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As higher education marketing rapidly goes mobile, colleges and universities are rushing to keep up with the tech preferences and capabilities of their incoming students. According to a recent report by Zinch and Uversity, 97% of teenaged U.S. prospective students view post-secondary websites on their mobile devices, although 54% of those find the accompanying web experience only “okay.” There are a growing number of web users that use only mobile devices for browsing, including significant proportions of mobile-exclusive users in markets important for international student recruitment. While “mobile” has been a growing buzzword in recent years, it must now be recognized as a top priority for engaging with your audiences.

The majority of web users are now “multiscreening” between PCs, smartphones and tablets, which demands consistent experiences across devices. The visual design, functionality and other website elements, regardless of device, are representative of the brand you are projecting to students, forming their expectations of future interactions with your school. Consider these stats from the Noel Levitz 2013 E-Expectations Report on the Impact of Mobile Browsing:

  • 75% of students claim higher ed websites are influential in their decisions
  • More than 2/3 view higher ed websites on mobile devices
  • Although only 20% had downloaded school apps, 71% indicated they would even like to complete enrollment via an app

University websites must communicate extensive information to diverse audiences and with prospects dependent on various emerging technologies, choosing the best path for mobile implementation is no small challenge. Over half of Canadian college and university websites are still not mobile-friendly.

university mobile student recruitmentMobile-Optimization of Canadian Colleges and Universities


Mobile-optimization alternatives

Responsive design is generally considered the most effective and sustainable strategy for providing a fluid, customized user experience, no matter the device. While often time-consuming to develop, it integrates one set of content and code to fit the screen of any sized device, including potential future technologies. Users have access to all website content via the same URL, which Google recommends for ease of interaction and indexing, meaning better SEO.

Dedicated mobile sites contain a subset of the main site’s content on a separate URL, focusing on the specific interests and tasks of mobile visitors with large icons and optimized navigation. However, maintaining a separate set of code and possibly content is an extra headache for your web designer and having a unique URL can be confusing for both visitors and search engines. It makes most sense when your mobile visitors have limited goals that differ from those on PCs or as a temporary solution while the main site is made responsive.

Mobile apps are independent additions to your web presence that users must download directly to their smartphones. These can be costly to develop, as they require a unique look, feel and content strategy, but also provide an opportunity to create innovative and more engaging personal experiences for students. Effective apps deliver more features than the mobile-optimized site alone is able to as an incentive for students to download and regularly interact with it, encouraging stronger relationship-building by giving quick and intuitive solutions for completing tasks.

Example: The University of Saskatchewan’s mobile application, iUsask, released in 2009, was the first iPhone app in Canada targeting university students. Its feature-rich template is representative of popular student services to include in an app.

mobile application marketing higher education

Focus on the user experience

While the same could be said for all online content, it is even more imperative that the mobile user experience is fast and easy. Take a “mobile first” approach when planning a responsive design website, focusing on strategic content reduction at the planning stage to avoid the slow loading times that plague many higher education sites. Google recommends that key “above the fold” content (visible without scrolling down) should load on a smartphone in one second, although the average mobile page takes more than seven seconds. Recent research reveals that consumers are fundamentally more task driven and ends oriented when using mobile devices – according to Mobile Marketer, 70% of mobile searches result in action within one hour. Design and functionality are of paramount importance to simplify this process, which requires a fresh consideration of which tasks are most demanded by students.

Create a streamlined, uncluttered look with minimal scrolling, simplified forms, and prominent and easily completed calls-to-action. Popular mobile functions to focus on include program information, application status, campus maps, and videos, images and testimonials that personalize the college experience. A combination of responsive delivery and mobile applications may be the ideal balance between an optimal user experience and efficient implementation.

Example: University of California Los Angeles’ website has an effective responsive design approach while offering a link to its user-friendly mobile app via its home page. Directory, events and other common tasks are readily accessible and it even has a well defined mobile framework: “The UCLA Mobile Web Framework facilitates the development of a robust, feature-rich, cross-platform mobile web presence. It focuses on mobile web standards, semantic markup and device agnosticism, allowing developers to develop a single application capable of running on all web-capable mobile devices.”

mobile app marketing higher education

Mobile SEO Strategy

While ensuring basic mobile design and functionality should be the first priority, colleges and universities must also recognize the unique user behaviour on mobile devices and how that will influence SEO, PPC and social media strategies. Education search queries on mobile devices have been increasing by nearly 50% year-to-year, with most prospective students unsure of which school they wish to attend at the outset. Timeliness and locality are particular priorities for mobile searchers, driven by a need for information on the go. Mobile phones show the highest conversion rate of any device, with four out of five local searches leading to a purchase, often within a few hours, according to new research commissioned by Neustar and 15miles and conducted by comScore. Although the survey is not specifically related to higher education, it is indicative of the action-focused search behaviour on mobile devices.

