Outdoor Digital Signage

Feb. 22, 2011
Add extra flash and bring in more cash with outdoor digital signage.

Whether you're road-testing a new product or announcing an impromptu special to move some inventory that isn't selling well, outdoor digital signage can help a hospitality business catch the eyes of passersby and draw in more revenue.

Bright, vivid colors and videos are now real possibilities, a far cry from the digital signs of yesteryear, when single-color displays showing the time and temperature were state-of-the-art. Durable digital signage can show off your new specials and sales, test responses to new products, or alert people to important changes in the few minutes it takes you to type in a message and add some pre-designed art.

"A changing message sign is much more dynamic than a manual reader board or banners. You can change it on the fly, and you don't have to go out in inclement weather and change it like a message board," says Maureen Sanner, marketing director for sign manufacturer Watchfire. "People are used to watching television and videos these days, so moving messages catch people's eyes more than a static message does."

Are You Ready to Sign On?

Sign Design 101

1. Viewing distance and time
Before you start picking sign sizes, consider where the majority of your audience will be when it reads your message. A 1-inch character is viewable from about 50 feet away – therefore, someone standing 400 feet away from your sign would need the letters to be at least 8 inches tall to read them. Also consider the local traffic patterns; a driver going 45 mph past your business has less time to read your message than a pedestrian on the sidewalk. The typical person needs 3-4 seconds to read 6-8 groupings of text and/or graphics. For example, the phrase "Volunteers needed. Call 555-1212" has four groupings of text.

2. Text vs. graphics
You may not need bright, vivid graphics and animation on your sign if all you’re showing is stock prices, community
announcements, or the time and temperature. To display basic graphics adequately, you’ll need your LED display to be at least 16-32 pixels tall.

3. Message content
How much content will you display at once? Don’t try to cram it all into one screen – LED signs allow you to display multiple messages by cycling through them at a delayed interval that you choose. Think about how many lines of text and number of characters per line you want – a good guideline is at least 2 lines of text and 12 characters per line. If you go with a full-matrix display that can show graphics and animation, also consider the resolution, which is defined by the pitch (the distance between 2 pixels) and the number of pixels in your display. Usually, a larger number of pixels indicates a higher resolution.

4. Physical size
After you’ve resolved the above issues, it’s time to choose the size of your sign. Many manufacturers offer similar sizes, and some can customize a digital sign to retrofit a space formerly occupied by a static message board.


The hospitality industry and other businesses stand to reap great benefits from adding outdoor digital signage. According to a study by the Small Business Administration, businesses that posted an outdoor on-premises sign enjoyed sales increases of 15-150%, with a comparatively lower cost per 1,000 impressions vs. radio and print media advertisements.

Applications for the easily updatable signs are limited only by what you take the time to post. Popular uses include:

  • Announcing menu specials for restaurants
  • Advertising sales, promotions, or special rates
  • Displaying the time and temperature between or instead of ads, helping you become a neighborhood landmark
  • Posting schedules of events for convention centers and other meeting venues
  • Erecting an easily updated highway billboard
  • Creating digital street furniture, including digital panels hanging in transit stop shelters

Use your sign for an extra advertising boost for a product or service that's not selling well, or test the sign by advertising something you don't mention in your print ads. A small boost in foot traffic can cover the amortized daily cost of the sign itself, which can run from $14,000-$60,000 depending on its size and complexity, according to Furney Pretty, regional sales manager for sign manufacturer Grandwell.

A two-year payback on the sign is easily achievable if it brings in a small amount of additional business, Sanner adds. A $14,000 sign requires an average of $38 a day for one year or $19 a day for two years to recoup the initial cost.

"With hospitality, it's easy to say 'What's your average sale?'" Sanner says. "With a fast food restaurant, it may be $8 to $10. How many more of those in a day would you have to sell to justify the cost of the message center? If a full color sign is only going to cost you $10 to $20 a day, that's only two more meals a day."

Pick a Sign that Rises Above the Competition
The potential benefits are clear, but choosing the best sign isn't as clearly defined. Not every business needs a huge billboard, and not everyone can make do with a small digital sign in the window. Before you buy, answer a few essential questions to determine what kind of sign you need:

  • What can you afford? Budget is obviously the biggest factor, but even smaller signs can do wonders for foot traffic, Pretty says. "There are a lot more options than there were in the past, simply because of the evolution of full color," he adds. "Detailed resolutions have improved drastically. You can go with a smaller display without being forced to spend an exorbitant amount of money."
  • What are you trying to accomplish? Knowing what will actually go on the sign helps you figure out if you need full color and a high resolution. You can make do with fewer colors and a lower resolution if your board's space is less than 15-20% pictures. "We prefer to steer people towards monochrome if they're going to do mainly text and disseminate information about sales, specials of the day, and upcoming events," Pretty says. "If you go full-color and just use it for pink and purple letters, you're going to have some expensive letters."
  • Where are you? Are you trying to draw more foot traffic from passersby, or are you targeting drivers nearing your exit on the highway? Drivers' readability requirements are vastly different from those of pedestrians. "Just because the sign is capable of running small type doesn't mean you should," Sanner says. "Use bigger, bolder, and fewer words and higher contrast."

Weatherproofing is extremely important, Pretty adds. Make sure your outdoor sign is built with the elements in mind – trying to cut material costs may end up coming back to bite you in the long run. Likewise, ensure you're comfortable with the software you'll use to update the sign. Unless you only use pre-programmed messages, you'll be the one typing in the text and arranging the pictures, so make that job as easy as possible.

