Eric Henry On How Carousel Digital Signage Is Taking A Marketer’s Approach To Communicating in Schools

January 10, 2024 by Dave Haynes

A LOT of digital signage software companies have identified education as a key vertical market, but very few have the history, experience and platform for education like Carousel Digital Signage, which got into the business in 1997 because of an ask from a public school system.

I had a really good chat, one that flew by, with Eric Henry, the president of Carousel, which is the digital signage side of a larger Minneapolis company called Tightrope Media Systems. The Tightrope side of the business focuses on broadcast.

In our chat, Eric and I get into the opportunities and challenges of working with K-12 schools, what typically goes in, and the types of content that help create a sense of community. He has some interesting thoughts about taking marketer’s approach to messaging in schools, and getting beyond the predictable.

We also touch towards the end on the higher ed market, which has some core similarities in terms of need, but is also quite different.

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Eric, thank you for joining me. Happy New Year.

Eric Henry: Happy New Year. 

I’ve done a podcast in the past with your colleague, JJ, but it’s been a few years. For those who don’t know much about Carousel, can you give me the background? I know that you grew out of tightrope media systems. Some people will know that, but others won’t. You’ve been around since 1997, maybe not you personally but the company. 

Eric Henry: Yeah, correct. Personally, I haven’t been at the company since 97, but I’ve certainly been around since 1997. But yeah, Carousel started out as Tightrope Media Systems, actually still a division of Tightrope Media Systems. 

So there are two divisions of the company, Carousel, which is the digital signage group and then Cablecast, which is actually our community television broadcast, part of the company and so I actually run the Carousel business.

We did start in 97. 1996-97, It’s debatable in terms of paperwork and those types of things, but after a long time, it actually came out of the education space. So, our first customer was Wayzata Public Schools in Minnesota for Carousel some 26 years ago, and we’ve been in that space for quite a long time. Obviously signage lends to many other vertical markets, so we are certainly in other verticals but our founder story is rooted in the education space 

And going way back to the late nineties, what was a school district looking for at that point? And is it pretty much what they’re looking for today?

Eric Henry: Quite a bit different today. So back in the late nineties, there were certainly much more tube televisions and we could update lunch menus and those types of things and that was really very early days of putting content on screens that wasn’t broadcast. 

So that was really the early days where schools were looking for a solution that wasn’t really hard because there were only a couple of things that could actually put content on screens but they were fairly prohibitive because a lot of them were designed for much more retail, graphic intensive folks and not necessarily teachers.

Right. Yeah. I remember back to the mid to late nineties, there were early-stage quasi digital out of home companies that were in the business of going to school districts and schools in general and saying, Hey, we’ll put a TV in the classrooms of your school and you can run school messaging on there.

But by the way, there’s going to be advertising there too, to pay for the technology. That’s a model that didn’t work. 

Eric Henry: No, it did not. And I think we’ve really been trying to find our way as an industry, for quite a long time. If you look at the early days, I remember being at a trade show and there were two higher eds from the same state.

And I asked them why they wanted to do a digital signage project and the answer was basically because the other one was going to do it. So, that’s not a very compelling reason, nor is that really a sustainable industry. If we don’t really understand what the value is that we’re going to bring, why are we doing this thing?

And I think that has really been a long journey for us and we’ve been searching and wrestling with that question. We did a signage project because it was cool and because nobody else was doing it or because we wanted to put something on these new flat panel displays we wanted to buy but it’s very different now in terms of what’s important and what schools are thinking about when they’re putting content on screens.

And what a K-12 environment does versus what a higher ed environment does can be very different, correct? 

Eric Henry: They can be the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is the same. How you reach that goal may look a bit different, right? In a K-12 versus a higher ed. I would say one of the major things, so the thing that is the same, what we see and this is true for any organization, our corporate customers as well in the retail space. This idea that people feel connected to their community, like the heart of us, is what we can do to give an organization tools to keep their people connected.

Ironically, we’re suggesting more use of technology but using technology to actually bring people together in a relationship face to face. So the more that people are aware of what’s happening within their school and things they can participate in. So extracurricular clubs or the sports scores from last night from the football team or the auditions for the play coming up. Those types of things or recognizing people within their community is really creating more sense of community through visual communication is really at the core of what K-12s do and higher eds do.

