There are several media companies – from giants to start-ups – offering smart city display solutions, which are, effectively, outdoor totem displays that run local information, backed by advertising.
But there’s only one – Boston-based Soofa – that actively markets a product that runs entirely off solar power and uses e-paper as the display canvas.
The company grew out of MIT, and had its start with a bench unit that allowed people to sit and relax in parks and public squares, while they charged their phones at the Soofa unit.
Soofa evolved into public displays, with large-format e-paper screens on totems (think very large Kindles) and management software that allows cities to inform and guide city residents and visitors.
Unlike many of the smart city projects out there that seem to be smart mainly as a way to win a digital out of home advertising concession, the local governments that tend to opt in with Soofa are more interested in distributing information and fostering community.
They’re also attracted to Soofa because the hardware and install costs of a Soofa display are a fraction of the cost of a typical full-color, daylight-readable outdoor LCD display, and all the related hardware and construction work needed to put one in.
I had a great chat with Sam Ward, who is in charge of building up the roster of cities and companies working with Soofa.
Sam, thanks for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on what Soofa is all about and what your role there is?
Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. Soofa was founded out of the MIT Media Lab, here in Cambridge, back in 2014. We're a female founded team and our hub is in Cambridge, but the team is distributed across the country these days. We create the Soofa Sign, which is a solar powered digital sign that is found around the country. Right now we're in Boston, Atlanta and Western Massachusetts.
My role at Soofa, I'm the director of growth. So I manage all things related to bringing on new partners through building our community of city users, as well as our advertisers, and then discovering new ways to introduce people to Soofa and the brand.
So if you go to the city of, I don't know, Columbus, Ohio (I'm pulling locations out of my ass) but what is the pitch?
Sam Ward: So for the city, the pitch for a Soofa sign is really a smart city kiosk or signage that helps build their communication with constituents.
It's a real-time platform, a CMS they can use to upload content and link real-time hyper-local content on the digital screens, which we can install with them throughout the city. They're all solar powered, super easy to install. It only actually takes 30 minutes to install a Soofa sign. And then after that we work with them to make sure there's great content on there for the community, whether that's real-time transit, health updates, which have been very relevant this year.
And then also we're able to share interesting pedestrian data insights with the city, so they can start measuring the usage of whatever is near the signs that they install, which has been really valuable. Again, especially this year.
And how do you do the pedestrian insights?
Sam Ward: So the pedestrian insights are generated from a sensor, which is placed in all of our signs. And a little bit of fun background about the company. We actually started back in 2014, where we developed a solar powered Charging Bench which also provided those pedestrian insights. So that was something that our founder, Sandra managed to get President Obama to sit on one with her on the White House lawn.
So that really kicked off that product. But the sensor we brought from the Bench to the signs because the city had great use for that and it also serves our advertisers as well as a measurement tool. But basically how it works is that it's able to track WiFi that smartphones admit and then every sign is calibrated, so that gives us a real time measurement of the wifi signals that it is picking up within a radius of the screen.
So this is anonymized and it's not using a camera or anything?
Sam Ward: Correct. No camera. It's totally anonymized. So we're very cognizant of the city's needs and the public's needs for privacy around that sort of thing.
So there's a few companies out there like display manufacturers, specialty display companies, and smart cities companies that have totem style displays, full color LCD outdoor rated and everything else that they sell into cities and into media companies to some degree, the distinction with what you guys do is that you're using e-paper, correct?
Sam Ward: That's right.
And that effectively means you've got a very large Kindle that you're parking out on a sidewalk or a public walkway of some kind?
Sam Ward: Yeah, that's right. So it's a 42 inch screen. We sometimes jokingly say it's the largest Kindle you'll ever see. Obviously it is able to withstand weather, the outdoors elements and the solar powered. I think like some of the main differences between Soofa and those other products are, yes, we use e-paper and we're solar powered and, we're solar because at the end of the day, our mission of the company is to be smart, social and sustainable. So there's no electricity needed, obviously no need to rip up a sidewalk to install the sign. Like I said, it only takes 30 minutes and four bolts to install. So cities really like that. It makes the unit economics very favorable. It's pretty inexpensive to produce compared to some of those flashy competitors with the bright LCD screens, and the signs can be moved really easily too. So cities love that because if there's construction, it's super easy to just place the Soofa sign somewhere else in the meantime.
