Heather Brandon has worked hard the past 10 years to effectively use digital signage across Appalachian State University, but she feels it’s not even close to reaching its full potential.
by Kevin Damask
Although Heather Brandon has been working over the last 10 years to use digital signage to disseminate information to Appalachian State University students and staff, as the digital communication specialist in Boone, North Carolina, she’s spent the last two years focused on centralizing all the college’s digital signage into one direct hub.
“Today, the system is partially centralized,” she said. “While we are making excellent progress, it is still a struggle to get campus areas to include digital slides in their communications plans and to keep content on their screens up-to-date.”
Her goal is to use the messaging platforms to foster communication and connect the college’s 20,000 students.
“The messaging really needs to come first,” she said.
Another college using digital signage effectively is East Carolina University, which has nearly 30,000 students and what Stephen Wright — who works in Student Technology Services — described as a “mostly” centralized digital signage network. He and Brandon have collaborated on digital signage strategies for both of their campuses.
“We have a ‘centralized’ digital signage network that is mainly managed from an IT perspective by our office and the content is published by a campus-wide creative services group,” Wright said. “Departments are then trained and empowered to publish locally as well as on screens in their areas. There are some instances of digital signage on campus that do not fall into our network, so not all signage on campus is centralized, but for the most part, that’s how it works here.”
Wright worked as ECU’s digital signage director for five years, until recently taking a different role. While he fills some of the gaps in the university’s digital signage communications, Wright said ECU is looking for a full-time digital signage coordinator.
ECU’s network has two main functions — to deliver emergency notification and to promote campus events and student information.
“In the last handful of years, the campus-wide digital signage network has expanded pretty significantly with growth into several new, large buildings that have a big digital signage footprint, as well as the inclusion of some new technologies like large format outdoor screens and touchscreen directories with way-finding,” Wright said. “ECU is on the cusp of that large campus size and I believe that signage messaging is a useful tool on campuses of all sizes.”
Prior to working for university communications, Brandon had experience with digital signage in two other campus positions. In food services, Brandon built templates for digital menu boards before moving to the school’s college of education where she managed digital signage as the department’s director of communications.
“When I came over to (university communications), I had a lot of experience with digital signage and a lot of frustration with the lack of institutional support and training,” Brandon said. “That was really the first thing I turned my attention to, creating a plan for systemic change at the university and really looking at our processes and procedures for digital signage. I’m trying to think how we can get better connected as an institution because the way we had things set up was just very decentralized.”
For its content management system, Appalachian State uses Scala, a Pennsylvania-based digital signage software company. Scala facilitates more than 115 digital screens on campus, supplying informational messages, videos, news feeds, web pages, photos, calendars, live video feeds, and more, according to the university’s digital signage website.
Being a mid-sized university, Appalachian State has a fairly large digital signage network, but Brandon believes some screens are underutilized.
“We have a lot of areas where they don’t have any content, so they just turn their screens off,” she said. “That sort of defeats the purpose. That’s been one of our real challenges, getting areas to make digital signage a part of their communications plan.”
While Brandon thinks the Scala CMS is effective, she admitted that the university’s implementation was half-hearted.
“There was no training, areas were just left to their own devices to figure things out on their own and so buy-in was not great,” Brandon said. “There was a lot of negativity about digital signage on campus and really a lot of misinformation, especially at how to design slides.”
While several departments initially embraced digital signage communication, they failed to set up content creators and deploy effective messaging, Brandon said. That led her to design a system where anyone on campus can create distributed content. There are guidelines and parameters, but the process is taking off.
“That’s been vastly improved in the past couple of years and more areas are taking advantage of the slide distribution to share messages on screens across campus,” she said.
Brandon also started teaching centralized training courses, the most popular being the media design course. In the class, students learn tips on what makes a good digital sign, slides and what graphics should be included. Brandon also presents ways to make signage accessible to everyone.
“The slides we’re getting now look a lot better,” Brandon said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people on campus that content is vastly improved.”
Appalachian State has also used digital signage as a strategy for student recruitment and retainment. In recent months, Brandon has discussed building a content library with the university’s marketing director. When campus departments are thinking about using digital signage, they can pull content from the library.
Company provides solution
Mike Tippets, VP of the Enterprise Division at Hughes Network Systems, believes CampusVision, the platform Hughes launched toward the end of 2019, may be the solution that both Brandon and Wright need. Although the pandemic stymied the solution’s rollout, Tippets thinks the network will see widespread use as students return to campus this fall. Through monitors placed inside university buildings, CampusVision delivers information such as campus news, sports scores, emergency notifications and social media posts. The solution adapts to any TV and users can customize templates to display information targeted to a specific facility, according to the company’s website.
Hughes started Campus Vision after a request from Tippets’ alma mater, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The Cougars’ football program wanted to place displays across their locker rooms and practice facilities.
“What happens on universities is pockets form,” Tippets said. “They’ll say they want to use digital signage in certain departments so they’ll use their budget money to find somebody (to implement digital signage) and then they’ll put up screens in that area. But if the university wanted to send a message across all screens, they would be trying to get a hold of eight different people. There’s no centralization.”
Tippets said today’s students consume video and it’s the most effective form of communication.
Slow growth on campus
As Brandon works to better utilize App State’s digital signage, the campus continues adding more screens. As of July 9, Brandon had a request to add five more signs. Both Brandon and Wright couldn’t provide exact costs for their campuses’ digital signage use, since demand tends to fluctuate, but start-up costs for Scala are $1,600 for a 65-inch screen and Dell Micro OptiFlex 7050 computer and $439 for an HD media player.
“We’re also having a lot of interest recently in directory-type screens,” Brandon said. “I’m trying to get ahead of the curve a little because I’m anticipating before long I’m going to get asked about wayfinding kiosks and things like that.”
At ECU, specific digital signage plans are often left to each department, but Wright sees the network expanding in the future.
“With the digital signage position currently being vacant, a lot of our goals are internal to our department, to shore up operations, cross-over training, documentation and of course hire for the position,” Wright said. “As someone moves in full-time and makes that role their own, I’m sure the goals will bloom.”