ICology: Conversations about digital signage in IC at CorpComm Expo

Ep #37, Rich Ventura, Raffi Vartian, Steve Glancey and Andrea Varrone

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This year's CorpComm Expo took place November 15-16 at Navy Pier in Chicago. Digital signage is often a misunderstood internal communications channel so I took the time to speak to four individuals who each represent a different part of the business. It's important for communicators to lean on and learn from partners like these in the industry. We cover hardware, integrations, content and education with guests:

  • Rich Ventura, NEC
  • Raffi Vartian, Diversified
  • Steve Glancey, Screenfeed
  • Andrea Varrone, Digital Signage Expo


Episode Transcript

Chuck Gose: I attended and spoke at the 2016 CorpComm Expo in Chicago, and since I left the day to day practice of internal communications, I've focused my time on helping communicators take advantage of digital signage. I know for some, it's not their favorite channel but it's so critical in key environments to help connect employees to the company, the brand, the messages. My employer BroadSign was a sponsor of this year's expo, so while I was there in Chicago I took the time to interview a few people with their thoughts on digital signage, internal comms but each from a different perspective.

First is Rich Ventura, VP of business development from NEC.

Rich Ventura: Everybody thinks of me, I'm just going to talk about displays. It was really about utilizing the right product for the right application.

Chuck: Next we have Raffi Vartian from Diversified.

Raffi Vartian: Our job is to essentially stand up and say, "we know this business, we can help you in this business".

Chuck: Then Steve Glancey from ScreenFeed.

Steve Glancey: One of the things that makes us really unique is that we definitely do specialized digital signage.

Chuck: And then last but certainly not least, Andrea Varrone, show director for Digital Signage Expo.

Andrea Varrone: We are a tradeshow dedicated to digital signage and interactive technology across all vertical markets, with corporate communications being one of our largest end user attending markets.

Chuck: Let's get started with Rich. ... I'm here now with Rich Ventura, VP of business development at NEC. Welcome to ICology Rich. You spoke today and the topic of your presentation today was choosing the right tools. So in your mind, what are the tools and what are the right one? What makes it a right tool?

Rich: We talked about was, everyone thinks I'm going to talk about displays, and it was really about utilizing the right product for the right application, so using commercial grade product instead of consumer grade product is really important. Make sure that you have something that's designed, if it's an application that's 24 hours a day or 18 hours a day, you're not going to put something that's going to last for two hours, right?

Making sure that the computing that you're using, you're not putting a big Dell or Lenovo tower, setting off to the side and you got cables all over the place, right? It's got to be clean and you got to make sure if you're going to do 4K, you got to put it, it supports 4K. That was big part of the focus, right? I talked further beyond that I said "also make sure you got the right software tools". So if you're doing multi-sites, you're not going to put Power Point all over the place, right? You're going to want to have something you can centrally manage, place you can do data feeds and stuff like from a screen feed or something like that's going to do a lot of data for you.

Putting together part of the tool that I mentioned too, is having a cross functional team. Getting people from all the different pieces of it, not just be marketing or not just be HR but having all the different departments involved and even surveying your employees, saying "are we talking about analytics" and of course it's not like digital signage in retail where you got "advertise this shirt, and I sell 50 of them there's my ROI", right? It's more okay, what is satisfaction, what is branding, all that awareness and build up your ROI. And one thing that I told everybody is, I always talk about the focus one, three and five. Look at your organization, you're one year out, you've deployed this, where are you at, right? Where do you want to be in one year? Three years from now, that's generally when people start their refresh so where do you vision that platform being? Where is it going to reside, what's it looking like?

And then five years from now is, how are you communicating to your employees or to your customers, build up the plan now because you don't want to in year four say "okay, we investing all this money four years ago, we got to completely replace the entire thing and start all over again". Go with a platform that's scalable and can grow with you and your application.

Chuck: NEC is in the screen business so what is, what makes a good digital signage screen? What are some things that communicators, if they're getting ready to launch a network or possibly even refresh a network, what should they be looking for in a screen?

Rich: Obviously, first thing I'll always say, it's got to have an NEC logo but reality, it's product that looks like it belongs. You never want the display to distract, right? You want the display to engage. The purpose of the display is to show everything. Some people say "well, the display is the eye into the solution". I go "okay, it is" but really the display is the palate. If you have unbelievable content and a terrible display, it's horrendous insulation, right? If you've got terrible content and a great display, it's still a horrendous insulation. You got to go hand in hand, right?

