Beyond Responsive: How to Give Prospective Students a Fast and Frictionless Mobile Experience
Date posted: October 26, 2016
Have you pulled up your school’s website and application on your phone recently? The foundation for all digital marketing activities is a user-friendly and responsive website, which is why a majority of education institutions have spent the last few years focusing on optimizing their sites to attract prospects from around the world and to be easily accessible on any device.
It should come as no surprise that prospective students expect a frictionless online experience. With four of five respondents to a recent Chegg survey visiting college websites via mobile devices and a significant proportion of global prospects applying to schools from their phones, delivering an excellent experience to the growing number of mobile users has become an absolute necessity.
When Algoma University proudly launched its 100% mobile-responsive website this past summer, it summarized the fundamental shift that the industry is responding to in how people access web content. “We need to ensure the content is presented in a format that is appealing and efficient for our audience,” said the school’s Director of Marketing and Communications, Brent Krmpotich. “We have seen a steady rise in the number of people visiting our website on mobile devices. This is especially true of prospective students, over 70 per cent of students entering our site through the future student’s portal are on mobile devices.”
While building a mobile-friendly website is an important response to the numerous potential applicants using mobile and tablet devices to research and interact with universities, it should be viewed as only a first step in shifting to a truly mobile mindset. When prospects struggle to find desired information online, they are less likely to apply to an institution. To keep them from moving on to the next school on their list, you must ensure their first interaction with your brand is responsive, relevant, actionable and frictionless.
Simplifying the Mobile Experience with Intuitive Navigation
Mobile optimization involves much more than making information fit onto a smaller screen – content must also be rewarding, easy to navigate and quickly accessible. While mobile devices have become a central part of everyday life for most people in today’s society, this is particularly true for the college demographic, with more than 7 in 10 checking their devices at least a few times an hour and 22% checking every few minutes.
Although responsive design tends to be implemented under the assumption that users will act similarly independent of the device they’re using, accessing the internet from a handheld tool is a greatly different experience than on desktop. Portable devices are likelier to be used in distracting environments that inhibit the amount of information that can be effectively communicated. Mobile users are generally more objective-oriented, seeking specific information and therefore less interested in peripheral design elements that may enhance desktop versions.
By properly understanding your mobile users’ preferences and behaviour, you can deliver a more intuitive and productive experience. Dig into your education analytics data and persona research to determine which types of searches are bringing users on different devices to your site and which searches they’re performing when they get there. Look for trends in content accessed and shared on phones and analyze the typical path that mobile-using prospects follow.
Are there ways to use auto-fill or buttons to reduce the need for tedious typing on smaller devices? Can interaction be improved by providing clearer options, prioritizing information, eliminating unnecessary functions and reducing complexity? An effective navigation and search bar is particularly important for content-heavy higher education mobile sites. Help users accomplish their goals by providing a direct route to easily clickable calls to action, automatically shortening forms for mobile users with Smart Content, and keeping typography clear and concise – Typecast has a helpful guide for improving your responsive site’s font size proportions.
Delivering a Faster Mobile Experience for Student Recruitment
An important yet frequently underappreciated aspect of delivering an effective mobile experience is site speed optimization. Getting your mobile website to load faster can improve your search engine rankings and lead to significant conversion gains. Studies have found that over 44% of users navigate away from websites taking longer than 3 seconds to load and pages that are one second faster experience a 27% increase in conversion rate. There are obviously many factors influencing conversion and bounce rates but it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of website speed in perceptions of your online presence.
Example: Franklin University has been commended for having an unusually fast (93/100) and interactive mobile site, particularly for students transferring credits from other schools.
When accessing a school’s website, the user’s mobile device needs to retrieve diverse information, often from different hosts, such as images, videos, carousels, social plugins, ad tracking, and analytics scripts. Switching to a managed WordPress hosting provider is the easiest first step to immediate speed improvements. To quickly know whether your host could be a problem, try entering your domain into Google PageSpeed Insights and see if ‘Server response time’ is one of the issues raised.
For more actionable analysis, the Pingdom Speed Test Tool is recommended for evaluating both your site’s speed and size, identifying the biggest files slowing down your load times. Large images are often the reason for overly bulky sites and a great starting point in making your site faster. Although beautiful, high-resolution images are an appealing way to illustrate and summarize marketing messages, they take longer to load than normal text so require special considerations.
Actionable Strategies for Improving Mobile Website Speed
1. Optimize images
Begin by ensuring the images you choose to upload are impactful and clear on the smaller screen. Optimize all images with resizing, cropping and compression (ideally under 100kb) in an editing program before loading them into WordPress, saving them in a relatively lightweight format like JPG. Strive to create images at the exact required pixel size of your theme. WP Smush is a powerful and free WordPress plugin for reducing image file size, and other tools like W3 Total Cache can also help with download speed.
2. Minimize external scripts and plugins
Having too many external scripts and plugins is a common cause of slow websites. Remove any plugins you don’t need and consider disabling the ones you use only occasionally, adding them later when you need them. For example, analytics can be done outside of WordPress instead of with a plugin and many plugins tend to only be used once but remain on your server. Commonly problematic plugins include premium plugins with encrypted code, re-direct plugins and those with many database queries like “related post”.
Videos tend to be the longest files to load on mobile. Consider removing videos that don’t contribute to the user experience or hiding them in the background by inserting some CSS into the code. Alternately, you could use a CTA that sends a video to the user’s email instead of having it directly on the website, or set your video scripts to load asynchronously, after your page has already loaded.
3. Clear out old baggage
As websites naturally accumulate content over time, it makes sense to do a big cleaning once in a while or even re-do your site’s theme from scratch with a more minimal code. This is one way to remove excess code, databases, backups, themes and other unnecessary baggage that slows sites down. You can eliminate old comments, trackbacks and unused installations while moving selected media files to external storage locations.
4. Optimize high traffic pages
Speeding up your site for education lead generation often involves finding a compromise with competing priorities like design and functionality. One way of maintaining cool but potentially site-slowing elements while delivering a positive first impression is focusing efforts on your most popular pages like your homepage and other key landing pages that impact conversions.
You can simply make these pages smaller by including less overall content, such as excerpts instead of full posts. Other strategies include moving signups to their own dedicated pages, avoiding poorly coded scripts that overload sliders with images, and moving resource-heavy scripts and plugins to other pages whenever possible.
Example: The University of Calgary started with mobile to completely redesign the Future Students section of its website, to make it faster and easier to navigate. Acknowledging the confusing structure of typical data-heavy university sites, it uses an innovative backend database to filter and present only relevant information depending on their province/country of origin, program and special requirements for their area of interest.
“The process of selecting and applying for a university can be very complex, so we started by mapping the complete functional and emotional journey of a future student as they select both a university and a program,” says Peter Hartl, the university’s lead for this initiative. Prospective students can now perform a simple keyword search, explore programs of study compatible with their personality traits, or browse all programs while comparing multiple options side by side.
Will You Make Your Mobile Webpages AMP-Powered?
Google has been working towards improving the mobile experience with its algorithm changes that reward mobile-friendly sites with higher rankings and now its open-source project called Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). AMPs are separate stripped-down versions of mobile webpages, streamlining website code and serving pages from Google’s high-performance global servers so pages will load lightning-fast wherever you are.
Initially focused on news stories from online publishers, AMP pages may be relevant for education institutions and other content providers as they gain in popularity. By caching AMP files in the cloud and establishing a technical core between pages, AMPs with a lightning bolt logo will appear at the top of mobile search results in a carousel format. Websites on WordPress now automatically support AMP while those self-hosted can install a plugin but it may require some additional IT coordination.
Adopting the new initiative could expand the reach of your content, however, it creates potential analytics challenges and could impact your site traffic because AMP links point to Google.com URLs. While providing instant access and greater visibility to content makes AMP an appealing option, it remains to be seen whether education institutions will AMP their webpages. The future of AMP depends on whether it becomes widely adopted as a mobile standard.
Higher education websites, especially mobile sites, are where prospective students first interact with your brand and form their first impressions. As your virtual front door, they have enormous reputational impact and engage more people than any other online student recruitment activity, including a vast majority of international prospects. Ensuring your online visitors reach their destinations as quickly and easily as possible should be a top priority for every institution.