John Maher: Hi, I'm John Maher. I'm here today with Ashley Hall, school sign regional manager at Stewart Signs. Welcome, Ashley.
Ashley Hall: Hi, John, thanks. Thanks for having me.
John: Sure. Ashley, tell me a little bit about what you do for Stewart Signs.
Ashley: Sure. I work directly with schools to help them upgrade their marquee signs. That's throughout the U.S., but primarily the Midwest, Nebraska, down to Texas.
John: What is it that drives schools to want or need a new school sign?
Ashley: Typically, it's a communication effort. The schools will have outdated signs where they're not getting information out to the parents or the community as often as they'd like — because you could send out every newsletter in the world, but usually it's the traffic that's driving by or the parent in their parent pickup line that's going to get the most exposure. Usually, it's around communication, sometimes it's school pride, and then sometimes it is a PTA effort on school improvement projects in that nature.
School Sign Options
John: How is it that school signs have changed over the years? What kind of functionality is expected of new signs today?
Ashley: Over the years, schools have gone from the signs being less of a focus to now it really being a valuable communication tool. They can now get out more messages, they can get some graphics really eye-catching to be able to grab the community to get out their message, and then be able to use that for other purposes such as weather conditions or notifications they needed, maybe even school safety.
It spans over not just for communications anymore into different initiatives throughout the school, whether it's marketing, whether it's a school safety issue. It really spans across different departments for that school and also helps exposure to bring in more students, which obviously will increase their federal funding. It's really a multi-purpose tool at this point versus in the past, where it was something just to get some basic announcements out.
School Signs Speak to a Targeted Market
John: That's really interesting. Then, speaking of different departments, who is it at a school or a school district that you're generally speaking to? Do each of those people have different needs or desires for a new sign?
Ashley: Absolutely. The audience is going to vary drastically with schools. If this is a school funded project, it's going to come from the principal directly at the school or maybe a secretary, and then it can also expand to district improvement projects, such as a bond may come up where they do voting on funding for the whole school improvement, campus improvement that's going to be raising taxes, or some community is going to vote to fund these capital improvements and campus improvements.
Or, you've got the other direction which is going to be the PTA, which is going to be more of the parents for the kids, and they want to put their lasting impression on the school and donate something nice that can be utilized for years to come. The needs are specific, because you've got the district top down, where they are looking to increase the look of the school, make everything look pretty to draw in more students, and school exposure.
You've got the principal who's probably more concerned with getting daily announcements out, making sure everyone's aware when the school is closed or when it's open, and then you've got the PTA groups or PTOs which are probably more interested in maybe fundraisers or bake sales, different trips, different seasonal shows or performances. Really, it is a multifunctional tool as far as what everyone's looking to use it for. It's truly a vessel with messaging, how you want to put it on there.
John: How do modern signs handle that when you have so many different groups that want to get out different types of messages?
Ashley: Sure. With the age of technology, obviously, we've moved to a cloud-based software platform. That allows access to the sign to be much more readily available with our platform, our SignCommand platform. The schools are allowed or able to update the sign, whether they're at the school or at a different location. That gives much more accessibility to the community in getting out that information. They can also do graphics, so they can feature whether they want to put different students and what they've accomplished, or different festivals.
It's really something they can use for immediate response and then promotion as well, but that software is the key to getting out the information at a faster pace. Then also, when they're not at the school, let's say, a lot of Colorado schools, for example, have snow days or inclement weather, and so that helps them not have to actually travel to the school. Whereas in the past, somebody would physically have to go and open up the sign and change out the letters, whereas now they can do it without having to go to the location. It's really an ease of use thing that increases the use of the sign to where it becomes more than just a communication tool.
Getting Different Messages Onto Your School Sign
John: Right. Back when you had to go out and change the letters on the sign, maybe you'd only do that once a day if you were lucky, but with the newer technology, you can have each one of those groups, whether the athletic department, or the PTA, like you said, or the principal, all of those groups could have a screen on the sign that maybe rotates every so often, or something like that. You can have several different messages on the sign at the same time that rotate. Is that right?
Ashley: Absolutely. You made a good point is that you can have multiple users in our software. It becomes a joint effort on using the sign. Also, you get more messages out more frequently. The traditional signs, usually like a secretary or a front office person has to go out into the elements and change the message. It's not a daily update, that's for sure. It also puts them at risk for any injuries maybe, or any workman's comp claims.
I've seen that in working with schools where the signs will maybe be damaged because they're so old or they have to manually open them up, and then the weather may create unpleasant conditions, and that can put that person's safety at risk as well. It almost becomes a risk to change the sign. Being able to do that remotely or from inside the office is definitely not only a convenience thing, but a better experience and safety.
School Concerns Over Purchasing a New Sign
John: What are some of the questions or concerns that you hear from schools as you're speaking with them regarding the purchasing of a new sign? How do you address some of those issues or questions that they have?
Ashley: The question is, usually, "How many lines of text I can get on there?" When we work with schools we start by saying, "What's your primary use for the sign? Are you trying to get messages out? Are you interested in using graphics? Are you trying to advertise?" That's going to dictate the price of the sign. When they are interested in more advertising, that's going to be a higher resolution that's necessary.
Really working with the school to figure out what their primary purpose is and recommending the correct sign for the location, the speed, so that it can be viewed appropriately, and then also what they're trying to get out of it. Because a lot of schools, for example, elementary schools are not looking to do advertising, and they're not looking to have fancy colors, just have a sign that is easy to use and they can update more often.
