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Say it with Signage

Producing content for digital signage doesn't need to be difficult. Here's how campus administrators are making it happen.
University Business, Feb 2011

Digital signage has existed on campuses in some form for decades. Originally, it was standard television sets embedded in the wall with a slow crawl of text showing campus news. Now, high-quality flatscreens display live TV, text, and information tickers all at the same time.

"The overriding goal is to communicate important events that are occurring within a reasonably short period of time," says Michael Hoffberg, who handles strategic planning and consulting for the University Information Technologies department at Villanova University (Pa.).

Digital signage can be used to enhance both the ability to communicate with students as well as the overall student experience on campus, explains Mike Zmuda, director of business development at NEC.

It is also a quick and easy way to refresh and modernize a campus. "You can't replicate Times Square, but when you have something that echoes it, you get an association," says Mohammed Khayum, associate dean of the College of Business at the University of Southern Indiana.

'We've seen projects where someone isn't in charge of the content and they are basically displaying TV all day.' -Sam Losar, C-nario

But even the biggest plasma screen is boring when it's blank. "Content should be the first step," cautions Ryan Cahoy, managing director at Rise Display. "You can buy a fancy car, but if it doesn't have a good engine, it won't get you anywhere."

Knowing what you are going to say is as important as how you are going to say it. Here are six rules to follow when creating content for your digital signage.

Heard stories about $100,000 equipment purchases, followed by the question, "Where can we get content?" Spencer W. Graham, manager of operations for WVU Information Stations, West Virginia University's digital signage network, has. He says it's got to be discussed up front. "Otherwise you'll need a big checkbook because there is a premium to get content up." WVU's preliminary plans to install signage were accelerated after the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy. Although the driving force was emergency messaging, the ability to quickly and easily provide other information to campus constituents was desirable.

The initial discussions at least should take place at a high level when determining the goals of the installation. "Fundamentally, the most successful systems view the signs as a strategic communication system," says Doug Bannister, CEO and director of software development at Omnivex Corporation.

Digital signage at SAIT Polytechnic (Canada) is controlled by the corporate communications department, ensuring a seamless fit with the institution's overall mission. Weekly staff meetings help determine not only what messages will be displayed, but how they fit in with other communications on the web or in print, explains Jorge Palafox, who, until recently, served as digital signage coordinator. Their comprehensive system keeps students engaged with the campus by sharing news and events in a targeted manner.

But while emergency messaging and general campus news is the norm, sometimes a narrow approach is preferable. "We strongly encourage our university clients to stay focused and not try to do too many things, which can water down the content," says Cahoy.

He suggests choosing three important topics to focus on while acclimating to a new system. For instance, class schedules, campus events, and local news are rich enough topics that the content well won't run dry too soon. As digital signage has matured on campus, applications have moved from treating installations as electronic billboards to creating specialized messaging.

The hockey coach at Bemidji State University (Minn.), a Rise Display client, presented the idea of celebrating the program through an interactive display at the Sanford Center, a regional event center that opened in October, to the communication department, whose staff was then tasked with executing the plan.

With the overarching message determined, resources had to be gathered because the availability of content influences what can be displayed. "We have all the text you could want, but to have the visuals that will make people want to come touch it was harder," says Andy Bartlett, associate director of communications and marketing, who compares the scope of the installation to a website project.

Since getting digital signage up and running can be all consuming at the beginning, it is important to leverage in-house resources. The campus photographer and graphic designer were allocated to the Sanford Center project, which helped make it a success, says Rose Jones, director of communication and marketing. "There is a lot of time and cost that isn't apparent until you dig into it."

Fortunately, the more experience staff have with signage, the easier it gets. Once one department or college on campus gets a screen, others are sure to request one. IT staff at Villanova oversee installations, software training, and maintenance of digital signage on campus, but individual schools have ownership of the "local content" on the signage monitors in their buildings. Prior to installing screens, IT staff will discuss with the department ideal locations, sizes, and other logistics, as well as explain what capabilities the signage system has and the responsibilities of everyone involved. "Once that's established, we give them ideas of what can be displayed," says Hoffberg.

