Mobile Computing | Feature

Go Mobile or Kiss Future Students Goodbye

In the competitive world of student recruitment, schools must recognize that today's students are finding--and judging--them on their mobile offerings.

Nearly 70 percent of college-bound high school students look at college websites on mobile devices, according to a recent national study of 2,000 juniors and seniors. The study, from Noel-Levitz, OmniUpdate, CollegeWeekLive, and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions, found that 43 percent of student use their online devices almost exclusively to go online, and a whopping 73 percent expressed interest in institutions that offer campus-specific mobile applications.

The study's findings are confirmed by a Cappex survey of more than 500 high school juniors that reports that "engagement with colleges and just about everything else starts with mobile." According to Cappex, survey respondents from the class of 2014 are using mobile devices 30 percent more than last year's juniors, and tablet use has increased by 100 percent over the same period. When it comes to recruiting new students, the report suggests, having a mobile-friendly site is "absolutely crucial."

It's a message that many colleges and universities are taking seriously. "We're creating an end-to-end mobile experience, from prospective to actual student to alumnus," said Phil Chatterton, director of digital media technologies at the University of British Columbia. With 57,500 students on two campuses--including nearly 8,000 freshmen this fall--UBC attracts students from more than 150 countries, many through a mobile-first encounter.

"Most users will leave a web page after three seconds," Chatterton continued. "If they're on a mobile device, their expectations can be even higher. If they don't like the mobile experience or perceive it to be behind the times, it reflects poorly on how innovative your institution is and what their day-to-day experience will be like when they get there."

To ensure that their institution delivers the right message, Chatterton and Graeme Menzies, UBC's director of prospective student marketing, communications, and social media, have built a recruitment strategy that revolves around mobile access. Their UBC Prospective Undergraduate Students app invites users to explore, plan, view photos and videos--and walk through a five-step application process.

"Recruitment communications have a broad range," said Menzies, who has printed for the second year a recruitment booklet that ties into content delivered via an app. When readers hold their mobile devices over certain pages, a video automatically begins to play. "The UBC Viewbook, with Aurasma-activated content launched via our mobile app, provides context and information related to key elements within the printed piece."

"Our goal is to have a mobile experience that connects with prospective students from day one," Chatterton added. "Our recruiters present from iPads and provide follow-up information via mobile applications, a mobile-friendly Viewbook, and responsively designed websites to connect with the admissions process."

Mobile-First Strategy
Another school that has successfully moved mobile recruitment and admissions to the forefront is Indiana State University. "We believe that giving prospective students the capability to consume key information about our university from any device, at any time, will create a positive brand experience," said Santhana Naidu, interim associate vice president of communications and marketing. "Our goal is to make our critical and top-level services accessible from a mobile device, whether it's a mobile app or a mobile website."

According to student surveys, 85 percent of ISU's 12,500 students own smartphones, as do more than 75 percent of this year's 2,600 freshmen. "Because of the rising popularity of mobile devices, our students and prospects today have different capabilities and expectations compared with five years ago," Naidu explained. "They expect information to be available on all of their devices at any given time, so we've made mobile-first design a part of our strategy to better serve our customers." 

The school's current app, which includes an admissions feature, has been downloaded more than 11,000 times, and ISU students have given it a 4.5- to five-star rating (out of five). "Our admissions module was added early this year," said Naidu. "We had a choice to make it a standalone app or integrate it with our existing ISU mobile app. We decided to pursue the latter option."

From ISU's mobile-optimized website or app, prospective students can find the school's academic program list, take a virtual campus tour, register for a visit, access the portal, get directions to campus, and obtain information about applying. "Our application [form] is not mobile optimized yet, but students can still apply from a mobile device," explained Naidu. "We believe mobile users are very task driven. A list of programs, maps, application instructions and deadlines, and seeing the campus…are some of the key features that should be available on a mobile device."

Chatterton agreed, adding, "You cannot easily package the lengthy part of the admissions process on a mobile device, but you can definitely show students via mobile why they would want to go through the process by selling them on your institution."

In developing their mobile-optimized sites and apps, ISU and UBC used the Kurogo open source platform, created by Modo Labs. "Open source enables our students to develop some of the modules themselves," said Naidu. "One of our goals is to set up a development server in-house so that students can create and submit core modules." UBC uses Kurogo to connect and share code with other schools, and to integrate with other apps, including its recruitment app. 

Leveraging Social Media
As part of the recruitment and application process, both schools also utilize social media. "We take social engagement seriously," said Graeme. "We're one of the few universities that have dedicated social channels for prospective students. We have a full-time marketing communications team member engaged on our social channels and, when required, we pull in subject-matter experts from our international and domestic recruitment teams, and from our admissions teams."

"It's tough to market to teenagers," added Naidu. "They prefer organic information over gimmicky ads, so social media is a perfect fit for the recruitment picture. It provides a venue for our students, who are our strongest advocates, to share their stories and experiences with prospective students."

Best Practices
Both schools also agree on the importance of a best practices process for implementing recruitment and application strategies in a mobile format. ISU begins with a mobile steering committee that includes stakeholders from the IT and marketing departments. Other ISU best practices include:

  • Listen to your stakeholders. Let their needs drive your selection of modules.
  • Don't wait for one big release. Follow an agile model. Add new features over time. Listen to feedback.
  • Look at open source. Find a reliable company to work as a partner. In ISU's case, open source cost less than a proprietary solution.
  • Start with a mobile-optimized website first, since that will allow you to reach the most people. ISU research indicates that students with iOS and Android devices prefer to use a browser over downloading an app.

For UBC, best practices also begin with solid governance. "Get together a high-level governance committee and get collaborative feedback," advised Chatterton. After that:

  • Have a platform that you can get up and running quickly, and a framework you can build on. For UBC, it was Kurogo.
  • Make sure you're working with stakeholders. Each has his own roadmap, but everything should fit together as a whole.
  • Have a solid vision statement, universal access, and a core operating vision.

Graeme, who came to UBC from the 2010 Winter Olympics, concluded: "Skate to where the puck is going to be. Remember that the audience is eleventh and twelfth graders. Observe and listen and be ready to adapt. We need to be where they are going to go. Pay attention to your audience of 16- and 17-year-olds. And don't assume they'll behave in 2014 as they did in 2011."

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