Now it varies a little bit. Higher ed, for example, the big challenge is getting students on campus and getting students registered for classes and those types of things. So the campus visits weekends and promotes what that university has to offer. So it is a bit more of a marketing tool for prospective students and those types of things, when you’re trying to attract them to campus.

And then the signage becomes a tool that says, Hey, you’re in the residence hall, just so you know, seven o’clock on Thursday, this math club is meeting or you can go into the writing lab and get a review of your paper. So, that is how across education it is creating community and creating awareness of all the services and things that we’re providing to help you be successful.

So, let’s talk first about K-12. What does that environment or what does the build typically look like for a school within a larger school district? And I guess I’m also asking, do you sell to a school district or is it school by school?

Eric Henry: We certainly have had both approaches. So in the K-12 space, what is interesting is it really depends on the district.

And now there are districts that have standardized on the Google ecosystem. There are school districts that have standardized on the Apple ecosystem and there are school districts that actually split between Google ecosystem and primary grades and Apple for higher secondary schools. So, in terms of environments that we see, we see typically a Google or an Apple environment or a mixed environment between those two, sometimes Microsoft. 

So does that matter to you? 

Eric Henry: It matters a little bit in terms of how we’re thinking about a deployment, not a ton to us directly at the Carousel.

We obviously have to be mindful of customers’ choices, right? So, there are certainly relationships that we have that are more ingrained or stronger or support devices that we have. We do have opinions around what devices we feel work best but if you’ve already made device choices, as Carousel, we need to work to support those devices. So with that said…

In a Chrome OS environment. 

Eric Henry: Yes. But the qualifier on that environment, is it to the same level of support and performance as the Apple ecosystem or the BrightSign ecosystem? No. They run on Chrome but we don’t invest top tier resources in terms of making sure that’s the prime environment.

And honestly, because we don’t have a lot of customers running on Chrome. That’s what it comes down to for us. So as far as a K-12, what we see most often is common area signage and so not necessarily in the classroom. So when you ask a school, Hey, are you doing digital signage?

They would say, yes, we have five devices in common areas. So in each of the main hallways or however they break out their building. Sometimes they’ve had it at a district but many times it started at one school because there was a champion within a school. Sometimes we have a district that has three or four different solutions.

Some every once in a while, we have district-wide initiatives and we prefer that because whether you’re going with us or a competitor, we think it makes more sense to think about your communication strategy more holistically. So it’s a little bit challenging if you have three or four different solutions.

And I would say we see more individual schools choosing than we see full districts choosing. We’ve seen mostly common areas and sometimes, Hey, can we do something in the lunchroom? And what we’ve really tried to encourage schools to be thinking about is how can we get into the classroom? beyond the common areas because the reality is when I observed my kids in school they’re cruising through the hallway as quickly as they can to get to class. So, there wasn’t a lot of dwell time in common areas unless you’re at lunch. So how can we get into the classroom in a way that’s affordable? 

And that’s been a big challenge over the years with the devices that we have and especially the mix. As I mentioned, there’s Google and there’s Apple. There’s also Lots of other devices that we see in the classroom. We have Immersive, we have Screenbeam, all these other multi-purpose devices that we see in classrooms, we’ve really tried to think about how we can lean in and support that.

And I’ve wondered about the other devices like Immersive and Screenbeam and Zoom rooms and so on. There seems to be a marketing effort for the schools to have this in their classrooms because you can not only use it for collaboration and teaching and so on but in downtimes, it can be used as digital signage messaging, a kind of screensaver-ish mode.

But I’ve wondered, does that actually happen? 

Eric Henry: No. The short answer is no. The reality is it’s cost-prohibitive. So if we wanna get into a little bit of where we’re going as a Carousel. When you look at school districts, a K-12 or a higher ed, they have to be very mindful of their budgets and how we as digital signage manufacturers, CMS providers have priced our products historically.

You have a dedicated media player and we price per media player. So anytime we go to a classroom environment, you start talking about a 100 or 200 or 500 per school, which pretty quickly gets the school district out of the budget. So this is where as Carousel, we’ve backed it up.

And so talking about what is a K-12 or a higher ed trying to accomplish. I did have an opportunity to go and meet with a bunch of higher ed leaders and really hear from them what their struggle is and what they’re trying to do and overwhelmingly the theme was, Hey, kids don’t read emails, kids aren’t engaged.