As far as the funding goes, we can work with PTAs to help them figure out how to do fundraisers or what other methods are out there. Are there grants out there by corporations like Lowe's or Home Depot, and then is it something on the radar for the school district already? Sometimes the school signs will be a long-term project or part of a long-term project, and so maybe those PTAs can allocate funds somewhere else in that the district is already working on improving that for them.
Sometimes, schools will work in conjunction with PTAs; they'll split the purpose of the sign, and they can also donate to the school. Really there's a couple angles you can work with the audience on how to fund the sign. Ultimately, it's really figuring out what they're trying to do with it, and then we can work the logistics from there.
City/Town Sign Regulations
John: Do cities and towns have regulations about the size or type of signs that are allowed? How do you work with that?
Ashley: Absolutely. Working with Washington State, I get a lot of ordinances on lighting and what they can have as far as signs. If you're not in a major metro area, sometimes states are really specific on not having certain electronics or moving signs out by the road. What we like to do is make it an easy experience for the customer and do a little research on their behalf with the city, and make sure that the sign they're interested in is the appropriate size — it's nothing too big, it's not going to be flashy or something they can't have, because the worst thing would be to sell them a sign they can't have, and then be stuck in a zoning issue.
We try to make sure we cover all that in the beginning, so that we're not getting too far down the process in something they can or can't have, but it really just ties back to the customer experience. We want to make sure it's as flawless as possible for them and really be the sign expert and guide them through. They only make these purchases once every 10 years, they're really leaning on us to guide them through that process and walk them through.
Fundraising for a Sign
John: You mentioned before funding a sign, can you talk a little bit more about some of the different ways that a school or a school system could fund the purchase of a new sign?
Ashley: Sure. PTAs can certainly fund the sign, whether it's fundraisers or donations. They can also have those athletic funds that maybe they're fundraising in the process, and they have some leftover liquid funds at the end of the year. Then, there's also the school has a set amount allotted for facilities or campus improvement from year to year. We see pretty often from the April to June timeframe when schools have already spent or satisfied most of their projects for the year, they'll say, "Hey, we have this leftover amount. Let's see what we can do to try to get a new marquee . . ." or something that's really vital to them.
Because the way the federal funds work is if they don't purchase or use that money within a certain school year, it gets rolled into the next budget, and they really lose that opportunity to make that purchase, whatever the project may be with that funding. Then, you've got, from the district level, campus improvement projects. You've got bonds that the community as a whole to the city and everybody will vote on raising taxes maybe a cent. One penny will actually fund multimillion-dollar projects because they can decide over the years how long that tax rate is going to be.
That frees up a lot of money for schools to do, whether it's HVAC projects or electrical, but really the signs kind of get grouped into larger project initiatives. There's certainly multiple ways that we can work with schools for the signs. It becomes a little bit of a challenge to navigate who's working on which area and where the sign lies, I guess I should say, in the grand scheme of things. Because schools may have a district-wide uniformity initiative or different kind of campus improvement . . . maybe this campus is being relocated.
It varies, and that's why it's so crucial to, in the beginning, have that conversation with whoever it is of "Is there anybody else that needs to be involved? Is there other people that we should speak to?" Then, certainly with PTAs, because they're a little bit more remote or not as involved in the school process and decision making, getting them to get on board with facilities and asking the right questions from their point of view.
How to Choose the Right Sign for Your School
John: How do you help schools to understand what type and size of sign is going to fulfill their needs?
Ashley: I run into this a lot with competitors, is that it would be fantastic to have the latest and greatest and highest resolution, biggest possible sign you could have in front of the school, but that doesn't serve them well. What they truly need is a tool that they can get messaging out to the parents, to the community, as a double use, whether it's something over the summer they're using the sign for.
Really walking them through what is the bare minimum that they can have for that location and what do they truly need. We can add on everything else at the end, should they have extra funding, should they have certain preferences. Really helping them understand that for a certain speed limit, are you going to see the sign, first of all, and then are you going to be able to even read it?
I think the misconception is, "Let's put out a great resolution, let's get graphics and everything," but then when you go to put text on it, it's quite hard to read. Making sure that the location is proper for viewing angles and for viewing distance, and then also making sure that it's going to accomplish what they truly need, because that's the whole point of the sign is to be a communication tool.
Customer Experience is a Priority
John: That's great. Then, finally, how does Stewart Signs provide a good customer experience for schools from that first call that they make to you where maybe they're just inquiring about a new sign, all the way through the installation and after that?
Ashley: Sure. It's really our job to be the specialists and to help them. Like I said earlier, the school is not purchasing signs on a daily basis. This is kind of uncharted territory for them. Being the sign specialists, we do this all the time, we know which hurdles we're going to run into, or what processes we have to follow as far as the district and as far as the city goes. Really making it hands-off for the customer is really the best way that we can provide a great customer experience for them.
Schools really like it if you can do a turnkey solution, but in my mind turnkey is looking to make sure they can have the sign and connecting the dots to where they could almost essentially write a check and have everything be done for them. As far as the installation purposes, we work with local contractors and an internal coordination team for the install to make sure that we bring that sign out, we do the installation, we dig, we do all the permitting and everything on behalf of the school.
Again, they don't really have to be worried about their primary function of educating students. They don't have to take away from their day to try to worry about project management on a sign. We become the specialists and really walk them through that whole process.
John: That's really great information, Ashley. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Ashley: Thanks, John. Thanks for having me.
John: For more information about school signs, visit stewartsigns.com.