On Tuesday my colleague Chad Davis and I had the wonderful opportunity to present at the CASE District 2 meeting on the topic of "Your Alumni are Moving onto the Mobile Web. Are You? : Mobile Apps for Alumni Engagement." Chad is an Associate Director in the Lehigh Fund at Lehigh University, responsible for the annual giving efforts of Lehigh's 15 youngest classes, a demographic that is increasingly difficult to maintain contact with through traditional means. Embracing mobile technology appears to us to be an ideal means for connecting with this demographic, so there was plenty for us to collaborate on for this talk.
The session description:
In this session we will boldly go where email, Facebook, Twitter, the alumni website and an online community simply can't: directly into the pockets of alumni.
Mobile devices and near-ubiquitous internet access have made immediate information access not only possible but widespread. A well-designed mobile application will open up new opportunities for alumni to connect with both the institution and each other regardless of where they are at the time -- including solutions for special events and targeted micro-campaigns. We'll talk about the strategic use of the "small screen", location-based services and ideas for their use (home and away venues), and tools for building and supporting these applications.
Chad's case study on the Lehigh/Lafayette Challenge was especially well received. That campaign integrated print, email, Facebook, Twitter (a TON of Twitter) and (most interestingly) "text-to-give" functionality. The results were off the charts (over $14k fundraised in a week, a bunch of first-time donors, amazing buzz) that completely contradicts the thesis of the author of this CASE Currents article (login required) that mobile giving isn't a good fit. Lehigh proved it a success through a consistent, well-messaged, and extremely cost-effective effort.
To those of you who were in attendance, we thank you for choosing our session! We were especially happy to introduce some of you to Angry Birds and sorry for the sleep that you're likely to lose in the coming weeks.
Key takeaways from our talk:
You will not get the installation, utilization and feedback that you expect if all you do is pump RSS into a mobile skin. Make it faster and easier for your alumni to interact with the institution and you'll reap dividends for a very long time.
An engaging application is one that does things. Your app must be functional in order to be useful and as we discussed, only the truly useful apps find a home on the first screen of your moblie phone. If you're not there, you might as well not exist.
Several vendors are offering a single "mobile app in a box" solution that is practically useless when held up against an "actionable" standard. I see the attraction - "yes, we're now mobile!" - but the app won't get reuse beyond the intial installation if it doesn't do things that benfit the user. Reading campus news and looking at an event calendar is not substantive engagement - you're wasting your precious resources going down this road.
A single campus-wide mobile application will contain too much irrelevant content for too many people. Alumni don't care about campus bus schedules (unless they're on campus for reunion), students don't particularly care about regional club activity, faculty don't care about which alumni recently got married and so on. Build niche, targeted, relevant, useful and functional apps and you'll find happy users.
While performance isn't the best, getting something out there that works and can be iterated on quickly is key. Mobile web apps give you that because they can be built using the same skillset that your current web development staff have. Pure native apps bring with them a host of issues including app store approval, the need for completely different development skills for each platform and the cost that inevitably follows. "Near-native" using PhoneGap, Appcelearator, Sencha and others are coming along strong to bridge the gap.
Every campus is special because the relationship is personal. When I meet with universities to talk about projects, we talk about "emotional resonance" and finding ways to tap in to that to meet institutional objectives. Your mobile presence, whatver it is, should be deeper, more meaninful, more representative of what your institution is all about than just some colors and branding. Do something novel and the alumni will find their way to it. Who doesn't want to be proud of their alma mater for being innovative and inspiring? Seek that out.
Links to mobile/social/mashup services that were mentioned in our talk:
Thank you again to those who attended and to those who subsequently review the content of the presentation. I'll be more than happy to do a webinar for any school who is interested in thinking through the mobile app landscape and visit onsite once my leg is no longer broken!
Chad and I are happy to answer any other questions you have and help you find your way as you begin to evaluate mobile application opportunities.