They don’t really know what’s going on. How can we reach these kids? That’s the question they had for us and how can you be part of helping us with that? And the interesting thing is there’s already like 15 ways we can communicate with people, right? We have Slack teams, all the different higher ed little solutions for back and forth communications with students like Patio and all these other ones and we have digital signage and we have Moodle and Blackboard and all these others learning management systems. 

So thinking about all of those things, I backed up and none of those higher ed leaders were saying, boy, the thing that I really need is digital signage. It’s going to solve all of my problems and so that was very clear to us. So when we started asking the question, what does my overall communication strategy look like as a higher ed leader?

What do I think about my communications as campaigns? Like retailers think about marketing campaigns. Here’s all the places I’m going to place this campaign. Here’s when I’m going to place it. Here’s who needs to see it. Here’s the call to action. When we start thinking about communication for a higher ed or a K-12 in that way, we understand that signage is one part of that much bigger communication.

And it moved us to this idea of let’s think more about the audience that we’re communicating with than the number of devices they’re necessarily on. So, as far as where we’re going in the future, we’re going to a K-12 or in a higher ed and saying, you need to communicate within your classrooms to all of your students.

And you identify your student body as one audience. You should have an audience feed for students and if you need to communicate with parents, that should be a different audience that you’re thinking about and even switching the value proposition of carousel and how we price based on that concept of saying, how many audiences, unique messages do you need to create to meet with your people?

And don’t worry so much about whether that’s a 1000 people or 5,000 people thinking about what audience you have because the interesting thing about signage and the way that it’s always been is the more successful you as an organization are, the more expensive it is for you, right? And when we want to switch that, we want to say, look, we want the Carousel to be really helpful in actually accomplishing the thing that you’re trying to do, right? 

You want students on campus, you want them to feel connected, you want them to be successful. So the more people that know what’s going on and the more people that see that information, the more successful you’re going to be.

And I don’t want you worrying about what that costs you. I want you to go, okay. I know that I want to target my freshmen, my sophomores, my juniors and my seniors with unique messages. So Carousel, we need four feeds. Cool. How many people are actually consuming that feed? Hopefully a bunch, because you’ll feel like you got a lot of value out of those feeds.

And so that’s how we’re looking at solving that classroom problem and it sets us up for some other things that we’re thinking about going beyond the screens on walls. It’s still necessary. I think seeing that message and a dedicated screen on a wall is absolutely important.

Seeing it in the classroom is important. Seeing it on other devices and web pages and screensavers is also really important. So we’re trying to think much more holistically about how we are thinking about our communication campaign and all the places that should show up

So, if capital budgets and operating budgets are an issue, as they certainly would be in most school districts and the schools aren’t really multipurpose these other devices like the Immersive and so on for digital signage, how do you make all this happen? 

Eric Henry: Well many times. We rarely see a net new from zero signage project, right?

They’re making a big capital outlay for screens and for devices and so oftentimes it is, how can we take the investment you’ve already made? and enhance it and leverage it for new purposes. So for us, very often, we are going into a school district or we’re coming alongside an LG or a Screenbeam or BrightSign or whoever that already have these deployments and saying, how can we make this deployment better? Because you’re already using this device for something else. So, that’s where we as Carousel come in and say, this is how we’re going to price this thing. Sometimes these multipurpose devices are just playing a URL.

And so if the classroom signage communication is simple. It’s very easy to do if it’s a little lighter weight and as Carousel, it’s more about providing the thought leadership and helping them strategize what they’re trying to do in their organization and think about the inventory of all the devices that you have and what are the things which we can support, what an additional investment might you need to have as well to make this happen in a big way.

Then by the way, we have to make sure that it’s simple enough for you to administer so that you’re not hiring staff because nobody has the ability to hire staff just to manage signage networks. So that’s how we think about it. Okay, 

So you got to educate the educators.

One thing that I’ve seen come out in press releases here and there, I’m thinking in particular of Rise Vision that focuses a lot on K-12 is the use of students to do the content creation and actually in some cases, manage the screen networks within schools.

And when you start thinking in terms of a marketer and taking a marketer’s approach to communication which makes perfect sense to me, that’s not necessarily a mindset or a skill set that a 16 year old kid who knows their way around motion graphics has much experience in.