So you look at product that's not going to have dead pixels on it. You're going to look at product that's designed that can go portrait or landscape depending on your content. For product with touch integration, if you want touch. You want 4k, you want video walls, you want real tight bezels, you want color uniformity when you're doing that. Last thing you want is a video wall where all nine screens on three by three, they all look different, right? You got bright or light or so on and so forth. Having uniformity, all those things, that's what's going to play into it. It's also and I can't stress this more than anything else is, the right display for the job. You're not going to put a 42 inch entry level product outside and in the sunlight and in the rain and snow and hope that it lasts longer than a couple of months. But you also don't need to put an industrial grade product inside that can withstand rain and heat and everything else but it's in a climate controlled space, so having the right product for the right space is going to be really important.

Chuck: And you brought up one of the things that I talked to communicators about is the value of, the decision you need to make between landscape versus portrait. Because so many see these as TV screens, they automatically default to landscape mode without even thinking about the opportunities that a portrait mode screen brings them, are you seeing more portrait installations or are people choosing that orientation or is it still traditionally landscape?

Rich: I would say in corp communications, we're probably about 70/30 so 70% landscape, 30% portrait. Where we see a lot more portrait coming in is touch, people want interactivity right so that more of that one to one relationship because the portrait's like a silhouette of a person, right? The other thing we're seeing is expansion away from 16x9 world. It's not all about a single screen anymore. It's taking a 1x8 or doing a 2x4 or putting panels at an angle and making it almost like an art piece. People are realizing that a single screen in landscape or portrait is kind of boring. Having more of an affect and being able to do more, because content, the more we do things like that, the more things you can do with content. It becomes pretty interesting.

I was talking to somebody after my presentation and he said "Yeah, we've got this amazing NEC video wall in our lobby and our problem is content" and I go "Well, who walks by your wall?", "Well I don't know". "How long do people dwell?", "Well I don't know". I said "what if you put analytics in, what if you put a camera in there and starting tracking how long people are dwelling around the wall, what times of day they're doing. Test content too. See if that increases the dwells".  And he goes "You know, we never thought of that" and I go "Don't think of analytics, it's like that just for digital signage or just for retail, implemented there are well and try portrait versus landscape. What's the engagement like? Capture analytics data and backend, that's a great thing about going with a software package that's designed for this application is, analytics are in there, right?  You can look at how long people are engaging, how long the contents been running and all that kind of stuff and be smart and be more intelligent about your content, more intelligent about your signage and things like that. That goes back to the whole comment of using the right tools.

Chuck: That's one of the great things about coming to a show, like CorpComm Expo. I think there's a lot of communicators that probably aren't aware that those analytics even exist, whereas you say in the retail world that's pretty common knowledge. I don't think there's probably a lot of communicators that thought about that or if they did, they were probably concerned about having a little bit of a big brother mentality of are employees really going to think they're going to be watching me, recording me, but I do think that you said, the analytics will tell them what's important, what's not, what works, what doesn't and they probably don't even have a way to capture that right now.

Rich: I think what I've gathered talking to a lot of these communicators coming through here is most of them say "Well, I'm on the content side. I don't deal with the hardware. I know we got NEC screens or I know we got this and I know we're using the software" and I say "Well, okay great but how are you measuring the effectiveness of your content?" They go "Well, people seem to like it" and I go "Well, what if you had tool that actually tells you how much they like it or don't like, getting that feedback" and they're like "oh that's kind of interesting idea, how do I do it?" and so okay "Here's what you can do" and they go "Well, I have to get my IT guys" and "Yeah, you definitely have to get your IT guys involved in this but this is a tool for you."

Marketers have been using this in retail, you go back years and cameras are all over stores and I always laugh and people go "Well that's just for security" and I go "No it's not. They know your traffic patterns, they know where you're going, they know where to lay out the potato chips in a certain area, they know all those thing. They know that to put candy at the reach of a child in the aisle cause they know that's, the child going to want the candy, right? They know those things because they're smart. Communicators need to do the same thing. Utilize the tools that are available to be smarter about how you communicate and engage with your employees or engage, I always tell people "don't forget, you're also engaging externally so in your lobbies, that's also really important, how you communicate to people that are waiting in your lobbies or waiting in areas that customers or partners may be walking through".

Chuck: All right, thank you Rich.

Rich: Thank you.