As both the hardware and software involved in digital signage become more sophisticated, users have more options for partitioning the display screen and scheduling when messages run. Campus leaders at Plymouth State University (N.H.) wanted the screens at their new ice arena to display either four individual images or one large image, stream live feeds and RSS, display still images, and schedule start and end dates for messages to run. "The most important aspect was remote management. I want to control it through my office, but my office is half a mile away," says Tim Kershner, chief public relations officer. "I want to do the programming here and be able to update images and text from here."

Once a message is determined, assign a content leader. "We've seen projects where someone isn't in charge of the content and they are basically displaying TV all day," says Sam Losar, general manager of C-nario. Assigning a person to oversee the system and post submitted content could ensure the process runs smoothly, but it could also cause a bottleneck if he or she is unavailable or leaves the school.

By contrast, allowing anyone to update the system will ensure lots of content, but may bring a lack of consistency, says Cahoy. "Most universities have a hybrid. They collect information from a group of people and then a person approves it. If it is controversial, it might get flagged for a committee."

The WVU Information Stations team oversees content and operation for all campus signs. Although they produce most of the content, individual colleges have access to update some areas of the screen. When new signs are installed, stakeholders are brought to the operation center where content is produced and the network is monitored. "We don't do it to show off," says Graham. "We want them to take ownership of their signage. It makes our lives easier if they are enthusiastic."

A central office or point person ensures campus constituents know who to contact about the signage network, as well as maintains a consistent look and message. Instead of opening the system to everybody at SAIT, Palafox maintained close relationships with department communications managers. This ensures they know the signs on campus are a free resource for distributing their message.

Since the new ice arena at Plymouth State is also a tourist information center, a consistent message is very important for presenting the university and the region in the best light, says Kershner. "I think it's important for the audience that those messages are controlled by an office that does external communication."

Templates become very important if individual departments will be updating content, not only for ease of use, but for consistency as well. "You want it to be uniform," advises NEC's Zmuda, so students can tell at a glance where information is regardless of being in the engineering or liberal studies building on campus.

Templates and web forms allow nontechnical users to input text and images and be assured of a polished looking finished product. Branding can also be maintained because the school logo and colors can be a set part of the template.

At institutions where student workers perform the data entry, an approval process is in place that prompts a manager to review the content before final submission. "I ask them, ‘Who is the person who gets the phone call that something is inappropriate?' because I'll be passing that name on when the president calls," jokes Graham. "Our job isn't to be censors."

When people don't have direct access to the signage system, submissions come through e-mail or online forms. To gather as much information as possible, the IT department in the College of Business at Colorado State University created a SharePoint form that allows users to check off boxes about where the message should be displayed, including signs and websites, and start and end dates. "Our objective is to push down the approval and content creation to the people who need to create it," says Jon Schroth, director of information technology. "We want to get out of their way."

While templates and online approvals are necessary for dynamic displays that are changing on a regular basis, mostly static displays require more work up front. For example, the team at Bemidji State has done a massive amount of data entry to get the new display honoring the hockey program up and running, but future updates are expected to go much faster. Hammering out the details of what content to include required weekly meetings with "a lot of compromise and discussion about what would be shown," says Jones.

Another installation updated infrequently is a display wall outside a named room at The Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, which cycles through images and short bios of alumni working at Experian, a school donor. "It gets updated based on employment," with alumni relations providing content, explains Toshi Nakamura, system administrator at the school. Other signs in the building display information updated using e-mailed submissions from units in the school. The SignChannel CMS allows him to direct messages to some signs and not others.

"The screens at the arena are meant to bring out the power of our history," says Jones of Bemidji. "The ones on campus are meant to help people access the campus in different ways."

With purpose in mind, finding content for a digital signage system doesn't have to be difficult. "In many cases, they can use content they already have, including pictures of the campus and video clips," says C-nario's Losar. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Campus news and events, guest speakers, sports scores, news feeds, and local weather are all standard fair for signage, but not all at once. "You don't want the display to get cluttered," advises Cahoy. He suggests a headline and then instructions for where to get more information as a way to keep the content clean.

