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What’s Next for Signage Systems Integrators?

A conversation with Kevin Cosbey @SenecaData

The digital signage market has shifted dramatically. Established markets like corporate and campus environments took a big hit during the pandemic, while other markets like grocery stores and quick-service restaurants scrambled to deploy more digital displays.

What does the market look like going forward? And how can systems integrators pivot to new markets quickly and on a budget? We put these questions to Kevin Cosbey, a business development representative with Seneca—a company known for its SI-friendly signage solutions. We explore:

  • Where the hot markets for signage are in 2021
  • How SIs can scale to multiple markets
  • How to select the right signage player and CMS
  • How to future-proof for new workloads like AI at the edge
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Transcript

Kevin Cosbey: So one area we’ve focused a lot of effort and energy on to solve some problems was: How do we make the out-of-box experience around media players to be so seamless and simple?

Kenton Williston: That was Kevin Cosbey, a business development representative with Seneca, and I’m Kenton Williston, the Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech. Every episode on the IoT Chat I talk to industry experts about the technology and business trends that matter for developers, systems integrators, and end users.

Today I am talking to Kevin about the challenges and opportunities for digital signage systems integrators in 2021. It’s no secret that the pandemic completely upended the signage market, but I want to know how SI should react, and how they can set themselves up for long-term success.

Kenton Williston: Kevin, welcome to the show. What should SIs know about Seneca?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, thanks, Kenton. Really appreciate the time to be with you and your audience today. Appreciate the opportunity.

My name is Kevin Cosbey. I’m business development at Seneca, which is an Arrow Electronics company. So for about 30-plus years or so we’ve been focused on what I like to consider niche computing. We initially got our start distributing printers and printer supplies and things like that. And I think after a while of that, a light bulb went off, and said, “Hey, there’s probably a computer that’s hooked up to this printer. Let’s get in that business.”

So over the years we transitioned and migrated a little bit, and about a decade or so ago we found ourselves in a position where we identified a gap in the industry: that there needed to be these purpose-built small form factor devices that required a lot of computing performance at the Edge. And we made the decision to start focusing our efforts and energy and resources into producing these little purpose-built media players that were going to be intended for the use of digital signage.

And ever since then it’s kind of been a big focus for us. We’ve also created another division that’s security and surveillance related—and that’s high-performance computing with servers specifically for IP cameras and things like that. So that’s where I sit, and about six or just maybe shy of seven years ago, Arrow Electronics acquired us, so now we’re part of the big Arrow family.

Kenton Williston: What would you say is top of mind for signage systems integrators as we get into 2021?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, that’s a lot to unpack. I imagine, if things were different, I’d have a totally different answer to that—if things were just normal—but we find ourselves in a really precarious situation where, right now, I think the two items that are most important for a lot of systems integrators out there are just opportunity and simplicity. Twofold—there are the opportunities that were working 18 months ago that are completely different from the opportunities we’re working today. We find ourselves a little shy in a lot of the areas where people just aren’t anymore. So large corporations, large facilities, large campuses, things like that. We just obviously don’t have the need for digital signage anymore.

However, on the other side of the spectrum we see a massive increase in a lot of the, what we’ve deemed now as essential—so a lot of grocery, a lot of convenience store applications, a lot of quick-service restaurants with drive-through. Even the paradigm shift now with convenience stores, where some of them are even designing drive-through capabilities for convenience.

There’s probably going to be a pretty strong paradigm shift in that curbside pickup. That’s not going to go away, and drive-through technologies—that stuff’s not going to go away. There’s going to be some interesting consumer behaviors that change for good, and that just aren’t going to go away as vaccines and things kind of hit the industry. So that’s going to be interesting. So I think that we’ve got to stay heads-up with understanding the unique challenges that are going to exist in a lot of these vertical spaces, and adapt our technology to solve some of those critical business issues.

And then, on that other side of the spectrum, is that simplicity factor. You can throw technology at a lot of different challenges, but if it’s not designed specifically to meet those unique needs, then unfortunately you’re just throwing technology around to throw technology around. And what we are about on our side of the house is designing very purpose-built, specific devices that also encompass the correct software. So we look at the industry as a whole, and try to identify what are some massive issues that we can solve as it relates to the technology.

