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WILL DIGITAL OUTDOOR SIGNS MAKE OR BREAK YOU?
10 Critical Facts You Need to Know Before Buying
Are you ready to make the move to digital outdoor? Given the investment required, it’s no small decision. That’s why it’s critical to find a digital partner that can deliver the best combination of image quality, durability, service and cost of ownership. These are essential to help you earn the tre- mendous returns that digital outdoor can provide.
1. LED 101: Know Your Diodes
What’s an LED?
Let’s start with the basics. The light emitting diode (LED) is the most basic component of a digital billboard. Even a poster-sized board contains well over 100,000 LEDs. A 19mm bulletin may contain almost half a million. Knowing a little about what they are, how they work, and the traits of a high-quality LED are all critical to understanding the product.
Invented in the 1920s, introduced as a practical light- ing component in the 1960s, and perfected as a reliable source of light for outdoor applications in the 1990s, an LED is an efficient, bright, rugged alternative to incandes- cent light bulbs. Light is produced when a semiconductor diode is charged. The effect is called electroluminescence.
Today’s LEDs produce light up to 10 times more efficiently than incandescent bulbs. There’s no filament, and they generate very little heat, allowing a much higher percent- age of the energy to be directed toward generating light. This reduces maintenance and energy demands.
In a laboratory environment where LEDs are pushed to their limits 24 hours a day, they have a lifespan of approxi- mately 100,000 hours, after which they reach 50% of their original brightness. In a real-world digital billboard envi- ronment, where LEDs generally run at about 25% of their maximum output, the lifespan will be much, much longer.
Energy efficiency and longevity are two important advan- tages of LEDs, but digital billboard manufacturers adopted
But before you choose your manufacturer, it’s best to do a little homework. If you know which questions to ask and a few things to look for, your chances of a successful transi- tion to digital will improve greatly.
LEDs because of their size. Most are only a few millimeters wide, so they can be packed tightly together to produce a high-resolution color display.
For many years, LEDs were too expensive to use for most lighting applications. However, their price has plummeted over the past decade, finally making LEDs a cost-effective lighting option for an ever-increasing number of applications. Consumers now buy many products with LEDs, such as flashlights, automotive headlights, cell phone backlights, and, of course, our personal favorites, digital billboards.
The highest-quality LEDs in the world are manufactured by a few leading companies. The premier digital billboard manufacturers buy from those select firms. Second- or third-tier manufacturers who skimp on lesser quality LEDs may be able to offer you lower prices up front, but you’ll pay the price in image quality, longevity and energy consumption.
Because it is difficult to look at an individual LED and deter- mine its origins, it’s easy for fly-by-night manufacturers or importers to claim they use LEDs from a premier company even if they don’t. (Many consumers have experienced this sort of trickery first hand.) How are you supposed to tell the difference? The safest bet is to buy from a well-known, experienced manufacturer. Low prices are hard to resist, but a digital billboard investment is just too important to risk on an unknown vendor.
2. Pixel 101: Why Does a Pixel Matter?
What Is a Pixel?
A pixel is a cluster of LEDs: usually three LEDs per pixel (one red, one green and one blue). Some designs, produced by lower-tier manufacturers using lower quality LEDs, might use four or more LEDs per pixel to reach appropriate lev- els of brightness. By comparison, boards constructed with three high-quality LEDs per pixel produce better image quality, durability and performance.
Designs with more than three LEDs per pixel often use sig- nificantly more energy. They also have many more parts and electrical connections. These are in direct correlation to increased failure rates. For optimal energy consumption and the highest levels of forecasted reliability, choose a digital billboard with just three LEDs per pixel.
LED Pixel Layout
The best looking digital billboards utilize an LED layout that arranges the three LEDs into pixels that resemble triangles. This sort of orientation gives images and fonts the smoothest possible edges.
The distance from the center of one pixel to the center of an adjacent pixel has been the standard definition of pixel pitch. Until recently, a buyer could know the “crispness” of the image by comparing the pixel pitch. Lower numbers meant less distance between pixels — and crisper, sharper images. When the pixels have a uniform layout and each pixel is the same distance from its neighbors, it’s called a true matrix.