What is good for your human visitors is good for SEO – therefore, deliver a mobile-optimized website that meets user (and Google) expectations. Use logical URLs, headings and sub-headings; clean code (minimize javascript and images), basic keyword optimization and a mobile sitemap. Watch out for videos that don’t play on mobile devices, faulty redirects, linking to PC sites when content is available on mobile sites, and greeting visitors with annoying “download our app” interstitial ads.

Mobile PPC

The secret to success in mobile campaigns is to first understand your overall mobile traffic, including most popular landing pages, time on site and conversions based on location or time of day. Regardless of clicks, mobile PPC brings great brand awareness for qualified prospects actively searching highly relevant keywords, and ad placement is even more prominent than on desktops. Mobile ad interaction is generally determined by the structure by the user’s day with the majority occurring during peak commuter hours. Dig into your Google Analytics to reveal more about your mobile activity and adjust your bids throughout the day accordingly.

mobile seo clicks by hour

Mobile PPC advertising represents a significant opportunity because ad spending relative to other mediums is still much lower than the time consumers spend using mobile devices. Mobile users tend to be very specific in their searches so don’t be afraid of longer tail keyword combinations including program, location, and mode of study. Click-through rates (CTR) have shown to be up to three times that of desktop results, with lower cost-per-click on smartphones than tablets.

Here are some specific considerations for mobile PPC:

  • Short and sweet: Keep ads very brief, with keyword-rich headlines and strong “hurry up” calls-to-action like “Enroll now”, remembering that screen space is in short supply and display may vary depending on device
  • Ad extensions are worth it: Call extensions are particularly essential for automatically calling your admissions hotline, location extensions are especially great for geo-targeted ads, site link and social proof (testimonials or Google+ followers) extensions have been proven to generate significantly higher click-through rates
  • Follow-through with landing pages: Ensure that your ads lead to unique, highly targeted landing pages that answer the promises of your PPC messaging with evidence-based copy, prominent calls-to-action and a request for information form

Recent changes by Google bring both good and bad news for higher ed marketers:

  • Google has recently blocked access to paid search keyword data, removing a key source of targeting insights, although reports within AdWords will remain unaffected
  • Google’s recent SERP redesign now identifies ads only with a small yellow button, making it harder to distinguish between paid and organic search results
  • New AdWords geo-targeting directly accesses people already on the campus of a university

Make the most of your PPC ROI by regularly researching and updating keywords specific to mobile, geo-targeting for specific campaigns and A/B testing ad messaging for the highest relevancy. Look at what is successful on desktop PPC for a starting point.

Mobile Social PPC

Social, search and mobile trends are increasingly converging so it is important to realize the interconnectedness between marketing initiatives, leveraging existing campaigns for a head start. Social PPC engages students in tandem with your school’s profile page and is most lauded for its precise targeting capabilities. Research your audience to build personas according to demographics (age, gender, location) and interest categories. Segment your campaigns according to device, keywords, geography, interests and more to identify success metrics and isolate variables.

Researching competitors via precise interest categories is a popular strategy for audience building and understanding the keyword market. On mobile, Facebook ads are placed in the highly visible newsfeed, which have shown to have very high click-through rates. Without even spending money, you can set up an ad with different targeting options selected to estimate the size of the audience within a specific social channel, gaining insight into the ROI of social spending without confirming a purchase. Many use Facebook Ad tools like Qwaya to get started.

Remarketing (or retargeting) is an increasingly popular way to grow ROI on PPC. It is particularly effective in higher education as students typically search and visit sites many times before making up their minds. Remarketing targets prospects who have already visited your site (using anonymous cookie-based technology) with finely tuned messaging that reminds them about your college at a time when it is top of mind. If a visitor converts, a “burn pixel” is activated and schools may choose to show them different ads or remove them from the not-yet-converted retargeting audience. It promises to become a top lead generation strategy for placing relevant content in front of prospects at the right time as ad targeting capabilities expand in the coming years.



Have mobile search strategies worked for your college or university?