Digital signage can do so much more than post sales figures or reminders about Casual Friday. Interactivity or integration with your network enables endless possibilities.
In fact, network integration is especially suited to campus applications, whether healthcare, higher education, or corporate. Expand your signage plans to a campus-wide network and watch the value grow.
Content: Where, What, and Why
Could your campus benefit from multiple digital signs? Take stock of your properties to determine where the most potential value resides.
A healthcare campus, for example, could broadcast anything from simple seasonal allergy reminders to videos on wellness topics. Corporate campuses can show off accomplishments or inform employees of meetings and deadlines. Any type of campus would benefit from having an extra outlet for emergency communications.
For extra functionality, add some interactive touchscreen signage to the network – it’s useful for wayfinding and searching for specific information.
“Your goal is to provide a variety of information, and you can’t show it all on a non-touchscreen,” explains Will Pymm, vice president of RedyRef, a manufacturer of touchscreen signage and kiosks. “There’s more information you can give the public with a touchscreen. Hospitals typically search by departments – you have pediatrics, emergency, oncology, and so on. You have doctors, locations, or amenities. For an office building where you just want to show companies, however, it’s very easy to use a non-touchscreen because your goal is not to provide information on individuals. We’re finding a trend in the corporate world to go non-touch.”
If you have a smaller campus with a handful of buildings, you may want to make one person responsible for updating the signs as needed. Larger campuses or those with many departments, such as higher education institutions, would likely benefit from allowing separate departments to control what is shown on their individual screens.
However, appointing an emergency backup person who can override the departmental controls when necessary allows quick broadcasting in case of an emergency. This authority should also extend to outdoor signage.
“People typically want one or two content managers to control the systems,” Pymm says. “Sometimes it gets a little difficult when you have too many chefs in the kitchen, but you can still have departmental control. Let’s say that in a sports complex you have five monitors and the content is mostly based on sporting events. You can have the sports complex administrator log on and have control over only those five systems, but then have a super-administrator who can override all of the monitors.”
Outside signage can give your campus a visual boost as well with proper placement. Useful locations include the main entrances to campus, student unions or other major gathering places, and large venues such as sports arenas. Target the most heavily trafficked areas to reach as many people at once, says John Kunze, director of Watchfire Signs.
“A college campus might add an entry sign promoting some programs, one on the outside of the arena, and one at the communications or student events center where they’re hosting concerts,” Kunze explains. “Medical facilities are done in conjunction with the branding of that facility, so it’s directing people to wellness programs and support groups.”
Team Up to Start the Planning Process
As with any capital request, numbers are extremely important. Compare bids to estimate the cost of purchasing the sign and weigh it against the manufacturer’s specifications on the signage’s power needs to determine how the installation might impact your energy bill.
If you’re upgrading from an older sign, as Franciscan St. Francis Health in Mooresville, IN, did a few years ago, you may be pleasantly surprised at the payback period.
“We’ve had digital signage here since the mid-1980s. It’s been updated twice since then, and our data showed the power consumption has been halved each time,” says Dan P. Young, director of facilities for Franciscan. “A hospital is not a world where a good idea is competing for dollars with a bad idea, it’s competing for dollars with another good idea. This current sign was justified solely on the basis of energy savings and eliminating maintenance contracts. My numbers were conservative, and it’s exceeded those projections. In fact, payback was less than a year.”
After your funding request has received the go-ahead from the C-suite, start making concrete plans. Try this five-step process for maximizing your signage network’s performance.
1) Who is in charge? Determine who the stakeholders are and tap those groups for team members. At a bare minimum, you need to incorporate your public relations or marketing department because the signage should be consistent with your institution’s image and brand identity. Also request representatives from IT, student services or HR, and database managers. Work with the new team to agree on individual roles that maximize each member’s personal strengths and agree mutually on project goals.
“Usually what happens is the marketing team starts the process, but the IT team is important from an infrastructure standpoint,” Pymm explains. “It’s important to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
2) Who will watch the screen? Examine your campus to determine which groups will have interest in which screens. The types of buildings, venues, and open areas on your campus will help with this step. After narrowing down your search to some high-impact areas, dig in further to find locations in each building or area of campus where people frequently congregate. This should include areas where the intended viewers will sit or stand still for some time and can spot the sign without even trying, such as cafeteria lines, main hallways, and lobbies.
3) What do viewers want? The team should narrow down the most likely uses for each sign when determining their precise location. For example, viewers in a cafeteria line would probably be interested in reading menus and nutrition facts about the day’s specials while they wait, so logical locations would include a spot just outside the doors of the cafeteria or near the ceiling at the entrance – both will grab viewers’ attention before they reach the first food station.
Recurring messages can help you deliver these notifications efficiently. The food service department will have control over what food items are displayed on the menu, but creating a content library that includes a menu template can make updating infinitely easier. Other basic items, such as templates for Amber Alerts, regular events, and seasonal messages, can be updated and used whenever necessary.
“Once you understand who the audience is, you understand the information they’re looking for. Then you need to decide where that information comes from,” says Jeff Collard of Omnivex, a digital signage software provider. “Figure out how to take the information you already have or you know is around you in one form or another, and put it all together to provide the relevant information when they have to make a decision.”