However, there is also technology that rearranges the layout of the pixels and utilizes software to enhance the appearance of a display. In essence, the technology “shares” individual LEDs from pixel to pixel to simulate the appearance of a display with a much higher pixel count. These products have an enhanced or optimized matrix. They are primarily suitable for longer viewing distances and cross-reads.
Image Quality: How to Measure Resolution
LED density is measured in LEDs per square foot. But image quality is driven by pixel density. (Some manufacturers will pack a board with low-quality LEDs just to claim high LED density numbers.)
The best manufacturers will use three high-quality LEDs per pixel and deliver them in a high-density, high resolution product. Higher resolution means sharper, clearer advertis- ing images. To understand the relationship between pixel pitch and pixel density, see the chart below.
If you’ll have viewers very close to your billboard (say, less than 150 feet), you’ll want a high-resolution digital billboard with more than 320 pixels per square foot. Typical billboard applications on most roads and interstates (viewers between 150 and 400 feet away) will look great with a pixel density in the neighborhood of 250 pixels per square foot. In situations where viewers are never closer than 300 or 400 feet, a board with about 160 pixels per square foot will be acceptable.
Our favorite lunch spot in our hometown of Danville, IL is called Vermilion Place. Although most restaurants in town probably buy their ingredients from the same food distributors, Vermilion Place’s soups and sandwiches taste the best. Why? Although they may have a similar starting point, the owners and staff at Vermilion Place employ their talent and expertise in a way that sets their product apart. Vermilion Place is staffed with experienced people who care deeply about the quality of their products. They put in the extra effort, and it shows.
The same is true among the best digital billboard manufacturers. Although we all buy similar components, our people, processes, and experience levels differ. The ingredients are similar, but the results are quite different.
One of the most important aspects of a digital billboard is image quality. And you know that pixel density plays an important role in determining that. But what other factors affect image quality? Color depth, whole-sign calibration and adjustable brightness controls are key.
When all three LEDs (red, green and blue) are at 100% power, the pixel emits white light. When all three LEDs are off, the pixel is black. In between, there are typically trillions of colors. To make those colors, the LEDs are shaded in tiny increments and mixed together, a little like watercolors. The depth of the color palette is determined by the “computing power” on the board. The stronger the computing power, the deeper the palette.
Color palettes that are too limited (anything less than four- trillion colors) result in images that look “cartoonish” and fake. Skin tones look ruddy and unnatural. White has a blue- gray tint. There isn’t enough nuance in the color palette to create realistic images. Be on the lookout for manufacturers that don’t make their color palette easily accessible in their marketing materials. Some digital billboards can have color palettes as low as 16 million colors, which is completely inadequate for billboard displays. Boards with the deepest color palette have 281 trillion colors with color capability up to 4.72 sextillion colors.
High-quality digital billboards should have field-adjustable brightness capability of between 5,000 and 7,500 NITS. This gives billboard operators complete control to dial-in the perfect setting to optimize readability and energy- efficiency. This feature can be helpful to note when applying for zoning adjustments to convert a static board to digital. Because many communities have brightness restrictions, only consider a board from a company whose product makes it easy to comply with local codes.
Adjustable brightness can help bring down a digital billboard’s operating cost, enabling you to reduce your energy use by up to 40%. In addition, most digital billboards offer automatic dimming at sundown. Nighttime bright- ness is typically set at about 3% of the daytime brightness level, reducing glare and promoting readability. The best digital billboard manufacturers will provide a photocell option that will measure ambient light and adjust bright- ness accordingly.
Here’s a quick lesson in the history of creating color LED billboards that are smooth from one edge to the other. It is called “whole-sign calibration,” and when done cor- rectly, it eliminates the patchwork effect called “tiling” or “quilting.” Whole-sign calibration is time-consuming, but invaluable. It’s one of the more advanced techniques that only the best manufacturers in the world do.
LEDs are manufactured and shipped to billboard manufac- turers, like us, in batches individually labeled with numeri- cal bin codes. At this level, the LEDs are sorted into groups for approximate color matches. Red LEDs of a certain inten- sity are grouped together, as are the blues and greens. Lesser manufacturers rely only on bin coding to match LED colors in their billboards. It’s a cost-effective approach, but even though the LEDs are grouped for similarity, there can still be a noticeable variance. The resulting image can look mottled or inconsistent.
The next tier of manufacturers first use bin codes as the initial matching criterion, but take the step to color- calibrate at the module-to-module level. One module’s colors are “dialed-in” to match other modules in the batch. This approach is better than relying on bin codes alone, but it still looks patchy, which hurts your ad’s impact. The resulting modules may look good alone, but when placed next to other modules, a variation or “quilting” effect is often apparent.
The most cutting-edge process in calibration is called whole-sign calibration. This process involves fully assem- bling the billboard prior to shipping and using sophisti- cated camera equipment and software to calibrate the entire board for both color and brightness. In other words, it’s like module-to-module calibration, but in this approach, the whole billboard is treated as a single module. The end result is a digital billboard that is extremely smooth with no patchwork or quilted effect.
On a well-calibrated board, it’s just about impossible to see the edges of an individual module: there is no better guar- antee of your digital billboard’s appearance over time. Fac- tory calibrating the whole sign for both color and bright- ness is a state-of-the-art process in use by only the best manufacturers.
4. Durability Is Critical to Your Investment.
We’ve covered issues related to image quality, but what good is a digital billboard if it constantly needs service? A close inspection of the engineering and manu- facturing quality of the cabinet, LED modules, internal components and connectors is critical when choosing a digital outdoor partner.
Look at cabinetry materials and construction details. Key elements of well-engineered and manufactured cabinets include all-aluminum construction, solid welds (not pop rivets), and a heavy-walled extruded aluminum frame (not sheet metal). A well-made cabinet should have tight tolerances, precise alignment and minimal gaps. That’s because almost anywhere you go, severe weather – driv- ing rain, high humidity, thunderstorms, snow and extreme temperatures – will test the integrity of your digital board. After all, it’s the cabinet that protects the LED modules’ electrical components.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of the strength of a cabinet is whether it is certified to be in compliance with International Building Code (IBC) 2006 regulations. Only the best digital billboard manufacturers meet the IBC requirements.
The most rugged digital boards have silicone gel com- pletely encapsulating each LED module to protect both the front and back from the environment. Some manu- facturers seal the face of the module, but they leave the back completely exposed to the elements. Moisture is the number one factor in LED failure, so a completely weather- resistant seal is critical. In fact, the most rugged LED boards will withstand direct contact with water, even complete submersion. LED boards with the most complete moisture protection will have the highest predicted durability.
Electronic connections can be a weak point of some digital billboard designs, so check the number of connections per LED module. Ideally, each module will have just two con- nections — one for data, one for power. Fewer connections mean fewer potential problems down the road. Though some manufacturers use many more connections on each module, this increases the predicted failure rate. Beware of products that use ribbon cables to transmit power and data from module to module. Instead, opt for a ‘smart module’ design that stores settings in flash memory.
The highest quality digital billboard manufacturers should provide data security certification and features that will protect your digital board from data loss. In particular, ask whether a manufacturer has certification by a recognized third-party risk assessment firm like Digital Defense, Inc. (DDI). A high-quality manufacturer should be able to pro- vide certification data upon request.
Your digital billboard manufacturer should not only pro- tect against external threats, but against internal failure. By providing the ability for LED modules to communicate across multiple channels, a quality board will prevent a sin- gle fault from affecting several modules at once. This multi- channel data protection will isolate a data fault to a single module and ensure that your advertising remains readable (so it won’t impact your proof of performance) until a repair can be made.
From a durability standpoint, a digital billboard is a big step up from its “changeable copy” cousin, the three- message sign. A well-designed digital billboard has a streamlined design, is protected from the environment, and provides a high level of data security. Quality digital billboards shouldn’t need service attention more than once or twice per year.
5. You’ve Decided You’re Ready to Invest in a Digital Billboard. What Are the Next Steps?
Some of the most common questions relating to digi- tal outdoor include: “How will the digital outdoor board attach to our existing outdoor structure?” “How do I ensure that my structure can support the additional weight?” And, “What does my electrician need to know?”
