Digital Signage Stories: Georgia State University Digital Signage Case Study

Georgia State University is widely known as one of the best public research schools in the United States. With 55,000 students attending, digital signage has become a powerful tool to engage everyone on the seven campuses that are spread across the Downtown Atlanta area. Within the enterprise solution that has been deployed by Visix throughout each the campuses, you will find wayfinding, video walls, room signs, electronic paper signs and more than 300 media players amongst other practical applications.

On this episode, President and CEO of Visix Sean Matthews joins Alesia Hendley to share more on about this digital signage story.

Alesia Hendley, host of Digital Signage Stories podcast

Digital Signage Stories host Alesia Hendley is an AV professional who is determined to leave her mark by making an impact, not just an impression. She can be reached on Twitter @thesmoothfactor

Digital Signage Stories, the official podcast of Digital Signage Expo and its editorial partner site, highlights successful digital signage projects and installations deployed around the world in a variety of different vertical markets. With this podcast, you will gain insight from industry experts to help make your own digital signage deployments successful as the industry continues to grow.


Sean Matthews: Imagine you’re visiting Georgia State University and you’re on the tour… and you go to eat lunch in one of the food courts and you see students engaging with the food service displays… and they’re commenting on the quality of the food or the food service… and it’s human-curated content, so nothing bad ends up on screen. But you’re a student and you’re like, “Wow, so I can comment on the quality of the pizza today, and it ends up on screen?” The reality is you can and you might not be able to do that at some other university. So it’s really engaging stuff.

Alesia Hendley: Hello, lovers of all things digital signage. I am your host, Alesia Hendley, and this is Digital Signage Stories. On this week’s episode, we’re taking a trip to Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. Georgia State University provides a first-class education for 55,000 students across seven different campuses. The university’s public relations and marketing department worked together to keep the entire campus community informed with their enterprise digital signage solution. Across their campuses you can find 300 media players, wayfinding, video walls, room signs, and more.

Visix, a company that provides full digital signage solutions, partnered with the team at Georgia State University to help place each digital piece of the puzzle together. Today we have Sean Matthews, President and CEO of Visix, joining us to share more on this large enterprise solution. Sean, we greatly appreciate you being here today. Thank you for joining us to talk about this exciting project that you all did at a very, very large campus there in Georgia.

Sean Matthews: I appreciate you having me on. It is a very big project; it’s a very large campus. You know, it’s one of the 50,000+ campuses in the United States. So, for us, it’s been a really cool experience.

Alesia Hendley: Absolutely. So we’re talking about Georgia State University. So how did Visix become the preferred partner of choice when it came to Georgia State? Was there a bidding process or did you all have a relationship? How did that work out?

Sean Matthews: We did not have a relationship with Georgia State University, ironically right in our backyard. In fact, there were some competing technologies down at Georgia State, and they had been using these technologies for five or six years, and they were looking to the market to see if there was something that they could possibly replace this relatively small deployment with. I think they had about 30 media players, based on my recollection.

Our team got involved when they went out on the web and were looking for technology providers, and they happened to stumble across us. (I was looking at our CRM, and it was about five years ago when they reached out to us.) So, we got involved in the consultative stages to help them identify some of their objectives and their requirements. The project did go out to bid. It went out to direct sales editors to us. It went out to IT and AV value-added resellers VARs. And, the original migration from this other technology to our technology, which was simply just a replacement of their existing deployment, it was awarded to AVI-SPL – a large AV integrator in the United States. Subsequent expansions to that, a redeployment, were awarded to several different parties over the years.

Alesia Hendley: Now that’s an interesting story. There’s quite a few people who come on the show and say that a client has found them by doing research online. Being present online has a huge impact when it comes to finding clients that need to find you and what you all provide as a service in a solution. And then it grew into this relationship, and you guys basically going in there and taking over and revamping their systems.

Sean Matthews: Like everyone, we’re crazy-concerned about our organic placement on the web. This is a highly fragmented market space. And so there’s certainly a bit of luck them finding us and us being able to engage them as a client. About three years ago, they hired an employee, that gentleman’s name is Wade Johnson, and he became the evangelist at Georgia State University.

