Five Tips for Making Your Website

June 23, 2011. Last June, Ball State University released a study showing that of college students owning phones, 49 percent owned smartphones; the number had doubled since 2009. In the year since, many colleges and universities have launched mobile marketing initiatives or mobile apps for students and alumni. Among those efforts that have seen early gains:

  • Piloting targeted mobile apps (during the weekend of its launch, the University of Virginia's application saw downloads from several thousand users).
  • Inviting prospective students to opt in to text messaging or "mobile updates." Look to St. Mary's University for a leading-edge example; while St. Mary's has seen few students opt in, the university has seen a high yield rate among those who do.

However, very few institutions have taken smartphones into account in their Web design, which presents a significant risk as a growing number of prospective students access college websites from mobile devices. In an interview with Academic Impressions this week, Bob Johnson, president of Bob Johnson Consulting LLC, advised that the most immediate and pressing mobile marketing investment to make is to create a mobile-friendly version or section of your website. He offers the following tips.

The Mobile-Friendly Website

According to a 2010 survey of 1,000 college-bound high school seniors, conducted by the National Research Center for College & University Admissions (NRCCUA), the educational consulting firm Noel-Levitz, and the content management solution provider OmniUpdate:

  • 65 percent of students said a positive Web experience would raise their interest in a particular college
  • 92 percent said they would be disappointed with a school, or remove it entirely from their lists, if they were unable to find the information they needed on the institution's website

"Their experience on your website is shaped by their ability to complete the tasks that are most important to them," Johnson remarks. "Task completion isn't easy on most traditional websites when they are accessed from a regular computer. Finding the information you need becomes even more difficult when you are accessing the site from a smartphone."

Consider offering a mobile-friendly edition of your site specifically for users accessing the site from mobile devices. The College of Charleston is an early adopter of this practice and has already converted 95 percent of its traditional website for mobile access.


When you access the College of Charleston's site, you will be automatically redirected to the mobile-friendly site (ttp:// if you are "calling" from a mobile device. Try accessing Charleston's site from both a traditional computer and an iPhone to compare.

When developing a mobile site, here are three guidelines for making the best investments of your time and resources.

Tip #1: You Don't Need to Convert All Your Content

First, Johnson notes, "Most regular higher education websites have far too much content that few people ever read. So when building a mobile-friendly website, don't waste time and money converting content that is not important to most visitors."

In fact, according to Stephanie Geyer, associate vice president of Web strategy services at Noel-Levitz, quoted in Campus Technology, the two most pressing pieces of information prospective students are looking for are:

  • "Do you have the right program for me?"
  • "Can I afford to attend your school?"

"Use your Web analytics to find out what pages are seldom visited (or if visited, quickly left)," Johnson  suggests. "You may not need to convert mission statements, welcome messages from presidents and deans, and similar content. Focus on the handful of key tasks people come to your website to do." Offer a pared-down mobile site; if finding a list of academic programs or majors is a primary task prospective speakers have in mind when visiting your site, design the mobile site around giving them easy and immediate access to that list.

Johnson recommends limiting the links on the mobile version of your home page to a brief list of five to eight items, and these items must include "academics" and "admissions." Johnson adds, "Effective marketing means making these two words immediately visible when your home page opens. Mobile home page design and home page design for traditional websites are dramatically different; in mobile design, you have room for only a small number of links. You have to make sure that potential students can move immediately to the tasks they most want to accomplish on your site."

For more tips about designing mobile-friendly websites, see this video interview with Jakob Nielsen, the founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, which provides usability research and user testing for both mobile and traditional websites.

Tip #2: Make Your "Academics" Section Scannable

Secondly, Johnson advises preparing mobile-friendly descriptions of your academic programs that visitors can access through your alpha list of available programs. "Don't make the mistake of taking people directly from a mobile-friendly list to a traditional website academic program page," Johnson warns. "That's the equivalent of dropping them off a high cliff onto the rocks below. Most people are not going to enjoy the experience. Once they arrive on a traditional page from their mobile device, most often they first have to finger flick to get the font size large enough to read; then they have to scroll sideways as well as up and down to read the content. That's not a visitor-friendly mobile experience."`

Tip #3: Keep Forms Minimal

"Be careful with forms," Johnson  warns. Forms are time-consuming to complete using the keypad on a smartphone. Johnson advises reducing forms -- such as a form inviting prospective students to request more information about applying -- to the "bare essentials."

Creighton University's information request form has just nine fields and a "submit" button. Johnson calls this "admirably brief" and suggests that it serves as a prime model for designing forms that are mobile-friendly.

Tip #4: Don't Get Distracted by the iPad

Despite the recent popularity of iPads and other tablet devices, Johnson offers two reasons not to focus your design on users of tablet devices:

  • First, these devices have larger screens than a smartphone -- it is likely that your main website will be as accessible on a tablet device as on a traditional computer
  • Second, these devices are quite large, "too large to be really 'mobile' in the same sense as the smartphone that increasing numbers of users will have available right in their pocket or purse"; it is too early to project reliable adoption rates for tablet devices

Johnson recommends keeping a close tab on what your Web analytics can tell you. Mine that data to see which mobile devices prospective students are using to get to your site. "Expect that at this time, iPhones and Androids will far outstrip iPads." Rather than get caught up in market hype, watch for trends in the devices your own constituents are using.

Tip #5: Make Sure Your QR Codes Link to a Mobile-Friendly Page

Finally, Johnson warns against a common oversight -- if you are is using a QR code symbol on a print ad, "be sure the link goes to a mobile-friendly site that is similar to your home in design clarity." Recently, Johnson tested QR codes on two print ads in an airplane magazine. One code directed visitors to a traditional landing page, and the page had to be enlarged significantly before it could even be read. The second code took visitors to a mobile-friendly page that had been designed to convert people using the QR code (see Figure 1).



Figure 1. A mobile-friendly landing page

This example illustrates the importance of auditing the mobile-friendliness of your landing pages and of the various possible user paths through your site. What you want to be sure to avoid are any "hiccups" that may cost the visitor time or frustration. You want to make the key tasks in which they'll be interested -- finding information about programs, requesting additional information -- as easy and quick as possible.


These additional resources can help you stay up to date on trends in adoption of mobile devices and innovations in mobile marketing: