Digital signage for internal communications: The Microsoft case study


Walking through Times Square in New York is a pure visual sensory experience that blends the beauty of colors and lights with smart placement of branding and marketing messaging. That’s what many of us recall when we try to define what digital signage is, and rightly so, advertising is one of its main objectives.

Inside an organization the dynamics are different though. Employees don’t need to be necessarily sold on a product, but rather informed about new and ongoing initiatives, company policies, programs and opportunities that would help them become more effective in their jobs.

A successful deployment of digital signage within an enterprise has many common elements to a public (or ‘digital out-of-home’) installation: you still need to identify goals, expectations, content, budgetary requirements, equipment and metrics. There might just be more stakeholders to align once various departments realize the potential of this medium.

For this article, I had the opportunity to interview Daniel Orme-Doutre who leads the internal digital signage program at Microsoft. He works for Microsoft Production Studios which is a state-of-the-art video production facility that serves all media needs for internal groups.

PT: Daniel, can you please tell me more about your role and how you got involved with digital signage?

DOD: My current title is production engineer but I wear the program manager and director of digital signage hats too. I’ve been involved in live event production for ten plus years; it’s my team’s business. I started in encoding and compression then worked on a team that created a synchronized Windows Media playback system using standard PCs to replace tape decks back in 2003. This did really well and we migrated this technology for theatrical playback. We also tried using it for paper poster replacement in a few buildings at one point and that has always stuck with me.

I started pitching the concept of digital signage in 2006 across campus but didn’t get anywhere and soon I was involved with RFPs for RE&F (Real Estate & Facilities) signage. After seeing what the technology could do from 3rd parties, I was hooked. Soon I was attending the Digital Signage Expo and subscribing to RSS feeds about the industry.

All during this, I watched, in periphery, many signage projects start and fail. I started seeing a pattern to why these all failed and my mission to have campus signage again was renewed. Mind you, this was not my primary Microsoft role; this was a passion. The technology wasn’t the issue. The issue was typical business acumen problems: sustainability, scalability and setting the right objectives. Microsoft Production Studios is in the business of distributing corporate live events and content across the globe, so digital signage was a natural fit. I got a green light to pilot this for a building in 2010 and we’ve taken off since.

PT: How does Microsoft currently utilize digital signage?

DOD: Unlike other enterprises, Microsoft is comprised of one thousand startups. Signage at other corporations is typically dictated from Human Resources or PR: they run the show. At Microsoft, no one group has greater command over another, so it is all about influence. For the pilot, the business goals were not about Return on Investment but objectives.

The business group wanted to move away from standard PowerPoint slides and looping video. They wanted a more efficient way to showcase products and the fantastic work their teams were doing, to recognize team and individual stardom and to amplify general messaging. Those were the initial objectives, but what they were really saying is that they didn’t want to manage any technology, configure the content by themselves, handle the player device upkeep, schedule or brand. They wanted an easier way to keep their messages up 24×7.

Deep down, the work wasn’t in the content, it was time; time to massage the content for a signage distribution, time to aggregate the content, time to schedule it and time to maintain the system. Once we agreed that the objective was saving the client time and keeping the signage on, our goals were aligned. Even though all groups have different initial objectives, time and ease of use is the common theme that makes this successful. Message amplification, recognition and product advocacy are the biggest content on our digital signage.

PT: What have been the top challenges for this project?

DOD: There are two areas, technology and money. One of the first challenges was to select a 100% Microsoft friendly, third party technology supplier. This narrowed down the providers and then it was about stability, because there aren’t many long-term industry proven signage companies out there. I’ve seen a lot of companies come and go in the last 5 years. You might be thinking, ‘Wait, you’re a software company, why buy a third party system?’ Many groups internally have built their own solution, but they always missed the support element. Remember the time and scalability objective? Third party support is key to a successful signage solution anywhere. You want to be taken care of, not left to fend for yourself.

Budget is always the next big challenge. For security reasons, we didn’t want to do SaaS (Software as a Service) so we had to buy something. Asking for a lump of change for a server-based product was a big bet especially since we weren’t selling advertising on the system to recoup the costs. But again we were saving time. We were selling efficiency; this was just a different ROI.

The last challenge is cost. We operate our digital signage solution as a cost recovery model. We charge groups for this service to recover the costs of the work. Trust me, we don’t make money at this but it is sustainable. Many groups want signage for free or to do it themselves. Those aren’t our clients; we can’t change that attitude. But after months of doing it themselves, they find that paying a monthly fee is a lot cheaper than doing it themselves.

PT: How do you see the future of digital signage at Microsoft?

DOD: Today we are broadcasting; there is no true interactivity in our solution yet beyond Microsoft Tag Codes. The future of signage is a combination of NUI (Natural User Interface), multi-touch, and interactivity between many devices. Cell phones aren’t enough to provide messaging and neither are signs in the lobby or elevators. Some sort of subscription model is in the future to where employees and vendors can select message channels. Interactivity is expensive today, but as Kinect and other technology become more affordable, this will be huge. People should be able to extract the information on the display to their PC, tablet or cell phone and they should be able to dig deeper from any display. Signage for the enterprise is no different than the retail channels and I see a future where PC, cell phone and displays tailor messaging to each individual as they come upon it.