Campus Signage: Why Digital is Better

EPISODE 67 | Guest: Dave Leo, region sales manager – North Central for Visix

Universities and colleges of all types and sizes are adopting digital campus signage. And they all have the same needs and the same mission, which is educate, inform and alert their students, staff and visitors. But it’s not enough to just put some screens up in hallways. You have to understand what types of messaging appeal to different viewers, and where and when to publish that content. You have to give your signage managers the tools they need to succeed and always think about the viewer experience.

In this episode, Dave Leo walks us through how higher education clients are using campus signage to engage their audiences, some of the dos and don’ts for a successful system, and some real-world examples of campus content.

  • Learn about popular types of screen content for different audiences
  • Understand the unique challenges for higher ed content managers
  • Explore menu boards, donor boards, wayfinding and other interactive options
  • Discover how digital signage ties into mass alerts
  • Get advice and best practices for campus signage systems

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Get content ideas for campus signage in our white paper: Student-Centered Digital Signage for Colleges & Universities


Derek DeWitt: There are many different kinds of organizations that benefit from comprehensive communications strategies and systems such as digital signage. One of those types of organizations that really gets a lot of mileage out of digital signage is the higher education market. We’re talking about universities, colleges, junior colleges, community colleges, things like this. So we’re going to talk about some of the specifics on how that industry uses digital signage. What some of the challenges that are unique to that sector are, and some examples, and blah-blah-blah. If you’ve listened to this podcast, you know what we’re going to do by now, I hope. To help me in this endeavor. I have Dave Leo, region manager for the North Central United States for Visix, Inc. Hello, Dave, how are you?

Dave Leo: Hey, Derek. Good morning.

Derek DeWitt: Same to you. All right. I’d like to thank Dave for talking to me today and I’d like to thank everybody out there. Of course, for listening. .

So higher educational facilities, Dave. Whether it’s a single building or it’s a bunch of buildings spread out over a campus, or even on multiple campuses and buildings throughout a region, a lot of them are using digital signage to reach out to this young, digital native audience that is pretty much that’s what their student body is. They’re all walking around with a screen in their hand anyway.

Dave Leo: Yeah, absolutely. Higher education has been one of the early adopters of digital signage as a platform, a technology. They understood 10, 15 years ago that, hey, it’s a great way to reach this broad audience that’s constantly on the move in between classrooms. You know, back then mobile phones weren’t so prominent. So it was definitely a high value commodity to have digital signage. And even today they still see the value in it for the advancements that the technology has achieved over those years. So yeah, higher education is a huge digital signage space. And, like you mentioned, small, medium, large campuses doesn’t matter. They all have the same needs and the same mission, which is educate, inform and alert the student body, staff and visitors.

Derek DeWitt: It’s a little bit unique because I kind of imagine that there are three audience types. You’ve got your student body. Then you have your faculty, the people who actually work in the school. And then you have visitors, parents, prospective donors or prospective students, or even visiting sports teams or what have you. So you have, and then you have sports teams, you have drama club, you’ve got chess club. You’ve got all these different little things going on on campus, but they all use one communications platform.

Dave Leo: Yes. And that’s where the right solution really comes into play – the correct digital signage platform. Because having the ability to scale, go from one display to hundreds to thousands quickly, easily as this grows, which it usually does. And to localize the content based on, you know, showing to visitors in the student union or in the residence hall lobby where they’re doing tours. Or, you know, students in their particular departments in classrooms or athletes in the athletic building. So yeah, having this broad platform, but that could still be localized and targeted, is critical.

Derek DeWitt: So, what kind of stuff are people putting up on the screens? I mean, give me some examples of what might be sort of typical university or college campus digital signage messages.