So one area we’ve focused a lot of effort and energy on to solve some problems was—how do we make the out-of-box experience around media players to be so seamless and simple that you don’t have to do much thinking—you can have consistent deployments and everything is in one box. So we developed this platform called Maestro. And what that allows us to do is put in all of our software partners, folks like Broadsign, and Navori, Signagelive. And that list goes on, along with analytics folks, and put them all and package them nicely into one application.

So when you start that media player at the Edge and it just asks you, “What do you want the software to be?” And you click Broadsign, and it goes through that process. So I really think it’s those two things: It’s going to be what opportunities are presenting themselves to us today that are unique, that didn’t exist 18 months ago; and what opportunities are going to be kind of opening up as hospitality opens up, as travel opens up, and things like that.

Kenton Williston: Speaking of things to unpack, you’ve given me a lot to unpack there.

So let me start with this question of simplicity. So, you know, it sounds good in concept, but I think there is a balance to be had there. The more you can simplify your designs, the easier it’s going to be to go out and deploy them and do things at scale. But at the same time, the type of environments we’re talking about are really diverse, with a lot of different needs. So how can systems integrators achieve this kind of simplicity without getting stuck in, like, a one-size-fits-all kind of mentality?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I hear the word “bundle” frequently in our industry. I’ve been in the space for 15, 16 years, and I’ve heard the word “bundle” thrown around all the time. And unfortunately, as much as I’d love it, bundles don’t work. Just putting some stuff together and saying, “We’ve got it”—it doesn’t solve the unique, complex problems that exist in our industry. And it’s similar to the ‘90s, when the internet was kind of becoming popular, a lot of folks had GeoCities, or whatever you had for building a website. And then as the years go on, you start having these organizations come out that say, “Hey, we’ve got these templates, and you can use a template to design your web environment.”

But at the end of the day, if you’re just designing with a template, or designing with something that already kind of exists, you’re not going to get to what the desired outcome is—and that’s where our focus is. So when we say we’re putting some of these software partners of ours into all of our media players, it’s not an intention of just redefining the word “bundle,” because that’s not what it’s doing. What we are doing is taking a lot of the complexities that exist in our industry, which are—the last count I heard was a few years ago—there’s something around 3,800 software companies in the world that are digital signage software companies.

Now we only really consider 1% of those to be legitimate and to be heavily focused in our digital signage industry. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken a lot of the guesswork out by partnering up with the folks that have been in the industry for a long time—that’s 10, 15, 20-plus years—partnering with folks that are financially healthy, partnering with folks that have engineering and hardware and software engineers that are exclusively focused in digital signage.

So that allows us to work with organizations, and potentially take off about six to nine months of that discovery phase. So that’s what we’re focused on—we’re focused on moving digital signage forward by removing those complexities. Whereas other organizations might just say, “Yeah, we’ve got hardware and you can use it and it’s going to work just fine.” But we want to take it that next step in saying, “We’ve got hardware, and we’ve certified it with very solid, foundationally sound organizations in the CMS world.”

Kenton Williston: So it sort of sounds like the whole fairy tale about the three little bears, right? You’ve got the too-small version—we’ve just got a piece of hardware with no software on top of it. The too-big solution—which is we’re going to pre-bundle everything, and then it may not quite work right for your application. And you’re taking that just-right middle ground of saying, “Hey, you know, we’re going to have verified hardware and software combinations, but we’re not going to limit you to just one combination.” Do I have that right?

Kevin Cosbey: That’s perfect, and I love that analogy. And if I’ve got your permission, I can use that in the future?

Kenton Williston: Absolutely, absolutely. So, speaking of the hardware—are you seeing changing requirements in the hardware, and for that matter, for the software? And, if so, what can systems integrators do to not only get the right hardware out there today, but have sort of future-proof designs that will be adaptable to whatever’s coming next?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, I’m glad you used the word “future-proof,” because that is something that I have in my vernacular and use with a lot of prospects and customers. It’s one thing to just display content on a disparate screen somewhere out in the world. It’s another to consider what that display is going to look like 36 months from now, or 60 months from now. And identifying the correct technology mix that’s going to ensure the most, I’ll use the term “bang for your buck” on that technology suite.

So we see a lot of folks that will just get a display, run it with onboard graphics capabilities, and they’ll make pretty good-looking wallpaper that’s digital. The unfortunate reality is, as most organizations start to deploy digital signage and see the effects that digital experiences have with consumers, they start to unpeel those layers and try to identify, “Okay, how do we get more out of this asset that’s sitting on our books? How do we connect it to other environments within our ecosystem—other software environments—so we can get real-time data to deliver unique content experiences?” Or, alternatively, “How do we add some IP camera technology to be a third eye and understand what’s going on in its environment? How do we add sensors to this device so we can understand what’s going on in the environment, and then allow the solution to sort of be ubiquitous around us?”

