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Using digital signage to build community

August 1, 2009
by Mike Strand
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Digital signage is a technology that has roots in the earliest days of TV-some would argue, all the way back to radio. It delivers community news and local content. Even today, many local community cable channels spend a great deal of their broadcast day showing “slides” of upcoming events, essentially cable-based digital signage.

In some ways, digital signage is an old technology-but in others, it is truly state-of-the-art. The huge screens that you see at sports arenas and stadiums are digital signs. The famous sign at Times Square, even though it dates back to Guy Lombardo, is a digital screen, among the more high-profile examples.

But the real breakthrough, the breakthrough that makes digital signs practical for many small, more targeted applications, is the tremendous decrease in cost that has occurred in recent years. Technology breakthroughs have continued to decrease costs while increasing the size and capabilities of display hardware, especially LCD and plasma TVs. Networking and software have also dramatically evolved to make digital signs affordable for small businesses, including long-term living communities.

What is digital signage?

Digital signage really boils down to any visual distribution network that carries information to a specific audience-employees, customers, visitors or, in the case of long-term living facilities, residents. Until recently, the signage system consisted of a proprietary server and a dedicated network hooked up to traditional televisions (the ones with tubes). Installation and maintenance costs were steep. Also, the content was often managed by a service provider, so if you wanted to update what you were showing, you would have to contact the service provider, submit the change, and wait days for the update (and, of course, pay for the privilege).

Today, the network is often the Internet. If you have an Internet connection, you have the backbone for a powerful digital signage system. If it's a standard DSL or cable high-speed Internet connection-typical in businesses-you won't even have to upgrade. The displays are typically LCD or plasma flat screens, which are not cheap but have come down in price substantially, and the “server,” which is an off-the-shelf personal computer. A lot of this equipment can be “repurposed”-that is, moved from other applications for use with the digital signage system.

The real innovation (and cost savings) comes from how digital signage systems are administered. Today's signage providers offer Web-based portals where one can update and manage one's own content. Gone are the days when one had to contact and pay an outside provider and then wait, sometimes for weeks, for the changes to be made. Now, any authorized administrator in your organization-a receptionist, secretary, marketing or activities director, or anyone else-can log onto your digital signage console over the Internet and manage the slides. The updates are instantly transmitted over the Internet to all of your signage screens with the click of a mouse. Changes can be made every day, and it doesn't cost anything extra.

So, what does it cost? These new services are typically sold as subscriptions starting at less than $1,000/year and, as mentioned earlier, the equipment is pretty much off the shelf, so it, too, is inexpensive. Digital signage displays showing the same or slightly different content in new locations can easily be added without having to completely redeploy the system every time.

Why long-term care?

Why do digital signs make sense for long-term living facilities? Walk around. Baby boomers (and beyond) are literally tuned into television. It seems that TVs are on all the time and that is how we are used to getting information. People instinctively turn to television for news, weather, and entertainment. The challenge is to present information about your community that is attractive and informative and fits into the sophisticated media mix that they have become accustomed to.

As long-term care facility administrators, you have a lot to say to your residents, and you generally use a number of traditional “media” such as whiteboards, printed monthly, weekly, and daily schedules, posters, and other notices posted in public areas. These all work at some level but are time-consuming to update and distribute. It is also difficult to quickly update notices, gradually change the emphasis as events approach and, just as importantly, remove the notices when the time comes.


Let's look at how digital signage can be applied at four different types of communities.

Nursing homes. Nursing homes generally list their daily activities but, because of the upkeep, they only post weekly, or more likely, monthly charts listing the activities. These schedules often become part of the “wallpaper” and are seldom noticed. They can be replaced or augmented by digital signage displays (flat screen TVs) in the dining, activities, and therapy rooms. The type can be bigger than it is in regular notices, and you can control the dwell time of each page so everyone has the time to read the news.

In addition to highlighting the day's events, it's easy to promote special events and feature the next event, even having a countdown to the start of the activity. Imagine a bold screen that highlights the day's movie or visiting entertainer, or even the next bingo game. Since you control the digital signage, you could even welcome a visiting relative or a VIP business visitor at the hour that they are expected!