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Professional Opinion

Strategies for mobile success in higher education

Exploring the options for “going mobile”
University Business, March 2014

I recently had the opportunity to meet with dozens of mobile web leaders from some of the most respected universities. While speaking with experts at schools from Harvard to Princeton, I learned that we’re all struggling with the same challenges in mobile. Fortunately, as we share best practices across campuses around the world, mobile capabilities in higher education are at their most exciting time yet.

As with many schools, Indiana State University (ISU) leadership was early to recognize that more and more teenagers were using mobile, starting just a few years ago. In fact, analysts say that more than 60 percent of prospective college students will be first introduced to a university through their mobile device. In a recent survey, 76 percent of our incoming freshmen indicated that they use a smartphone and we expect that number to go up before they arrive on campus this Fall. These students are part of the mobile-only generation, and it’s the way they interact with everything they do. This would mean a critical new channel for reaching prospective students. We were tasked with exploring the options for “going mobile.”

This request put the spotlight back on interdepartmental tension that exists at many schools, between marketing and IT. Ever since Internet marketing became a critical recruiting vehicle in the late 1990s, higher education marketing departments have pushed IT for increased support. In some cases, these IT teams are working with limited staff and budget, working to balance the needs of marketing and its many other constituents across the campus. The good news is that many tools and consultants can help take the burden off your IT department. Many of my colleagues at other universities around the country and around the world have followed a similar path to success.

Best practices for a successful mobile rollout 

1. Plan for success. Begin your planning process with a committee that includes members of the marketing and IT departments, as well as other interested constituents across the campus. Working together, define goals that meet the needs and realistic expectations of all departments. Get leadership approval first, not from the bottom up. Executive buy-in will fuel your program. As we’ll discuss later, everyone down to the students will be welcome to provide input later on.

2. Determine your primary audience. Marketing will likely want to focus the mobile effort toward new student recruitment. While this is an important avenue, our experience shows that your first goal should be to support your existing student base. Leading universities are helping students by providing mobile tools for every aspect of campus life. Everything from dining menus to up-to-date bus schedules help your students make the most of their college experience. This will indirectly help your marketing efforts because often times prospective students are interested in looking at your university from a current student’s perspective to see what technology and tools are available to them if they chose to attend your university.

The best way to determine which functionality your students want is to simply ask. You can also find a wealth of options in pre-built modules for higher education mobile websites. At ISU, we used the popular Kurogo Mobile Campus, which gave us the instant capability to deliver in-demand modules such as courses, registration, admissions, athletics, dining, transit and tour functions.

3. Mobile web or native apps? This is one of the most challenging questions for universities initiating new mobile deployments. Start with the mobile web first, as that strategy will allow you to reach the most people. In the first three months of our mobile web launch, ISU received some 31,000 unique visitors. Our native apps were also a success with 5,000 downloads, but not as popular as the mobile web. Despite the well-known popularity of smartphones, many feature phones are still in use. In addition, some smartphones run on Windows mobile or the Blackberry operating system, so they will not benefit from iOS or Android apps. Furthermore, some of our students with iOS and Android devices indicated in our research that they prefer to use a browser as opposed to downloading an app.

Your IT department may not be convinced that the mobile web strategy should come first. However, our experience shows that prospective students won’t often make the commitment to download apps in their school research. Only students, prospects who have decided to apply, and their parents will download in most cases.

After you have a robust mobile website, add native apps. Your number two priority should be iOS apps to support students on iPhones and iPads, followed by Android apps. In some cases, your native apps can differ from your mobile web capabilities. For example, your dining module will be very popular with existing students, but it doesn’t need to be on your mobile website. Do an app for that instead.

Today, our mobile presence at m.indstate.edu includes 18 modules with separate mobile and tablet views. It also provides native apps for both iOS and Android users. These were built by our internal team with help from the team at Modo Labs.

4. Remove the guesswork. One significant advantage of mobile technology is the ability to gather metrics. At ISU, we constantly monitor data to help us determine which modules are most popular and new ways to expand our functionality. I also recommend that you create a feedback mechanism that is easily accessible for your users. A question or request from a single user could represent many others that didn’t speak up.

5. Manage expectations. While great tools and smart minds can help you implement your mobile program quickly, provide a fair timeline for all parties. Start with your mobile web and grow from there. Perhaps most importantly, don’t let the perfect destroy the possible. Implement 2-3 of the most important features for your users, get adoption going and start looking at your analytics and user feedback to add more modules. The actual deployment time will vary from school to school, but four months is a reasonable estimate. After your launch, create a roadmap to implement new features each month and share it with your stakeholders. Open communication encourages trust and respect among your stakeholders and helps reduce tension.

—Santhana Naidu is the director of Web Services at Indiana State University, where he is responsible for the institution’s web, social media and mobile strategies.

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