COVID-19 has turned our world upside down, forcing higher education to make radical changes in a short amount of time. Yet, somehow, campus leaders must keep operations moving forward and keep students and employees engaged, informed, and—most of all—safe.

Amid so much uncertainty, and with plans continually evolving as new information becomes available, students and staff naturally have many questions and concerns. Communicating clearly and regularly with all stakeholder groups is essential, as is making sure they receive your messages instantly.

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While colleges and universities should use multiple communications channels to reach all constituencies effectively, there is no better tool than your mobile campus app for distributing vital information to students and others. A 2016 survey from Bowling Green State University found that email can be hit or miss when it comes to communicating with students, whereas traditional college-age students spend more than four hours a day on their smartphones, on average.

It’s not surprising, then, that using your mobile campus app is the most effective way to reach and engage them. Here are four key strategies for using your mobile campus app to keep your entire campus community informed effectively during COVID-19 or any other crisis situation.

Establish your campus app as the trusted hub of timely information.

Delivering clear, consistent, and authoritative information builds people’s trust in your communications and makes them more likely to look to your organization for new information. Until now, users of your mobile campus app might have only used it to accomplish certain tasks. You need to establish your app as a trusted, go-to source of timely information.

To do this, establish your campus app as the hub of information for all crisis updates. When using existing information channels like your website, social media, email, and press releases, refer back to the app as the source for all campus communications. To avoid duplicating work and challenges with out-of-sync information, make sure your campus app gives you the ability to repurpose web and social media content easily and automatically. Minimizing the number of locations with unique information eliminates confusion, improves consistency, and ensures that anyone looking for updates is guaranteed to receive the most current status.

In addition, create a communication strategy that keeps people informed with timely, regular updates. Work with all campus departments to create a communication plan, and set up a schedule and a cadence for updates. Establishing a regular rhythm for new updates is important for keeping people informed and building their confidence that you’re on top of the situation. Push notifications should be a key part of this strategy, as they allow you to connect instantly with everyone who’s interested in in receiving updates.

Create an interactive experience that goes beyond simply informing.

Events like COVID-19 provide a unique opportunity not only to inform your audience but to engage, empower, and learn from them.

For instance, you might use your app’s polling features to collect feedback and nudge users toward certain behaviors. Questions like, “Do you feel like you know how to keep yourself safe and healthy?” or “How long should you wash your hands?” can trigger users to consider their own knowledge of the situation and subconsciously nudge them to change it. You also receive aggregated data on their responses, which can inform you of the need for additional information in the app if users aren’t responding with the expected answers. Repeated small engagements like this over time can positively influence users’ behavior.

Another example of engagement might be inviting users to share a bit of their life away from campus. Allowing them to share photos of their study or work space directly in the app enables them to share with their peers, observe that others are in the same situation, and deepen connections with fellow students and colleagues.

Lastly, in the midst of a serious situation, you can and should use your app to add levity. With regard to COVID-19, perhaps you could ask users to submit their favorite handshake alternatives as a contest, time hand-washing to your school’s fight song, or ask them to share their funniest memory from their time on campus. Students need opportunities to share lighter moments now more than ever.

Personalize the messages you send to maximize their relevance.

Personalized messages consistently drive higher engagement than generalized ones. With this in mind, identify audience segments that benefit from unique information and send specific messages to those segments. Create channels where users can opt in to receive tailored communications, such as for specific academic programs, residence halls, or international students. This ensures that every user who has opted into the channel is receiving messages relevant to their specific interests.

Opt-in channels can also become a critical force in helping your community stay healthy. For example, you could create an opt-in channel for hand-washing reminders and easily set up automatic notifications every hour for a designated time window (say, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.), reminding those who opted in to wash their hands.

Measure user engagement and continually evolve.

To derive maximum value with your campus app, assess how your audience is engaging with each service and feature. As you add and update information, measure to see whether engagement is occurring as you’d expect—and apply what you’ve learned to your communications strategy going forward. In-app polling can provide an effective way to measure engagement and adjust your approach in real time. This simple but effective step can make a tremendous difference in the efficacy of your user engagement.

COVID-19 has introduced a great deal of uncertainty, and this appears to be our new reality for the foreseeable future. Your campus mobile app is the single best platform for unifying communications and pushing out important updates. By following these key strategies, you can ensure that your app is the go-to resource for keeping users engaged and informed during this turbulent time—and beyond.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.

About the Author:

Matt Willmore is the Senior Director of Product for Modo Labs, creator of an app-building platform for higher education that is fully customizable with a school’s branding and doesn’t require any code to implement. Modo’s Crisis Response Starter Kit, which allows campus officials to distribute urgent announcements and other critical information through push notifications and other priority channels, can be added to a Modo-powered campus app in a matter of minutes. To learn more, go to www.modolabs.com/covid19.


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