In The Know (Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting)

Reading the Signs

A look at the challenges facing a digital signage network in higher education.

Digital Signage


Managing a digital signage network (DSN) on a higher ed campus is more than discussions about monitors, mounts, networks and software. Digital signage is not a toy; it is a significant internal marketing messenger of the institution and, if well leveraged, can serve many critical functions for colleges and universities. The planning, installation and testing phases consume countless discussions with numerous people involved at specific points in the deployment phase until that highly anticipated day arrives to light the network up for the first time. The switches are thrown and everyone smiles as the wonderful images rotate through those first iterations of the content splashing across the monitors. Victory!

Once everything is up and running, we are each inevitably faced with certain formidable decisions about things we might not have considered in the planning, design and installation phases. Surely these new decisions will govern the network and set specific precedencies, good or bad. These important administrative discussions should be embraced and probed, as they will assist in reducing headaches, heartburn and mistakes as your network grows toward maturity. Begin by asking simple questions. The answers come from considered thought. Finding the best answer from among several potential answers for each institution is the challenge. 

Where Will Network Authority Rest?

Future decisions will need to be made that will have significant impact upon the daily operation of the network. Will each department manage its own equipment and content? Are there equipment standards, and will that equipment run 24 hours a day? Should you adopt a centralized or decentralized network authority to make decisions at each site of digital signage deployment? The answers depend upon informed discussion of what model would work best for your institution, as well as how peer institutions have fared in their own decisions. A solid team of people who understand the vision, mission and demands of the digital signage network must be trusted to make sometimes difficult decisions. Selecting these key people is critical to success.

How Will You Protect Your Institutional Brand?

I can assure you that as soon as you light up your digital signage network, you will find that many people, organizations, area businesses and outside vendors will desire to co-opt your signage real estate with their own messaging. This can be good or not so good, depending upon several considerations. Will it dilute your own institutional messaging? Your institution has spent decades creating and developing the brand; these questions (and many other questions) must be given due consideration before the genie is released from the bottle.

Who Maintains Editorial Control of the Content Displayed?

A network can let the individual decide on their own what acceptable content is, or they can chose to establish a standard policy. Decisions must be made about what constitutes an appropriate message that protects the institutional brand at all times. It will be challenging, because there are many opinions about what is appropriate or inappropriate on a college campus. Finding the best gatekeeper to protect the brand is critical; administrative support of that gatekeeper is paramount.

Do We Need to Generate Revenue to Sustain the Network?

What are the institutional constraints placed upon the network by your own trademark and licensing policies? Is there a sufficient operating budget for the network to maintain growth and support? Are you looking for a tangible return on investment (ROI) or a return on objective (ROO) as a marketing model for the network? Can you, or will you, sell advertising within your content? Are there existing advertising contracts with campus vendors that must be considered? What would the correct “balance” of advertising be within your loop of content that still protects your own brand? Will you charge a fee for displaying those messages? There are pros and cons to all of these questions, and many questions spawn more questions.

Will There Be an Emergency Messaging Feature to Maintain?

Higher ed campuses have never been the same since the tragedy of the Virginia Tech shootings. Protecting tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff on your campuses in times of emergency is a heavy responsibility when time is of the essence. Digital signage offers a significant part of the solution, if employed wisely. You need to consider many issues surrounding emergency messaging using digital signage. Who issues the emergency alert? How does that emergency alert get placed upon your digital signage network? Hand typed or automatically? What are the associated costs involved? Every question requires a concerted effort.

Are We ADA-Compliant and Focused on Safety With our Deployments?

You can install a digital sign almost anywhere, yet best and safest placement is most important. You want digital signage installed where it will be seen… often! This usually involves deployment in a high pedestrian traffic choke point. However, the installation must provide safe passage for those pedestrians. No matter if the digital sign hangs off a wall, over a walkway, is set on a table mount or is a freestanding kiosk; you must consider the Americans with Disability Act for your campuses. Each type of deployment requires some thought in the planning phase with precise measurements as to height above the floor, distance out from a wall and width of a hallway, so that people with disability do not inadvertently bump into them. Also of consideration is an audio alert if you have an emergency messaging feature, and the button placement on any interactive touch-screen display. 

These are but a few of many questions to consider for deploying digital signage in a higher education setting. The earlier these things are contemplated, the quicker your network will reach maturity. Help in finding answers can be found using Google searches, Twitter searches, digital signage blogs, digital signage groups and various vendors. In today’s age of mass-marketing messages to the target audiences on a college or university campus, digital signage provides one of the best solutions for internal marketing and campus safety. Wise network managers focus on every question… especially the hard ones!

Spencer Graham is manager, Operations, for West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Digital Signage Federation and serves as curriculum development director on the Education Committee and on the Digital Signage Expo End-User Advisory Board.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management November 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.