Chuck: I'm here with Raffi Vartian, the digital media solutions specialist with Diversified. Welcome to ICology.

Raffi Vartian: Thank you very much Chuck. Good to see you.

Chuck: We've known each other for awhile, one of those friendly familiar faces in the digital signage space so it's great to see you here at CorpComm Expo.

Raffi: Absolutely.

Chuck: But this is now a new change with you recently going to Diversified.

Raffi: That's right, that's right. I've been in the software business for about nine years now and recently made the move to Diversified. I've known the folks over at Diversified specifically the digital media group for probably my whole time within the digital signage space. Went from a bunch of guys I knew in New Jersey to really, really exciting, innovative growing organization and that was really the thrust of the job. The digital media solution specialist is a long title for digital signage guy within the organization.

You've got hundreds, literally, of sales people at this point that sell different types of solutions. Maybe they're broadcast guys, maybe they're AV guys, and they may not necessarily understand our space so our job is to essentially stand up and say "We know this business, we can help you in this business". I'm not saying we're all going to always make money at every single opportunity and every single deal but we can be a guiding hand for a lot of the sales guys that don't necessarily have this kind of expertise.

Chuck: So then I guess for full transparency sake, so BroadSign and Diversified are partners here in digital signage space. To the end user, they might hear the word integrator.

Raffi: Yes.

Chuck: Explain, because obviously there's a lot of communicators that listen to this, explain what an integrator is and also what the value you bring to a digital signage project.

Raffi: Absolutely. Integrator sometimes gets a bad name because some organizations hide behind the fact that they have to integrate things and their version of integration is, take a screen out of a box and hang it on the wall and put a cable in it and put power on and walk away. A true integrator is one that understands the end customer's needs, knows a lot about the software in the industry, for fact we're not only partners with BroadSign of course but with many other partners in this space and we know who fits where and we know who can actually achieve these kinds of solutions.

So we do a lot of consulting actually and designing before we get into the "integration". It sounds cliché almost to be a solutions partner but that's how we view it. We work from the very beginning from concept to inception all the way to execution and then on-going management on the back end of that.

Chuck: And then explain what that sort of on-going management looks like because somebody launching a brand new network might not have any idea what that even entails.

Raffi: Oh for sure, and sometimes networks may not need that kind of level of management. If you've got five screens in one facility, and you can actually see it with your eyeballs, well you really don't need a company like Diversified but if you've got multiple facilities, hundreds of screens, thousands of screens, you need to be able to manage those things remotely and that's really what we do.

We have a network operations center out of New Jersey, where we're staffing 365 days, 24/7 to ensure that those screens are up, that the content is correct, that they're going up at the right times. And if something does break, we're in the technology business, things break, to be able to proactively get out there and solve those problems so we do a lot of mission critical networks. We do a lot of banking institutions, we've got a lot of retail where you can't go into high end retail and a screen be black.  That is a massive negative impression on your brand and that's something that people don't understand about digital signage, is that it cuts both ways is that if it looks phenomenal, it increases your brand value and you if you've got bad content or you've got a black screen, it actually does a negative impression on your brand.

Chuck: And think even from an internal standpoint, the same thing happens. Not maybe from the same profit incentive that a retailer might have. But if an employee walks by a screen inside a company it's blue or it's black and it's never playing contact, I think it sends a message to that employee.

Raffi: It absolutely does. It says that "We don't value you enough to actually make this content relevant. I'm going to through up a screen because someone told me to put that screen up but I don't think enough about you as an employee to keep that content up and fresh and running". Just having a conversation with my colleagues and friends over at ScreenFeed and they say that "Look, we're not the primary content on the screen. What we do is we help attract their eyeballs and we keep it fresh and interesting". And look, people are stressed out in their jobs. People are really busy and they've got phones in their face constantly and they're inundated with information and I know that you know that communicators are looking for new and interesting ways to penetrate through a smartphone that's in your pocket. To actually get that information through. One of the ways is giving someone entertainment as well. Maybe it's a little bit of news, sports, weather. But then it's also followed up with HR information or make sure you're calling someone about your benefits packages. Things like that.