Dave Leo: The number one tends to be event information because there’s so many events changing all the time on campus, whether it’s social events, athletics, you know, job search forums, that kind of thing. So it’s really an ongoing round robin of, hey, here’s the new event this week, this day, this hour. So the ability to show that either by publishing just slides, you know, graphic slides or PowerPoints or video formats, or better yet integrating with the campus calendar platforms. Popular ones are like Exchange 365, Google Calendar, EMS, CollegeNET, just to name a few. So showing that live event information tends to be the number one need for campuses.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And when you’re integrating with a calendar system, because you’re going to, if the room changes or the day changes or the time changes, you’re going to update it there anyway. So if it’s already, if the digital signage is already pulling from that calendar, it just updates the message.

Dave Leo: Exactly. Yep. Integration, automation, that’s the beauty of the product. It doesn’t require someone to babysit the system and constantly upload content if we’re tying into those calendars that already exist.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s come a long way. I think some people still have this idea in their minds that maybe, you know, digital signage is a laptop hooked up to a television screen via cable playing a PowerPoint presentation series of slides. And it’s like, no, no, it’s, it’s way more than that now.

Dave Leo: Yes. Yeah. That’s the dark ages of digital signage. We’ve gone far beyond that.

Derek DeWitt: What are some of the kinds of unique challenges that the education market faces? I would imagine one of them would be because you’ve got this incredibly diverse audience and they could be in multiple locations and they’re very much on the move too. They’re very much going from this place to this place to this place. It would seem to me that would be one of the number one difficulties.

Dave Leo: Yeah, absolutely. And that actually is kind of the core challenge of a lot of vertical markets, not just higher education, is getting the right content managers, the users of the system. Getting them to adopt it and embrace it as a new communications tool. And then to have those kind of micro content managers in the different departments and the different areas around the campus. Some schools do a great job at this and can really rally those. And some, really need a good vendor to help with training and motivation and support. But those that get it can do a fantastic job and really use the platform the way it should be.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. I know I’ve spoken to some universities where they’ve actually sort of brought in the students. Students create content. Students schedule content. They even sometimes have students managing the system. It’s kind of like, hey, while you’re here, here’s an actual skill that we’re teaching you in addition to it. And, is that common or is that just sort of a one off?

Dave Leo: Well, it’s a genius idea, Derek. And I love any college that actually implements that, but it is rare. I see the benefits just like you mentioned. You can make this a quasi-training for graphic design students, you know.

Derek DeWitt: Seriously, it could be, it could be a class.

Dave Leo: Absolutely. I mean, it should be. So I get that. You get that. It’s, the fear is that, oh no, we don’t want students controlling this and putting content, even though most of the enterprise platforms have some type of gatekeeper, have controls or approval process for content. So they’re not going to put wrong information up if you put in those failsafes. If you can get students involved and their pushing content that gets approved to the screen, how more engaged are they going to be looking around the screens on campus? They’re going to want to look at them all the time. Because that’s the content they created. So yeah, I hope more colleges embrace that concept.

Derek DeWitt: I mean, one way to safeguard that content from becoming a bit too risqué or off-color, or just inaccurate, obviously would be to use templates.

Dave Leo: Yup. Templates not only speed up the content creation process, because let’s face it, not everybody is, you know, proficient at designing in Photoshop or PowerPoint and you can’t make good looking content. So by templates, absolutely, the design work is done. And me the content creator just types in the message. Now still we need some approval on the copy, if that is correct, has profanity and whatnot. But again, there’s could be failsafes in the software that prevent that. But yeah, as far as speed and ease of use, templates are fantastic.

Derek DeWitt: I know I spoke to a university not long ago where they had the students for the different student clubs and student body events and organizations and sub-organizations, they would create the message according to certain specifications, and then they would email it to the manager. And then the manager would say, yes, that’s right or, oh, it looks terrible, or hey, you misspelled, you know, John and send it back. And then that person would go ahead and do the actual scheduling and putting it into the system. But the students created the whole thing. And they actually charged, like the chess club, a dollar. For a dollar, we’ll put it up once a week for three weeks. For $5 we’ll put it up three times a week for five weeks or what have you. So it became a revenue stream as well. And the students didn’t mind because the cost was so minimal.

