By Dr. Joshua R. Nelson 2015-11-19 12:40:26
Follow one district’s thoughtful, pragmatic approach to taking advantage of today’s digital signage technology. Like it or not, we live in a digital world, where paper has become so passé. Are you still investing in the expense of printing and mailing hundreds (or thousands!) of menus and flyers to families in your community? Even if you’ve transitioned to an online menu or app, how are you communicating menu details and other timely information in the cafeteria? Chalkboards? Whiteboards? Corkboard displays? Magnetic boards? These may be low-cost options, but they lack the sophistication that your students—the first true generation of digital natives—have come to expect. Enter digital signage. As a school nutrition director or supervisor, you may have asked yourself, “Is digital signage the right choice for my cafeterias?” But there’s another question that’s much more pertinent: “What do I want to accomplish by using digital signage in my cafeterias?” To make the most of your investment in new technology, you need more than the simple will to keep up with the ever-changing 21st century options. You need a strategic approach. Looking Beyond the Cool Factor When Pasco County (Fla.) Schools decided to implement digital signage in 30 district cafeterias in 2010, the school nutrition team had five main goals. First, there was a desire to satisfy the regulation requirements that sites must identify which items constitute a reimbursable meal near the beginning of a serving line. While there are plenty of ways to accomplish this, Pasco’s secondary goal of reducing labor and material costs gave more weight to digital signage. In fact, digital signage can save districts quite a bit of money over time by allowing for a mass update of information on multiple screens in numerous physical locations, with just a click of a mouse. Such timely and efficient changes reduce the labor cost of an employee having to walk to multiple points of service to post new signage, as well as saving on overall printing and other material costs. These are worthy goals, but in and of themselves, they are not especially compelling in making the case for switching to digital signage. It’s in how school nutrition operations opt to take advantage of the features and functions available through digital signage that the reasons to implement this technology get interesting—and require some strategic thinking. If you post just a single view—say, the day’s menu items—you have the benefits of a modern look, but you may have missed a valuable opportunity to use your digital technology to increase customer engagement, which was Pasco’s third goal. After all, a fluctuating screen view is far more engaging than a static display—as long as the screen isn’t too busy. Use of animation and graphics along with text not only catches the eye, but, when applied strategically, is a great tool for Pasco’s fourth goal: using customer engagement to boost participation. Use your digital signage to provide fun and interactive experiences for kids when they come into your cafeteria. For example, maybe your digital signage alternates between the menu and a simple True/False quiz—giving the correct answer at the cashier station earns the student a sticker or other small giveaway. Maybe the digital signage is incorporated in another way, such as featuring a scroll of the names or photos of each kid who was brave enough to try a new vegetable during a special sampling week. Perhaps you use the digital signage to request your young customers to provide feedback on a new menu item and the next day show the results in the form of a pie chart or bar graph on a screen shot that rotates with the day’s menu choices and a reminder about an upcoming promotion. Another consideration for your digital signage is to incorporate advertising, either from local businesses or from school clubs and organizations that have a modest marketing budget (such as notice of the upcoming spring musical production or a plug from the boosters who want to improve turnout at the next basketball game). Use of your digital signage in this way can provide other revenue opportunities to your school nutrition program—and it was the fifth and final goal for digital signage in Pasco. Whatever you display, it is important to make your digital signage a staple in creating student conversations. This will continually draw their focus to the signage and give you greater opportunity to garner their participation. Decide Your Digital Game Plan Once you’ve determined your goals for using digital signage, the next task is to begin planning how it will come together. You should make these decisions before you financially commit to a concept that has not been fully fleshed out. Some facets to consider: Who will be the primary person responsible for this project? Who else is essential to its success? It must be clear who is going to design, implement, train users on and maintain the many aspects of your digital signage initiative. This first set of decisions about who will do what will ultimately dictate all other decisions in the planning process. It’s also critical to get staff buy-in, especially at the initial site where you will test the new initiative. Don’t let your hard work be derailed by a disengaged employee. Which technology should be used for digital signage, how will that technology be installed and used and who will manage that part of the process? While the Pasco school nutrition team is fortunate to have dedicated IT personnel assigned to its department, this is not the case in most school districts. But you can reach out to your counterpart in the district’s IT department and get him or her involved early in the process. Not only is IT expertise critical in designing and installing your digital signage infrastructure, the IT staff will be able to answer many of the technical questions that inevitably will arise. For example, you will have questions about the software that you will use to create messaging, as well as managing the video feed itself. The options in these categories are not only plentiful, but ever-changing. Decide, with the help of IT staff, on a standard design that will fit your needs best; this will allow for better support and greater pricing discounts for volume purchases. What equipment options should you consider? While financial savings usually can be realized by purchasing consumer-grade electronics, they are not designed to operate in a commercial environment—and they won’t hold up over time. Furthermore, consumer-grade televisions typically only come with a one-year warranty, compared to commercial-grade televisions, which