I can still remember the first time I saw a digital billboard.

I was near Bagnell Dam on the Lake of the Ozarks. It was nighttime, and it loomed out of the darkness, huge and blindingly bright.

I’d never seen something quite like it, and it made such an impression that to this day, I could tell you what it was advertising—a lite beer with lime, I believe.

But besides being attention-grabbing, it was also distracting.

My father was driving the car and immediately started griping about how much he disliked these newfangled signs.

In other words, digital signage is a polarizing topic.

But before we discuss the finer details, let’s take a step back and define what digital signage actually is.

Digital signs use projectors, LEDs, or LCDs to display content. The content can range from advertisements to maps of a location, videos to departures and arrivals at an airport.

Pretty much anything you could put on a screen, you can display on a digital sign.

There’s way too many possibilities to cover comprehensively, so let’s look at some broad categories, with plenty of case studies to keep it interesting.

There are too many possibilities with screens inside a business or other establishment—anything from advertisements to announcements to maps to….

Instead, let’s look at a trio of examples.

  1. Digital menu boards

Digital menu boards allow eateries to display dynamic, colorful menus, complete with images of the food and tantalizing animations, for their customers. Pricing and item availability updates can be made on the fly.

So it’s no wonder that industry giants such as McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts are adopting them.

In 2014, Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out digital menus to 3,000 locations after the success of a 100-location pilot program.

They incentivized the adaptation process for franchisees by paying for content costs.

Among the useful lessons they learned during the process are that subtle animations were best—a little caught attention, but too much was distracting; regular content updates increase customer engagement; and the more planning done in advance, the smoother the rollout.

  1. Digital dressing rooms

Clothing outfitter Ralph Lauren recently implemented a “smart” fitting room at one of its NYC locations.

The dressing rooms include an RFID tags reader and a mirror that doubles as a display screen.

When a customer enters the dressing room carrying clothing, the reader identifies the items based on their RFID tags.

The mirror then displays a large image of the clothing, along with options to change the lighting in the room, see other size and color options for the item, and even browse recommendations for other items to complete the outfit.

Customer feedback has been positive, and the clothier may install similar fitting rooms in some of its other locations.

  1. Dynamic wayfinding

If you’ve travelled recently, you may well have passed through an airport that’s implemented a dynamic wayfinding display.

Unlike the simple floorplan-plus-“You are here!” sticker signs of the past, these displays are interactive.

For example, one located in an airport terminal would likely allow customers to switch between terminal maps. It might let them sort a list of restaurant options by type of food or alphabetically. It could display weather information or advertise for nearby attractions.

The city of Toronto recently announced a plan to install information kiosks about its public transportation options. They’ll be located inside city buildings, including city hall. Their goal is to decrease the city’s carbon footprint by encouraging residents to choose sustainable transport options.

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The interactive touch screens will display “live real-time transportation information and directions to all local transportation options.”

Outdoor digital signage

As of 2013, over 500,000 billboards lined the roads of America—but by 2015, only about 6,100 of them were digital.

Digital billboards, rare, brightly lit, colorful, and ever-changing, are real eye-catchers. In fact, a Swedish study concluded that drivers look more often and gaze longer at digital billboards than traditional ones.

A 2015 study found that people exhibit high brand recall after seeing digital billboards.

Over half of those who’d seen a digital billboard in the past month claimed to be able to recall the message on the screen after passing it. Between 74 and 89 percent could recall at least one specific digital ad.

Digital billboards allow you to use as many bright colors as you want and display animated messages.

Another advantage of digital billboards is the ability to change the message displayed frequently—or even update it real-time. I’ve personally seen a local hospital who uses their spot on a digital billboard to tell you the current length of the wait in their emergency room.

You don’t have to hire someone to climb up on the billboard and laboriously paste a new message up every time you want to advertise a sale at your business.

On the downside, you will also likely be sharing the billboard with up to seven other businesses. Cars driving by might not even get a chance to see your ad.

Digital billboards are costly for advertising companies to install, usually between $175,000 and $500,000 apiece. This may lead to higher costs of rental spots (depending on the location, of course).