Dave Leo: I’ve heard of a few colleges doing that with their own student groups. And you’re right, it is such an affordable process that it’s no big deal. And even those departments have their own little budgets, so they just budget for that. It’s advertisement for them. But yeah, even going beyond that, getting either local or national vendors to do advertising, that is a whole nother world in itself. I mean, what if you can essentially pay for the digital signage system, any support and maintenance and then some? What if you can profit from your digital signage just by getting a few vendors? You know, the local pizza shop, coffee shop, whoever. Even national vendors like, you know, soda vendors. I do have a couple of large campuses that are aggressively looking into that, not to take over the entire screen with ads, but to creatively put it on the screen somewhere, almost subliminally, but still they’re getting their ad revenue from that.

Derek DeWitt: What about wayfinding? Do a lot of universities use wayfinding?

Dave Leo: Absolutely. I mean, even some of the smaller community colleges have really embraced interactive wayfinding. Because it can be challenging and possibly they don’t have the resources on their own website to show an up-to-date campus map or an interactive map. So they simply don’t have a way to tell people where the athletics building or the student union is. So yeah, a lot of these colleges will put one or more touchscreen displays in the heavily-trafficked areas that allow people to find the right professor, the right apartment, school.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. You’re walking around going where the heck is the registration office? Oh, the screen just told me.

Dave Leo: Yeah. There’s nothing more frustrating. I mean, you’re excited to get on campus if you’re a new student or if you’re visiting your, you know, your kid. And you want to find them and now you’re lost for a half hour. That’s not a good experience, so getting people to the right point of interest is pretty important.

Derek DeWitt: I sometimes think about, multi-language capabilities. Do you see places doing that? For example, a friend of mine went to a university in Springfield, Indiana, or somewhere in Indiana, which bizarrely enough has the largest Tibetan population in the world outside of Tibet. And she said they had materials. They had stuff out there on campus in Tibetan.

Dave Leo: Definitely. Not only with just digital signage, but also the interactive wayfinding. The ability to click a button and it switches to Spanish, which is very popular. I’m in the north central region of the U.S, and believe it or not, there’s a large Spanish population here, especially in the rural areas. And that is almost a requirement on a lot of these interactive wayfinding, that it does flip to Spanish at the press of a button. And then you’re right. There’s definitely some other micro-geographic locations out there that do have these unique languages like, you know, Tibetan.

Derek DeWitt: So, you say very often, they’ll put wayfinding, interactive wayfinding screens in high traffic areas. We’re talking like, lobbies. Where else? What are some other places you’ll find stuff like that.

Dave Leo: Typically, it’s going to be in the main traffic areas. You know, the admissions office. That’s typically where new students are going. So yeah, the admissions lobby, right by the reception desk or in replace of a receptionist in some cases. The student union is always another natural progression, where people collaborate and there’s a bookstore and, you know, the social gathering for campuses. Those are the two hotspots. And you really want to position that kiosk where people have to walk around it. You know, you don’t want it stuck on the back wall somewhere where it’s ignored. You almost wanted it freestanding right in the middle of the walkway, because that’s the goal. You want to get people to see it, touch it and navigate.

Derek DeWitt: What about in say food court or cafeteria areas? Do you see a use of menu boards where they put up, not just the menu of the day and the price list, but the nutritional information? Here’s, what’s coming up. Don’t forget, taco Tuesdays is starting next week, things like this? Specials, half off donuts because they’re going to go bad, things like that?

Dave Leo: Yeah. All the time. Actually, every campus has digital menu boards, even the smallest ones I have in South Dakota. They use the technology.

Derek DeWitt: Really?

