyball” — Brown and others feel transit systems could prove an intriguing test case.
“We had a consultant speak to us nine months ago who felt like you could predict the future of purchases by what was on the screen,” he said.
For all of the bells and whistles with digital signage, there are some expressing healthy skepticism. Dave Haynes, partner at The Preset Group, a consultancy specializing in digital signage projects, said he has seen some rays of pertinent use of digital signage in transportation. For instance, the connection of GPS and mapping applications from digital signs to transit hubs and inside of rail cars or buses addresses unique needs for both the traveling public and the business in town.
In terms of massive discoveries and marketing opportunities from commuter analytics, Haynes is wary. Metrics can be tricky as many people pass through a subway station each month, but they may be in a hurry and are certainly “customers” counted multiple times. Interactive also might return just the info advertisers dread: an ad or sign is being wholly ignored.
Even as investments and upgrades are flowing to these transit systems, Haynes said the advertising dollars may be taking a more direct route via mobile devices or limiting their contribution to what could be perceived as mass transit’s “down market.”
“Even the New York City Metro, which runs a lot of seven-figure income people to and from Lower Manhattan, has platforms and rail cars populated mostly by ads for career colleges and English language classes. That’s the biggest media market in the world,” said Haynes.
In his annual predictions, digital signage author and Web analyst Keith Kelsen wrote recently that a big change he expects for the coming year relevant to transportation providers doesn’t surround hardware or software at all, but the long-standing ad agency struggle with great content. As the tech side of these signs matures, advertisers — and, by extension, the transit systems that house them — must have a tailored plan for this specific audience that expects “high-quality” digital content but has a big risk of repetition and dismissal.
“The challenge is how to create content that is network wide, has continuity and is cost effective. Depending upon the type of network — whether it is point of sale, point of wait or point of transportation — it is the level of work and the amount of content that is needed to accomplish the refresh rate that makes a digital signage network successful,” Kelsen wrote.
Not burdened by technical challenges or content concerns, sophisticated digital advertising displays are popping up across the United States: at Amtrak stations in Washington, D.C., in rail installations on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, on display in Buffalo through its Niagara Frontier Transit Authority.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority launched a pilot program on digital signage geared toward advertising in the last year, including two high-resolution outdoor screens at its South Station. MBTA, the rail, subway and bus line operator for the greater Boston area, has long had digital signs for wayfinding and has tinkered with other forms of unique ad possibilities, like a short-lived audio broadcast at stations. Offering in-house information along with ads, the new smattering of digital signage has been a secondary initiative compared with another station move to bring “countdown” clocks for transit times across the system. But if the promises of millions in ad revenues shared in part with the transit authority come through, MBTA officials appear likely to give a longer look at more digital ad signage, according to spokesman Joshua K. Robin.