4 Questions to Ask Before a Digital Signage Rollout
The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign shares lessons learned from installing more than 350 digital signs across campus.
Over a decade ago, digital signage services at the University of Illinois began with the construction of two new campus buildings. Both buildings were scheduled to open in the fall of 2008 and had digital signage requirements incorporated in their designs, but neither had a prescribed solution to address whatever the needs of the occupants would be. This led to the development of a campus-level cost recovery IT service specifically to address the incorporation of digital signage into these (and subsequently other) buildings.
As a result, the university currently hosts 24 major units in what could be described as a federation of growing digital signage networks with more than 350 digital signs covering dozens of campus buildings. The history of this service is filled both with successes and failures, revealing the many challenges inherent in installing digital signage in a higher education setting — particularly for campus-level services at large institutions.
In reflection, there are four key questions that I wish we had asked before we started. I will address these from my own perspective, as the architect and manager of the service since its inception.
1) What is the business case?
Understanding your business case is key to digital signage. This may seem obvious, but the question must be asked openly and often. Approximately two years into our efforts here at Illinois, I was contacted by a deputy CIO who was about to begin a digital signage initiative on his campus. In this case, while I was the supposed expert, it was I who learned the most from our two-hour phone call, and I learned it in the first three minutes.
His very first question was, "What is your business case?" This was a question I had not been expecting. I was prepared to talk about software platforms, SaaS vs. on-premise, hardware selection, lifecycle management or even content development. We are IT professionals, not MBAs, right? For whatever reason, without hesitation I replied, "I don't have one. The colleges and departments do." While I risked the appearance of not understanding or caring about anything other than the technology, what could have been perceived as a flippant response was genuine.
Campus IT services generally do not have business cases of their own. Scaled commodity services such as campus networks, e-mail and learning management systems are tools that support the mission of the institution – teaching, learning, research and operations. Given our cost recovery model, I had to trust that customers of the service had sound business cases for digital signage.
Our bottom-up process allowed all business cases for digital signage to emerge and drive the service forward. The funding to operate the service came from the campus – whether it was being used for menu boards, video walls or wayfinding. The role of the service was to be the platform for all digital signage.
This "bottom up" approach was a key element to dealing with the very large and decentralized nature of our campus, but asking questions about your business case is key regardless of what scale or with what perspective digital signage is being addressed. When asked with a broad enough scope, it can reveal many other things – including the other questions you definitely need to ask.
2) Who is my customer?
Identifying our customers is so closely aligned to the notion of business case that originally, I didn't see it as a separate issue. It too appears to be an easy question, but it can get tricky. I mentioned that our "customers" were the colleges and departments that wished to utilize digital signage to support the mission of the institution. If a service has value (e.g. lowers costs or provides functionality) a customer is willing to pay for it, given that it is reasonably priced. This is a simple business model, but we know that campuses, especially large decentralized ones, have trouble with traditional business models – because they are not businesses.
Early on, defining the customer was clear. There were no existing customers and the first customers were the major campus units deploying digital signage in newly constructed buildings. A new building for the College of Business, for example, brought the key decision-makers to the table to sign on to the service on behalf of their entire college – all buildings, including the one currently under construction. Other major campus units followed, largely represented by their top IT leaders, because they were being asked by their deans and department heads to deploy digital signage displays but had no content management system to deliver content.
It should be noted that the focus of the campus-level service was on providing campus-wide licensing for a digital signage CMS (content management system) platform, centralized access to that platform, and a managed endpoint service for digital signage players (for customers that could not or did not want to manage their own networks). Licensing played a large role in the organization of the service and defining of our initial customers.
We worked primarily along the lines of IT support. Being a part of the central IT organization, this was a logical path — but in hindsight it shouldn't have been the only path. While the IT organizations in each major unit may have been the ones providing the recurring funding, there were other organizations to consider. Just as our large decentralized campus has a network of IT organizations, so too does it have a similar network of marketing and communications organizations.
3) What don't we know?
We all approach our work from our own unique perspectives. Some of us involved in digital signage are IT professionals, while others may have audiovisual, business, marketing, communications, digital media, facilities or other types of backgrounds. Some are fortunate to have multiple skill sets themselves, while others are skilled in bringing the right people to the table. In any new venture, it is important to ask yourself and others, with an open mind, about the things that you simply don't know.
I had been invited to a two-day conference to participate on a panel. The topic was the "value of digital signage in higher education." It was a small conference that I had never attended before, or even heard of, but I welcomed the opportunity to share my story and share the stage with my peers from higher education. The panel was on the second day of the event – thankfully.
What I didn't know at the time – about the conference and about digital signage – was how deep into content, marketing and social media digital signage could become. To that point, my perspective had been shaped by the IT and AV side of things. While I am not a complete "techie" and I have a good grasp on matters of business and content, for the purpose of clarity I was compelled to toss out most of what I was going to talk about and attempt instead to translate my experiences.
Up to that point, I had thought my job was to just make the technology work. But from that point on I knew that I had to understand how and why my customers were using digital signage. In my eyes, the question, "What don't we know?" begins to tug at the seams of the first two questions. We begin to wonder about the business case and our responsibility to the customer and the institution. As facilitators in this process, do we need to play a larger role?
4) What is our scope?
It is said that digital signage has a long "value chain." Here, we are essentially speaking about everything that goes into designing, installing, maintaining and operating a digital signage network. First, the term "digital signage network" is one that comes from the digital signage industry, but is interchangeable with "digital communications network." This becomes an important point when translating digital signage into higher education. A digital communications network simply refers to a deployment of digital signs that are organized and managed by an organization in a relevant way. In the private sector, it could refer to a deployment of outdoor signs at bus stops within a metropolitan area or a nationwide deployment of signs in retail environments.
Considering initial concept, design of space, hardware selection, project management, physical installation, endpoint management, content management systems, content design/management, training/support and other factors, there are a lot of moving parts. Focusing on the content management system and endpoint management is the natural inclination of an IT approach. However, without addressing the physical installation and content aspects of digital signage, a digital signage service seems incomplete. This begs the question of scope and how to structure a campus-level service – if it can even be called a service. Traditional IT services are delineated far more clearly than digital signage.
Asking the question of scope is important because it will help identify how your organization — whether it is a campus-level service, a large college, a building or even a small unit — will address the various links in the value chain. Depending on your perspective, you will likely focus on the one or more areas that fall within the purview of your unit, and look to others for the rest. If you are in IT, other campus units or off-campus integrators/agencies can provide facilities and content development. If you are in marketing, your IT organization or vendor may provide your software platform. Every campus will be different and that is why it is critical to ask these questions. Likewise, for campus-level services, scope may also be considered not only in an operational context but also as leadership and coordination across the entire value chain.
The true challenge is actually to challenge ourselves early and often. We must ask tough questions. We must ask about our true business case even if we think of ourselves as providers of commodity services or specialists with a narrow scope. We must dare to admit that we don't know things that are critical to long-term success and seek to understand them. We must not only look at solving the problem or completing the project in front of us today, but also think more broadly in scope and with a longer view. And somehow, we must not impede the march of progress.
These things are critical but often overlooked when there are deadlines to meet, budgets to trim and resources are spread thinner than ever. And, that is exactly why we must do it. If we do not, nobody else will and with nearly 30 years of experience in higher education IT, I know that these questions do not go away but instead multiply and grow in magnitude. We make the decisions that shape the campuses we call home. The right decisions for each of our campuses – whatever they may be – all begin with asking the questions nobody thinks to ask.