Should I Install an Interactive Digital Donor Wall? Ask the Experts!

Interactive digital donor walls* have become increasingly popular in recent years, and many of our readers have been asking themselves if they should go down this road when installing their next recognition system. This is not a simple question and there are many factors to consider. In order to offer guidance with making this complex decision, ADRP asked some of the leading vendors of donor recognition signage systems to provide their suggestions and caveats for how our members should approach this issue. The comments below are a compilation of feedback generously given to us by Richard Baum, President, W&E Baum; Erik R. Dressler, Principal, Exhibit Division, Mitchell; Evelyn Flock, President & CEO, 1157 designconcepts; Anne Manner-McLarty, President and Lead Consultant, Heurista; and Rebecca Jamison Phillips, Vice President Division Sales, Honorcraft. We are deeply grateful to them for their time and participation.

For additional valuable tips, I would refer readers to the summary of responses (member login required) Karen Gerst from the Braille Institute in Los Angeles posted to the listserv on October 27, which details the feedback she received from ADRP members who have already implemented this type of donor recognition system. 

Is interactive for you?

This is the first issue you need to address. The most important consideration is determining who your audience is and what their expectations are. Will they be attracted to a physical display?

Anne Manner-McLarty from Heurista has noticed that “The visceral first impression of the donor wall changes when electronic components are included, especially if the screen is the primary focus. The immediate, passive interpretation of the recognition display, (i.e., how many donors are there, what is the relationship between the donors and the institution, how is ‘specialness’ communicated?) is weakened by the presence of a screen. However, if there is substantial storytelling to do (substantial in volume or complexity) that would benefit from a technology-based presentation (video, sound, changing colorful images), a digital component may be worthwhile.”

But Erik Dressler from Mitchell notes that “Digital recognition does not offer your donors the perception of permanence that a traditional display gives. No matter how reliable, there will be occasions when the screen goes dark.” In addition, older donors sometimes like to feel their names on the raised type of a plaque or want them to be visible at all times, whereas younger donors tend to be more comfortable with a scrolling digital display. This, however, is totally dependent on your audience.

You also need to consider the message. What are you trying to say? An interactive digital donor wall is not just a media board. You need meaningful engagement to get your ROI. You need to think beyond just a list of donor names.

And where do you want to put it? A 6-foot wide hallway won’t work. Look for a location where people will feel comfortable engaging with the wall without impeding the flow of traffic. This could be a waiting or gathering area. The experience needs to capture attention, often times through the use of a ‘screensaver’ (images fading in and out) that encourages the viewer to engage. Evelyn Flock from 1157 designconcepts comments that “Once into the experience, the product needs to address the interests of many, e.g., donor list, history, storytelling, informational/educational. An intuitive path to travel allows the viewer to have a personal interaction with the organization based upon their interests.”

Lastly, you need to ask yourself how much technology your team will need to implement and maintain the interactive donor wall. Anne Manner-McLarty observes that “Too often, one person or a small group is available for the development of a digital display and its content, but later staff changes or budget limitations can have a negative impact on its maintenance. Keep in mind that software and hardware are dynamic tools requiring ongoing management and eventual replacement. Even more than the donor recognition of old, digital recognition requires a knowledgeable manager with the budget (in time and dollars) to keep the system running.”

So you’ve decided to go interactive . . . 

Once you make the decision to move ahead, Evelyn Flock recommends that you do your homework on products and vendors. “Make sure to involve everyone who will have a role in the product’s implementation and maintenance right from the start, including Facilities, IT, leadership, Marketing and Communications, and the people who will be doing the updates.” Getting feedback and buy-in early can save you costly mistakes later on.

From a donor recognition perspective, be sure to think about what you want to accomplish. 

You need to be very clear as to the purpose of the display. There’s a mission/message that needs to be shared that is visually attractive. There needs to be someone who pays close attention to this factor throughout the design and implementation process.

Be sure to choose a product that is respectful in recognizing donors, because that’s what it’s all about. Rebecca Jamison Phillips from Honorcraft has found that “Integrated displays work best with name panels on the outside to feature highest-level donors, in addition to creatively showcasing the top tier donors within the digital display.” Richard Baum from W&E Baum echoes these sentiments, cautioning that “A stand-alone screen does not do justice to the donors.”

You can use the digital display to provide the profile of a donor and the story of why they gave. Rebecca notes that “Hardscape display around the digital component does two key things – it helps to create distinction between donor levels, as well as to identify the screen as part of donor recognition in a world where there is screen overload/white noise, especially in higher education settings.”

Selling the system to your leadership

Evelyn Flock says that the most successful presentations she has seen come when the team member responsible for the presentation is able to articulate a clear summary of the purpose of the interactive wall, product offerings, cost (initial investment, future costs, if applicable), comparison of costs with static display, support of the organization’s message, identification of key players in the process, overview of the actual design/development process with milestones and timeframes, space allotment for display of recognition (and expansion options, if considering static). In essence, “Make a presentation to your team with a clear agenda. Identify pros and cons between static and interactive – and possibly between vendor products. Your presentation should address anticipated topics important to each of the stakeholders in this project.”

Implementation

Initial process and implementation are exciting times. You need to plan management of the experience to keep it alive and fresh. It can take 3-4 months on average to develop an interactive digital donor wall, with the preparation of digital content being the most time-consuming. How quickly this process moves depends on how much you know about what you want.

Start simple and build on it. With technology, you can add content once it’s up. If you want to make changes, it helps to have a versatile template of modules to work with. 

Maintenance and updates

These are key processes in the life of an interactive digital donor wall. You need to ask yourself what resources, internal and external, your organization has for developing and maintaining the display. Will it be a stand-alone system or plug into your facility’s network? You should always consult with your IT department before considering the addition of a digital component. 

If you have the right vendor, you can update from any location. You can schedule content, i.e., what you want to appear on your digital display at 5:00 pm every day. You can also update design.

Technology changes quickly, so Rebecca Phillips recommends asking your vendor what you should do when your software becomes outdated. You will want to know how updates are made, what is their cost and, if the hardware changes, whether your software will still work. She notes, “There can be high supplier turnover in this field.” You have to consider that your vendor might go out of business. 

Erik Dressler says that his company has seen “a number of instances where a decision has been made to delete the digital portion of a display (or replace it entirely) because the effort required to keep it updated outweighed the seeming advantages.”

He also notes that “There is the issue of maintenance of the equipment as well as the digital content; screens that are running for long periods of time at a stretch, or which are on continuously, tend to have relatively short life spans.”

Evaluating the system’s success

Analytics are critical to assess the response to the information presented. Evelyn Flock notes that “They allow you to adjust your marketing approach, i.e., donor information, branding, etc. They also show you where the viewers are spending their time and allow you to adjust what you want them to see/experience.”

You can determine how many times the screen has been touched. In Honorcraft’s experience, Rebecca Phillips says that “The most highly-ranked touches have been displays of events. If there is a QR code on the digital display, you can bring the screen up on your phone and make a (private) donation right there.”

For all the challenges that still remain in working with interactive digital donor walls, Rebecca is convinced that “Interactive is not trendy – it’s trend setting.”

Dianne Dyslin
Associate Director of Stewardship, Clark University

*Donor walls that have an electronic screen component with which visitors can interact.


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