typically have a three-year warranty. The size of the television also must be considered. The television should be large enough to be readable while standing in line, but not so large that it overwhelms the space where it is mounted. Indeed, television mounts themselves have their own considerations! First and, most obviously, you want to ensure the mount is compatible with the specific television you select. However, the decision about whether to use a flush mount or an adjustable mount is also important. Flush mounts are typically cheaper and may be safer, as they do not hang out away from the wall. However, adjustable mounts allow for easier installation, of equipment, as well as more flexibility down the road, should a serving line reconfiguration be needed. Last, but certainly not least, is there a power outlet and a network port installed in the area that is best for your digital sign? It’s not typical to find these so conveniently placed! Make sure you don’t compromise and put your displays where outlets already exist if they are in places where customers won’t see the signage! Instead, you may need to work with technicians and electricians to install outlets and ports. A district may be able to avoid installing network ports by using a wireless Internet connection and then stream the content to the screen, but that, too, may pose a challenge. Poor wireless signal strength or too little bandwidth can make streaming over wireless connections unreliable at best. Survey your test location before making any decisions, as this can provide a clearer picture of the unique requirements for that location. What’s your budget? An investment in digital signage is just that: an investment. There will be upfront expenses and you aren’t likely to see a quick or obvious return on investment (ROI). But don’t be deterred by these, either. The costs of digital televisions and video devices are decreasing regularly. Energy efficiency of such equipment, however, is on the increase! Reduced labor and increased customer engagement are other factors for your ROI evaluation. Let’s Talk Tech Having the equipment on the wall is one thing. The next challenge is to plan how the information that students will see is delivered and displayed. It starts with considering the options for the device that you will use to send the information to the digital monitors. Think about how your home television works, for example. It uses a device—the cable box, a computer or a gaming console, for example—that relays the display information to the TV monitor. What video source device will you choose for your digital displays? The decision typically boils down to whether you intend to use one device for each screen or a single device with a split video signal that will feed multiple screens. There are, of course, pros and cons to both of these alternatives. Let’s look at the benefits of using a shared device. Most notably, it’s likely to yield cost savings, as less equipment will need to be purchased. However, in this configuration, each screen is limited to displaying identical information. That’s not a bad thing if you have a large cafeteria with multiple points of sale and want consistency across all your digital displays. In contrast, a dedicated device per screen allows you the flexibility to feature different slide content on each screen. This option is undeniably costlier. While advances in technology have yielded helpful gadgets (such as the Raspberry Pi or the Intel Computer Stick) that make the dedicated device—often requiring a smaller footprint—option more cost-effective to consider. But it is important to understand that additional devices will require additional maintenance. There’s another factor that drives the decision about which video source you select: What is the primary medium you want to use to deliver your messages? The options range from a simple PowerPoint presentation to a sophisticated software solution that will automatically update your menu content on a daily basis. Like every other decision, each of these options has their benefits—and it may depend on the skill sets and available time of the person(s) responsible for managing your digital signage content. Will it be someone at the district level or a site manager? PowerPoint offers you full control over your digital displays, whereas you may be limited when working with a third-party vendor and its program. But manually updating PowerPoint presentations also can be labor-intensive. Similarly, some software solutions can be cumbersome and complicated for those not proficient with computers, while others are very intuitive. One word of caution: Stay away from “auto-discoverable devices.” These are devices that can be seen and connected to a smartphone or similar device without entering any configuration settings. Sure, these can be cheap and easy to set up, but they also can be just as easily configured from a student’s smartphone. The last thing you need is for students to hack your digital signage and post their own “special” slide demonstrations! Managed devices that can be secured are essential for digital signage success. Next, you need to decide how the information will get from your video device to the monitor. Once again, there are options. Wireless video dongles can work for short-range situations, but they are not very reliable over large distances or with obstructions in the way—even such obstructions as a cafeteria full of children. A direct connection from a video source to a television is effective but the range is typically shorter, as it requires a physical cable to connect the two devices. You’ll need to ensure that the television you select has compatible connections with your video source device. Direct connections also tend to require a dedicated device per screen. This option may be best in a single television location, but may not be the most appropriate decision for a multi-screen configuration. One other option to consider—and the one used by the Pasco County team—is delivering the video via Ethernet cabling. This requires a small amount of additional investment in hardware and cable installation, but it has proven reliable. The greatest benefit from this setup is that it allows video signals to be transmitted over long distances to multiple devices. No Resting, Keep Testing! Rest assured, the planning phase is nearing an end. Once all of the equipment, technology, accountability and content decisions have been made, the plan needs to be tested before you launch a full-scale implementation. Determine the best location for this test—one that has a solid target audience and an open-minded attitude by staffwho aren’t resistant