He took over this deployment, and he was the guy that was instrumental in productizing the offering within the university community. What I mean by that – he was the guy that put together basically simple part numbers for, let’s say it’s the Department of English or something like that. These part numbers included the screens, like a 55-inch version or a 40-some odd-inch version, the mounts, the media players, the licenses and even fees.

And he’s the guy, quite frankly, that really caused this to explode. I mean we’re talking about a 200% growth in the size of the deployment in two years. And it’s really because there was a centralized evangelist on the campus that was representing this technology. So, I just want to say that that was a critical component to this thing really taking off. It’s not like it was driven by the CIO or the President at the university.

Alesia Hendley: Working with universities is always tricky. So being able to have an evangelist there that works with the school, works with you all, brings all these moving parts together – I’m sure that made things just very seamless in the process.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. Because you know, it wasn’t like we had a sales person on campus, sort of pushing our own agenda. We didn’t have that. We had a different luxury.

Alesia Hendley: Let’s walk through the campus. Because Visix, you guys delver full solutions; you do wayfinding, you do the management. So let’s walk through the campus, and I know there’s a lot going on here, so tell us what exactly you all did in the revamping of all the systems there on this large campus.

Sean Matthews: So, one thing that’s key to this whole thing is there is a single on-premise server. So if you roll back about five years ago, yeah, the cloud existed, but not everybody was totally enthralled with the cloud at that point in time. And particularly universities, who often do not have the luxury of these ongoing budgets. They have capital expenditure budgets available today and today only. So this is an on-premise server; it’s a centralized CMS. There are distributed content creators, which are basically departments throughout the campus.

(You know, I didn’t mention but there are like 60 buildings and 71 acres on this downtown campus. Plus they merged with a smaller college in Metro Atlanta. And so you have these satellite campuses as well.)

So, we have these distributed content creators. There are limited number of content approvers. There are really hundreds of media players located in dorms, academic buildings, public areas and food courts. More impressive to us is they’re also located in athletic facilities, like their arena. And they acquired a football stadium, which used to be home to the Atlanta Braves – Major League Baseball – and they converted that to their own state. Which is cool because it was an inner city, urban campus with a lot of commuter students. So now they have all of these things to transform this campus into this livable college in what was just an urban inner city setting. So it’s really cool.

But beyond that, there’s integration beyond just the players themselves and the screens. They integrated with an alert notification system that subscribes to the Common Alerting Protocol, so they could issue alert announcements, not only through screens but mobile devices. That company is called Rave Mobile Alerts. And they integrated beyond that alert technology with daily technologies like event management systems, which post event schedules – Exchange, Ad Astra and even a product called EMS. And then, as you mentioned, they integrated with third-party wayfinding kiosks. Oddly enough, we did not provide the wayfinding technology at this campus, but integrated with somebody else’s wayfinding technology. They were really excited with an HTML5 product that was out on the web that they found, and they could edit themselves. And so they chose to do that. But you know, we integrated with that technology to make it a more seamless solution, which was cool. They also integrated with a number of content subscription feeds to keep the content live and happening and relevant.

The last little piece I’ll mention here is that they also integrated with some of our other interactive room sign technologies that are capable of two-way booking, and less expensive but really practical electronic paper signs that are based on e-ink technology that populate event schedules outside of classrooms and conference rooms. So that’s kind of the overall workings of this deployment.

Alesia Hendley: That is very exciting. So, you’ve got room signs, you have wayfinding, and you guys made it so you can interact with a solution that was valuable for your client and not just for you. So that way you partnered with someone there. You guys are doing it very big. You’re doing it in the, like you said, in dorm rooms, in the cafeteria area; so you’re all over the campus.

How is the content being managed? Like you said, it’s being managed in different departments. So, say, is the marketing department handling the events that goes out and the English Department or Education Department is handling the study groups and alerts – that kind of stuff that goes out? Is that how it’s working?

Sean Matthews: Yeah, really the university was subscribing to a democratized content creation model where, yes, there is some centralized control and you know that the university is key to ensure that its brand is uniform and equally distributed around campus. But if you clamp it down so that information just comes from the marketing or media or public relations department, then departments are reluctant to latch onto this technology. You don’t have any control. And so the entire deployment is managed by the public relations and marketing department, and they sort of oversee what’s happening. But it’s managed through this centralized content management platform. It’s more via the web.

