Magazine Article | May 20, 2008

Best Practices In Digital Media Deployment

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

Retailers in many disciplines are deploying digital media, and their use cases are as compelling and varied as the delivery models they choose.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, June 2008

This month's Retail Solutions Forum takes a deep dive into retail digital media deployment with Kris Konrath, director of marketing for Technicolor Enterprise Services, and David Myers, senior VP of marketing and corporate development at Spacenet.

Various models have emerged for the deployment of digital media in retail. What's the ideal?

Myers: The industry is in its infancy stage. As a result, there is a wide range of retailers with varying requirements. Some retailers create the content solution on their own and are only looking for a multicast network provider. Others are looking for a completely outsourced digital media solution.

Many of our customers choose to work with service providers that specialize in specific vertical markets. Spacenet works with different partners including Fuelcast, which focuses on gas and c-stores, and Technicolor, which focuses on retail, automotive, and public spaces. Spacenet also works directly with customers that have their own internally developed digital media solutions. 

Konrath: Because operating a digital signage network can be so complex, many of our customers prefer an outsourced solution. Imagine a scenario where you operate 500 stores and have three unique digital signage channels or zones within each store. Now let's assume that you have two day parts in each zone and you update your playlist on a biweekly basis. This simplistic scenario has you managing 1,500 displays and 3,000 playlists, not to mention all of the content you need to create, approve, and distribute.

Additionally, an outsourced solution eliminates for the retailer any concern about issues that require help desk services or on-site repair or maintenance services. Since a completely outsourced model doesn't work for everyone, some retail customers outsource only certain aspects of the network that they need.

What specifications should retailers be aware of in terms of their network needs ?
Myers: Content is the key component of a digital media solution. Another key component is having a scalable and dependable network in order to reach the intended audience. The network should support multicast (one-to-many communication) and have the capability to confirm receipt of content distribution on a per-site basis.

Many retailers begin by using common-carrier IP (Internet protocol) connections, including DSL or cable. However, these technologies are based on unicast (one-to-one communication). As the digital media network expands from hundreds to thousands of locations, unicast is not an economical or scalable solution. Satellite, on the other hand, is designed from its inception to support broadband and multicast more efficiently than traditional IP unicast networks.

Konrath: Many of the network requirements are dependent on the content. The type of content (standard-definition content, high-definition content, RSS [rich site summary] feeds, live video or still images) and the frequency with which that content is updated are the two main factors that determine the most effective distribution. Since most content consists of video, the files are very large and require the network to be sized accordingly to meet the demand. 

Why does satellite technology suit the deployment of digital media to retailers?

Myers: Satellite is ideally suited for broadcast applications such as digital signage, in-store music, distance learning, and business TV, or any application where the content is sent from a single corporate headquarters to many locations. Satellite provides reliable content distribution via its multicast capabilities and enables clients to verify and track how often content is viewed.

The multicast capabilities of satellite (content is sent one time from the source and broadcast simultaneously to multiple sites) enable content to be delivered more cost-effectively and efficiently than alternative unicast delivery methods (content is sent to each individual site using a separate IP session for each destination) via DSL or cable. For example, it would take approximately 9 minutes to send a 100 MB file from a corporate headquarters to 1,000 sites via a 1.5 Mbps (megabits per second) satellite connection. It would take approximately 5 hours to send this same file to all 1,000 sites if each site was connected to the corporate network via a 1.5 Mbps DSL or cable connection.

Multicast via satellite also can be significantly less expensive than unicast delivery via wireline connections because less bandwidth is required to deliver multicast content from one source to multiple sites. For example, it would cost approximately $70 per site per month to connect 1,000 sites to a corporate network using a 1.5 Mbps symmetric satellite connection. It would cost approximately $125 per site per month to connect 1,000 sites to a corporate network using a 1.5 Mbps symmetric wireline connection like cable or DSL at each site.

Another benefit of satellite is its ability to serve as a hot standby backup network that pays for itself in a digital media solution. One of Spacenet's customers, a large big-box retailer with more than 1,000 locations, was seeking a digital media solution for branding. Spacenet developed a satellite network that combined both digital media and backup on a single platform. During normal operations, the stores' primary wireline network supports all of the POS and back office applications, and the secondary satellite network multicasts content for the digital media solution. In the event of a wireline network outage, the primary applications are switched over to the satellite network, and the digital signage application is temporarily turned off. By combining digital media with a network backup solution, the customer lowered costs compared with having two stand-alone solutions.

Konrath: Satellite can be advantageous for numerous reasons. First, using satellite typically means that you're not interfering with other store applications such as a POS system. This factor tends to minimize any concern an IT department may have toward a digital signage network interfering with mission-critical applications. Also, utilizing satellite helps to distribute digital signage content more quickly. When content is created out of a centralized location, such as a design agency, it has to be distributed to each retail location. Since digital signage content files can be very large, many retailers only allow the distribution of content after hours. This ensures the uptime and efficiency of their mission-critical applications, which often operate over a terrestrial circuit such as DSL or T1. Content that is delivered over satellite is often free from such constraints.

What are the three most important features any retailer should look for in a digital media solution?

Myers: Retailers should focus on how the digital media solution can help them achieve their goals. Retailers need to identify what their goals are, such as increasing sales, branding, or keeping customers in the store, and then choose a digital media solution that helps them achieve these goals.

Retailers need to have a purpose-built digital media solution. The network should be built for multicast and should have the capability to track results.

There are more than 250 companies providing digital media solutions. Many of them are start-ups with little experience. Retailers should keep this in mind when selecting a service provider that can support their digital media solutions.

Konrath:  The first consideration is the flexibility of the solution. The more flexible the solution, the easier it is to adapt to current and future business objectives. Flexibility can be derived from a number of components, including content type (high definition, standard definition), distribution methods (satellite, Internet, corporate WAN), player capabilities (PC vs. appliance, or how many displays a player can control), and display (size and environment, such as indoors or outdoors).

Retailers also need to consider support of the network once it is up and running. Retailers need to make sure their vendor monitors the network and quickly resolves issues. Rapid diagnosis and resolution of network issues results in higher network uptime and ensures that consumers are seeing the intended messages.

A retailer should also consider the ability of its digital signage solution to integrate with other systems. For example, if a retailer is currently using in-store audio, it should take special care to deliver a consistent customer experience, especially if the digital signage has audio as well. In addition, integration with a POS system could dictate digital signage messaging based on the inventory level of a particular product.