So when a digital signage solution becomes ubiquitous around us, and it’s grabbing information from its real-world environment and then creating and rendering content in real time, now we’re future-proofing for 5, 10 years down the road. Yeah, it’s one thing to get a 1080p up on a display; it’s another to create a drive-through experience that is so intelligent that it remembered that person cruising through in their car based on a license plate, and it captured that information prior, and then displays, “Hey, we know that you . . . .” Well, I’m not going to say, “We know,” but, “We understand you’ve purchased these things in the past; how can we give you information that you want on this digital menu board?”

So it’s driving more unique experiences, is what we’re after.

Kenton Williston: Yeah, and I think that’s something I’m seeing, definitely, myself—a lot of discussion in this space about analytics: whether it is a sort of drive-through experience like you mentioned, or even things beyond vision sensors—all kinds of sensors, like, “Hey, if it’s raining today, let’s advertise the umbrellas. If it’s sunny, let’s advertise the sunglasses.” Right? So how do you think these new application workloads are impacting the systems requirements?

Kevin Cosbey: It’s a massive impact on the device. So historically we’ve seen everything go from on-premises—like 10-plus years ago the majority of content was on-prem and it was on the device—which required a lot of compute strength and power. Then, as we stepped a little bit further through the chronology of digital signage, we found ourselves in a world of everyone saying, “We’ve got to put everything in the cloud—everything has to be in the cloud. We’re going to render in the cloud. We’re going to cloud, cloud, cloud.” And now we step a little bit further, and we’ve started to realize that the amount of time and bandwidth that is required to go to the cloud and back is sometimes either too much bandwidth, or latency is a concern.

So now we’re in a mixed reality of a nice marriage between cloud computing and then on-prem computing. So we’re starting to see that the camera that’s embedded into the system—or whatever sensor technology that exists out connected to that device—we’re working with software partners that have a requirement to render unique content experiences at the Edge, instead of going up to the cloud. So that’s where we’re starting to see things move which we’re capable of providing, and that’s where we’ve been for more than a decade now.

Kenton Williston: Interesting. So it sounds like it’s a pretty big leap in processing requirements, but also software sophistication. So I’m wondering if you can speak to that—what does the content management system look like today, and how can system integrators set up the right sort of CMS so that they can rapidly respond? Not only to whatever’s happening based on edge processing, but being able to quickly deploy new campaigns whenever their clients ask or whatever else might be affecting it with—maybe there’s some changing government regulations, or whatever. How are all these considerations impacting CMS elements?

Kevin Cosbey: I usually consider there’s about three categories of digital signage. There’s the infotainment, or informational, where it’s a transit location or a patient waiting room—something to that effect, where there’s information that the customer or the person waiting around could gain some knowledge out of. Then there’s the retail-based focus, or kind of the QSR—I kind of package that a little bit together, because they’re really interested in selling a specific product or selling a specific solution. And then we have the digital out-of-home world, which is its own beast.

So in that informational one, a lot of folks are delivering content based on employee communications, based on campus educational communications, based on what we want our student, faculty, staff, what have you—we want them to be updated with information. In that realm it is mostly a broadcast-type ideology. So we’ve got content, we’ve got messaging, and we’ve got to get it out to our folks.

Now, sometimes there could be some emergency systems connected into that. So, yes, there’s an emergency going on—I realize no one’s going to be immediately going, “Oh, let me look immediately at the digital display to understand what I should do.” But if it’s enhancing the existing messaging that already exists, then I think that’s a win. So that’s kind of like a mission-critical-type application. Then, in the retail/QSR casual dining space, that’s a world where the CMSs are exclusively focused on: How do we get relevant data to that device so we can distribute and render brand-new content to drive that unique content experience that I was talking about?

And then, lastly, in that digital out-of-home world—I imagine everyone has that vision of Times Square in their head, right? Where it’s a massive billboard, and it’s a really, really cool content ad experience. But the reality is, most of your digital out-of-home ads are through malls; they’re through airports; they’re through mass transit; they’re through, sometimes, outdoor billboards and things like that. But in that world the CMSs are exclusively focused on: How do we get the right advertisement to the right Edge end point where we’re going to have the highest effect, or highest rate of return, ROI, on the audience that we’re trying to get information to?