Dave Leo: Yeah, so you’d be surprised. It is not only a key target for getting the information live to people, but you have a recurring rotation of an audience that’s coming in there multiple times a day on a schedule. So that information has to be up to date, reliable, relevant – the prices, the promotional stuff. And to be changing printed menus at that frequency is a nightmare. So yeah, digital menus are critical on colleges, absolutely.

Derek DeWitt: Especially if you get some really nice high-quality pictures. And, you know, 20-year-olds. I remember being 20, kinda. And, I’m pretty sure I was hungry all the time.

Dave Leo: It does help sell the product. You know, you put a nice photo of the actual food that you’re going to buy and you’re more inclined to buy that instead of just text. So yeah, images and really great photography is very important in selling it.

Derek DeWitt: Now, you mentioned athletics as well earlier. Obviously most colleges have, you know, sports teams, sometimes multiple sports teams. Lots and lots of people go there. Not just people who have some skin in the game, such as it were, which means players, faculty, parents, but even members of the general public and the opposing teams will come there as well. Do you see kind of a different way to use digital signage technology in those environments?

Dave Leo: Yeah. Even a lot of my higher ed clients will put digital signs in the locker room of the athletics department. There you’re getting them real information about, you know, nutrition information, the gym schedule, the practice schedule, all live, up-to-date, relevant information for the athletes. So that targeted audience in the locker room is great.

Derek DeWitt: Sure. Now, one of the key things I should think for a large environment like this, where people are coming and going from all over the place, would be alerts, obviously. Because, you know, hey, there’s a tornado coming. No, that would be useful to know. Maybe I’m in a building and I don’t see the sky turn green.

Dave Leo: Exactly. Well, yeah. And this is no laughing matter. Actually, you know, the ability to turn your events and advertising screens into a critical alert message that gives clear, precise instructions to everybody of where to go and what to do in a weather event, in a building specific event like a fire, or heaven forbid a mass shooter, which unfortunately does happen. So to leverage this campus network of signs. If you have a hundred signs on your campus, now you’ve got a hundred signs that tell people where to go and what to do. The power of that is enormous. So yes, colleges are embracing this and typically leveraging the integration of their digital signage platform with an existing mass notification system that they already have. So they tie them together. It’s one unified system. They press a button and boom, the screens change to that message.

Derek DeWitt: I assume that they can also localize and target the different areas of campus and the digital signs therein. Like, if there’s a fire, you know, over in the southeast corner, maybe the people in the opposite side of campus don’t need to know about it.

Dave Leo: Exactly. Yeah, the larger the campus they’ll probably want to group their displays or media players into zones so that the zone-specific alerts only go to that area. You’re right. We don’t want to scare the wrong side of the campus if it doesn’t matter. But having that flexibility to do global, local and groups of alerts is very important.

Derek DeWitt: You know, I’ve often wondered if it would be a good idea, or maybe there are some universities out there doing this, to use the digital signs to sort of support the curriculum. Not just say, hey, this is, you know, the deadline to sign up for this class or this club or whatever, but even to support what’s being taught in the classrooms. Like, hey, today in history we covered, you know, this event from 1905. And then, hey, now we’re starting to see some little reminder messages about that going up because the teacher has informed the digital signage managers that, okay, I’ve reached this part in my curriculum plan, stick those messages up as a sort of a reminder,

Dave Leo: Yes, those are few and far between, but I have seen them. And it makes a lot of sense because talk about a captive audience when you’ve got a classroom full of students. Maybe before and after the lecture, your projector, your display turns into the digital signage content. And it’s localized for that professor that he or she has scheduled their content to do exactly what you said – reminders, alerts, notices. You know, before and after the presentation it’s digital signage. And that has been successfully done. Another key area is, right as they enter the classroom and the auditorium. Small digital signs or room signs where you can display not only the schedule of events, you know, when your particular classes going on or if it’s canceled or moved or reminders about upcoming tests. So targeting right there outside of the classroom is another key, key spot.

