Power Up Your Safety Communication with Electronic Message Boards

The heart and soul of any digital signage program is the content. Far too little focus is placed on this aspect of the program.

It's no secret that the most effective managers of safety programs have mastered the art of making their messages visual. Electronic message boards present an ideal platform for engaging employees. When done right, they can professionalize your workplace communication and energize your employees with colorful, dynamic content ... or they can endlessly loop the same few PowerPoints. Even worse, the screens can be blank. If you’re thinking about using plasma or LCD screens as a way to increase safety awareness, do yourself (and your employees) a favor. Do your homework.

A Case for Visual Communication
Safety professionals are in the business of changing employee behavior. In order to create a culture of safety, they need to continually educate, reinforce, empower, and motivate employees. You cannot accomplish any of this without grabbing your employee's attention and delivering your message in a way that has sticking power. Employees have a lot on their minds besides work, which means you've got to cut through the clutter to reach them. That's where visual communication comes in.

While safety meetings and verbal communication are central to business life, the reality is that in 48 hours, we forget 75 percent of what was said. However, 85 percent of what we do retain comes to us visually, so managers can really improve message retention by using visual communication.

The advertising industry is legendary at getting our attention and persuading us to choose one brand over another. They understand that it's not just the cool images and clever slogans that do the job; it is also something called Repeated Visual Exposure. In order for a message to have sticking power, it has to be repeated three to four times. If it is repeated more frequently than that, we tune it out. If less, we lose the message. Electronic message boards with rotating messages and multiple content panels are a great way to add visual impact and provide repeated exposure to messages.

Leveraging the Power of Digital Signage: Keys to Success
1. What are your objectives? Before you run out to buy a bunch of plasma screens, define your objectives for introducing electronic message boards into your workplace. The clearer you are on what you want to accomplish, the greater the likelihood of success. Will you be using the boards exclusively for safety communication, or will they also be used for general employee communication? Do you have a defined goal that you are trying to reach (e.g., promoting a quality initiative, attaining VPP Star status, reducing accidents, etc.)? Or are you looking for a way to communicate consistently to workers on all shifts, at all locations?

2. Whom are you trying to reach? With your business objectives in mind, identify your target audience. Are they shift workers, managers, drivers, telecommuters, or contractors? Are there specific language requirements or literacy challenges? And are you trying to reach a multi-generation workforce?

3. Where are they located? Are they on the plant floor, in offices, or cubicles? Are there unique environmental considerations, such as temperature extremes, dust, moisture, noise, or high traffic? Are your employees in the same building, on a campus, or across an entire enterprise? By answering these questions, you’ll be on your way to determining how many screens you will need for proper coverage. If you need an enterprise solution, that will influence how you select a digital signage provider.

4. What do they need to know? The heart and soul of any digital signage program is the content. Far too little focus is placed on this aspect of the program. Most companies feel that they have "plenty of stuff they can put up on the boards." As you clarify your communication objectives, ask yourself what your audience needs to know. Is it reinforcing safety messages, displaying production metrics, recordables, employee recognition, the status of VPP attainment? Will all screens play the same content, or will that vary by location and audience?

5. Solving the content challenge. "Feeding the beast" with content that is fresh and relevant is an ongoing challenge. If screens are playing 24/7 and you’re committed to posting new content regularly, you will need lots of it. When electronic message boards are used for safety communication, a common mistake is to serve up a steady diet of safety messages and metrics. This is a sure way of losing your readers. Mixing it up with universal topics such as health and wellness keeps readers engaged. Make it personal by recognizing individuals and groups for performance and celebrating milestones, such as birthdays and anniversaries. Adding variety with photos, video, cartoons and quizzes will keep your program dynamic.

6. Who will be contributing content? If you're using digital signage strictly for safety communication, the responsibility for content generation might be yours. But you don't need to go it alone. Find out who in your organization can help with PowerPoint, design, photography, charts, and video. You might want to enlist other departments, such as HR, customer service, or training, to share the responsibility and to offer content that is varied and vetted.

7. Who owns it? Sometimes this is the most difficult question. As the EH&S director, you may have determined that electronic message boards are essential to your objective of increasing safety awareness and communicating consistently. Yet a number of other stakeholders will need to get involved. Whether you are choosing an outside partner or building a system internally, a successful deployment must consider procurement of screens, media players and software, installation, network administration, security, maintenance, and content creation.

Workplace digital signage is not a one-time purchase. It is a long-term investment in a tool that can make a huge difference in communicating, motivating, and educating your employees.

Sidebar: Seven Tips for Finding the Right Digital Signage Partner
The vast majority of digital signage providers are focused on business-to-consumer applications, such as retail, entertainment, and hospitality. The content management software is often geared to users who are graphic designers or advertising or marketing professionals. A number of companies offer a corporate communications solution, but again, you'll want to do your homework to determine which best meets your unique needs. Here's what to look for:

  • Ease of use. Chances are you spend 75 percent of your time in meetings, so you need to be as efficient with your time as possible. Be sure you find out exactly what is involved in posting and creating content. Know the type of files you wish to upload (PowerPoint, Excel, PDF, video, Word, etc.), and ask to see a demo of how this is done. You’ll want to know that an administrative-level employee can post content easily and quickly, and that it does not require someone with advanced design or technical skills.
  • Content. By now you understand that this is a critical piece of the puzzle. Find out whether the digital signage provider delivers any content on workplace topics or offers design or editorial services for content creation. If so, are those services included in the price? If you're looking for a broad-based solution with multiple screens at various locations, you will be managing a lot of content. Ask about dashboard and play list tools for organizing, scheduling, and searching for content.
  • Reach. If you require an enterprise solution, be sure to find out how you will be able to manage users and permissions for content creation. From a hardware point of view, if you have many screens playing the same content, explore cost-saving approaches, such as cable splitters. Ask to speak to other enterprise customers.
  • Support. Internal stakeholder commitment and involvement will help you determine how much outside support you will need. Does your potential partner offer a turnkey solution, if needed? Is technical support and training readily available, and is it included in the price?
  • Security. Before you go shopping for a partner, be sure to understand your internal security requirements. They will determine whether a wireless, SaaS, or internal server-based model will be best for you. That, in turn, will narrow the field of possible providers and help you project costs.
  • Price. Pricing models vary widely, from turnkey solutions that include hardware, software, and licensing fees to a la carte offerings and subscription-based models. Most digital signage products are sold through reseller networks. Within any given network, there are sources for screens, media players, software, consultative services, design, and content support. Find out how these services are priced. Beware of hidden costs that may be layered in after the initial purchase.
  • Stability. Recent economic challenges have seen a lot of digital signage providers come and go. Find out whom you are dealing with, how many installations they have done, and how long they’ve been in the business, and ask for references.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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