Messages should be capable of being conveyed through digital signage in just seven seconds or less, or else students will tune them out.

If a digital sign can’t convey a message in seven seconds, the technology runs the risk of blending into the background, one expert says—and during campus emergencies, that could prove dangerous.

Schools and departments on college campuses are often competing with each other to see which building touts the most advanced digital signage, but in the arms race for fancy graphics on impressive screens, the potential for emergency messages is lost, said Sean Matthews, president of Visix, a developer of software that’s used in digital signage.

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Speaking March 8 to a group of campus technology officials and marketing managers at the Digital Signage Expo (DSE) in Las Vegas, Matthews said if a digital sign can’t transmit a message in less than seven seconds, students—passing by the screens on their way to class or to their dormitories—no longer will pay attention.

When this happens, Matthews said, the signs are no longer an effective way to warn students and faculty of oncoming storms or campus safety emergencies.

“All of the stuff we put into digital signage becomes useless if people learn to tune it out,” he said. Campus technology officials “should remember that they have a moving audience, and that you only have a very short period to get your message across.”

Matthews said that even on campuses that have broadcast minute-long announcements on digital signs for years, there are ways to recapture students’ attention and make signage relevant once again.

A school first must give a reason for a student to stop.

Matthew said colleges could post a photo of a coffee mug on the screen, instructing passersby to take a photo of the screen using their smart phones or tablets. If the student presents that photo of the digital sign to the campus coffee shop, they get $2 off their order.

Schools also can post polls asking students to respond via mobile device, or Quick Response (QR) codes that, once scanned by a smart phone, will take a student to a campus website.

“You can recover very, very quickly and make sure people start paying closer attention,” Matthews said.