Mobile Web & Discoverability

Their are two big challenges facing an institution attempting to implement a centralized mobile-friendly website a la the WVU Mobile Web. They are:

  1. Getting access to content that can populate such a site and
  2. Explaining to folks that such a service is even available

Content issues can get worked out and, while the type of content you have will definitely drive the future success of your mobile endeavour, at the end of the day if no one knows about your mobile site then it doesn't matter how comprehensive your content is. Also, buy-in for getting new content will probably require or at least could benefit from some decent numbers traffic-wise. I don't mean to wave off the topic of content entirely but I'm lazy and I want to focus only on discoverability with this post.

To me discoverability is the elephant in the room for mobile web. Not performance, hardware access, or payments… it's discoverability. Discoverability is how easy it is for users to learn about your site. But you say, "It's on the web. Anyone can find it." Some even call it a red herring. Sorry, mobile sites are still rare. Users don't expect them. And users are slowly (quickly?) getting conditioned to look in one place when the need strikes for content on their mobile device, the app store. To make an analogy, to some people if a product isn't sold at a Super Wal-Mart then it doesn't exist. Until their is a similar centralized service for mobile web apps there's going to be a lot of leg work out there for you to advertise and re-advertise your mobile site.

So what steps can you take to increase discoverability (and rediscoverability!) of your higher ed mobile site?

  1. Redirects, redirects, and more redirects – redirect traffic from your home page, your WiFi login landing page, and the main pages of any services that are available in your mobile site (e.g. directory) to your mobile offering. Users with mobile devices are automatically going to go the sites they would normally visit on their desktops. Take advantage of this to push them to your optimized offering. *We went from an average of 80 visits a day to 900 visits a day with the redirects. *That's an order of magnitude more traffic. Also, mobile users using search to find your main site will get the mobile version too.
  2. Advertise Where Users Will Use Your Services – this ties into the notion of context. Users probably won't think of/remember your service when they need it. If you have a mobile shuttle schedule service make sure you have advertising at the bus stops. Make the connection for them between your site and the information they want/need. This would be a perfect opportunity to use QR codes so that a user can launch your site quickly. We plan on using them with our digital signage this fall. I'll also have a future post on how we used them in a marketing campaign this past spring.
  3. Encourage Users to Bookmark – I'm not positive users know they can bookmark mobiles sites on their phones. In the case of the iPhone they can actually add a site to their homescreen just like an app. Talk about the opportunity for rediscoverability!

I'm sure their are other ways to increase discoverability of your site. You can make sure your site is on Taptu or Chomp. Their is always the trusty press release, the student portal or university intranet but, as always, try to focus on where and when your users are at when they have a need. It's all about the context.

Postscript: Native Apps & Discoverability
I'm definitely a guy focused on mobile web. I think for an institution it offers the most bang for the buck in terms of delivering access across the largest possible number of handsets while leveraging skills that are already available. That said I'm not blind to the sexiness (especially from a PR angle), usefulness, and performance of native apps. Discoverability is one of the areas where a native app has a real advantage. Users understand where they have to go (an app store) to get content for the device. But there is an interesting hybrid option…

There is zero reason why you can't* deliver your mobile website as a native app.* For example, on the iPhone a native app could simply consist of a UIWebView pointed at your mobile site. So a native app delivered through the iPhone app store but pulling content from your mobile website. I put together an example native app wrapper if you want to check it out.

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