A 14′ x 48′ LED billboard will weigh anywhere from 6,000 — 16,000 lbs, depending on the manufacturer, so make sure to ask the right questions when selecting your new digi- tal boards. The weight of the board can have a significant impact on the overall cost of the project, particularly if you are retrofitting an existing structure.
“The first thing you need to do is talk to a structural engi- neering company before you get an estimate from a digi- tal billboard company,” says Jon Odom of Productivity Fabricators in Richmond, IN, a leading engineering and fabrication company for the outdoor industry. “This allows you to really know what you’re getting into.”
According to Odom, after you contact a structural steel fabricator in your area, here’s what to expect:
- The structural engineer will ask if you have an engineer- ing drawing of the board. A technical drawing is ideal because it records the specs accurately, which helps save time and money.
- If you don’t have the technical drawing, the structural engineering company will have to visit your structure to measure columns, wall thicknesses, size of holes, bolt patterns, etc.
- After all the information is gathered, the engineer will run the specs through engineering formulas and calcu- lations to determine whether the structure can hold a digital board.
- If it cannot, the company will add additional material/ support to handle the extra weight.
- After the upgrade of your structure is complete, you’ll be ready to install your new digital billboard.Digital Billboards: 10 Critical Facts© 2012 Watchfire Digital Outdoor by Time-O-Matic, Inc.
The installation of the digital board is not typically handled by the structural engineering company. It is installed by a subcontractor or by the outdoor company itself. Be sure to factor this cost into your budget planning.
If you do have to upgrade your structure, center-mount structures are the least expensive, with costs averaging about 4% of the overall cost of the structure. Offset structures will run about 10% of the cost of the structure, and flag-type structures average 15%.
When upgrading your outdoor structures to handle digital displays, the following timeline is typical:
• One week to review specs, create/review plans and analyze the structure’s integrity
• One week if only strengthening upgrades to the existing structure are required
• Five to six weeks if the head of the structure needs to be replaced entirely
• Six to eight weeks if the entire structure needs to be rebuilt or built from scratch
“If the board is older than 10 years old, the head may need to be replaced as well,” says Odom. “Obviously, the less modification you can do, the lower your cost will be.” Additionally, if a board has already been upgraded to a three-message billboard, chances are it’s capable of handling a digital board.
Once the board has been engineered, you will still need to consider the required service at the job site and the complexity of the electrical work. The finest digital billboards require less than 100 amps of service for a 14’ x 48’ board and have very few electrical runs for installation. However, we’ve seen some digital billboards that use up to three times more power than the industry standard and may require up to 20 electrical runs. That increased power draw can really ramp up your operating costs.
Internet Connectivity: As you take the time to ensure your billboard structure and electrical connections will be adequate for your switch to digital, you should also consider internet connectivity at the site. The content on digital billboards has to come from somewhere, and the easiest, most efficient way to update your advertising is to do it through an internet connection.
Before you purchase your digital board, make sure that it can be updated wirelessly and consider the types of inter- net connectivity available to you. Most manufacturers offer more than one billboard connectivity option, including broadband wireless and DSL connections. Compare the details of each type of internet connection and choose the one that’s right for you.
6. The Hard Facts About Software.
Going from paper or vinyl to digital is a big jump, techno- logically speaking. Digital boards will allow you to update ads and images, tailor messages and maximize the medium like never before. This is why digital advertising is such an exciting opportunity.
Your software interface is an important link to making a smooth and profitable transition to digital. Instead of a posting crew, all you need is a computer and an internet connection to update your boards — instantly. The soft- ware should be as user-friendly as possible and password- protected so access is limited to authorized personnel.
Web-based software built specifically for digital billboards will give you many content options. Imagine importing breaking news and providing secure access to advertisers, enabling them to create and schedule their own “slots.” It can also provide you with detailed, automated diagnos- tic reports.
Automated diagnostics software is an important feature because it can monitor multiple boards and alert you to service or communication issues in real time. The digital billboard manufacturer may even be able to provide you with an automated portal that will log your board’s service history, inform you of issues as they emerge, and commu- nicate through each stage of resolution.