to change. Purchase and install the equipment for this single test site. Introduce the system to the employees, and then allow it to operate for at least two weeks. This will help to identify unforeseen problems that might range from poor video signals to incorrect displays to electrical interference from other kitchen equipment. Make adjustments as necessary, and then test again for an additional week. Frankly, there is no limit to the number of adjustments or testing phases that your operation should undertake before full-scale implementation. You want to be sure you get it right . Remember, if you are going to roll this out across multiple schools—buying equipment in bulk to enjoy economies of scale—then it will be a significant financial investment. So it is worth taking whatever time is deemed necessary to ensure that all of your efforts will pay off. Once you are comfortable with all the configuration and management decisions, it is time for the digital signage to go live! The High Sign But your work is not done just because the implementation phase is complete. Continual evaluation and improvement are critical steps. Make comparisons using baseline data and track the results after any changes in your digital signage marketing efforts. For example, if you used the digital signage to promote apples to students, did you see a spike in kids taking that item? If your POS software tracks individual item sales, this is a simple report to generate. But even if you don’t have this functionality, you can gauge the success of your digital signage-based marketing campaign by reviewing production records. Did additional servings of the item have to be prepared after it was promoted in order to meet demand? More items produced usually equals more items purchased! Another way to evaluate a district’s success with digital signage is through customer survey data. Many third-party software options for digital signage include a built-in survey option that allows customers to text their responses in real time and have it recorded and displayed on the menu board. This is a great feature to build engagement among customers. Even if you are going the lower-tech route, such as using PowerPoint slides, you can still capture customer engagement data via paper surveys or simple conversations. As you regularly conduct evaluations on how this technology is performing, the process itself will put you in the right mindset to keep looking forward to determine improvements and new ways to maximize the potential of digital signage. Don’t let your students get bored! Keep your digital signage content engaging and fresh. Keep in mind that the digital signage category is a fast-growing segment. New options are sure to be rolled out on a regular basis. Be vigilant, so that you are ready to purchase appropriate upgrades that may offer even greater functionality, cost savings, efficiencies and maintenance. Roll the Credits Ultimately, the most important lesson the Pasco County team has learned through this experience is that the individual people involved in the process are those who hold the overall success and effectiveness of a digital signage initiative in their hands. This is why it’s so important to clearly identify goals, construct a welldesigned plan, get buy-in and accountability from key personnel and then put the plan into action. Are you ready to get started? All “signs” point to future success! The Method of the Message You can have the most sophisticated equipment on the market, but if your content is dull or poorly presented, your digital signage investment will never reach its full potential. Following are some tips to keep in mind as you develop your messages and designs. • Keep the display informative, yet simple. Too much of a good thing can create a busy screen that gives the eye nothing to focus on and the mind nothing to retain. Consider balance when developing a display that will engage but not overwhelm your customers. Including too many videos or animation or using a rotation that slides by too fast can wind up disengaging customers. • Align marketing strategies with food offerings. If a seasonal fruit or vegetable is being featured on the menu, develop a slide for the digital signage display specifically about that offering. This could be nutritional information, a fun fact, a beauty shot—or even something funny. Just don’t overcrowd your digital signage with too much fluff. Sometimes less is more! The Pasco County school nutrition team applies a 75/25 rule: 75% of display time is strictly menu related and only 25% is allotted for engagement messages. • Keep it fresh. You wouldn’t serve stale food to kids, right? Remember that they are just as sensitive to stale messages! Assign a staff person the responsibility for updating content on a regular basis—and that doesn’t mean just updating the daily menu options. Pay attention to your engagement options, which should be updated at least monthly, if not weekly or even daily. Digital Research for Digital Signage You’ve done your research about your digital signage equipment needs and preferences. Now, do you just head out to a big-box store and buy a bunch of televisions, video feed devices and cables? Weeellllll, you could do that. But a better choice may be to look into the offerings of vendors who specialize in digital signage options for foodservice operations. Many offer complete hardware and software packages designed to make implementing your digital dreams a breeze. An increasing number of these vendors are showing their wares at SNA’s Annual National Conference each summer. But if you can’t wait until next July in San Antonio to get started, check out SN Marketplace, your Association’s online buying guide, available at www.snmarketplace.com. Searching for vendors of digital signage packages—or any school nutrition menu or operational solution—couldn’t be easier. Right at the top of the website, you’ll see the “I’m looking for” search field. Type in your category and listings appear! Make SN Marketplace a regular resource for all your purchasing research. What are your goals for your digital signage? What’s your budget? What is the primary medium you want to use to deliver your message? How will the information get from your video device to the monitor? Joshua Nelson is supervisor of Information Services for the District School Board of Pasco County, Fla. Reach him with questions about implementing digital signage at email@example.com. Photography by jiunlimited.com. TO YOUR CREDIT: For CEUs toward the SNA Certification in School Nutrition, complete the “To Your Credit” test on page 48.
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