There are certain areas on the campus where the content approvers are free to publish whatever they want, but in other areas it’s a much more controlled process, and they manage what actually ends up on screen. When it’s managed centrally, the copy is often edited or returned to those content providers, really to enhance the content that’s either wording or visual design, so that it matches the medium better than let’s say it might for a pdf that’s posted to a corkboard.

Alesia Hendley: Right. And did you all have to go in there and train them on how to utilize the content management system, or was it just so simple that literally anybody can go in there and produce the content that they needed to do to engage the students all day, every day?

Sean Matthews: It’s funny, Alesia, it’s actually a mix of both. So you know, the end users, most of them, they’re going to use things like PowerPoint and Word and some may use Photoshop, but the centralized brand standards team actually created some fill-in-the-blank templates that a lot of subscribers can just log in via a browser, pick a template, kind of fill in the blanks, and that’s what ends up on screen. So it matches the school’s brand and it’s pretty simple to use.

Alesia Hendley: Right. As an end user, that was something that our department was kind of resistant to – like how hard is this going to be? How much time is it going to take us to have to update this content? I mean, that’s really why people hire outside contractors to handle that for them. Or they basically have to go out and get the education and do it themselves, which takes time. So that’s always something that’s in the back of my mind, like how easy is it for the end user? So that’s a great deployment when they can just go in there and you know, like you said, half and half, a little bit of both. You guys educate, but they also find something that worked for everyone to create the content.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I’d like to touch on just one point as it relates to training. We helped them with the launch content so that it looked good and sort of matched the medium. But the on-staff evangelist, he encouraged his own clients basically to participate in our online training sessions. And we have an entire learning management system, so users can log in and just watch prerecorded videos on how to create better content. There’s tips and tricks and all that kind of stuff.

But I will say that one other component to this is data-mapped content, which is auto-updating content. It’s critical to reducing the content creation workload. The school is using simple hooks like clocks and weather, and popular feeds like cable news, but they’re also using some more localized data sources like event schedules and RSS. Obviously, using social media feeds and using subscription feeds from providers like TINT and Screenfeed, these are examples. I think they’re using TINT more often than not. But you know, they’re using this live, relevant content to really engage a passing audience of students on campus.

Alesia Hendley: Right. And there was something you said earlier that I want to touch on – this is live, engaging content in real time. These are college students – they have to stay engaged or all the digital signage becomes irrelevant. So how does this all integrate with their mobile devices?

Sean Matthews: You know, mobile always comes up. And, on a college campus, when you talk to most of those responsible for delivering information to the student body, most of them say it’s almost a waste of time to build another app because there are already so many apps on campus. And the ones that are most effective are really the student information system apps, which are those apps from companies like Blackboard, for example, that the real advantage is students submit their work through the app. They can register during the early registration process via the app and, in fact, that may be the only way they can register. It’s such a hook to get them to download the app. But most other apps are just completely disregarded.

What we’ve done here at Georgia State is produce a lot of the work in HTML, so that students can point to QR tags on screens or short bitlys. There are elements like that so they can take content with them. But really, in getting students to download an app for something that’s like campus communication, it’s next to impossible to do. And so, the real objective is to create compelling onscreen content that they see when they’re passing by, and that’s the real key in terms of influencing student behavior.

Alesia Hendley: I agree. I agree. And it’s a very powerful tool, especially when it comes to the alert side of things, whether it’s weather, hopefully not in the near future, but like an active shooter or anything like that. It can also alert you directly to your phone, say you’re not in front of digital signage solution that’s there on campus.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And you bring that up – there are those unfortunate circumstances that happen here, particularly in the States. But usually things like the Rave alert product that they’re using sends out mass notifications to cell phones. Those systems are what are called CAP-compliant. So it triggers the displays into a different mode of operation, so now they’re no longer, for example, current events. But the information is usually providing instructions to the student body in terms of what to do. Because, you know, here they are under duress in a situation like that and looking for guidance. And so, instead of just the notice on your phone, which is let’s say for example active shooter, there are instructions on the displays in terms of where to go and what to do. So, that’s really where this technology comes into play.