The best diagnostics software is highly automated, easy to use and increases digital billboard uptime. It can help prevent lost advertising revenue due to undetected ser- vice issues.
7. The Proof Is in the Performance.
As an industry, outdoor advertisers have been deal- ing with proof of performance for as long as we can remember. It’s always been a difficult, time-consuming and labor-intensive job. A good manufacturer can provide several features to help alleviate those headaches.
Digital outdoor companies usually offer two technologies for delivering proof of performance: webcams and auto- matic log files. These technologies should be included in
the overall purchase price. The webcam will allow you to visually check on the board’s performance, in real time, 24 hours a day. The billboard’s log files will provide you with a monthly report of the number of times and the dates an individual ad ran on the billboard. That way, you’ll have a digital record of the precise performance of the LED billboard. You can even include this report in your custom- ers’ monthly invoices.
8. Managing Your Inventory.
A digital board gives you the power of outdoor combined with the flexibility of broadcast advertising. Best of all, it allows you to turn one static board into an ever-changing profit center. Imagine being able to update ads and mes- sages every week, every day, even every hour. The right software can ease the logistical burden and simplify digital billboard ownership.
Ask your digital manufacturer what type of software and support they offer to manage your airtime. Given the flex- ibility digital outdoor has to offer, you will need to provide your advertisers with a clear, logical and well-documented description of locations, rates and options. The easier you make it for your advertisers (and your salespeople) to understand the schedule, the easier it will be to sell. And for that matter, upsell.
Advertisers across the nation are using digital boards in unique and powerful ways. Radio stations using digital outdoor can feature different shows and DJs throughout the day (e.g. Tune in now to hear “Dave and Dena” in the morning). Businesses can advertise price promotions or limited-time offers (e.g. Get 2.9% financing this weekend only). Advertisers can integrate social media (Twitter and Facebook) into their digital outdoor advertising campaigns or create back-to-back ads that capture interest by show- ing a progression of images. The billboard manufacturer should have plenty of customer testimonials and content examples to inspire you.
When you have a network of digital boards, you can sell your advertisers on the idea of having flexible messaging all over town versus a single message on a static billboard. Your customers will see the benefits of more dynamic messaging and visibility — without a lot of added cost. Because you sell airtime to each advertiser on multiple boards, you can maximize your revenue potential.
9. Know Your Zoning.
As an outdoor advertising professional, you’re well aware of zoning and permitting issues. It’s important to know your local codes as they relate to digital outdoor. As you know, zoning issues can vary from city to city and even from location to location.
Before you purchase a digital billboard, be sure you are working with a company that can support you if you run into zoning roadblocks. An experienced digital billboard manufacturer will provide you with the necessary infor- mation and support to help you navigate the permitting process, getting your digital billboards (and profits) up and running sooner.
10. What About the Warranty?
Finally, don’t forget to consider the importance of the manufacturer’s warranty. Many buyers don’t weigh these considerations carefully enough before the sale. If you wait until after the sale to review the warranty details, it may be too late.
It may seem obvious, but a solid warranty is a good indicator of how confident the manufacturer is in its products — and, in turn, how confident you should feel with the manufacturer. Typically, a longer warranty means the manufacturer has performed extensive testing on the product and will stand behind their billboards should anything happen in the future.
Ready to Learn More?
Hopefully, you’re feeling informed and ready to move forward with selecting a digital outdoor billboard. Now that you are familiar with the ins and outs of the digital board selection process, talking with a Watchfire Digital Outdoor representative is the next logical move.
We hope Watchfire Digital Outdoor will be on your short list of preferred providers. Whether you’re ready to purchase, want more information, or would like a free, no-obligation quote, we’re here, and we’d love to help you put digital technology to work for your outdoor advertising business.
Jonesboro AR Outdoor LED Signs
229 CR 433, JONESBORO, AR. 72404
is a Division of Anderson LED Signs
Come Visit us. By Appointment ONLY.
Jonesboro AR Outdoor LED Signs
4502 Access Road, Suite AA, Jonesboro, AR 72401
is a Division of Anderson LED Signs
Come Visit us. By Appointment ONLY.