Eric Henry: Yeah, I think I love that direction because it’s not just for the content creator kids, it’s also for the tech kids who can manage the network. And so for us, we’re working on some things that will come out later this year to really encourage, close to my heart is, diversity in tech.

One of the challenges with diversity in tech is that we don’t have a diverse population of people to even hire to come to our company and so what I would love to do is move into the middle school, high school age of kids and encourage them to experience tech, event management of devices and configuration and those types of things.

On the back end, especially in areas that are much more diverse than we are here in Minnesota and so we’re looking at things that we can do as a carousel to incite much more of that activity. I applaud what Rise Vision is doing because I think it’s the same heart that we have, which is how we can get these kids engaged and getting their hands on things and thinking about things early.

Now, are they always going to know what to do and how to get it right? Not necessarily and so we have all the tools within the Carousel to do that in a pretty safe way where there’s content approval workflows, there people don’t get to post things directly to the signage network and so you’d have a teacher or an administrator checking their work and making sure they’re not doing crazy stuff but I think that’s absolutely important, like hands-on learning is valuable and getting kids a taste of, am I interested in communications? Do I want to create the video that goes on the signage? That’s pretty cool. So, I absolutely love that direction. 

Yeah. Giving logins to a group of 16 year old boys terrifies me. 

Eric Henry: Yeah. You definitely have to make sure that your system is locked down and that your users are set up correctly, for sure.

So when you’re taking this marketing centric approach and getting material up in common areas and ideally in the classroom as well. What are those messages that really seem to work well? Beyond the obvious things like, congratulations to the team for winning the local football championship or its hamburger Friday.

Eric Henry: Yeah, those are certainly the core things. I would say that student wellness has been a pretty significant area of focus. 

What do you mean by that? 

Eric Henry: What I mean by that is, around student wellness in the U. S. there’s some discussion around social emotional learning is another term that they would use.

So, student wellness being, are you experiencing anxiety? Here’s how to prepare for tests here. Hey, the emergency drill is coming up in two weeks. Preparing students, especially, coming back from the pandemic and kids not being in that routine. Trying to help with all of the things that students are wrestling with, Hey, here are the support services we have as a school available to you as a student, here’s how to prepare for a test.

A lot of those. So when we talk about student wellness, their mental and their physical health, like really thinking about those types of things providing content. We actually interviewed some different teachers and administrators and found that they were spending a pretty significant amount of time trying to go and find that content online to put on their signage networks.

And so we actually hired some people to help develop that content professionals in that space to provide to schools, whether they were a Carousel customer or not. Just say, Hey, if this is helpful to you, here’s anti bullying campaigns, here are things around deep breathing or other things and this is not my area of expertise but just giving you a flavor of the types of things that what we’re hearing from schools are a lot of kids were anxious, a lot of kids were struggling, a lot of kids were acting out when they came back from the pandemic.

So how can we be helpful in even the messaging that they’re seeing on screens? And so a lot of soft messaging I would say around, what do we want to recognize as a community?

A lot of recognition stuff around, in primary grades especially. At our schools, they call them the wow awards. What are you exhibiting the values of the school? And we’re going to celebrate Caleb, the first grader who showed kindness, those types of things. Reinforcing what we want our community to be about.

And does an individual school have to have a champion, they have to assign whether it’s a teacher or somebody in the front office staff or whoever who’s going to manage this thing? 

Eric Henry: Typically that works best. And this is true in education, in corporate, in retail, in healthcare, in every vertical, when we start talking about a signage network, the first assumption is we’re going to have one person do all of this stuff, right?

Or two people and it’s going to be highly centralized and that reasonably quickly becomes not sustainable. So back to the Genesis of Carousel and understanding who we were building the product for in the late nineties has always been part of, we have to make sure of the complex as this becomes and at enterprise scale that individual people can still manage their little world.

So fundamental to Carousel is how can we keep the user experience simple? If I’m a district and if I log in, I can’t see other schools because I already don’t know where I’m supposed to go.

Architecting your signage system in a way that I log in and I only see the two or three things that are relevant to me is very important.

You may have a champion at a school but you may have really targeted things like, Here’s the PTA groups log in, here community educations log in for after school and they can only do certain things in certain zones and here’s the administration from the principal’s office and they’re responsible for school wide messaging.

