Easy, Affordable Digital Signs with WordPress

A digital sign promoting Truman State's 5k.

A digital sign promoting Truman State’s 5k.

How to get relevant campus-related news out to students? Greg Marshall, Web Services Manager at Truman State University argues that the majority of scholars doesn’t read their emails, doesn’t read college print materials and due to different target audiences, is hard to reach on social media. “The best way to reach them is to reach students where they are” – through digital signs in common, high-traffic areas around campus. While the ROI is hard to measure, outreach on digital signage seems to work at Truman, and could come to your campus thanks to an easy setup that Greg developed.

Challenged with tight budgets, Greg had to be creative and experiment with affordable solutions to push content onto different monitors around campus. In 2014, he presented Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign: Easy digital signs with WordPress and Raspberry Pi and joined HighEdWeb 2016 in Memphis with updates and improvements to his previous development efforts.

Due to stability and performance issues with the previous Raspberry Pie setup, Greg switched to new, affordable hardware: Chromebit, the Chrome OS device that “turns any HDMI display into a computer”, runs the Chrome browser, supports USB ethernet out-of-the-box, and includes USB and HDMI ports. Currently selling for $83, the hardware is a low-cost solution to display web-based content on any display.

Previously using Nate Jones’ Digital Signage WordPress theme, Greg saw the need to either heavily customize the theme to meet his campus needs, or code his own WordPress theme. He decided for the latter and created a theme based on WordPress’ bootstrap framework allowing him to incorporate an optional sidebar, footer, full-screen images, video content, custom background/font color to the digital signs.

Running a WordPress site instance on the individual Chromebits allows users to pull information from existing WordPress posts incorporating image/video content from various sources (just add the link) on any digital sign. Transitions and duration as well as sidebar width/footer height can be adjusted through an intuitive interface. Different signs pull in information from Google calendars, or embed real-time tweets from Twitter. Thanks to the intuitive WordPress dashboard, even non-tech staff can update the signs with their own digital content in just a few minutes.

The theme checks for updates every five minutes, and can be further customized with WordPress plugins that display weather information or news updates. Greg’s team also implemented an in-house import for campus-wide emergency alert messages from the RAVE alert system that will “take over” the digital sign if needed.