Prevention through information: Promoting social norms awareness with digital signage


A small liberal arts college located in the heart of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) are home to one of the most progressive and successful alcohol and drug prevention programs in the nation. Developed by Professor of Sociology H. Wesley Perkins and Professor of Chemistry David Craig, the purpose of the Alcohol Education Project is to better inform our community about the social norms of alcohol and other drugs, and address the problems of abuse.

At the heart of our program is an understanding that most students misperceive social norms, assuming that it is typical for their peers to engage in risk-taking behavior. To combat these misconceptions, we gather credible data about behaviors such as drinking and tobacco and other drug use, and then communicate the actual healthy norms to students.

We’ve been using the social norms approach at HWS for more than 15 years, and up until last year, the communication aspect was achieved through the use of paper posters and screen savers on campus computers. Over the last few years, however, these methods began to feel dated. In addition, only one message could be communicated per sign. We were looking for a way to deliver our social norms content in a high-tech format that would engage students and increase exposure through multiple messages.

As it happens, some of our staff saw a digital signage network at Le Moyne College in Syracuse that had been installed by integrator VIZIONefx and is powered by X2O Media software. We immediately saw the potential of such a network for our Alcohol Education Project. It could be used to promote social norms awareness — from alcohol and drugs to other socio-cultural issues such as bullying and anorexia — to help students make better decisions in their lives. In addition, we could use it to keep students and staff up to date about campus news and events. With this in mind, we made the call to VIZIONefx between semesters in 2011.

(Next page: Implementing and using the digital signage)
When working with VIZIONefx, our main priority was that the system offer great flexibility in adding and customizing content. This was important for two reasons. The first is that to keep students interested in the displays, and to provide exposure to more messages, we had to keep the content fresh. The second reason is that we planned to have a second customized content channel relating to sports that would be shown in our athletic facilities. For both channels, we wanted to develop the content ourselves, and enable VIZIONefx to easily manage it and make any changes quickly, while at the same time handling any technical issues that arise.

To provide these capabilities, VIZIONefx chose X2O Media’s Xpresenter digital signage software to deploy the two campus-wide digital signage channels. To distribute the channels cost effectively, VIZIONefx and our IT department worked together to integrate them into our existing cable network, allowing access anywhere there is a cable feed. There are 18 digital signage screens across our campus, each strategically located in high-traffic areas. Most of the screens are around 32 inches, but we have one larger 55-inch display by the line leading into the dining hall.

Each screen features three areas of content. The largest of these areas is dedicated to social norms. This content is developed by polling students and collecting data. For example, we can poll students and find that less than half of them drink heavily. This information would then be displayed on screens in a “Did you know?” type format that is designed to educate students. As we gather more data on social norms, we simply give the content to VIZIONefx and they get it to the screens using the browser-based X2O Portal, which allows them to easily schedule content for play out at specific times and to specific screens.

In addition to social norms, each screen features a bar on the right side offering weather data feeds and content relating to campus news and events. At the bottom of each screen, RSS feeds display local news and other information. For our athletic facilities, the social norms content is the same, but the data feeds have been customized to be specific to sports.

Another content feature on our screens is periodic quizzes. Students can write down their answers to the quizzes on a piece of paper and turn them in for a chance to win a prize. Not only does this get them to interact with and think about the social norms content, but it gives us some indication of how many students are using the screens. Of 2,200 students, about 150 per week respond to the quiz questions. And that’s just the ones who took the time to turn in an answer. In reality, many more students are impacted by our digital signage network. Since its installation, we have seen a reduction in markers for high-risk behavior across the board. This is the result we are looking for and for us has made our digital signage network a priceless investment.

Jeffrey Van Lone, Ph.D., is the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs for Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

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