Indoor digital signage

This is such a huge area it’d be impossible to cover comprehensively.

Finally, some consider digital billboards to be unsightly or even a road hazard. The aforementioned Swedish study couldn’t conclude that digital billboards actually distract drivers. But some fear they may be a distraction to drivers anyway.

Over a dozen cities have banned digital billboards, including St. Louis.

There’s also the environmental consideration: the billboards are made of thousands of LEDs which are lit day and night and require their own cooling system. An electronic billboard requires thirty times the energy the average household does during a year.

On a smaller scale, many grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, churches, gas stations, and other businesses employ LED signs.

These can be used to display daily deals, operating hours, eye-catching animations, the time and temperature, or whatever else is programmed in.

These can be a highly effective form of advertising. Small business owners have reported sales increases of over 15 percent after investing in an LED sign. The same study also mentions previous data indicating that in terms of cost per 1000 impressions made, LED signs may be the most effective medium out there.

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The authors of that study surveyed store owners and managers about their satisfaction with and perceived effectiveness of their LED signs.

Eighty-six percent of those surveyed said they believed their signs brought in new customers, with 83 percent saying the signs brought a marked increase in sales. Not only that, but over 90 percent said they found the signs easy to update. And eighty-nine percent would recommend them to others.

According to the study, there are a number of factors to keep in mind when installing an LED sign. Two-sided signs were perceived as more useful in helping customers find the business. Signs with two lines of text displayed were more effective than those with one or three lines. Script fonts were found to be hard to read and distracting.

Projection

Projectors can be used to display messages and advertising on the outside of buildings, or indoors on ceilings and walls.

Since they don’t require expensive LCD or LED screens, they can be an affordable way to display very large messages, logos, or decorative patterns.

For example, Bourbon producer Jim Beam projected an elaborate, nine-story tall Christmas message onto its distillery in Kentucky. Using painstaking digital projection mapping, they created a display using 2D and 3D imagery which details the history of the company.

Rather than a mere ad, it’s an entire holiday light show.

The corporation is pairing the display with other events such as caroling and ice sculpting. Billing it as a new “Christmas tradition,” Jim Beam clearly hopes to attract a lot of media attention and draw in many holiday-spirited visitors.

There are also interactive projections. Some of these take the form of touch-sensitive “holographic” displays. Using either front or rear projection, an image is beamed onto a sheet of glass with a touch-sensing film.

Others work by sensing blocked light, rather than touch.

I’ve seen this employed in malls and airports. These displays often feature interactive elements such as matching or whack-a-mole-type games.

One notable and rather heart-warming example is a 2013 ad campaign by Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola created projection and 3D-mapping enabled vending kiosks in rival countries India and Pakistan.

The kiosks are linked to each other; a person standing in one country is projected onto the wall of one in the other country.

The people in each kiosk are given simple tasks that require teamwork to complete, such as drawing a circle by tracing their finger on the wall of the kiosk. Completing the tasks results in the machine dispensing a Coca-Cola can.

According to Coca-Cola, the kiosks are meant to foster unity and cultural understanding between the nations.

But given that Coca-Cola’s video about the project has gained over 3 million views on YouTube, it’s clear it was also a savvy advertising campaign.

Cost is a potential barrier here. Elaborate projects such as Jim Beam’s and Coca Cola’s are likely out of the price range for smaller businesses. A brief Google search for basic interactive floor projection systems found options costing between $1,500 and $6,000 for complete packages.

Those hoping to install an interactive projection system should expect to pay for a projector, a computer to run it, installation for those, and a yearly licensing fee for software to design the interactive ads.

Non-interactive projection systems would cost less.

A limiting factor is light; outdoor projectors would not be visible during the daytime.

Conclusion

As you can see, digital signage is a massive and ever-expanding area with great potential to catch customers’ eyes and drive engagement. From a simple projector all the way up to a pricey digital billboard spot, there’s options for every business size and price point. The only question is which is right for you, and the only limitation is your imagination.

Does your company use digital signage? What creative solutions have you implemented? Discuss in the comments!