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Digital Signage, Smartphones - A Marriage Made in Heaven or an Unholy Union?

Over the past few months, various commentators have discussed the synergy that can be created when digital communications between digital signs and cellphones is enabled -via a Bluetooth connection or other wireless means.

The concept makes perfect sense. Enabled with this capability, digital out-of-home signs add new value for viewers and communicators alike. For instance, in a store communications between digital signs and cellphones can be used to enhance the experience of a shopper by adding handheld interactivity, delivering custom promotional messages or imparting some other form of value to the customer. One often cited example is transmitting a digital coupon to a shopper within proximity of sign, such as a coupon for a particular deli item from a digital sign near the deli counter.

Another interesting possibility is allowing shoppers to interact with a digital sign set up with kiosk-like interactivity directly from their smartphones. This approach extends the interactive reach of a kiosk from the touchscreen interface of a digital sign into the palm of the hand of the shopper holding the smartphone.

A recent press release from a vendor offering a solution that ties mobile and digital signs together in this fashion quotes a recent ad forecast from Magna Global. The research firm found mobile and digital out-of-home advertising currently are the second and third fastest-growing advertising mediums of all possible ad vehicles. According to the findings, mobile ads are expected to grow 19.4 percent from 2011 to 2016. The forecast for DOOH ad growth during the period is 15.2 percent.  It would seem that leveraging the two by combining them to deliver handheld interactivity, coupons and other promotional messaging would be a marriage made in heaven.

Not only does this arrangement benefit shoppers as they are making their purchasing decisions, but it also gives marketers unprecedented access to information about shoppers. For example, the vendor offering this solution says its product in effect conducts real-time market research while delivering targeted messaging to consumer smartphones. By tracking which messages shoppers respond to on their smartphones, marketers have a way to track instantly the effectiveness of various digital signage ad campaigns.

I was enthusiastic about the prospects of this marriage, until the other day when major media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, The Associated Press and many others, began reporting on Apple iPhones' tracking the location of owners. That report was quickly followed by other stories reporting on Google's data collection efforts with Android Phones.

I'm certainly not a Luddite, and I see the real benefits of tapping into the synergies created when mobile phones and digital signs talk. But I am also not unaware of the potential of this iPhone and Android issue to impact the success of this smartphone-digital signage marriage. Already some countries in Europe are calling for investigations to determine if tracking and collecting data by Apple and Google violates any privacy laws.

While I understand the data collected by interaction between smartphones and digital signs doesn't have to be tied to any information stored on the phone, but rather simply anonymous tallies of interactions with signs, I wonder if the public will distinguish between the two. Or, will it simply lump them together as invasions of privacy?

I wonder if as sometimes happens in real nuptials if outside circumstances will turn the wedded bliss of smartphones and digital signs into an unholy union? Will the flap over iPhone and Android Phones collecting personal data sour the public on the idea of interacting with digital signs via their cellphones? Only time will tell, but I fear this promising marriage could ultimately be burdened with unfounded public suspicion that leads to a less than fulfilling lifetime partnership.

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