So we encourage the school or the district to really, let’s start with your initial scope and think about who’s going to own it and where are you going to get the content from? And then let’s go from there but understand that all the tools exist for you to really break it down. So even as we were talking about students earlier, this is how you would use the carousel in a safe way for students.

And sometimes the safe way has to be for teachers too. Not because they’re trying to do something malicious but because they might not know how to use a signage network. So for us, always the goal is how can we make this as simple and dynamic as possible? Some schools, the Carousel is the collector of all of the other information systems.

Here’s an RSS feed of the sports scores. Here’s what we’re getting for the lunch menus from another system and just consuming stuff from other places and putting it together in a way that is useful and is highlighting the most important things that’s really valuable because now I don’t have somebody constantly trying to feel like they have to maintain yet another system 

In the same way that in the business world for workplace communications and so on, the last four or five years have seen an explosion in the ability to use API’s to tap into real time data and general data from business systems.

Does that work within school districts? Are there data sources available to you? And are they useful? 

Eric Henry: Certainly. The thing that’s a little bit challenging in the education space is probably the most valuable information system to tap into is the student information system. At the same time, you have to be very careful about that.

It’s like in healthcare, like patient information. There are pretty natural things that you would connect to in a school. The things that are interesting I think are more on the content creation side, let’s take Google Slides or Canva or those types of tools that schools are already using. I think those are probably more pertinent in the education space, certainly than they are in the commercial space.

They are fairly common, Hey, let’s go grab the sports scores or grab a thing off our website or those types of integrations that are pretty lightweight but more than anything is probably like, can I grab my Google slides content that I made as a teacher and put it over here? So that’s a little bit different. Corporate is much more, give me Power BI dashboards and hard data and those types of things. 

The difficulty in schools is there’s not like a Power BI and everybody uses it type thing in education and so we have to be a little more flexible in terms of, Hey, can you get it in RSS and consume it? It’s hard to build APIs for everything that’s out there. 

Time is flying here but I wanted to quickly cover off as well the distinction between K-12 and higher ed because K-12 the students have to go and they go in their neighborhood or in their general area. But with higher ed, a lot of what’s going on is about recruitment, right? Whether it’s for athletes or non-athletes students.

Eric Henry: Certainly. So in the higher ed space, I think one of our customers that uses Carousel pretty significantly is the University of Minnesota right here in our backyard and they have the 3M innovation lab and they’re highlighting all of the innovation and the things that they’re doing throughout the world.

They’re highlighting things like green buildings that are carbon neutral and all the stats of the building. So you’ll see much more in higher ed space, I would say, much more around thought leadership and why you should come to this university, how well you’re going to be supported here in certain areas.

And the beautiful thing about signage is it’s flexible, so you can schedule everything. So, the higher ed will schedule things that if you have a campus visit weekend or you know that you’re having incoming students, prospective students coming to campus, you can really target your messaging to all of that type of stuff.

Think about the possibilities of why we’re an awesome university and all the resources available to you. Then when you get to regular campus life as people are coming back from break now, for example, now we can start talking about and here’s all the things that we’re doing right now.

Hey, remember students, this is the thing that’s going on Thursday night. So you see things in residence halls that are reinforcing things that are happening on campus because students usually remember the thing that’s right in front of them because they have so many things going on. So, that’s what it looks like in higher ed versus… 

I think the wellness thing would be even more important or maybe not more important but as important as K-12 in higher ed because you’ve got particular first year students who maybe moved away from home and this is the first time on their own and they may be extroverts who are just right in there for party central but there’d be all kinds of young students who are a little a bit terrified and very lonely.

Eric Henry: Certainly. And it’s interesting because the services available in a higher ed are a little bit different than in K-12, right? So the messaging around wellness and availability of those services looks a little different in higher ed but you’re certainly right on point.

Again, reminding the students that there is actually a wellness center. There actually are places to go to work out. There are places to go to get counseling services within higher levels that you can sign up for. The university my kids attend, that’s actually a free service on campus for them and they didn’t know about it until they saw it. They were reminded of it and they didn’t read the newsletter that the university sends out but they saw it seven times on the signage and then they actually went. So that’s the idea.

It worked. All things are possible. Eric, thank you very much. That was great. We could have easily chatted for another 90 minutes, but try to cap these things at about half an hour and it’s been terrific. 

Eric Henry: Yeah. I appreciate the opportunity. It was great chatting with you.

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