Keys to Engaging Higher Ed Mobile Audiences

The University of Mississippi mobile application screenshots

All institutions of higher education struggle to communicate with their broad and diverse audiences. Technology has reduced the reach of previously dominant communication channels, making consistent communication even harder. Mobile—the always-on, always-with-you channel—is a great opportunity to communicate with and engage multiple audiences.

What are the keys to engaging multiple mobile audiences in Higher Education? We just finished analyzing an exhaustive combination of user surveys and analytics to provide insight as to why the Official Ole Miss app has performed so well over the past two years, averaging over 9,000 unique users every month over the last year.

Ole Miss app monthly unique users broken out by platform The success of the Ole Miss app starts with a story. In 2012, Ole Miss was looking for a mobile presence that wouldn’t just “check the box.” They wanted an app that would reflect the modern, major research institution that the University of Mississippi had become. A year earlier, based on our success with media apps such as USA TODAY and Fox News, Mercury Intermedia built an internal app for SAP that gave their employees access via mobile to all the internal and external content normally found on their employee web portal. The CIO of the University of Mississippi, Kathy Gates, saw this app and decided that Ole Miss needed this type of high-quality app as well. Dr. Gates explains the genesis of this app and the decision to use Mercury Intermedia’s Talaria platform in a peer-reviewed article found on the Educause website. Their takeaways were:

  • Mobility is just the latest transformative technology to grab the attention of higher education IT, challenging us to map out strategies to use it effectively.
  • Teaming up with a leading mobile news app developer helped Ole Miss produce a killer university news app targeting the entire campus community.
  • Moving quickly to provide this mobile news app gave the university more time to develop a comprehensive mobile strategy for future efforts.

So was Dr. Gates’ bet successful? Has it reached multiple audiences? Has it built a loyal audience? To answer these questions and more, we commissioned a new survey and dug into the application’s analytics.

Potential Audience

Analytics showed that there were over 9000 monthly unique users, but we wanted to know more about the users. The primary purpose of the survey was to discover which audiences were using the app.

Chart showing audience identification for the Ole Miss app The results surprised us for two reasons. First, the top four audiences were fairly narrowly distributed, with parents, students, alumni, and prospective students all being within ten percentage points of one another. Second, the app had not been designed for parents, yet they are the number one audience! This leads us to the first key.

KEY #1: Design your experience for all audiences

Higher education institutions have multiple audiences that are all valuable. From parents to staff to students, these audiences want to stay connected and informed, and a mobile app gives a university a personal and continuous method to satisfy their audiences and influence them with content they may not otherwise see. By designing for all audiences instead of a subset, an app can be a long lever to impact satisfaction, enrollment rates, alumni involvement, sports attendance, community perception, and even academic and professional reputation. Look for a platform or solution that provides great content and experience for all audiences.

What Users Like Most

The survey also gave us the opportunity to understand what users liked most. Through analytics, we could see which parts of the app were used and what content was viewed, but usage doesn’t tell us about their personal preferences. In the survey, we provided an unprompted free-form question to better understand what users liked most. The answers were summarized into categories, and the results gave us a clear signal that leads us to the second key.

Chart showing what users like most about the Ole Miss app

KEY #2: Provide a great user experience

Mobile is much more personal than other communication channels and hence demands a great user experience. Our survey showed that user experience is the main reason the Ole Miss app continues to engage and retain users. This result echoes other surveys and analyses that show user experience trumping features or technical excellence, adding value to almost every measurement of success. In the consumer mobile app world, users show little mercy for bad experience and react to that by uninstalling the app and giving poor reviews and ratings. These deletions and poor ratings then prevent the app from building an audience. When was the last time you downloaded an app with only one or two stars? Select a solution that focuses first on user experience, second on features and functionality.

Feedback Loops

Mobile is still a young, fast-moving technology. Ole Miss has used analytics and surveys to gain insights into how their app is used and what directions it should go. For example, the app has seen a shift in device preferences form iPad to iPhone over time.

Ole Miss app chart comparing percentage of time used for iPhone and iPad between March 2013 and March 2014However, device popularity needs to be tempered with usage analytics. The chart below, a snapshot from mid 2013, shows how iPads, though used by fewer people, actually consume more content than iPhones. If decisions were made only by device popularity, they would likely be bad decisions.

Ole Miss app chart showing iPhone and iPad device popularity by users and by consumption
At the end of the last survey, we asked another open-ended question: “What feature do you want added the most?” The answers mostly reflected functionality features such as access to email and the student portal MyOleMiss. But there were some gems that give hint to the power of mobile and where it can serve unfilled needs, not just provide access to traditional functionality. Examples include:

  • Gameday parking routes and traffic flow information
  • Real-time availability of laundry machines (forecasting the future of the internet of things)
  • Real-time sports scores
  • Streaming video of on-campus events

These ideas provide guidance for not only the mobile app, but how other avenues of technology can add value to the overall university experience. These two feedback loop examples lead us to key #3.

KEY #3: Use feedback loops to refine the app experience

Mobile will continue to provide direct and personal access to audiences, and the challenge will be to quickly adapt to the rapidly changing world of mobile. There are use cases that are begging to be implemented, such as iBeacons for campus tours, NFC-based payment and ticketing systems, and real-time traffic and transit information. The world is rapidly shifting to a mobile-first paradigm and it is important for educational institutions to be leaders. Select a solution that is committed to mobile leadership and uses an integrated native app development in order to stay relevant to the mobile generation.

Read our full whitepaper for more insights learned from the the Ole Miss app.