The Growth of Niche Apps

Mobile 101: This post is part of our educational series on mobile technology. If you are new to the smart phone/app arena, this series is a good place to start.

Once you “get religion” that mobile is the future, your next step is to decide on a mobile strategy.

If you’re a college, or any large institution, one of your first questions should be:

Do I create a general app for my institution or multiple niche apps (e.g. one just for alumni)?

Apps are one of the newest mediums for communication. Consider what other mediums do – for example, magazines:

People generally prefer information that is catered to their specific interests.

We think this preference holds true for mobile apps.

Though admittedly a very small sample size, my own little family is a shining example of this. I read news, my wife loves celebrity gossip, my daughter could dress up dolls 24/7, and grandma can’t get enough of sudoku.

Role of Apps

Apps, by their very nature and design, are meant to cater to specific needs. Since mobile devices have smaller screens, they demand a more focused mission.

The App Store has over 300,000 apps. They don’t all do the same thing.

The Student App vs. the Alumni App

Some schools have started their mobile strategy with an app for their student body: campus maps, directories, bus routes and so on.

Duke (my alma mater) has a great student app, but it doesn’t “feel” like it’s for me, so I don’t personally use it.

In addition, alumni offices have different needs (address updates) and messaging (benefits and events) than other departments on campus.

The “Everything” App

Some schools try the “everything” app approach by including an alumni module in their “student” app.

A friend, who is a loyal UVA grad, was over for dinner the other night. We got talking about work, and she showed me the UVA “everything” app:

Her comments, which I think sum up the argument against “everything” apps were:

– Wrong messaging

It didn’t make her feel particularly special when “Alumni Resources” carried the same weight on the screen as “Grounds” and “Claude Moore Lab”.

– Lack of focus

Too many choices made her feel overwhelmed.  The UVA app reminded her of grocery shopping:

Crystal Light Overload

Personally, I think alumni want a focused app made just for them.

Spread of Niche Apps

Mobile apps are still young, but the growth of niche apps have already taken root for many schools. Below are just a few examples:

Over time, I’d expect to see many schools with an admissions app, student app, sports app, and an alumni app.


I’ve heard the question, “Will a niche app ‘compete’ against another app from my institution?”

Think of an app as less of a product and more of a communications tool.

Every school uses different web pages and different marketing materials to speak to different audiences. Niche apps play this same role.

(As an idea to cross-promote apps, add a link in each app to the other.)

Crib Sheet, the Niche App for Alumni

“crib sheet” is a focused, niche app for your alumni or members. It offers:

– an alumni newsfeed (you select the feeds),
– alumni-specific feedback forms (e.g. address updates), polls and links,
– “life skills” topics for alumni (mortgages, insurance, money, etc), and
– promotion of alumni-specific benefits (e.g. affinity partners).

As you develop your mobile strategy, if niche apps make sense to you, we encourage you to check out our “crib sheet” app for your alumni or members.

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