Interview with Alan Brawn on the state of digital signage, what’s buzzing, and the value of human-centricity

8 min read
Published April 1, 2024   |  Last Updated July 20, 2024

In a recent illuminating conversation, leading digital signage expert Alan Brawn sat down with CRI’s own Beth Warren to discuss the ways digital signage is evolving in retail environments today. The lively dialogue between the two long-time colleagues shed light on how artificial intelligence (AI), Audio-Visual over Internet Protocol (AV over IP), and psychodynamics are converging to redefine the shopping experience within physical stores.

Alan Brawn Headshot

Alan pointed out how, over the past few decades, the digital signage industry has evolved from purely retail to location-based across multiple verticals with information anytime, anywhere, and on any device. “It’s gone from ‘build it and they will come,’ to, ‘expected and demanded (and disappointed when it is absent)’. This shift from a simplistic to an omni approach is significant, but the core importance of connecting effectively with target audiences remains unchanged.”

Not too long ago, traditional media reigned supreme in the world of advertising, with radio, TV, print, and billboards forming the cornerstone of consumer outreach. The inconvenience of sitting through commercial breaks was just part of watching television for a nation of viewers, most of whom couldn’t have cared less about what was being advertised.

Today, in our highly connected, rapid-fire, in-your-pocket-at-all-times digital society, people expect something much different when it comes to marketing and media, including
in-store digital advertising. Digital advertising and communications / messaging platforms such as digital signage, social media, and mobile apps have created a precedent of personalization and contextualization such that Americans no longer have the patience for messaging that fails to engage them on a highly specific level.

When it comes to the retail experience for today’s customer, digital signage represents an array of unlimited possibilities, enabling dynamic and interactive engagement from kiosks in shopping malls to augmented reality displays in store windows (and much more). AI-augmented processes can now source and analyze customer data in ways never seen before, allowing brands to offer tailored messages based on time of day, demographics, and even individual consumer behavior.

The real challenge for retailers now lies in leveraging these new tools and platforms without losing sight of the core principle of advertising: forging meaningful connections through empathy, creativity, and a keen sense of context.

The digital signage revolution has a lot to do with technology, yes – but even more to do with human connection.

New tools, same desires: a word about why AI (and other forms of technology) will continue to play a a supportive role to enable empathy, personalization and human-centricity across commercial environments like retail

“Psychodynamics is what it’s all about,” Alan Brawn said, when the discussion turned to how retailers should make use of new tools like AI. “Understanding the psychology behind who's in front of the screen enables you to select content that's not just relevant to them, that's not just contextual for the environment, that's going to provoke an attitude change.”

Key to the expansion of digital signage is the integration of cloud computing, AI, and analytics, which together enable a level of content personalization previously unattainable. This technological triad allows for dynamic content that can change based on a variety of factors, including consumer behavior patterns, environmental conditions, and more.

People think artificial intelligence is either the downfall of civilization or the answer to all of our problems. It’s neither.

AI is a great tool and has the potential to revolutionize the way we handle data, providing insights into demographics and consumer behaviors with astonishing efficiency. It can distill vast amounts of information into actionable intelligence, offering marketers a powerful lens through which to view their audience. In marketing, AI is like the canvas and the brush to a painter—it’s essential, but it’s not the artwork itself.

The heart of marketing—the creation of content that resonates on a human level—remains distinctly human. AI can analyze and predict, but it can’t empathize. It can’t fathom the depth of human emotion, the nuances of connecting with a person on an experiential level, or the warmth of understanding. These are the areas where human creators, the artists of the marketing world, simply cannot be replaced. They infuse digital content with life, making it relatable and emotionally resonant.

In the context of digital signage, AI’s limitations become particularly apparent. The expectation of personalization in advertising has soared; audiences demand not just to see a beautiful screen but to engage with content that understands and reflects their emotional state. A digital sign must do more than catch the eye—it must speak to the heart. This is why AI, for all its transformative potential, will remain in a supporting role. It sets the stage but can never deliver the performance. That’s a task reserved for the human marketer, the one who knows that empathy can’t be faked and that the true connection comes from genuine creativity and understanding.

Use of AV over IP in digital signage: a key part of getting everything to hang together

Brawn pointed out that we’re now seeing a convergence between AV and IP - “a symbiotic relationship.” This is no shock to professionals in the digital signage industry, because they’ve actually adopted AV before the "traditional", commercial or pro-AV industry adopted it.

