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Paid attention: Digital signage in higher ed

Higher ed institutions increasingly find revenue through digital signage platforms
  • LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION—Colorado State University's digital signs—at key, high-traffic locations, including the entrance points to its new football stadium—provide an attractive audience for advertisers.
  • HOWDY PARTNERS—Lord Fairfax Community College allows partner four-year institutions to advertise on its digital signs as it provides information consistent with the school's academic mission.

Fast, dynamic and flexible, digital signage allows institutions to share key information regarding campus activities and to broadcast instructions in emergencies. With displays typically placed in busy areas—such as student centers and major academic halls—the technology can reach large audiences efficiently.

“Digital signage allows institutions to have multiple messages in the same real estate in the course of 30 seconds or a minute,” says Christopher Hall, managing director of The Interactive Customer Experience Association (ICXA), a professional organization of digital signage users and vendors.

Could it also be a moneymaker?


Sidebar: Digital signage providers share more ideas for generating revenue


While many institutions haven’t tapped into it, digital signage does have the potential to generate revenue—an especially appealing prospect as campus operating costs increase and public funding sources dwindle. However, allowing outside vendors to advertise on an institution’s network is a major subject of debate.

“Schools like to maintain the ivory tower image of being free of gross necessities of commerce,” says Hall, also the former editor of digitalsignagetoday.com.

Many institutions sell stadium advertising sponsorships or even allow credit card companies and local financial institutions to solicit on campus.

“Selling digital sign ads is the same general concept, except it’s a screen that rotates and nobody’s physically there in the student centers,” he says. “Students can decide to pay attention to it or not.”

Here’s what colleges paying attention to the potential of digital signage as a revenue source—directly or indirectly—are doing to make it work.

4 ways to potentially monetize digital signage

1Third-party advertising: Institutions reach out to local vendors and businesses to buy advertising space.

2 In-house advertising: Student groups looking to promote events and institutional partners (such as the campus store) buy space—usually at a low or discounted rate.

No party like a third party

Colorado State University has a network of more than a dozen digital signs, on which external organizations can advertise. Most signage on the Fort Collins campus hangs in high-traffic and non-academic spaces, such as the transit areas to its new football stadium or at the student center, where there are also restaurants.

The system was funded through a loan from its foundation. The outside advertising helps cover the costs of a $50,000 annual loan payment, with the university allowing partners who align with the school’s mission and fit within the basic standards for its magazines and other publications.

There are no political ads, for example.

Colorado state works with an outside firm that sells ads for the signs on a commission basis, and campus groups can buy advertising space for a low fixed rate. Rates vary by duration, frequency and sign location, but CSU generally charges external entities $100 per week and internal groups $50.

“The program is not a moneymaker, per se, but it is self-sustaining,” says Tom Milligan, the university’s vice president of external relations.

By earning enough money to cover the loan payment, advertising frees up base budget monies. In that regard, the external advertising is key—but growing it is not the main aim. Milligan estimates that the university’s digital signage features twice as much information related to campus and academic activities than to commercial content.

“If we were to expand the program beyond that, we’d be at risk of encroaching upon academic spaces,” he says. “I don’t think that’s the right thing for us to do.”

Institutions that bring in outside installers to develop a digital signage system sometimes also partner with those companies for managed services, including sponsored content from which the school receives a percentage of revenue.

4 ways to potentially monetize digital signage (cont.)

3 Cost savings: Efficiencies in production costs and manpower, plus the flexibility to quickly make changes, allows digital signage to help institutions save compared to traditional signage costs.

4 Donor relations: Digital signage can be used as a tool to recognize current donors or as a tool to engage students and build long-term relationships.

An inside job

Charging campus groups for space on digital signs is more common than allowing outside parties in. 

Lord Fairfax Community College in northern Virginia has a network of 45 digital signs comprising touch-screen kiosks, repurposed tablets and traditional display monitors. The equipment is paid for out of the school’s IT budget because the system focuses primarily on academic and student needs.

A graphic media specialist spends four to six hours per week curating content, and the system is cloud-based so it can be updated instantly from a smartphone.

Advertising is sold through the college’s foundation to fund programs such as scholarships. However, space is offered only to campus organizations and related entities. Ads have to be consistent with the college’s mission and values.

“We’ve had people reach out to us and it’s very tempting to advertise—local food shops or whatever—but we’ve stayed away from it,” says Richie Crim, the college’s information technology strategist and CIO.

Crim estimates that only about 5 percent of the network’s content is ad-related. The advertising content from the college’s partner institutions—nearby four-year schools—mostly focuses on continuing education options.

The signs can target ads to specific buildings, floors or even one display.

For example, a campaign for the campus bookstore might appear five times an hour on 20 signs across campus, displaying for 30 seconds each time. Other institutions have similar programs where campus groups can buy digital space in buildings where students congregate, such as student centers and dining halls.

Some higher ed leaders may not view earnings from an internal partner such as a campus store as true revenue, but ads often help increase sales at those sites, says Hall of the ICXA.

Earning through savings

Colleges often realize revenue from digital signage more indirectly—through efficiencies and cost savings.

“Digital signs have changed the way we advertise,” says Crim of Lord Fairfax Community College.

Old methods involving paper signs and easels required more production effort and could be costly. The dynamic nature of digital signs—in terms of the ability to make quick changes when necessary—allows institutions to save on labor costs.

Plus, traditional signs constantly need to be physically replaced.

Harris-Stowe State University in Missouri opted to develop its own digital-signage platform rather than use an established vendor, and in the process reduced the per-unit price to less than $300 per sign.

The customization provides flexibility and opportunities for cost-saving solutions, such as programming signs to provide more detailed information and thus replace evening staff at some front desk locations.

“With very low IoT investments, the savings in a single building can be tens of thousands of dollars,” says James Fogt, vice president for information technology and CIO.

The university is currently experimenting with voice user interfaces (VUI) to enhance the user experience. Adding a $50 VUI device can allow users to employ simple voice commands for assistance, such as asking for directions and phone numbers, says Fogt.

Digital signage also replaces brochures, maps and other information resources on many campuses, further reducing costs and providing significant ROI.

Outside the frame

As digital signage evolves, so do opportunities for revenue potential. For example, with the increasing interactivity of screens, signs may become sales kiosks.

ICXA’s Hall says students could pay parking fines or library late fees, or order supplies via an online source such as Amazon, with the school receiving a percentage of profits.

Hall also envisions more universities using digital signage to attract and engage donors, such as by creating digital displays to more dynamically showcase the contributors to a capital campaign. Digital signage can be used to foster long-term relationships with current students, which can lead to future giving.

Posting student Tweets, Snapchats or images from sporting events or campus activities can increase engagement.

Lord Fairfax Community College regularly produces a spotlight on an alumnus who has gone on to success in a career or graduate studies. The portrait boosts the alum’s profile and inspires students to continue their education, and ultimately supports the school’s mission.

“The primary goals of our communications team are to inform and engage the community in a way that makes a difference,” says Colorado State’s Milligan. “And, by the way, we can cover the costs with some ad sales. Flip that model around and you open yourself up to difficulties.”


Ray Bendici is deputy editor of UB.

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