Chuck: Yeah, I think it's the possibility of just making that network more interesting because it's not, again to use a cliché phrase, it's not the corporate kool aid all the time. It is timely, it is relevant. I think it does help reduce some of the burden that communicators feel of keeping the network fresh. I've challenged some of the digital signage industry space that I think internal networks actually have a greater challenge than retail networks from a content standpoint because essentially your customers, your employees are seeing these screens eight hours a day, five days a week versus a consumer who might be in that store once a week for thirty minutes. So I think the challenge can sometimes be greater given that you've been in the digital signage space for a while, are there any quick tips or, ya know, simple mistakes you see communicators make do you think "oh, if you just did this differently it would have a profound impact?

Raffi: Oh so, stagnation is absolutely the thing, right? Because people just expect updated content constantly. So the content requirements are something that people really have to make a consideration of. But I think the other one is just messy screens. Not clarity. I mean, our good friend Dave Haines, over at [inaudible 00:17:09] just absolutely eviscerates people for putting in seventeen different zones and tickers and all this kind of stuff. We can't consume that amount information. Everyone tries to, I know. I think we all at one point are sitting next to our spouse on the couch and you've got a laptop in your lap and you've got a phone out and you're watching TV. And it's like, this just too much going on.

So you have to be able to think about the challenge of the things that you want to communicate but also the humans that you're communicating to and the fact that they're overworked and overwhelmed and stressed out and they may only see that screen for seven seconds a day as they walk by. So what's the content strategy literally related to the physical location that they're in. And again, not to go back to it. I'm not trying to give a pitch here. But that's why I joined on this side of the business as opposed to the software side. Because I get to work through those problems with people and I really enjoy it.

Chuck: Well thank you Raffi.

Raffi: It's been my pleasure Chuck.


Chuck: All right so I'm now with Steve Glancey, with ScreenFeed. He's the VP of Biz Dev there. Steve you don't know this but two of the previous guests mentioned ScreenFeed but didn't say what you guys did. So welcome to ICology first of all.

Steve: Thank you.

Chuck: And then explain to the listeners what ScreenFeed is.

Steve: So ScreenFeed offers a full lineup store, fifty plus content feed options that any network manager can log in, subscribe to a feed and it's therefore licensed and they can configure it however they want it. If it's weather or traffic or any other localized content item they can add a zip code or whatever they want to do and then they can copy a URL and plug it into their software and it automatically keeps their screens fresh and engages an audience.

Chuck: And I see a lot of times communicators want to integrate live television into their screen. We're talking about digital signage here. I've never been a big fan of that because I think at that point you lose control of the message. You really don't know what's going to show up on your screen. Whether it's CNN, ESPN, whatever it is. You've lost control of the message at that point. Whereas with your content they get to dictate what shows up, whether it's health news, weather, traffic. What have you seen as some of the best uses in how customers are integrating the ScreenFeed content into their existing corporate content.

Steve: Sure. Yeah, there's lots of ways you can go about it. It depends where your screens are going to be located. Are you talking to customers as they come in or is it employees? Are all of your employees in one building or are they around the world? Where are they going? Are they in the lunchroom or are they sitting at their desk? So there's a lot of different ways that you can use ScreenFeed content to engage them. So if they're leaving and they're getting on the elevators to go home for the day, maybe you want to show them traffic information.

Other ways with news for example, we offer anything from kind of a general entertainment or top news update for the day to industry specific news to try to inform your employees about what's going on in your industry, what are competitors doing. Maybe you guys were in the news and it's kind of nice to see what your company is talking about. So that's just a couple of examples. We offer a lot of other things but ...

Chuck: Now you brought up something in your previous statement around the fact that the content is licensed. I know there's a lot of people that think they can just grab an XML feed from here, an RSS feed from here or grab some video CNN is streaming. In a lot of cases that's illegal. So why is it so important from your standpoint that all of your content is licensed and on the up and up?

Steve: So yeah, I mean there have been some cases in the past where some legal ramifications have fallen out for digital signage networks. If you look at the webpage wherever you're copying that URL or wherever the source of that URL is coming from, if you look at the terms of use at the bottom it says it's for non-commercial use and you also have to create a functional link to the website, which in digital signage 99% of the time, that's not happening. They're using that content, they're pushing it for marketing purposes and you're not marketing in the way that they're intending it to be used so we offer commercially licensed content feeds so you can do it right and you can keep your company in the up and up and make sure not creating any sort of vulnerabilities for lawsuits or anything that could come up.

Chuck: Now let's talk a little bit about from a social integration standpoint because there's a big push for a lot of communicators to focus on brand advocacy and making sure that employees know, sort of, what the company's sharing socially on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook. To encourage them to become part of that community and also re-share it. So what sort of social integrations do you guys have?