And with the electronic paper, that is what allows us to keep that power consumption much lower than a typical digital screen, but also at the same time, it's a higher resolution. It looks better. There's no glare. So it's really worked out for the product to have that electronic ink screen.
How do you deal with it at night?
Sam Ward: We do have light bars that are part of the sign. So the screens are illuminated depending on the time of year, about 16 hours per day, and the light bar comes on at sunset. And then the signs go to sleep at night, so between again, depending on the year, but between around 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM, the signs will go to sleep.
Could you do a 24/7 if you needed to with the solar charging that you have?
Sam Ward: Yeah, I think we could, if we needed to. We'd probably have to do a few backup battery swaps but I don't think it's something we'd want to do, full time, all signs, 24 hours a day with the current solar power and capabilities that we have now. Also with our pedestrian measurement, there's not a lot of people walking by in the very early hours of the morning, so we made the call to let the signs go to sleep at night.
Yeah. I was mostly curious because if you were doing things like showing transit times, and so on, obviously the buses are still running at midnight.
Sam Ward: Yeah, that is very true. If there was, for example, a public emergency, we can make special calls for one-offs, if we need to leave the signs running for longer.
I have this sort of mixed opinion of the whole smart cities display movement, because I've seen a number of media companies produce display totems that are clearly just digital ad posters with some sort of smart city veneer to them that says, “Hey this is smart and this is special and you should have this too”, but those things would not exist were it not for the fact that they're there to sell advertising.
Is what you do different?
Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely and I think that's a really interesting question because we really believe that if you're creating some sort of smart kiosk that is touting itself as innovative for the city, for the constituents, it really should be. And if it is effective in that way, it's going to be a win for everyone, for the city, for the actual people walking by, and also for the advertisers that are on the screen.
Because if you can create a habit of people, knowing that they can come to that kiosk or in our case, the Soofa signs to find relevant real-time information, transit, weather events, city communication, then they're going to pay more attention to that device as they go about their daily journey and for Soofa, we actually used to have a different screen layout, which maybe was more in that world of, “we have a platform” and most of it was advertising. And we had a lot of long discussions about the product and ultimately changed our screen to have what we call the newsfeed or engagement layout that we currently run, which features a prominent advertisement, but also has a lot of local relevant content on the screen at all times. So it's able to serve everyone's needs while being the best version of itself for the pedestrian.
Yeah, from what I've seen in some of the images, it feels like a newspaper if you remember those things.
Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. The electronic ink is certainly helping there, especially when you see one in person, it really is. Electronic ink is a little bit uncanny cause we're not used to seeing it on that scale. So it's really pretty eye-catching in person and yeah, it does look a lot like a newspaper when it refreshes.
It has a really interesting electronic paper, it has an interesting way that it refreshes the screen. It almost looks like an Etch-a-Sketch or like almost, I don't want to say glitch really, cause it's not a negative thing, but it refreshes in this really interesting way that still creates that movement that's eye-catching while still looking like paper. So it's really interesting in person.
Yeah. It freaks out for a split second and then it comes back.
Sam Ward: Yup. Exactly.
I've been intrigued by that. Does it matter to brand advertisers that you're primarily dealing in monochrome? Will they place ads when they know it's only in black and white?
Sam Ward: Yeah we've found that people have a normal amount of, I guess confusion or maybe hesitation that you would have with any sort of unique media placement. It's not a straightforward color bus shelter, or billboard. There's definitely a level of education involved when you're creating a product that's unfamiliar to an advertiser, but that's also a benefit because it's unfamiliar to the pedestrian as well, and in that way it's eye catching and harder to ignore. And then also with the monochrome, we're able to put signs in great locations because as we abide by different city laws that are created to stop distracted driving, right?