"You have to know who you are pitching your content to," says Graham. "You've got to have the weather because it draws people's eyes to the screen." The information loops at WVU run between two to three minutes long and contain a mix of department specific and general university information with campus branding keeping the look consistent, explains Graham. If the individual college owns the signage, their content will make up 60 percent of the loop with generic university content making up the balance.

Getting to the point is key to signage being effective.

"The reality is people might not read e-mail and newsletters," says Hoffberg. "We try to make it as eye catching as possible; that is why we have multiple images on the screen. They might stop to see sports, but the event text is there as well." His department provides training on using the software and producing effective content.

Information can also come from local organizations. Area chambers of commerce contributed content for screens at Plymouth State because of the new arena's welcome center function, says Kershner.

Although digital signage can be a powerful way to get out a message, it can be difficult to gather feedback. Some schools use surveys and others observe the way users interact with signs. Monitoring traffic to websites or events announced on signs is another method, as Palafox can attest. The October ribbon cutting for a new residence hall at SAIT two years ago had a poor student turn out, until Palafox posted a "free food" message on SAITView. "We got rid of 1,200 hotdogs in about half an hour," he recalls. "That is an indicator that our signage is working because people pay attention."

But it's important to display the right message. During a mumps outbreak Palafox thought it would be funny to use a picture of a chubby cheeked chipmunk when reminding students to get vaccinated. "Students thought you would get sick from touching chipmunks, so we knew we had to change it," he admits. "But over 4,000 students got vaccinated in the end."

The ability to target messages to select screens can ensure the right people see the right message. By tapping into the class roster database, Schroth can show marketing department messages to Colorado State students waiting outside one classroom and graduate school messages to others. Having learned from past mistakes, they are standardizing equipment by becoming an "HP Everywhere" school and being strategic in screen placement. When classes change, the feed from the lecture capture camera at the back of the classroom is piped to the screen in the hallway slightly away from the door so waiting students know not to congregate by the door.

Installations can also be used to build school spirit. Sports highlights or live feeds of important games are a common tactic. The WVU library screens have a special template of an open book. One page shows old pictures from the university archives, the other page shows library information.

At Villanova the screens display donor recognition messages during alumni events. Live sports and special presentations have also been displayed. "We build in a lot of flexibility; we don't focus on just signage. We find it economical to be able to use those screens for other purposes," says Hoffberg.

Keep it Fresh

Showing a wide variety of content will help keep the signs relevant and authoritative. "It is important to keep these signs current and relevant. It is too easy to put something up there and let it languish," cautions Bannister of Omnivex. "Students will notice it is stale and the system will lose its effectiveness."

Because of that responsibility, there can be pushback when signs are installed, but even departments that are reluctant to have signage installed quickly embrace it. "Once they realize how easy it is to change the content, they get upset if it goes down," says Hoffberg. "It becomes like e-mail."

Graham says that although the web forms WVU employs makes it easy for people to create and submit content, not every department has that level of access. "We assess their needs and whether they are capable of maintaining it. If they don't update the information and the page is playing nothing, that hurts the Information Stations. I protect my brand as much as I protect theirs."

Departments that are still ramping up are encouraged to take a generic university feed until they have enough of their own content. The law school has photographers roam the common areas and then upload the pictures to provide fresh content on a daily basis, but people are more apt to watch the screen in the hopes of glimpsing themselves or their friends. That type of eye-catching content is key to signage success. "We want students to view the screens as credible so if there is an emergency they refer to it," Graham says. "But if the content isn't compelling and attractive, they won't look at it."

RSS, a Reuters news feed, and internal blogs help Nakamura keep Merage School of Business content fresh. The content management system is set to refresh the news feed every few hours, but the dean's blog only changes when a new post is made.

Of course, college and university campuses are such dynamic places that as long as someone is assigned to update the information, fresh content shouldn't be hard to come by.

"I get requests to post seven or eight different messages a day," says Palafox.

"We don't struggle for content. That is something I hear other people have problems with. Sometimes our loop gets really long so I have to work to make sure all the messages are seen."