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Monday
Apr162012

Where Does Digital Signage Fit in a World Where TV is Ubiquitous?

Digital signage communicators must begin looking for ways to leverage the ubiquity of smartphones and media tablets.

If you are like me and drawn to science fiction, fascinated by quirky views of the future, you might remember a mid-1980s TV show called Max Headroom. While the particulars of the series have blurred in my memory over the years, the one thing that hasn't is the ubiquity of television in the society portrayed in the show.

I'm not talking television simply being convenient; in the world explored in the series, TV literally seemed to be everywhere. Not just in homes and apartments, but on the streets, resting on a pile of trash, in the trunk of a car. You get the idea. It was impossible to get away from the blasted things.

That feeling of society being overwhelmed by the tube -now there's an antiquated term- seemed so impossible, so remote, so "sci-fi" just a couple of decades ago. But today, I would argue, we are well on our way to similar television omnipresence.

In May 2011, the Nielsen Company estimated the number of TV households in the United States to be more than 114 million, or 96.7 percent of all households in the country. In January of the same year, Nielsen estimated there to be on average 2.5 TVs per U.S. household. Impressive, but nowhere near ubiquitous -at least not by "Headroomian" proportions.

But TV households don't tell the whole story. According to an online Time Business article published a few weeks ago, Apple has sold 55 million iPads in the two years they have existed. When all media tablets -not just the iPad- are factored in, market research firm IHS iSuppli projects that 275 million tablets will be sold by 2015, or about 16 times the number shipped in 2010.

Getting a little closer to ubiquity? Perhaps, but don't forget about smartphones. A CNN report from July 2011 quotes a report from the Pew Internet and the American Life Project estimating 35 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Another study from research firm In-Stat, quoted in an August 2011 CNET article, forecasts that 65 percent of Americans, some 200 million people, will have smartphones and/or tablets by 2015.

Now, it seems to me, we are approaching the Headroom threshold of TV ubiquity. Granted they are more likely to take the form of a sleek tablet, smartphone or flat panel TV than a beat up set teetering on a mound of broken TVs in an alleyway, but ubiquitous nonetheless.

This sort of near omnipresence would seem to raise a fundamental question for digital signage communicators: What is the value of communicating via a digital sign, if hundreds of potentially competing screens are literally a few feet away in the pockets and purses of passersby?

I would argue digital sign communication is not threatened by the broad availability of smartphones and media tablets, but potentially enhanced in at least three important ways.

First, those portable devices offer a means for digital signage communicators in the future to continue their dialog with their audience once they leave the store, arena, lobby or other venue.

Second, if television-viewing habits are any indication, many people don't replace their TV viewing with online viewing, they complement it. Millions of people today regularly interact with their friends online via Facebook and other social media about a show while they are watching. It's not too far-fetched to envision similar sorts of interaction while in front of a digital sign, depending upon the circumstance.

Third, total viewing time of video entertainment is increasing. Rather than cannibalizing an existing audience, new media devices are driving greater viewing. For digital signage communicators, this increased viewing means it should be easier, not harder to attract people who have demonstrated a willingness to watch media on flat screens.

To me, it seems the Headroom-like availability of screens on the whole will complement the communications efforts of those who market and message with digital signs. Not embracing the ubiquity of these screens and looking for ways to leverage them would represent a major missed opportunity.

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