Substantiating Expansion

Making the case for additional investment in Digital Signage, and why ROI doesn’t work in all cases
By: | Issue: January, 2015
December 15, 2014

Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” If he had spoken these words today, one might think he was speaking about deploying digital signage on the campus of Princeton University.

Unlike other investments in technologies that may provide a campus with ubiquitous wireless connectivity, give students access to physical and virtual computer labs, and equip faculty with advanced tools in the classroom that promises new modes of teaching and research; digital signage is an investment in technology whose value isn’t easily defined. Many feel the prevalence of mobile devices and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) classrooms make investments in digital signage a waste of valuable resources. There is always an “app” available and if not, one can be written.

Still, digital signs seem to be appearing on our campuses at an increasing rate. Ranging in size from impressive multi-panel video walls to tablet-sized displays, digital signs are finding more and more uses. They are being deployed on many scales; from required components of new construction projects to small improvement projects initiated by individual colleges and departments.

What value do students and faculty gain from digital signage? It depends; the value of any digital signage deployment will be closely tied to the specific intended use, quality, and effectiveness of the implementation and any secondary benefits that may be gained beyond just the primary intention such as integration with emergency notification. Even so, the “value” is hard to quantify.

Consider the following simplified example of an actual deployment:

A new, large, and high-profile academic building opens for the fall semester with a total of 67 digital signs.

Of these, 30 are typical large-format displays placed in high traffic areas throughout the building. Most of these signs are mounted in groups of two or three with usage equally divided between general information and wayfinding. The content that is dubbed “general information” includes a playlist that highlights guest speakers, resources within the department, and other material relevant to the students and faculty of the new building.

Strategically located near the building’s elevators and entryways, the large non-interactive wayfinding displays are specific to each floor and location to help orient both visitors and occupants.

The other 37 are small eighteen-inch interactive signs that have been mounted outside classrooms and student lab facilities in aluminum enclosures designed and manufactured by the department.

The content on these signs includes the room number and a brief description such as “1013 Classroom” or “3010 J. Hammond Bio-Engineering Lab” with a set of icons down the right-hand side that access the room schedule, extended room information, a building directory and other useful information. This content is data-driven and pulled from a departmental database. This is a relatively straightforward deployment of digital signage. The cost of equipment and installation was included in the construction budget along with electrical and network infrastructure, while the content was developed in-house, by the department’s web-development and marketing professionals. None of these things are trivial or inexpensive to accomplish by any means but in this example, we are observing the finished network to judge the impact.

Our first observation spans the first week of the fall semester as students pour into the unfamiliar building to find their classes and meet with their advisors. This is a singular event; at no other time will every student entering the building be completely unfamiliar with it. The large wayfinding displays are of particular use at this time in guiding students (and faculty) to where they need to go. As the semester progresses the building will become more familiar to its occupants and wayfinding will be used mostly by visitors.

Our next observation occurs at the dedication ceremony. A day of celebration as politicians, donors, and alumni join faculty and the administration in formally completing a project that broke ground nearly three years ago after a planning stage that lasted years. To honor the many generous individuals and corporations who contributed to the funding of specific spaces and facilities within the building, not only did the digital room signage bear honorary names, but the “extended room information” helped tell a story. Individual donors, many of them distinguished alumni and faculty, saw more than their names on a plaque. With a touch of a button, they saw photographs of themselves and the details of their role in the rich history of the department. Their story is now available for present and future students, faculty and visitors to see. This enables strengthening existing relationships and beginning new ones.

As the day closed, an anecdotal story was told of one alumni donor, who when noticing that the date of their graduation was off by one year on the digital room signage became quite upset, only to become quite happy again when the error was corrected immediately by someone behind the scenes updating a field in a database using a web form.

Although the design, installation, and operation of a digital signage network can be counted in great detail, most attempts to quantify the ROI of these networks is not easily answered. It would be difficult to directly tie digital signage to tangible numbers such as alumni donations. Even determining a true ROO is highly subjective.

If viewed as an opportunity cost, taking digital signage off of the table, what is lost or gained? It is true that buildings have been built without digital signage, and they have managed to serve our institutions well. But at a time when some believe that physical campuses may soon not be necessary, supplanted by MOOCs and online learning, it is important to capitalize on every opportunity to improve the campus experience and build strong relationships. Relationships are made of the little things, the intangible things known to only those invested and practically invisible to outsiders.

However, when supporting a case for expanding an existing digital communications network, we only need to take another look at our case study. We could likely argue that we should build upon the success of the initial deployment and do it as soon as possible. The most logical step being an increase in the number of digital room signs in their network.

The case can be made on the same basis as the original installation, as the same model of tablet as those purchased previously are more likely to be available, purchased through the same vendors, etc. Furthermore, the in-house team that designed and built the custom enclosures for the first 37 locations, will likely still have the materials and equipment to make additional ones.

Acting sooner may be advantageous not just for those things that count but because of the things that are uncountable. As shown earlier the perceived success of the existing network may be highly subjective. A case for this type of expansion would be made much stronger if supported by the compelling tales brought about by their initial deployment.

For the second, more interesting case for expansion, we again turn to our theoretical physicist (now digital signage consultant) Albert Einstein who also ventured the maxim, “You can never solve a problem on the level it was created on.”

With that in mind we can challenge the notion that the rollout of these 67 new digital signs was not a new deployment at all. It was an expansion of an existing network. By changing our perspective and zooming outward we realize that this department is one of many departments within one of many colleges that, along with many administrative and operational units, form the campus.

While traditionally a departmental/edge service, the need to minimize costs, increase capabilities, and lower barriers to deploying digital signage have many institutions considering digital signage as a campus-level service. The service models that are being developed to turn old-school AV into agile IT services able to scale to enterprise levels, set the proper CAPEX/OPEX mix, and foster the right environment for content creation and management are also completely changing the notion of new versus expansion. What appears to be a new network from one perspective may be just an expansion of a larger overarching one.

The future is wide open for new models for deploying and supporting digital signage in higher education. It is likely that the models we see in five or ten years will be as unique and reflective of the campuses that build them. We should look forward to whatever this future holds, new models, new technology, and new partnerships. Some things, however, will remain the same regardless of time or our perspective, such as our desire to improve the campus experience and build relationships between people, places and across time. Perhaps a different theory of relativity.

Author Thomas Kunka will be co-presenting Seminar 5 entitled, “Substantiating Expansion: Making the Case for Additional Investment in Digital Signage Based on ROI/ROO,” at Digital Signage Expo 2015 on Wednesday, March 11th from 9:00-10:00am at the Las Vegas Convention Center. For more information about DSE or to register for this or any other educational seminar or workshop and learn about digital signage go to

Thomas Kunka is senior application specialist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign