You know it's time for a school mobile app. Now what? Maybe your board has approved the budget for one, but you’re not sure where to start.
The allure of being able to reach and truly connect with parents with dynamic, user-controlled data via a mobile app is appealing. It’s important, however, to think before you pull the trigger on getting that little app icon for your district.
School mobile app capabilities are powerful – on paper at least. In the palm of your hand, you can access school and district information anytime, from anywhere. Students, staff and parents stay informed with announcements and notifications. Everyone has no excuse (right?) for not staying current with news, calendar events – and let’s not forget the lunch menu.
Mobile apps are not so powerful tools when you fail to heed some dos and don'ts when it comes to selecting the right features and otherwise preparing for success. Beyond making certain you have the all the key features every school mobile app should have, there are three important factors in giving your app the best chance to succeed:
- Make sure it’s more than just a cute little icon.
- Properly promote and train your users.
- Be 100% positive it integrates with your other school software.
It’s one thing, after all, to have a mobile app, it’s another to have a successful one; one that creates new ways to engage.
It’s important to put your school mobile app needs in context of your larger communications picture. Your school website, notifications, email and social media should all be factored into your mobile app strategy.
1. Don't just ‘keep up with the Joneses’
The ability to call, email, visit your school website, push social media, and instantly push notifications: it’s all very attractive. But without a plan, the proper technology, the content provider, and an integrated approach, creating a school mobile could be little more than an exercise in keeping up with the Joneses.
Just because the district next door has a mobile app, doesn’t mean you have to have one. Ask them how they’re doing with it. The National School Public Relations Association is a great forum for to connect with other school administrators to see how they’re using their school mobile app. Evelyn McCormack, president of Mack Communications NSPRA Vice President at Large for Communication Technology & Innovation, has some peer advice for making an informed decision about school mobile apps.
The gold rush trail for schools to get equipped with mobile apps is littered with many 'drive-thru' app providers and schools who have dusty apps that aren't being optimized.
Think practically when moving forward with how you'd actually want to use your mobile app to increase engagement. Imagine, for instance, in addition to a newsletter emailed directly to parents, they’d have the ability to access archived ones right from their phone app. Or online payment for dues and school supplies from a school online store. 'Ask the principal' or 'ask the teacher' hotline buttons that encourage the dialogue that can so make a difference.
2. Promote and plan for school mobile app success
The biggest attraction of a school mobile app is that push notifications make it more convenient than ever for (especially) parents to get the info they want. They don’t have to go looking for it necessarily. With the proper promotion, setup and instruction, parents, staff and students can automatically be served up what they need want and need.
When we download a mobile app on our tablet or phone, the next big decision is if we ‘want to receive push notifications” from the app, even when it’s closed. This is a huge point of no return for many commercial app providers, for most of us don’t want to be bothered with non-essential info (from retailers, games, info-tainment channels, etc.)
Parents, by nature, want content from their child’s school, and if they don’t, they should. They are the most captive audience a communicator could ever wish for. Parents need helpful district-, school- and classroom-based content that ranges from news and calendar events to reminders from teachers about tests or assignments.
The beauty of a mobile app is that during profile setup, parents and all users can customize the kinds of content pushed to them. More good news: connecting with parents via mobile apps is wide-open territory. Beyond the basics, parents don’t even know what kind of info they need, so you can shape that with a well-coordinated online communications strategy.
3. Make sure it integrates with other software
Technical considerations come into play as well. Depending on your provider, the degree of integration will vary. And while mobile apps are pretty much plug-n-play with updates automatically sent to subscribers, there is always the issue of integrating your app with all the other required systems such as SIS and CMS.
How your school website is designed plays a big part in your decision on how to accommodate this growing mobile audience. Some school website providers offer something called responsive design in their software, which basically means your school website is automatically reformated (responds) for optimal viewing on whatever device you’re using.
Your mobile app needs to be able to find and pull content from your school’s other software programs, so as not to create content management nightmares for the school content managers and IT department.
Research shows that such fundamental information as lunch menus and calendar items are frequently sought by parents. The ability of your app to work seamlessly with popular iCalendar feeds – so parents can auto-synch select school calendar items with their own personal calendars – is a function that makes your school mobile app a very valuable asset to your school.
Sure, your parents are ready, but are you?
Some school districts report that as many as 90 percent of their parents use smartphones. Yours might be a little lower, a little higher, but we know that where there are smartphones there are mobile apps.
The latest Nielsen Research indicates that adults of school-aged children are using anywhere from 20-30 apps monthly and spending about 20-35 hours each month on them. From getting sports scores to tracking personal fitness the immediacy and convenience of mobile apps has become, for many, a necessity.
But what if you invest in an app, then only a relative few actually use it. Deciding to get a school mobile app is the easy part. Getting people to download it, use it, and keep coming back are altogether different issues.
Even before your app is published, you need to create a plan that will promote it to your parents, staff and students, then be sure to have the tools and resources to keep its content current.
Otherwise, all you have is cute little mobile app icon that no one is using.
For related articles on school mobile apps:
- Responsive Web Design or Mobile App for My School?
- 7 Must-Have Features for your School Mobile App
- How a School Mobile App Can Help Reach Parents
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.