MSUAA Mobile

On December 10, 2011, in Spartanology, by Scott Westerman

By Scott Westerman
From my presentation at the CASE V Conference in Chicago. If you missed it, here is a link to the podcast.

I recently had the chance to interview Pam Whitten, Dean of MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences for our MSU Today program on WJR. My first question, “What’s the most important trend in communications today?”

Her answer? “Mobile, mobile, mobile.”

We want our information when we want it, where we want it and on whatever device we may happen to fancy at the time. I’m a classic example. There’s a laptop in my backpack, but I also carry an iPad to meetings (no more paper.. that’s a whole separate blog post) and an iPhone in my pocket. I use the OmniFocus application to manage my time. It syncs across all three platforms. I use the continually customized Zite magazine mobile app to aggregate information I care about and post it on a schedule with the HootSuite mobile app. My weekly Monday Motivator columns are often written using Siri and my book, “The Spartan Life” has sold exponentially more copies on mobile devices than in print.

So as we pondered our communication strategy for the MSU Alumni Association, mobile was the centerpiece.

We currently promote two custom designed mobile applications. Our friends at Cap and Compass have a great understanding of how to connect with young alumni in their natural mobile habitat. We commissioned a “Crib Sheet” application that is crammed with the Real World 101 lessons that universities don’t teach. Do you buy or lease a car? How do you manage your budget, pay off your student loans and enjoy a social life on an entry level income? What kind of wine should you order when you take your boss out to dinner? The MSUAA Crib Sheet answers these and hundreds of other questions while keeping our young alumni connected with the Institution in a life stage where we often lose them.

We promote the MSUAA Crib Sheet broadly with special campaigns surrounding commencement.

A second, equally popular MSUAA Spartan Sports Network mobile application enables Spartans to listen to play-by-play broadcasts without a radio. We sponsored the development of the Spartan Network app not just to disseminate content, but to align our brand with it. Streaming media isn’t new. It’s been around our browsers for some time. But packaging it in a portable, useable format has dramatically increased consumption. And our alumni tell us that they associate our brand with it primarily because of how we deployed it in the mobile space.

Parenthetically, MSUAA is one of the inaugural underwriters of the Big Ten Network’s streaming video channel. As the network saturated the traditional cable TV marketplace, they turned their attention to the huge worldwide Spartan audience that would follow us on the Internet. Their browser based application streams selected MSU games globally. And MSUAA’s logo is prominently featured during every broadcast.

As you might expect, mobile iterations of this service are already available.

MSUAA has presences on all the major social platforms. Our Facebook page utilizes every enhancement to give our visitors an appealing and effective experience. We’ve also been successful on LinkedIn, creating the largest officially sanctioned alumni group on their network. LinkedIn’s mobile app helped make this possible.

A key question facing developers across the mobile space is whether or not to create an application at all. When you focus on an app, you need to code it for every device. MSUAA’s apps are developed for both iPhone and Android, so the cost of adding a new platform is incremental.

An increasingly popular approach is to avoid app development all together, in favor of customizing HTML cascading style sheets to recognize the browser type and render the content dynamically for the device.

MSUAA has optimized all of our web content for mobile using this approach. Our webteam tests every page on the most popular platforms and browsers. Developers who formerly only had to contend with IE, Firefox, Safari and Chrome, now must be cognizant of the nuances of everything from text-only non-smart phones to Blackberries and everything in between.

In theory, all content is nothing more than data and all you have to do is figure out how to render that data in an effective way for the target device. In practice there are a ton of considerations, especially in the graphics and multi-media space. The size and aspect ratio of a picture you would put on your website is vastly different from the data you want to cram through a 3G or Edge network to display on a micro screen.

Our web developers account for this. Some development platforms anticipate the issue and automatically crunch photos based on de-facto standards for each device, even taking a run at boiler-plate style sheets for the most popular mobile browsers. It’s getting easier to accomodate diversity, but it has to remain front-of-mind for those on our team who may be used to filling in a text box and uploading a picture.

Of course, none of this works without compelling content. Ours comes from a variety of voices including our University Relations public relations team, our University Advancement communicators, MSUAA team members and our elite group of student interns. We try to follow the cardinal rules of creating great content: Relevancy, Usability and Freshness. Everything we post is hopefully meaningful, easy to access and up to the minute.

The bottom line of all of this is customer satisfaction. We are constantly calibrating what our members want. Alumni associations are evolving from affinity to service strategies to remain relevant to the Facebook generation. Our key question, “Where does it hurt and how can we help?” is the foundation for every decision we make. Whether it’s a recent grad who runs a business in Bangkok, a current student who needs help remembering when an assignment is due,  or an alum who wants to find a friend’s football tailgate site, MSUAA can be the central pivot for a myriad of Spartan Connections.

The MSU Alumni Association serves Spartans from the moment they first come to campus as freshman. Our brand statement, “Your Personal Network… for Life!” is an affirmation that we want to be where Spartans need us, when they need us, with the solution they need. Our mobile strategy is based on this same foundation.

Questions? Connect with me via, @MSUScottW on Twitter or join my LinkedIn network at


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