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Our Journey as a Responsive Web Design Early Adopter

April 13, 2014
CUI homepage on laptop

CUI homepage on desktop

Our web team received a compliment from Google recently. At a meeting of presidents and academic officers from Concordia University System institutions at Google’s headquarters in the Bay Area, in a presentation that included a focus on the importance of having a mobile strategy, I am told that Google said that one of the colleges and universities it had noted that does mobile right is a part of the Concordia University System–Concordia University Irvine. Google’s presentation showed what our website looked like on multiple devices.

It was a nice compliment by Google for our web team, and I believe for the culture we’ve been cultivating in our Marketing and Communications team overall. But for us, it was a bit of old news. We began optimizing for mobile in 2011 when we opted for Responsive Web Design (RWD) instead a mobile application.

It was a decision we made during the planning phase of our new undergraduate admissions microsite. Our team came to me with the recommendation to go with RWD. After thoughtful discussion, it seemed like doing so was the smart choice. We launched the microsite in September 2011.

Making such a decision put us at the front of the curve of RWD adoption. And for a while, it was rather lonely. I remember our team defending our choice of RWD in conversations and on Twitter with colleagues and consultants at the EduWeb conference in San Antonio in August 2011. No one was talking RWD.  Everyone was talking mobile applications. We preferred RWD because we disliked mobile apps. They minimized the effect of branding, and made the college website user experience very transactional.

CUI homepae on iPhone 5

CUI homepage on iPhone 5

Marketing higher education is not the same as marketing books or widgets. We’re not Amazon.com. The purchase cycle is entirely different. It’s non-linear. Traditional students take years to decide. And for grad-adult students, Google said it all in their 2013 4th quarter education report: 61% of website visitors don’t convert for at least 30 days beyond the first visit, and 53% take 60 days or longer. So, for us it made little sense to go the route of the mobile application. We need a website that sustains interest in our brand story over the course of time. RWD was a wonderful solution for us.

But it wasn’t just EduWeb. It seemed none of my colleagues (marketing leaders) or consultants at conferences even acknowledged the RWD option. I attended an Aslanian conference on marketing to adult and graduate students in San Francisco in February 2012. During a Q&A with the audience, the moderator made a comment something like, “none of us like mobile apps, but what are we to do? Mobile traffic is increasing and we have to be optimized for it.” I raised my hand and talked briefly about our decision to go with RWD. No one seemed to know about it, including the next presenter (a respected university CMO) who was speaking on marketing and…wait for it…developing mobile applications.

All of this was a bit disconcerting to me. The only positive feedback we received was in early 2012 when The Lawlor Group, which was on our campus for a presentation to marketing leaders from Concordia University System institutions, gave us a thumbs up on our decision to go with RWD. Their feedback bolstered my confidence.

CUI homepage on IPad mini

CUI homepage on iPad mini

Over the course of next few months, we continued to implement RWD, designing each new section of our website responsively. In summer 2012, our team went through the entire site to convert it to RWD.

Then it all changed.  In August 2012 at the EduWeb conference in Boston, the whole thing had turned around with RWD being a hot topic. I was one of the few in attendance who already had gone with RWD. A few of my colleagues congratulated me on our early adoption.

A few months later, Mashable called 2013 the year of responsive web design.

Being an early adopter means you’re not able to leverage the experience of others who have gone before you. But if you get it right, it also means you don’t have to spend more time and resources later on backtracking to the strategy you should have followed in the first place.

But there’s something else of value if you get it right. Early adoption helps develop a team culture that isn’t afraid of being on the leading edge and encourages team members to think and dream boldly. It’s the kind of culture you’re going to need to attract and retain talent.

But deciding to be an early adopter requires a confidence in your data and your instincts. Our decision was based on core beliefs about our prospects and the college search process. And our web team had done its homework about the responsive web design option. You see, you can’t be on the leading edge of adoption if you’re not paying attention.

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