It seems like every week I see some kind of email news “bulletin” arrive in my inbox espousing the merits of digital signage as a marketing tool.

At ScreenScape we believe that marketing is most effective when it leads directly to actual sales lift. Posting any kind of digital message on any kind of digital out-of-home network isn’t necessarily going to move the sales needle. The truth is many conventional digital signage projects fail to resonate with their local in-store audiences and serve as a practical example of how there are no guarantees that generic digital signage ever truly engages customers. More often than not what these projects are lacking is a true understanding of what the newer forms of the technology can do to customize the message and take full advantage of the context of that consummate moment – the buying decision. Fundamentally, the tremendous power and promise of place-based media and the key to effective digital out-of-home advertising, is in truly engaging people on a more personal level. It’s not about mass marketing…it’s about selling.

Selling vs. advertising

In fact there is a world of difference between the act of selling and the act of advertising. If you were to mount a digital screen in Grand Central Station and begin broadcasting generic promotional messages on behalf of general household consumer goods…you would be advertising. But would you be selling? To some extent the digital medium affords the marketer a broader and more powerful toolkit to help its audience experience the features and benefits of a product. But fundamentally this kind of digital advertising is still just a different form of mass marketing. A network-centric approach to place-based media offers so much more. Digital Signage is much more effective when it is used as a selling tool. If you instead use digital screens in each of your retail stores, for example, to send contextually-relevant messages to local customers as if the store manager had hand-tailored the messages herself – you will begin to see the potential of the medium as a tool for customer engagement – as a tool for actual sales.

Optimize place-based media for your most important customers

It’s rather ironic how some businesses spend millions of dollars in a shot-gun style ad campaign while they have so much work to do to optimize the shopping experience in their own place of business. If I’m the CEO of a chain of retail stores my first priority is going to be in making sure that every one who walks through my doors is treated as my most important customer. If I can leverage my investment in social media, so much the better!

Empowering retail

By empowering a store manager to co-curate the promotions featured on their own digital displays, businesses can begin to fine tune their message to the needs of the local audience. They can adjust their promotional message to take advantage of the local weather. They can use a timely promotion to move more of a particular product. In a nutshell, they can take advantage of some local intelligence on the ground to actually have a meaningful two-way conversation with their customers!

From there you could spur engagement through mobile devices. You could take advantage of location-based marketing services like foursquare to encourage your customers to check-in to your store to unlock special promotions. You could partner with other local businesses to promote local events. Using a service like ScreenScape you could actually post your sales messages on screens inside neighbouring venues, or places across town where your target market tends to gather. In this way the selling can begin outside the store.

Sales is the foundation of effective marketing

If the foundations of all digital signage installations were geared towards this kind of deep personal engagement with customers, in other words if they were used more as effective local sales tools than as mass marketing tools, what would they offer as a more expansive digital-out-of-home advertising network? Ironically, the more effective a digital signage network is at engaging with local customers the more effective it can be as part of a national or international marketing network. The future of DOOH advertising isn’t to take television-style advertising to new places. It is empowering local store owners, local bar owners, the operators of the local health clinic, the local innkeeper and others like them to take advantage of easy-to-use and cost-effective tools that offer them a powerful new way -a better way- to engage with their customers. Only then will we have the foundations to build a scalable network that unlocks the true potential of digital-out-of-home as a marketing vehicle.