Our signs for pedestrians are pedestrian centric. We don't measure car impressions. We're able to place the signs in better locations because of that. And then also again, with the higher quality screen display that you get with electronic ink a lot of advertisers love that, especially for really crisp, like vector images or photography looks really amazing on the signs. And then finally with the monochrome, the signs are informational. It's almost like native advertising to that neighborhood. If you're gonna advertise on, let's say like the Somerville, Massachusetts Soofa signs, that people are going to have a certain level of authenticity and trust already built in by advertising on the Soofa sign screen in the Soofa sign screen format, cause they're just used to seeing good, interesting local information already in that place.
So through those, things were able to bring people around on the monochrome, but we also do sell a static platform branding of the sign themselves. So if we have an advertiser, who's like “My brand is green. I really need green.” We can do different products where they can wrap the signs with their brand and then also do digital ads that are maybe more informational at the same time. So you still get that branding punch but with the real time screen content.
E-Ink, in particular, does have some versions of its product that supports color. Have you gone down that path?
Sam Ward: Yeah. That's definitely something that we keep an eye on. We work really closely with E-ink, the company itself, which is also a company that was founded out of MIT.
And they've come by, we've seen the color screens. Right now, they are not quite stable enough for outdoor use, at least not in the exact way that we would use them with a Soofa sign. But I do believe that at some point, within the next few years, we'll definitely have a version of the Soofa sign, which has some color capabilities on the screen.
And for managers and for things like the local news feeds and so on, do you provide the software for that and the service to feed that stuff in, or just a CMS platform and then your clients use it from there?
Sam Ward: We do, we've built our own CMS in-house here, so that's how we run the ads on the screens. That's how we are able to deliver the advertisements on a CPM basis first off for the advertisers. We're able to actually deliver based on how many people are walking by and pace towards a goal throughout the end of the month, which our advertisers love. And then in terms of our city clients, we build custom APIs depending on what they want on their screens.
Obviously we can connect with the big companies, to show what's local, what's happening. We pull from, I think we use Google news as our API and we pull relevant news content that has the name of that neighborhood in the titles of the articles. So different things like that, depending on what we want to show in that particular neighborhood where we always try to make the content on the sign as relevant as possible for where it's showing up.
Can you describe a good representative deployment that you have out there with a city?
Sam Ward: Yeah, I think one of my favorites, and I think one of the most impactful deployments is the one that we did recently was in the city of Revere this past summer and their main reason for wanting to bring Soofa signs to their community was for communications around COVID and also bilingual communications, which is really important.
So for them, when we launched the sign. We launched and then I think I saw content coming in from them this morning. They're really good about keeping it up to date. But they launched and had a pretty big pool of content regarding health updates testing in all different types of languages which was great, and then that was paired with real time transit data since we were putting the signs around some highly trafficked transit locations.
Also we've been running polls which have been very great for engaging the community in a way that's really simple for pedestrians to engage with their signs, which is why you can ask a poll question. Sometimes we work with the city to choose something that they're curious about, like what would you like to see brought to Revere, for example and then people can actually text in their answers to that poll question. So that's when all the pieces of the screen are working in harmony like that's when you get a really great experience for everyone, for the city, for the pedestrian, and also for the advertiser who may want to reach that particular neighborhood.
They're not interactive screens, “directly interactive”, they're interactive because they can then do something else using their phone or whatever, right?
Sam Ward: That's correct, yes. They are not touchscreen. Although people try to touch them a lot because they're used to the Kindle.
Yeah. I guess virtually every screen you see out there, you now assume you can touch it and do something with it and it's not always the case.
Sam Ward: Yeah. We've always had interactivity. It’s how you can be on your phone and interact with the polling questions. We have this texting interactivity, which has been really successful for getting more pedestrians engaged, but we also have a self service platform called Soofa Talk, which is mostly used for local businesses who want to post Soofa signs in their community and we have self-service plans. They can pay for a monthly plan and then post the signs, but community members and community groups can also sign up and post the Soofa signs in their neighborhood for free, so we've always had that functionality to involve the community more.