Picking a sign company you're comfortable with is also vital. The cheapest company may not necessarily be the best. "We're dealing with electronics," Pretty says. "It's not that we build them to fail, but eventually a component may fail, and you're going to have to call that company back."

Work Out the Kinks
You've read a stack of whitepapers, you've crunched the numbers, and you've obtained the go-ahead for your new digital signage. Now it's time for the actual installation.

Watch for Potential Zoning Pitfalls

Before you spend the money, check your city's zoning regulations to see if there are any restrictions on the type of content you can display or how often you can change messages. Regulations on signs, or "electronic message centers," vary as widely as the content on the signs themselves. A brief look at four U.S. cities reveals the wide spectrum of attitudes toward electronic signage.

Campbell, CA: Allows digital signage for churches, theaters, and places of entertainment with at least 200 fixed seats. Size of 1 square foot per linear foot of business frontage, up to a maximum of 50 square feet. Maximum height of 14 feet.

Connellsville, PA: Prohibits blinking, flashing, or animated signs if they resemble traffic safety or municipal vehicle warning signs from a distance. Regulates size and location of business and announcement signs, but doesn't differentiate between digital and non-digital versions. Allows illumination of any sign as long as the source of light is not visible, the illumination reflects away from the adjoining premises, and the sign and light source can't cause confusion or conflict with traffic signs.

McMinnville, OR: Specifically prohibits videos and "flashing signs," but does allow for electronic changeable copy signs. The changeable copy portion of the sign cannot be higher than 12 feet above grade and can't exceed 24 square feet; its area will be calculated at a rate twice that of other signs. Must be permanently mounted.

Seattle: Prohibits "flashing signs." Permits video display, as long as the sign is on-premises, located in the appropriate zone, and meets sizing and visibility standards. Requires 20 seconds of either a still image or a blank screen after every video message. Limits night-time brightness.

Before you place the call, assess your own situation. Are you posting your sign on the face of your building, retrofitting it into a structure formerly occupied by a static message board, or making a completely new venture into outdoor signage?

If you're retrofitting, chances are the digital sign's future home already has electric service running to it. That will save you some time, Sanner says: "The pre-installation work is as time-consuming, if not more so, than actually installing the sign." Your new sign will be ready to go in a few hours unless you need a new structure built around it.

You'll also need to choose which method you'll use to post changes to your sign. Fiber optic cabling works well for large data transmission and provides good video quality, making it a top choice for signs with video capabilities, though fiber optic cables are fragile and may be expensive to install. A standard off-the-shelf phone modem coupled with public telephone networks may be cheaper, but requires a dedicated phone line – you may have to pay monthly fees to a phone company. IT associates may be able to extend your existing TCP/IP network to the sign, either by using LAN server software with a dedicated computer just for the sign or by assigning a converter box to the display and giving the sign its own IP address.

Wireless communication can make installation easier, but comes with its own set of challenges. For example, a radio frequency modem system requires a clear line of sight between the sign's RF modem and the one assigned to your computer, which can be a problem during inclement weather or if there's construction or uneven terrain between the sign and your main building. Wi-Fi capable devices have fewer line-of-sight issues, but can be vulnerable to computer hackers if not properly implemented.

Some signs can even be linked to certain cellular phone networks, but may incur additional monthly fees and require a term contract from your carrier.

Keep Your Sign Shining Bright
Outdoor signs generally require little maintenance – rain eliminates the need to wipe down the surface, for example. As long as the sign is adequately weatherproofed and has enough space to ventilate and discharge hot air, it will generally take care of itself unless someone vandalizes it or a diode fails. A well-built LED sign should last at least 10 years, Pretty says, though the brightness will degrade somewhat over time.

Your biggest maintenance issue is related to the sign's main advantage – keeping the sign updated and fresh with minimal time investment.

To do this, it's critical to first know what restrictions on digital signage exist in your area. Look into your city's zoning regulations to see if there are any restrictions on what you can do with your sign. (See sidebar on page 32 for examples.) You may find yourself seeking out your local zoning board for clarification – some sign ordinances are written so vaguely that you may not be sure whether terms like "flashing" apply to you.

"Some regulations say you can't have messages changing any more often than 10 minutes, or you can only change them twice within a 24-hour period," Sanner says. "A lot of people don't understand the difference between a moving message and just lights flashing on and off, so they use the term 'no flashing.' It defeats the purpose and the beauty of dynamic messaging."

Some areas won't restrict your content, but will stipulate brightness levels to cut down on light pollution. Look for software and dimming features that let you adjust the brightness at night so your target audience isn't blinded by the light when it's dark outside. Likewise, make sure your sign can be bright enough for good visibility in full sunlight.

"They all look great at nighttime," Pretty says. "The key factor is during the daylight. An outdoor sign needs to be readable when the sun is hitting directly on it. That's when you separate quality from non-quality."

Janelle Penny ([email protected]) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Buildings, create an account today!

Sponsored Recommendations

Building Better Schools

Download this digital resource to better understand the challenges and opportunities in designing and operating educational facilities for safety, sustainability, and performance...

Tips to Keep Facility Management on Track

How do you plan to fill the knowledge gap as seasoned facility managers retire or leave for new opportunities? Learn about the latest strategies including FM tech innovations ...

The Beauty & Benefits of Biophilic Design in the Built Environment

Biophilic design is a hot trend in design, but what is it and how can building professionals incorporate these strategies for the benefits of occupants? This eHandbook offers ...

The Benefits of Migrating from Analog to DMR Two-Way Radios

Are you still using analog two-way radios? Download this white paper and discover the simple and cost-effective migration path to digital DMR radios that deliver improved audio...