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The ABCs of Mobile Marketing

Words to know in exploring this new frontier in higher education marketing
University Business, Jul 2009
QR Code Practice: Take a picture of this QR code with a phone camera, save the photo, and process it with a QR code reader. You will be directed to, for resources on mobile marketing.

WHILE ONLY 19 PERCENT OF Americans aged 12 to 17 have ever listened to a podcast, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, many institutions have invested in academic or marketing initiatives to offer content and updates via podcasting. At the other end of the line, the possibilities for reaching and engaging the 75 percent of teens glued to their mobile phones are still mainly ignored by the majority of marketing strategists in higher education. Except for the work of a few trailblazers—the usual suspects of early digital adopters and faculty in the computer science bastions of higher education—most colleges and universities keep ignoring the perfect marketing storm gathering around the small, ubiquitous mobile devices.

A perceived low demand from target audiences, a lack of technical and financial resources, and the complexity of any mobile implementation are most often cited as the main reasons for ignoring what should be the next big thing in student engagement and recruitment marketing.

But haven’t we all heard the same reasons in the past to justify slow adoption of other new technologies?

Even if the year of the mobile web hasn’t dawned upon higher education yet, it’s time to explore this new frontier and get educated about the possibilities. Let’s start with the ABCs of mobile marketing with some facts, examples, and stats.

Apple’s App Store is probably the most popular—with more than a billion downloads reached in April 2009—but it’s not the only place to find these free or low-cost software applications that can extend or facilitate the use of the latest generation of mobile phones. Android, Google’s open source mobile operating system, has its Market, the Blackberry has its App World, and Qualcomm announced in May the opening of Plaza Retail, a platform-neutral application store. The most popular applications include games, news readers, e-mail, and social networking website clients.

Duke is one institution that has implemented the MobilEdu application suite, developed by the Stanford graduates behind the application iStanford. It offers interactive access to the campus map, a directory, an event calendar, a course catalog and schedule, and other student services within an iPhone application, plus an XHTML website for smart phones and a WAP website for older devices.

You might have Bluetooth headphones for your computer, but did you know that this technology can also be used to beam an alert to cell phone users passing by a Bluetooth transmitter device? Often called Bluecasting, the technology allows the detection of phones at proximity, the transmission of an invitation to receive more content, and a direct connection with the resulting opting-in customers. Since they rely on Bluetooth (and not texting), these alerts are free for the recipient. Mostly used in Europe and by the retail industry, Bluecasting could be implemented during college fairs, anywhere on campus, or within a stadium.

From a permission-based text-messaging campaign with a dedicated short code or a customized phone application, to staff time for a mobile-friendly version of your university’s main webpages, mobile marketing comes in different shapes and costs. As the market matures, costs are bound to decrease.

Although university fundraising campaigns are more focused on million-dollar donors, smaller donations made through mobile devices have helped make a difference for many nonprofit organizations. Harris Connect is currently working with the Mobile Giving Foundation and several higher ed institutions on a mobile giving initiative. “The thought is to post a scoreboard message at a game or event instructing attendees to donate $1 to $5 for a specific cause,” says Kurt Worrell, senior vice president of consumer sales and marketing. The donation is then directly charged to the donor’s phone account.

Since the Virginia Tech tragedy, many IHEs have implemented third-party solutions to send emergency alerts via texting. At SUNY New Paltz, the mass notification system NP Alerts, supported by the e2campus platform, has also been used to relay other types of text messages (mainly about events) to students who joined optional groups. “We integrate registering for NP Alerts in their orientation during the summer, and [do the same] during winter break for transfer students,” says Rachel Reuben, director of web communication and strategic projects.

As of May, about 40 million iPhones and iTouches had been sold. A few IHEs, including Abilene Christian University (Texas) and the Missouri School of Journalism, have announced their commitment to make these devices cornerstones of student life. In April, Stanford made its videotaped course on iPhone application programming available for free on iTunes U. Only seven weeks after their introduction, the class videos had been downloaded more than a million times.

While most web browsers on smart phones, including Safari on the iPhone, do a good job at rendering a tiny version of websites, the resulting browsing experience isn’t too user-friendly; it requires a lot of pinching, squeezing, and resizing. Other options to serve the on-the-go user include the implementation of a dedicated Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) for mobile devices or the development of a stand-alone mobile version. In both cases, design elements and content can be removed or optimized to better serve the tiny screens as well as the needs of their mobile owners. Then there’s the MIT Mobile Web developed by MIT Information Services and Technology. It provides useful information accessible from various types of mobile devices.

Short codes are a very good way to engage on-the-go teens--on their own terms.

Quick Response (QR) Codes, also known as 2D Codes, have made a very quiet entrance to the American market. However, they are used more and more—including in higher education—in Japan, Australia, and Europe. An example is the graphic on the previous page, which will redirect you to a site that includes all the online resources for this column. QR Codes contain data that can be read by mobile phones equipped with a camera and a scanning application that can be downloaded for free on most recent devices. Once shot by the camera, this data is processed and, depending on how it was set up, can provide text information, dial a number, write a text message, or open a specific webpage.

This technology could become the solution to bridge the offline and online worlds when it comes to calls to action placed in the former and to be completed in the latter. Included in brochures, in magazines, on posters, or even on billboards, QR Codes can generate and facilitate true interactions between the readers and the publishers of these printed pieces. At Case Western Reserve University (Ohio), they have been used at bus stations to provide schedules.

Short codes were first made popular by the TV show American Idol, which invites viewers to vote on a contestant by texting the keyword “VOTE” to a dedicated four-digit code. Short codes are now included in many mobile marketing campaigns as enablers of calls to action in advertising, publications, or even on products.

They can also be used to have people enter contests or send requests via text messages. Publishers or advertisers can use them to capture contact information, offer a special discount, or send an invitation to visit a given website. The interaction is always generated by the phone user, so short codes are a good way to engage on-the-go teens—on their own terms. According to “The Short Code Marketing Opportunity,” a December 2008 white paper by Nielsen, 35 percent of teens remembered seeing this kind of mobile-targeted advertising; 45 percent of those teens said they had responded.

There’s no doubt that teens have become heavy users of text messaging. According to “The State of the Media Democracy,” a survey commissioned by Deloitte, 86 percent of 14- to 25-year-old American mobile users were texting in 2008. Mobile teens aged 13-17 sent an average of 60 messages per day, according to the Nielsen white paper. While teens rely heavily on text messages for their relationships with their friends, marketers shouldn’t start to flood the inboxes of their mobile phones. Another study performed by Fuse Marketing found that only 10 percent of surveyed teens approved of texting by advertisers.

That’s why it’s really important to use text messaging as an opt-in channel and make sure any campaign is permission-based, as advised in the guidelines set by the Marketing Mobile Association. A few institutions have also started to use Twitter as the back-end platform for some of their texting initiatives. Allegheny College (Pa.) has included in its orientation postcard an invitation to subscribe to a dedicated Twitter feed via mobile phones. Following the same principle as short codes, this initiative will allow freshmen to receive news alerts on their mobile devices.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of the professional development online community