4) Which codes and regulations apply? While you must make absolutely sure your sign complies with ADA regulations, there’s more to it than that. You may find you need to build in additional interactivity or services to provide the best content to viewers with disabilities. This is easy to overlook but can cost you later if you don’t plan for accommodation from the start.
“There are certain requirements for wheelchair accessibility, cane sweep, and such,” Pymm says. “Sometimes buyers don’t ask. People should know that when the screen’s too high, a person in a wheelchair can’t use it, but a lot of people don’t think about it – they’ll install it and then come back and say ‘We didn’t think about the ADA circumstances.’ We can put submittal drawings together showing the customer the optimal mounting heights to meet ADA requirements.”
5) How will you update the signs? You’ve already chosen representatives in each department and appointed an administrator who can override all signage content in case of an emergency, but have you given any thought to the interface they’ll use to do so?
Today’s products are much easier to use than the earliest signage offerings, Young says, but it’s important to make sure anyone who will interact with the signage on the back end is comfortable updating it.
“Our first sign was DOS-based and you programmed the time in it,” Young explains. “The current one is PC-based. A lot of the employees are very comfortable with this, whereas back in the ‘80s, not everyone was. Back then, connectivity to the sign was hard-wired – it had its own communication link. Now it’s wireless.”
Partner with IT for Optimal Results
Technological considerations are a vital part of the planning process. IT will be an invaluable resource as you make behind-the-scenes choices that will ultimately determine how successful the signage network is.
If they’re on your team from the beginning, they can gradually guide everyone through the technology details as the team takes a closer look at product options. If not, you need to consult them on several basic issues, such as:
- Power and infrastructure: Your team’s IT representative can provide information on cabling connections and weigh in on whether to support connectivity centrally or remotely, Collard says.
- Bandwidth: Make sure your signs won’t overtax the campus’s existing capability to handle data. If they do overload the system, they can cause delays and other problems for computer and network users.
- Screen size: Different sizes are appropriate for different conditions, and it may be hard to determine the size needed in each space simply from looking at it. Ask your team’s IT rep (as well as other FMs in your department) to help you narrow down size choices based on available space in the intended location, existing power and cabling infrastructure, and so on.
- Location and mount type: Many customers like the look of wall mounts but end up changing their order at the last minute because they’ve discovered there’s no convenient power available where it’s needed, Pymm says. The sign provider can also provide valuable input here.
“There’s the hardware side, the software side, database integration, and maintenance once it’s all in. Make sure those are covered in the planning stage and that the right people are involved,” Pymm says. “A customer might say ‘We want five systems, all wall mounts with 32-inch screens.’ Then you run into whether the data will fit on that screen, if you want touch, and whether you have space on the wall. You need power and data connections behind that wall, but if there’s marble on it, we’ll have to mess up your marble and you won’t be happy.”
- Technical support and maintenance: Because you’ll have to tie your signs into your campus’s network in order to update them, IT will be a vital partner in troubleshooting and maintaining the signage system.
Answers to the above questions will also help you make important decisions on other factors, such as interactivity, sign content systems, and screen types. As Pymm notes, interactive systems can provide much more information than a static screen that only scrolls through updates, but this can also introduce additional costs and time to the content management process.
Use interactive signage where a non-interactive version can’t possibly satisfy customers’ needs quickly, such as a searchable directory in a lobby or a touchscreen wayfinding tool near each elevator.
“If you’re in healthcare, put signs in waiting areas where people will see them after they go through the entrance,” Pymm suggests. “Provide people information about why they’re waiting or add some entertainment value to it. You could then implement signs throughout the facility. For example, in a five-level facility, someone might get information on the first floor, but by the time they get to the fifth they’ve forgotten the information or need more guidance.”
Your facility’s specific needs will also show you where to tip the balance between price and functionality. LED-based signs generally perform better outdoors because they can compete visually with sunshine, allowing them to stay on during the day, says Kunze. LCD screens might be better matches for indoors.
Ensure Success with Diligent Updates
Consider how the system will be updated. A simple media card-based sign is much less expensive than a PC-based operating system, but the media card model is also less scalable and can’t integrate into your network the way a PC-based sign can. On the other hand, a PC-based sign with its own operating system can coordinate with other signs, offer remote updating, and integrate with existing databases and data feeds you’d like to display.
“Wayfinding is a good example, but the intelligence might dictate other things,” Collard explains. “There should be detailed needs analysis going on – you could add options like RFID or bar code readers (see left). There are various data feeds you can connect to, like news or weather, as well as sensors that tie into something around the facility to determine what should be playing there.”
Ultimately, the success of your signage depends on whether it draws enough eyes and supplies the right information at the right time, so faithfully updating it with current information is extremely important. Let it run dated content and you risk losing your viewers. It may be hard to quantify the sign’s positive impact at first, but fresh, relevant content presented attractively and displayed in the right location will draw eyes as it did at Franciscan.
“We have a car count that’s between 40,000 to 50,000 cars a day, and the only time I’ve had negative feedback where people have called me was when I was switching out the old sign for the current one,” Young reminisces. “People would miss their turn because they used that sign as a marker along the highway.”
Janelle Penny (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate
editor of BUILDINGS.