Derek DeWitt: You know, it also occurs to me that a lot of universities sort of depend on donations, or at least it’s a large part of how they get some of their funding. I would imagine that certainly some of the larger ones, but even smaller ones, they might have pretty comprehensive donor boards as well.

Dave Leo: Yeah. Almost every campus does. It may be as small as a little plaque on the wall with just, you know, some etched names of donors. Or it could be literally a technology that they want to modernize and make it easier and more affordable actually to update and make it more dynamic and engaging. And most of these universities have their own foundation department. So they have their own funding. It’s, it’s kind of their own world. They’re focusing on getting donors. So to make that a digital and oftentimes interactive experience to search for donors and different levels and names of the donors, it’s a very smart way to do that.

Derek DeWitt: Like, we call it a donor board, but it’s not a special piece of equipment. It’s just a donor board because that’s what you’re putting on it, you know. It could be almost like a little showcase. Like, hey, here are our donors. Hey, here’s what you get if you donate. Hey, here are past people. Here’s some of our history, here’s some of our alumni. You know, like it can be a real little showcase right there on an interactive digital sign.

Dave Leo: Yeah, absolutely. And as much as people say, they don’t want to see either names or, you know, they don’t want to publicize how much they’ve given, I think a lot of people really do. So it’d be cool to see your name up there, your photo, a video, maybe a little congratulations and thank you for donating. And also you mentioned, showing all the famous alumni and the history. So it could be tied into more of an informational display versus just a donor display.

Derek DeWitt: And, when it’s not being, if it’s interactive, when it’s not being used, it’s also just another digital sign for the general, you know, messages.

Dave Leo: Right. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Dual purpose. Why not?

Derek DeWitt: Okay. Let’s say that I’ve been just handed the digital signage system, responsibility for it. What are some of the unique things I’m going to have to watch out for? What are some of the pitfalls and dangers?

Dave Leo: I’d say the number one thing is make sure your content, what you’ve selected – if it’s a video, PowerPoint, whatever your piece of content is, the template – that it is going to play on the right screen that you want it to go. So, it went to the correct playlist or player into the system is critical. Let’s make sure that not only do you as the user have the rights to put it on that particular display, but you’re cognizant enough to put it in the right place. So that’s pretty important. And then secondarily is that you schedule it when it’s supposed to start and stop. You know, most messages are date specific. So we want to start that message perhaps today and then stop it as soon as that event is gone, is expired. We don’t want to play the Christmas message during the summertime. It just doesn’t make sense and confuses people, so.

Derek DeWitt: If you’ve got Christmas up in July and you didn’t mean to do that, it kind of takes away the authority of the whole system. They just go, wow, I’m not paying attention to that. Those people don’t know what they’re doing.

Dave Leo: Yeah. Good digital signage that is scheduled appropriately has a positive impact. Bad content that is, you know, old, outdated, looks bad has a negative impact. So yeah, you’ve got to do it right for it to be a powerful tool.

Derek DeWitt: So, what are some of the coolest ways you’ve seen universities and colleges using digital signage?

Dave Leo: One of my favorite projects was a larger deployment, a big campus in the Midwest. They wanted an engaging way to showcase and give tours for the residence halls on campuses. Because traditionally you sign up with a student and you walk around to all of the, you know, dormitories, and this is a day long process, right? So you’re dedicating one staff member to maybe one or two families. So it requires a lot of human interaction and time. Well, we converted that whole experience to a digital one, and in their residence hall, one of their main halls, they have a large touchscreen. And now it’s almost a residence hall wayfinder, not only where are they located on campus, but floor plans, photos of all the halls, prices. So it’s almost a sales aid for the employee and quickly you can navigate the entire campus of every residence hall in a matter of minutes where it would normally take you all day. So that was probably one of the coolest ones I’ve done recently.

Derek DeWitt: I mean, I think that’s a great way of using the technology in a way that’s unique to that technology. You couldn’t do that, you couldn’t even do that on a website. I guess you could, but you kind of have to leave it up to the person, you know, to figure out how to navigate through your virtual tour. And a lot of those virtual tours are terrible. Let’s face it.