Steve: We offer integrations with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And each one of those mediums are different channels. Like you said, there's a lot of different ways you can do it. We have a social app dashboard that allows you to either follow certain accounts or different industry leaders or you could kind of bring in different hashtags or whatever. And then there's a moderation tool that allows you to select what's maybe most appropriate for there and it can just be from your mobile phone. You can let someone manage that or if you're just running an account it can be automated, that kind of thing.

Chuck: For the ScreenFeed content are there other outlets other than digital signage or is it only for digital signage?

Steve: Yeah, I think that's one of things that makes us really unique is that we definitely do specialize in digital signage. So you know, we're not building it for the web and then saying "hey, this could respond to your screen if you want to make it work". We just do digital signage, that's what we focus on. We focus on the experience. The viewer is not scrolling on a webpage. They're only looking at something for ten, fifteen seconds at a time and you need to maximize, kind of, that engagement and move on to your other messages that are meant to create that return-on-investment or that return-on-objective for why you put the screens up in the first place. So we're just focused on digital signage. We know how playlists are structured and viewership and the whole medium.

Chuck: And then if somebody wanted to learn more about ScreenFeed where do you recommend they go?

Steve: So ScreenFeed.com you can look and browse through our entire content menu. You can go through, you can actually sign up for a free fifteen day trial if you just wanted to play around with anything. Or you can reach out to my email steve@screefeed.com and I'd be happy be to help people with any questions they have.

Chuck: And BroadSign is a partner with ScreenFeed but it's also important to know that if you're not a Broad Sign customer you guys work with a lot of other platforms out there.

Steve: Yeah, I mean, BroadSign is a great solution. But maybe they're already committed to something or whatever. We do integrate pretty well with most software out there, pretty easily.

Chuck: All right, thank you Steve.

Steve: Thank you.


Chuck: All right I'm now here with Andrea Varrone from Expo Nation. She is also the Show Director for Digital Signage Expo. Andrea, welcome to ICology.

Andrea: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Chuck: So this, CorpComm Expo, this is year number two. But Digital Signage Expo has been around longer. So talk a little about the history of what some people know as DSE.

Andrea: Yeah, so DSE stands for the Digital Signage Expo. This upcoming show in March will be the fourteenth year and essentially we are a trade show dedicated to digital signage and interactive technology across all vertical markets with corporate communications being one of our largest end user attendee markets.

Chuck: Now I would say for communicators who look to go to events, DSE may not even be on their radar. But let's try to put it there. What would a communicator get out of attending DSE in 2017.

Andrea: You're absolutely right that they may not know who we are. And why they should know is because we've partnered up with Advanced Learning Institute (ALI), is doing an entire pre-show event, the Tuesday before the actual trade show opens, completely dedicated to corporate communicators and why they should be interested in digital signage and where to get started. And the greatest part about that is once the conference is over they have built in time to walk around the show floor and kind of put to use everything they learned at the conference. And we're going to have actually guided tours to kind of help you walk through that show floor so you're not a deer in the headlights. So lots of reasons to come to Vegas.

Chuck: Don't need many reasons to come to Vegas. So with ALI and guests on this show have heard me talk about ALI events in the past. Good segue there because I'm also chairing that event in Las Vegas. Nice little plug there. It will be a great event with a lot of communicators from a lot of markets. People who have been guests on this show and people who will be future guests on this show. So what other educational opportunities are there for communicators outside of say the ALI event and also just walking the show floor and learning about some of the technology?

Andrea: In terms of education, all in all we have over a hundred speakers and in additional to the pre-show ALI event there are several conference program sessions dedicated to corp comm as well as free events which are on floor workshops that will take place on the actual show floor so there's just a lot of different opportunities to learn and we're trying to do our best to create more reasons for you to get on a plane and come see us.

Chuck: Now how would somebody go and learn more about DSE?

Andrea: Simple. You just need to go to digitalsignageexpo.net and actually if you click the "Attend" tab you will see a whole page dedicated to corporate communication to find everything you need to know about what you should do at DSE.

Chuck: Okay, thank you Andrea.

Andrea: Thanks for having me.

Chuck: I want to thank each of the guests. Rich, Raffi, Steve, and Andrea, for taking the time away from the show to speak to me. One big take away for anyone interested digital signage to help improve employee communications is to use the knowledge your partners have. Whether it be around hardware, software, integrations or educations, we are here to help.

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