So while they’re all getting information to a display, it’s how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it that’s the most important. And a long time ago the CMS world would be—they would say yes to everything. And, again, I apologize to any CMS companies out there, but a lot of times they’d say yes to everything—retail, QSR, digital out-of-home—whatever was flowing their way. Then we started to see a lot of these CMS companies start focusing on their core competency. And I think that’s a big message that I like to scream from the rooftops—work with organizations that focus on the core competency.

So organizations that found that unique niche in education campuses, they’re doing really well. I mean, not today as a result of COVID, but overall, when they focus in a specific area they do really well. When you’ve got companies like Broadsign that focus exclusively on programmatic digital out-of-home, they do really well. So that’s kind of where we are today. We work with the right CMS partners, because they’re driving the right outcomes for our customers.

Kenton Williston: Yeah, so that leads me kind of back around to something we talked about earlier in our conversation, which is how Seneca is bringing these different hardware and software solutions together. It sounds like a big part of what you’re doing is working with your different partners in the CMS space to get the right fits for your hardware boxes, and that’s great. And I’m wondering how the relationships are evolving—not only between Seneca and the CMS folks and whoever else you might work with, but also the relationship between the systems integrator and a technology provider like Seneca. And, in particular, if there are new and different ways that systems integrators could think about leveraging this changing ecosystem to better take advantage of their relationship with companies like Seneca.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, great question. And this is where my mind starts going nuts, because systems integrators can do so many revenue generating activities as it relates to signage. The number-one area that we just don’t do, and our CMS partners don’t do, and a lot of folks in the industry don’t do, is that day-two support content. Not content creation, but content execution—making sure the health of a network for digital signage is up and running is so absolutely important to hit any type of critical mass.

And over the years I’ve kind of noticed that as networks get to the thousands-of area—somewhere around like 2 to 5,000—there becomes this choke point, and it slows down the scalability. And I believe that’s because the resources within that organization have basically reached their maximum output. And as a result, the network growth capabilities become stagnant, and they can’t quite focus on: How do we get out of our own way to get this network to grow beyond 5,000 units?

And we’ve got some partners that have been incredibly successful as systems integrators—managing, monitoring, maintaining these networks, and ensuring content execution is done correctly. Those organizations are growing massively, because they’re adding significant value-adds to date to support. We’re only great with making a media player, putting the right software on it, and making sure you can install it correctly. After that, it’s out in the wild. And we’ve got to make sure that we’re not getting to a choke point of a network, and we can get into exponential growth—not just, “All right, we’re going to do a few hundred here and 20 here and 10 there.” That’s what we’re focused on—removing a lot of those barriers that allow a choke point to happen.

Kenton Williston: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So we’ve covered so much ground here, but I bet you have ideas that I haven’t been clever enough to ask you. So is there anything else you’d like to share? Any key takeaways you’d like to leave with our audience?

Kevin Cosbey: I think ultimately that the digital signage world is such a unique space. And for those that participate in it and are partnered in it, they know full well exactly what I mean by: It’s more complex than it needs to be. But the reality is, it’s such a unique architecture that hasn’t really existed prior, that it’s really important to pick the right partners that are going to be here for a long time. And when you don’t—unfortunately that’s when we start to see digital signage displays out there in the wild that have a Windows XP error message on the front, or we start seeing unique challenges out in the space because certain things weren’t considered or they chose partners unwisely.

And I think the nice thing that we’ve done in this space is we focus on making the technology work. Other organizations, they might just say, “Yeah, we’ve got a media player, and it kind of works for it, and we’ve got some partnerships here and there.” But when I say we’re exclusively focused on digital signage, that’s what we live, eat, breathe every single day. And we stay in our lane very narrowly in the hardware space and make it easy. So I’d say: Choose your partners wisely, the folks that are going to be around for a long time, and they’ll take good care of you.

Kenton Williston: Well, that certainly makes sense to me. And with that, Kevin, I just want to say thank you so much for joining us.

Kevin Cosbey: My pleasure. Thank you, Kenton; we appreciate the opportunity.

Kenton Williston: Absolutely.

And thanks to our listeners for joining us. If you enjoyed listening, please support us by subscribing and rating us on your favorite podcast app.

This has been the IoT Chat podcast. We’ll be back next time with more ideas from industry leaders at the forefront of IoT design.

About the Author

Kenton Williston is the Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech and served as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

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