University of South Florida: Going MoBull: USF’s Wireless Solution

If Florida university students are representative of the nation, then cellular telephone companies must be pleased. More than half, and possibly as many as 90 percent, of the students at the University of South Florida use some type of wireless device. While cell phones predominate at the commuter school, students are also using pagers and handheld devices such as Palm Pilots in record numbers.

Many of these wireless users want to make use of the technology in new ways. Call it technology multitasking. A year ago, some of the students approached their information technology department, asking for text messaging connections to campus activities and services. The department responded with a plan to link students to on- and off-campus services in a way that is potentially profitable for the university as well.

According to George Ellis, associate vice president for information technologies at USF, school officials had been interested for some time in developing a project in wireless messaging, but the money just wasn’t in the budget to create a new program. The request from students inspired a plan that should, in time, break even, eventually turning a profit for the school. Ellis and assistant director for information technologies Christopher Akin created a messenger application that delivers text messages to students carrying wireless devices.

Called MoBull—the USF mascot is the bull—the wireless notification service uses Air2Web’s wireless platform to deliver a variety of messages, including campus announcements (i.e., registration deadlines and club activities) and commercial messages, for which local vendors pay a per-message fee. For instance, a local pizza parlor, on a slow night, might buy advertising on MoBull, sending out a discount coupon. The targeted advertising has appeal for local businesses because it is relatively inexpensive and highly specific in its audience. Campus clubs and organizations are also interested in using the service to get announcements to members and potential members.

USF began rolling out the program in spring, 2002, but this fall will launch the program in earnest. Students can sign up for MoBull online, filling out a profile that helps fine-tune the messages they will receive. Vendors likewise can go online to order messages. The system calculates the likely cost of a message before the vendor purchases it. Costs are on a per-message basis, and buyers have options in terms of targeting particular groups.

“It gets pretty fine-grained,” says Ellis. “For instance, a store selling men’s clothing could send messages only to male students. We also can target receivers by zip code. Given how spread out our campus constituents are in the area, it makes sense for vendors to reach people who are nearby.”

By summer of 2002, fewer than 1,000 students had enrolled. However, Akin and Ellis expect enrollment to increase exponentially as word gets out about the service, which is free for students. Akin notes that there are several events scheduled to promote the service this fall. Campus organizations are also using the service more frequently to notify students about financial aid and tuition deadlines, special events, and other announcements. The immediate nature of text messaging is making it a standard information access point for students with wireless devices. Plus, he says, “We’ve partnered with a local wireless vendor to offer cell phones to students who don’t currently have them, so that they too can get MoBull service.”

It’s important to note that MoBull is also available to students via their e-mail accounts; having a wireless device is not mandatory. However, given how much more frequently students check a cell phone’s instant text messaging versus e-mail, students are more likely to respond to messages received over the wireless device.

Says Ellis: “We’re at a bit of a chicken and egg point right now. Local businesses would like to see a larger base of message receivers, and the students would like to see more deals in the form of messages. We expect this fall that the number of students enrolling in the program will increase considerably, and along with that, our list of advertisers.”

Despite the relatively low number of subscribers over the spring and summer, Ellis says vendors were pleased. “They were seeing response rates from 4 to 10 percent,” he says, noting that this is a much higher response rate than they would get from other—more expensive—forms of advertising.

The messenger application Ellis and Akin have created is available for licensing to other schools that may want to use it. For more information, visit www.mobull.usf.edu, or contact Chris Akin at cakin@admin.usf.edu, or George Ellis at gellis@admin.usf.edu.

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