In addition to the introduction of the technologies discussed above, the adoption of Audio Visual (AV) over Internet Protocol (IP) in digital signage marks a pivotal shift from traditional, isolated setups to more integrated, dynamic networks. This technology convergence brings several key benefits to retailers:

  • Scalability: It allows for easy expansion of digital signage networks without significant infrastructure overhaul, accommodating business growth or changes seamlessly.
  • Flexibility: AV over IP facilitates the distribution of content across various screens and locations from a central point, enabling personalized and targeted messaging.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Leveraging standard network infrastructure for AV transmission reduces the need for expensive, specialized AV hardware and cabling, cutting down on installation and maintenance costs.
  • High quality: Despite the savings, the quality of audio and video remains high, ensuring engaging and compelling content for audiences.
  • Ease of content management: Real-time or scheduled content updates across all displays are simplified, keeping the content fresh and relevant with minimal effort.
  • Simplified management: Centralized software tools allow for the easy monitoring, control, and updating of content across the network, streamlining operations.

We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: the future of retail lies in creating seamless experiences that marry technology with the shopping environment in a way that feels natural to the consumer. Digital signage, when powered by AV over IP and AI, can be the canvas for such experiences, bringing together vivid displays and interactive elements that resonate with customers.

Implementation and integration challenges (in retail and beyond)

“Let me talk about it from an industry consultant perspective,” Brawn said as the topic shifted to implementation challenges retailers experience. “It is one of those 800-pound gorillas, elephants in the room, pick your metaphor that you like. Most retailers don’t have a grasp on what their objectives are.” He went on to make the point that in many companies, the digital signage approach is not actually demographic-oriented, it's not customer profile-oriented, and it's not device-oriented: it’s opinion-oriented. Which is to say, it shifts on the whims on the stakeholders involved. This effectively stymies the identification and execution of objectives, and therefore must be resisted and replaced with a commitment to what the data says - over what opinions would prefer.

So, along with the challenge of keeping a human pathos alive and well in an increasingly technological age, the effective implementation of digital signage in retail spaces comes with a number of pragmatic challenges as well, which include

  • Strategic clarity and engagement: Many retailers grapple with pinpointing their digital signage objectives, which is crucial for crafting content that captivates and prompts the desired actions from customers. For instance, a digital sign in a clothing store should do more than display the latest collection; it should inspire an emotional response that nudges shoppers towards a purchase. Without a well-defined strategy, digital signage risks becoming mere background noise rather than an influential part of the consumer's in-store experience.

    To combat the issue of unclear digital signage objectives, retailers should engage in thorough market research and customer feedback sessions to define clear goals.

  • Harmonizing digital and physical elements: The art of integrating digital signage lies in striking the right balance between technology and the store's physical environment. A digital display can serve as a modern storyteller, guiding and informing customers without overshadowing the products themselves.

    When executed with finesse, digital signs enhance the ambiance and inform the shoppers without causing sensory overload. For example, interactive screens placed strategically can guide customers to new products in a way that feels like discovery rather than direction.

  • Financial and technical considerations: Budget limitations and the complexities involved in setting up and maintaining digital signage systems are significant considerations. Retailers must navigate the costs and technicalities of installations, content management, and ongoing maintenance without sacrificing quality. A digital sign outside a boutique that showcases interactive, seasonal fashion trends can be a wise investment, but it requires careful financial planning and technical support to ensure its content remains fresh and relevant.

The goal is to invest in systems that not only draw the consumer's eye but also fit seamlessly into the larger narrative of the brand's physical presence.

Integrated Retail

Looking beyond Retail, are there territories or verticals that show promise for growth?

Alan said, “These markets are well known, but how digital signage applies to each of them is under tapped and untapped in some verticals”.

Digital signage solutions for healthcare, corporate, education, and hospitality sectors represent significant opportunities for growth. Educational institutions can utilize digital signage for wayfinding, event announcements, and emergency alerts, creating a safer and more connected campus environment. In healthcare, digital signage can improve patient experience and flow by providing directional guidance, estimated wait times, and health information. Hospitality can enhance a guest’s stay with digital signage by offering guests personalized welcome messages, event schedules, and information about local attractions. Most of these sectors are extremely human-centric, requiring just as much creative contextualization in their digital signage efforts as any other.

The artistry of “brand” and how we captivate consumers will never go out of style

As Alan and Beth wrapped up their discussion, they found themselves back at their initial jump-off point: all the technology in the world can’t salvage a lack of originality. The key to thriving (as a retailer) in this era lies not just in embracing new technologies but in understanding the unique desires and behaviors of customers and having a creative way of appealing to those desires and behaviors. Retailers must craft experiences that are not only technologically advanced but also deeply resonant and personalized, reflecting a profound understanding of their audience's needs and aspirations. Lastly, the trends we see and experience across retail apply to most other brick and mortar physical experiences – alas the lesson continues.

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