Long after the screens have been put up and the initial burst of content has passed by, many digital signs wind up showing just a few pieces of content, perhaps not much more than the posters that had previously been scattered around the area. This is not the value-added bonanza of mixed content diversity the proposals promised. Your content is mostly word art on bare powerpoint slides interspersed with wall-of-text research announcements. How can you get and keep your campus engaged with digital signage?
First, understand that campus digital signage is primarily social – and I don’t mean Twitter or Facebook. Those can be helpful in certain situations, but the real value in digital signage is how well it integrates into the social fabric of your campus – the events, the organizations, the calendars, the comings and goings of students and staff. A lot of factors come together to make a signage system useful. Here are a few that may give your signage a good start.
Screens can be placed either with large public exposure in mind or some context-specific purpose, such as near a conference room or dining location. A proper screen installation will have dedicated power and network connections, so it’s worth doing some research before hanging a screen on the wall.
Screens in public locations are best placed in large windows near public walkways and in common areas where people are likely to congregate. This ensures a mix of screens; some meant for a casual glance by passers-by and some meant to be viewed in more detail. A good placement will depend on the size of the screens and the type of content. Cardboard mock-ups of a screen with sample content can be helpful for judging size and readability.
Outdoor screens may seem like a great idea, but require protection from the elements (be it cold, rain, or dust). That protection, and the engineering involved, can turn a $2,000 installation into a $12,000 one. Sometimes, a screen in an extremely novel or well-trafficked location will be worth the trouble, but consider more and smaller installations in niche locations before devoting resources to such an installation.
Screens in a specialty location should make their function clear. In dining areas, they should be placed in just the same way as menus. Near meeting rooms, they should be placed near the doors, where paper schedules might traditionally be placed. In some cases, it may be desirable to mix the primary content in with other things that viewers may find valuable. Meeting rooms might have suggestions for where to obtain food and dining menus might have ads for meal plan options.
Each screen will tend to have a few stakeholders, generally the content submitter, the viewers, and the organization the screen “belongs” to. The submitter wants their content seen and is often gauging the effectiveness of digital signage against other competing media such as posters, e-mails, group lists, and word of mouth. The viewers want useful information in an easily digestible format that doesn’t feel like overbearing advertising or a Powerpoint. The organization is likely a particular department, building, or other administrative unit, and they’ll expect the signage to enrich and complement their space and provide useful information. A good gauge of the value signage is offering is whether the organization in question would be willing to fund the screen out of their own funds rather than simply receive one at no cost from their university.
With the exception of single-purpose signage, screens should offer a diversity of content topics and formats. Each department, building, or organization will certainly prefer a screen that showcases their content all the time. But that’s not what brings viewers or campus engagement. Screens that display the latest dining menus or the next registrar deadline also need to incorporate the latest playbill, the upcoming art installation, and the latest band to hit campus if they’re going to attract viewers’ attention. The best signage emphasizes what users in the area are interested in. It draws on a variety of information to bring the people and institutions on campus closer together in an era where siloed information that never leaves the local bulletin board, online calendar, or department e-mail list is all too common.
Aside from the mix of content, having good templates is often the difference between a screen integrating seamlessly with its space and a LED-backlit blight on the campus. A template is the “frame” in which content is placed and a template that integrates well with its content and its surroundings is key to getting viewer attention and engagement.
A nondescript template that simply surrounds a single image, document, or video with a border will generally be seen as little more than a backlit billboard and unless it’s the center of attention (such as in an exhibit or as a building directory), it will be ignored.
A quality template will incorporate several types of content (generally text and graphics), place the content on the screen in a visually appealing way, and be unique to its location. That bit about a unique template may seem a bit odd, particularly for those who remember the CCTV broadcast digital signage systems, which sent a single template with its content to all screens on the network. But unique templates are what set the latest signage systems apart in terms of both appearance and increased user engagement.
It may not be possible on every system, but certainly on any network-enabled system, unique templates should be used wherever it makes sense. The differences don’t need to be dramatic, although screens in business schools that resemble electronic trading systems can be dazzling. Rather, the template differences should help the screen seamlessly occupy the space it’s in. Color variations, differences in how the content is laid out, and additional imagery (school branding) all work towards making a screen complement its surroundings and engage the people nearby.
Simplify the poster-to-screen pipeline
A signage system with just a handful of staff submitting and moderating is a sign of a weak signage system. Aside from needlessly consuming staff time and failing to engage the campus community, it’s ultimately ineffective. A campus signage system needs wide-based sources of interest and content. The participation of key staff members, student leaders, community organizations/businesses, and organizations across campus is what makes signage worth looking at.
If your campus is like most, paper posters on worn-down surfaces and last-minute listserv e-mails have been the mainstay of event communication for many years. While it will be a long time before digital signage will supplant its paper counterpart in the realm of quick and cheap marketing, it’s important to remove any needless fuss from content submission. If your system is asking for much more than a login, content title, and display dates, you’re probably standing in the way of getting the content you need.
Content is everywhere
The best content in your system is the kind that never has to be submitted -- and it’s everywhere. It’s not enough to make the system easy to use and readily available to students and staff who want to submit graphical content. The backbone of a signage system is the routine but important content that flows around campus spaces all the time. Class schedules, building schedules, department/university news feeds, national news feeds, lunch menus, construction announcements, room changes, and a dozen other minor but vital types of information.
Few people will bother to submit this kind of content, so making sure that your system is connected to them from the beginning is crucial. Just as important as getting screens hung on the wall is reaching out to stakeholders across campus at all levels to find all of the interesting content being generated in every building, department, and office.
Keep a good calendar
I’ve covered content both automated and user-created, but campus calendaring bears some emphasis. Most every campus has implemented some sort of calendaring system for university events. If the system on your campus is already well-used and can be integrated easily with signage, that’s all there is to it. If not, a calendar is still a must and the alternatives are to popularize your campus calendar or deploy a new one. Popularizing a campus calendar isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds. Generally, there will be some IT staff who have a mandate to operate a calendar, but not to do much in the way of promoting it. They have likely been out in the wilderness with their work and will be glad to hear from you. With some basic promotion by key staff and student leaders, you now have a centralized repository for event dates.
Deciding on a new calendaring system is beyond the scope of this post, but calendars that are open-source, simple to add events to, and that have a variety of output formats (RSS, JSON,etc) will tend to be the best choices. But above all, it must be easy to add events to for anyone, including student leaders with only a smartphone running between meetings. A nice enterprisey calendar that ticks every feature checkbox and has a dozen fields to fill out won’t get your digital signage system many relevant events.
Let them hack
Any reasonably advanced digital signage software will have extensive API’s (Application Programming Interfaces) to get (and possibly submit) content. Use them. Integrate signage content into websites. Grab content from existing systems – calendars, CMS’s, bus schedules, and even print queues. Encourage students to develop creative integrations and applications that incorporate the signage system into campus life. Whether it’s campus photo contests via the 70“ screen or tweets typed on 4” screens, every integration and hack that integrates digital signage increases its value to the community.
This post is of course not a complete list of best practices for digital signage in higher education, and your mileage may vary even with these suggestions. For very large or very small institutions, the best practices may be different or even counter to some of the advice offered here. But if your system isn’t as well-used as you’d hoped or you’re looking for a new system to serve your campus, how you locate your screens, acquire content, and add value will prove to be key considerations. Please feel free to add your suggestions and experiences in the comments.