Alesia Hendley: That’s great because like you said, the CAP-compliant, it can override whatever’s happening on the screen and just really draw attention to something that needs to be paid attention to in an emergency alert. So that is very, very important. One thing I wanted to ask is when you google Georgia State University, the first thing that comes up is either their stadium that you mentioned or the huge giant video wall that’s near the entrance. Can we talk about the hardware that’s at that entrance? What kind of screen is that there?

Sean Matthews: That actually is another Atlanta-based company, oddly enough, a company called NanoLumens. They delivered that technology there, and it’s being driven by one of our media players. They show a wide variety of content. They’re doing some highly-animated work, and in some cases just weather forecasts. So it kind of transitions between really engaging stuff and then things that we always ask, you know, our mom, “Hey, what’s the weather like where you are?” And that’s the kind of thing that shows up there.

Alesia Hendley: NanoLumens is another great company, and it’s always great to see when they are involved in a project. So, that’s fun to see you all partnered up on that. And Sean, before we wrap this up, one thing that I do want to touch on is the objectives. They’re very important on any AV install, correct? But more importantly with digital signage, because content drives it. But what were the main objectives that were met there at Georgia State with this enterprise solution that you delivered?

Sean Matthews: They had four main objectives that they were trying to accomplish. The first was to affect human behavior. Really, they wanted to increase event participation. That one’s actually difficult to measure because there was very little statistical data to start with. But their most recent student engagement survey results are better than they were prior to the campus-wide expansion. So that’s the first one.

The second was to provide alert communications in the event of emergencies. They are fully integrated with Rave Mobile, which is awesome. They have not had to use that technology. It’s been tested several times, but fortunately they’ve not had to use it.

The third was to reduce cost in the trash and clutter of printed placards. According to Wade Johnson, they did decrease public printing spending by 40% in the trailing 12 months, which is awesome – that’s a good one to point to.

And then the last one was, they wanted to reinforce the university’s progressive vision, not only to their students but potential students. And they’ve grown to more than 50,000 students in this period of time. I mentioned earlier, in keeping with a trend that’s led by the State Board of Regents, they merged with another college in Metro Atlanta and have been able to extend their brand to the different locations. And you know, I don’t want to take credit for it, but they have most recently ranked as number four in US News & World Report’s Most Innovative Universities. So they’ve accomplished all of those objectives, at least by these sort of anecdotal measures for sure.

Alesia Hendley: That’s exciting. I have to give that a round of applause (clapping), because like all the campuses right now, they’re competing against each other for not only students and the best teachers, but with technology. Students want to go where they can feel at home using technology, and being able to have something like this on campus to utilize as a college student is pretty amazing. I mean, I haven’t been out of school that long, but there was nothing like this around when I was in that period of life. And if there was, it was an outrageous amount of money. But now having digital signage and more technology, innovative classrooms happening on the college campus, is really driving competition between universities around the world actually. So, congratulations on that.

Sean Matthews: Hey, thank you. We certainly appreciate it. I think it’s interesting you bring that up. Imagine you’re visiting Georgia State University and you’re on the tour… and you go to eat lunch in one of the food courts and you see students engaging with the food service displays… and they’re commenting on the quality of the food or the food service… and it’s human-curated content, so nothing bad ends up on screen. But you’re a student and you’re like, “Wow, so I can comment on the quality of the pizza today, and it ends up on screen?” The reality is you can and you might not be able to do that at some other university. So it’s really engaging stuff.

Alesia Hendley: And it also let the students know that they’re being heard, their opinions matter. And you know, like you said, it really comes down to affecting human behavior. So that’s all exciting. And Sean, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us here today on Digital Signage Stories, because this is a project that I was excited about. Like I said, digital signage on campuses, universities, is something that is growing, and when we have a chance to talk about it, I want to have it on Digital Signage Stories for sure. So thanks for joining us today.

Sean Matthews: Great. Thank you, Alesia. Thanks for taking the time to have me on.