If they're open and want to create content. I think it's good to have both options, which is, if you just want to engage with the sign, you can quickly text and answer into the poll. You don't need to sign up for anything, but if you want to have a longer-term engagement, maybe you have a community group that throws free local events, you can sign up for Soofa Talk and actually post to the signs yourself as well.
Do you find when you're talking to different municipal governments, that you have more success with those who are motivated to find new ways to disseminate community information versus those municipal governments who are motivated by finding incremental advertising revenue through media concessions?
Sam Ward: Yeah, that's a good question. We definitely have found the most success with governments that are looking for a communications device or that want to use the sign for wayfinding because they can brand the vinyl on the sign as well. So that has been a big value add for them, but I would say the rev share isn't totally off the table though. That's definitely something that people care about and is part of the process of selling signs into a city because we do rev shares with our city partners as well.
But I think in order of importance, it really is the communications piece that comes before that with a Soofa instead of your traditional out of home platform.
And if it's a smart city kiosk kind of display, like the ones that are on the streets of New York. I'm blanking on the name of the company, but those things are expensive and then you've got all the infrastructure costs too, as you said earlier to trench and get power out to wherever the display is going to be and do all those other things.
How do costs compare between the two?
Sam Ward: We are significantly less expensive for cities to install and start using their Soofa signs. That was a big part of developing the product itself. That was always a really big consideration in building something that is flexible and movable, solar power, and easy to install.
I don't have the exact number on hand, but compared to some of our competitors, we are 1/10th of the cost of that piece of technology.
And do you have customers who go down your path primarily on a cost basis and they see what they're doing as making a reasonable compromise, or do they look at what they want to do and realize, “Hey, e-paper, monochrome doesn't really matter. It does the job that we want it to do.”
Sam Ward: It's more of the latter. I think cost is always a consideration, but I think a lot of our city clients, they're using Soofa as a completely different tool. It's not really an out-of-home platform for them. That's a nice value add, like “Oh, local businesses can advertise here. Regional businesses will get a rev share.” But at the end of the day, they're trying to buy a communications platform, a way-finding tool, a pedestrian data tool. It hits all those marks for them, and then at the end of the day, you'll also get a rev share. So that's nice too.
When you sign up with Soofa, are you getting the software and support and everything else in like a one-time buy or do you buy the hardware and then you pay a monthly fee to have it supported?
Sam Ward: So for cities, we have different types of ways of working depending on what the needs of the city are. I'd say the most traditional is co-investing in a sign, paying some part of the upfront cost but then using the rev share to either pay off the rest of the sign, or maybe, we have different situations with different cities.
In some cases, the signs we actually install without costs if it's in an area where we know there's going to be a lot of advertising interests, we can make the argument with the rev share, we'll pay for the sign itself. Or sometimes we enter into neighborhoods with a sponsor who is wrapping the signs in their brand, really cares about that neighborhood and is sponsoring the signs to bring them there so that the city doesn't have to pay any fees at all.
And then support and maintenance is ongoing for the city again, different plans, but most of the time that is at no cost to the city itself.
Okay, so you're flexible and adapt according to the opportunity and the circumstances.
Sam Ward: Yeah, it really depends on where the city is, what the advertising and revenue opportunity is, but we all figure out what works for every city. We always want to help people bring Soofa signs to their communities in any way that we can. So it's definitely case by case.
Do you find you're getting inbound or do you have to go out and evangelize to generate interest in the Soofa?
Sam Ward: I think a little bit of both. For cities, our branding is really strong from those bench days. The team definitely did a lot of events early on and also got a lot of press back in 2014-2015, when we launched the bench product and I'm a big proponent of top of funnel and brand advertising, obviously, and that's worked really well for us, building that brand early on. So we see a lot of inbound interest from cities. We also have benches all over the world, so people see the benches and get curious about what Soofa is and discover the signs themselves.
But we also have a city growth team who are constantly reaching out to new cities who we think would be a great fit or could see a benefit from any of the different values that the signs bring. So that's on the city side.
With new advertisers, I'd say it's definitely a lot more outbound as we try to grow the Soofa brand just in the out of home space. We definitely came into the market more as a smart city tool. We're very familiar with that side of things. But now we're really working hard to grow our brand in the out of home space and make more connections there too.
