This is part one of our look at the why and how of content management systems (CMS) for digital signage. Read part two for insights into how to select the optimal CMS for your business’ display strategy.

Although it’s often possible to run a digital sign from a USB drive, a network with any sophistication, complexity or scale needs a properly designed network and much smarter system that enables businesses to fully manage their content.

A content management system (CMS) allows end users and solution providers to develop, organize, target, schedule and distribute content quickly and easily, and then monitor and manage the displays that house them.

If one or two screens in a single location are going to run a small set of files over and over, and rarely need changing, then perhaps a display that supports looping playback from a standard USB drive might do. But most end users want, need and should do far more with their screens. That requires software that’s been tailored to the task.


Digital signage CMS platforms provide a varied range of tools and capabilities for developing and handling content. At a minimum, the software will have file upload capabilities and the ability to store and review material, whether images or video.

Many of the well-established or more sophisticated platforms on the market will have content authoring tools, which enable users to build media pieces from scratch or use predesigned, preloaded templates to fast track designs. These tools are sometimes included in the overall platform, or may be fee-based add-ons.

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Some platforms have content stores that include templates based on predesigned functionality, such as a building directory or digital menu system. These stores may also be tied in to third-party tools such as subscription content feeds from providers. Users subscribe to automatically delivered and updated feeds for materials such as news, weather and sports scores.

Many platforms now use the latest web presentation technology, HTML5, to automatically update content, often based on specified data triggers. What that means, practically, is that the information on a screen — numbers, charts and images — can also change in real time, with no operator intervention, because they’re tied to a data repository.

HTML5 supports motion graphics and video, and its use can be a huge cost and time-saver, because changes are dynamic and not contingent on someone having the skills or time to make changes.


The complexity of a digital signage network is tied to volume and scale. This is generally determined by how many pieces of content are in use, how often they are updated or changed, in how many locations and time zones the content is applied, and the uniqueness of programming per site.

There are many other considerations, but those four have a big impact on the operating demands of a network. A network of 1,000 media players and their screens can be relatively simple to manage if the same set of files plays at every location, and they change infrequently.

But what if the use case is 1,000 bank branches in three time zones? And what if the content varies by what services each branch offers, the demographics of the surrounding area and the dominant languages used? A bank in rural areas may only need one language, but branches in more diverse environments may warrant messaging in more.

Organizing all that manually would be a full-time job for one or several people, and probably error-prone. But with the right CMS that uses data tags describing attributes and conditions, that scheduling is largely automated, fast and accurate.

Along with organizing and scheduling content, and then targeting and distributing it, the management system should validate supplied material like third-party videos that will play properly on screens, as well as archiving old files and weeding out expired ones that take up storage.

The management platform should also provide dashboard-style summary views of how the deployed devices are working, scheduling plans and anything else that helps an operator maximize uptime.


Think of the system in terms of that overall platform and the tools provided to keep it running. There are many aspects, but some are key.

Remote management: The best CMS platforms have robust device monitoring tools that run computing routines to “watch” the media players and screens deployed across a network, and issue notices as problems develop. They come with online tools that automatically (or through easy operator intervention) remedy problems before they fully develop, and provide quick fixes that don’t require costly, time-consuming on-site service calls.

Network integrity: Is the platform secure against hacking and other exploits intended to bring screens down or put something nefarious on them? Screens and entire networks have been hacked, causing service delays and potential data compromise.

Redundancy: Most cloud-based digital signage platforms use third-party network services to host and run their systems. This grants very high availability to end users and offers them peace of mind that there are backups for databases and stored files, as well as power and bandwidth. End users are wise to ascertain from potential CMS providers what layers of redundancy are in place for when bad things happen. In most cases, the disruption will happen with no one even noticing. But if the CMS provider has cut corners, when it goes down, so do its customers.

Scalability: Any CMS provider can demonstrate how, in a click or two, an update can be sent to a media player and screen across the city, country or planet. Easy stuff! But what about a network with 1,000 players, that all need to be updated at once? A system designed and ready for spikes in demand and distribution will handle that efficiently, but others might only be designed to update a few players at a time, meaning a crucial update might take hours to reach every player.

The need behind a content management system for digital signage is clear. So how does a business go about selecting the right one for it specific needs? Read part two to find out!

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Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes is a well-known veteran in the digital signage industry. He consults to some of the world’s largest brands on their digital signage strategy and technical needs, but also spends time mentoring start-ups. A former daily newspaper journalist, Haynes has for the past decade written a highly-respected blog about digital signage, Sixteen:Nine. Follow Dave on twitter @sixteennine

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