Dave Leo: Yeah. The virtual tours are fine if you’re just getting general information at your home on your computer. But when you’re on campus, you don’t have your laptop in your hands, and it probably doesn’t work well or even look good on your phone. So having those touchscreens local, right there in front of you, it’s a different experience. It’s the right experience to get people that information.

Derek DeWitt: Well, and too, like you said, you’re on campus. So if father says, oh, well, that’s fantastic. Can we physically go there right now? The answer is, yes. It’s just down here. Let’s use the digital wayfinding to figure out how to get there.

Dave Leo: Why not? And you know what? In addition to that, you talk about everybody’s got a phone. Well, what if the wayfinding could send you directions and tell you how to get there by turn-by-turn navigation. Or even you scan a QR code on the wayfinder and you get the entire kiosk on your phone. And now you’re taking the kiosk with you as you walk around campus. All those things are possible.

Derek DeWitt: That’s cool. I mean, that’s the thing. I think we’re going to see more and more of this, not just in universities, but everywhere, is we’re going to see more integration and more blurring of the lines between, we’re basically just going to have digital stuff around us all the time.

Dave Leo: Right. I hope so.

Derek DeWitt: So, what would be some of your sage advice, since you’ve been doing this so long, to someone who is considering adopting digital signage for their university or college?

Dave Leo: Well, selecting the right vendor and not necessarily the right solution. That certainly comes into play, the right product. But actually the right people behind the product is just as important. You know, I’ve had clients that have been with me for 15 years and they keep upgrading. And on the opposite, I’ve seen them, other clients, you know, purchase my competitors. And sometimes, the experience is lackluster. There is no training. Support is almost not there. They can’t get a hold of people at the vendor. And maybe they go out of business or they didn’t weather the COVID storm. So, go with an experienced company that has expertise in the university field, has a long resume of other clients, even nearby that you can talk to (and we encourage you to). And that, you know, we get good testimonials that you can verify that their support is great and their training’s awesome, and you have a local rep you can call. So all these things do matter in addition to having a platform that works well for you.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Because this is not a buy it and it’s done kind of a thing. It’s not a pair of shoes, you know. It’s, oh, that wore out, I guess I’ll buy a new version. Digital signage is really a process. It’s going to be constantly updating. There are software updates, driver updates. Eventually hardware burns out and has to be replaced. Or there’s stuff that’s available that allows you to do things that you couldn’t even think of, you know, two years ago. Now the software does this, or it’s on the cloud. You don’t even need to have a server room anymore and you can have it hosted someplace else. And so it’s a process. It’s a constantly evolving thing.

Dave Leo: Yeah. Digital signage is just another communications platform. It’s like phone systems, websites, other communication systems that don’t go away. They may evolve and grow, but you don’t abandon them. People are still using phones and teleconferencing and websites. Even my clients that are 15+ years old will attest to that.

Derek DeWitt: And again, I think it’s also very important for when you have a young audience like this. It’s not just that they are tech savvy now, but these are the people who are going to be in charge, you know, like it, or lump it in 10, 20 years. And so they’re the ones who are going to be evolving all of this stuff. So why not give them as much as possible to stimulate as many different things in their minds as you can?

Dave Leo: Yeah, certainly. Campus, college campuses, that’s exactly where we should be giving our young minds the most information as quickly and as dynamically as possible, and digital signage does exactly that.

Derek DeWitt: I could not agree more. Well, super interesting stuff. If you are a university or college and you’re not using digital signage, maybe it’s time to start seriously considering doing so. All right. Thank you very much for talking to me today, Dave.

Dave Leo: Yeah, it was my pleasure, Derek. This was fun. Thanks.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you. And thank you everybody out there for listening. Don’t forget. You can go to the Visix website under Resources/Podcasts, and see a transcript of this conversation.