I assume that there's a lot of value in expanding the time to develop really great creative that looks good in black and white, because you could imagine all kinds of creative that somebody just tries to save a file as black and white and it looks like crap versus I always think of this company in Slovenia called Visionect. It’s a great little company, but they're fabulous at designing for that medium, like th all their little displays look great in black and white.
Sam Ward: Yeah, there's definitely a technique to it, and we provide design services to all of our clients as part of our campaigns, because that's great to have, and I think it makes the campaigns better. I think it makes the creative look better.
A lot of the time it's as simple as keeping the messaging straightforward. I always say to think about the context and keep it authentic for who you're trying to reach, which neighborhoods you're in. If you can like calling out the actual neighborhood that you're in or the city that you're in making the message relevant, but then also using high contrast, vector images, very simple language, keeping things big and bold. So your typical, out of home best practices just with that extra element of let's make sure this looks amazing in black and white as well.
We've talked a lot about cities, but do you sell into other verticals like campus and workplace?
Sam Ward: We focused mainly on cities and we also work with private commercial real estate as well. So for example, for anyone who's familiar with the Boston area, we work very closely with WS Development who developed the Seaport area in Boston. So we have different relationships but mainly across cities and then private landowners.
I know we've had conversations with colleges in the past but that hasn't been a main focus of the product, at least not up to date.
Okay. So for something like the Seaport development, you've got a property developer owner who wants to have signs that kind of guide people, provide wayfinding, provide information on what's going on in this development?
Sam Ward: Yeah, absolutely. It's a huge tenant support for them. So, the wayfinding is more about, “Oh, here's a directory of all of these amazing stores that are in the area” and these real estate areas that are developing across cities, they're really trying to build their own brand, like building the brand of the Seaport in Boston, like they have their own events, they're always trying to get more people to the area to support their tenants. So Soofa signs work really well in that capacity.
Do you have a handle on the content that really seems to hit with people?
Sam Ward: I always say when I'm onboarding a new advertiser, I say to keep things contextual, authentic and relatable really for the people that are walking by. Our signs are pedestrian centric, they are part of the fabric of the neighborhood, we call them the neighborhood News feeds, so that's always the best practice for advertisers with Soofa signs.
And we know this because obviously we have measurement capabilities with different campaigns, whether people have texts and calls to action, QR codes, or if we're doing something more advanced, like a study using mobile data and some other partners.
And then we also do a lot of field testing for our clients. We'll actually send someone from our team out into the neighborhood to interview passers-by about what they think about an ad and people love things that are contextual to that neighborhood, that makes sense for them, that have useful relevant information. So it's really all about that neighborhood authenticity, at least with Soofa sign content, but I think you'd get pretty similar feedback on any sort of out-of-home platform. People want to see stuff that's relevant to them.
Yeah, and just shoveling News feeds that you can see in a thousand other places, it doesn't make a lot of sense but being hyper-local does.
Sam Ward: Exactly. We had someone who was doing some brand work with us and he said something that stuck out to me and he was like with Soofa signs, they don't want to see The New York times, they want to see like the Summerville Daily or whatever the Gazette is of that particular small neighborhood, that's really what they're there for.
So what might we see out of the Soofa in 2021?
Sam Ward: We have a lot of aggressive plans for expansion with our city growth team. We're always talking to a number of new cities across the country.
We have a pretty heavy focus on the east coast right now, but we also have a rep working in California and I believe as of this morning, we have a new rep who's going to be working out of Austin, Texas, which is really exciting. So really trying to expand the network across the country which will be amazing, both from a city perspective, really building up the community. It'll allow us to develop new products with all of these new cities who have Soofa signs in their neighborhoods, and then also for our advertisers we've traditionally worked with. A lot of regional brands or national brands that have a very hyper-local campaign or focus in one of our current networks. But once we're national, it will enable us to really work with more national brands who want to speak in a hyper-local way, but have a national media strategy.
So that'll be pretty exciting as well.
All right, Sam, thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Sam Ward: Yeah, thanks so much. This was a lot of fun.