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The Ultimate Guide to Mobile Apps for Schools
Mia Major

Your work laptop is shut (phew!) — and now it’s time to kick back and relax. Bridgerton plays in the background, and you pick up your phone to unwind after another busy day. Whether you scroll through Facebook and Instagram; browse trips on AirBnb or peruse restaurant reviews on Yelp as you plan your weekend; one thing is true: if you’re using your phone (or tablet) to browse information you’re probably using mobile apps to do so. Why? Because it is faster, more convenient and personalized to you.

The same is true for your school or district’s parents. As they unwind after a day of meal prep, work, carpools, and homework, they’re also ready to catch up on their select mix of entertainment and information. And guess what? They too prefer to use mobile apps.

These shared experiences beg an important question: if we’re all using mobile apps and prefer mobile apps — then why do so few schools and districts use them as a means to reach and communicate with families? In this blog, we'll unpack why a mobile app — in addition to a responsive website — should be a part of your communications plan.

Embracing The “Mobile-First” Mindset

Just because we all spend our work days staring at our school’s website on a desktop computer, doesn’t mean your community is. As a matter of fact, data suggests that your school’s community is most likely accessing your website’s content from a mobile device — not a desktop:

  • Most schools and districts see more than half of their website traffic come from mobile devices. In low income or rural areas that percentage can be significantly higher. (Source).
  • In general, mobile devices drove 61% of visits to U.S. websites in 2020, up from 57% in 2019. Globally, 68.1% of all website visits in 2020 came from mobile devices—an increase from 63.3% in 2019. (Source).

Each year, data supporting the preference of mobile devices ticks upward — yet many schools and districts are stuck in the mud, designing digital experiences for desktop first, and mobile second. In 2021 and beyond, prioritizing the mobile experience is no longer a choice, but rather an imperative first step for marketing and communications strategies. 

Making mobile a priority is a two-fold approach that includes enhancing your school’s mobile website experience and adding a mobile app.

Mobile Apps and Mobile-Friendly Design: Working in Tandem for a Mobile-First Strategy

Many schools and districts ask: if we already have a mobile-friendly website, why do we also need a mobile app? When implemented properly, a mobile app and mobile-friendly website can serve different purposes and audiences. For example, most schools and districts rely heavily on their website for prospective family and faculty recruitment. Because of this, important information for current families (such as calendar information and directories) is often two clicks or more from the homepage — which can be cumbersome for a mobile visitor. On an app, however, this community focused content would likely be accessible in one tap on the screen.

Dive In More:

Does My School Need a Mobile App?

Looking at the user behaviors of today’s parents, mobile apps are a great fit for most schools and districts. Today’s user relies on mobile apps to find and interact with content. User testing studies suggest that nearly 90% of a user’s time spent on a mobile device is spent in apps — not a mobile browser.

Mobile apps become even more important for community engagement if any of the following apply to your school or district:

  • Any percentage of your community is located in a rural area or is low-income, where in-home Internet access is not likely. A Pew Internet Research Study from 2021 revealed that about 7% of American’s still don’t have Internet access. And while for some this is a choice, for others it's a matter of accessibility and affordability. The same study revealed that nearly 14% of households making less than $30,000 a year aren’t yet online. This same group without in-home Internet access does have access to a smartphone, however — making it imperative that the mobile experience is just as good (if not better) than the desktop experience.
  • You’re working in a small shop. Mobile apps can help you make the most of your minimal resources. Making use of tools like push notifications and Create Once, Publish Everywhere functionality can empower your one-person shop to do the work of ten with one click. 
  • You have a large community of millennial parents, who show an increasing affinity for mobile app experiences. Research suggests that the younger generations of parents demand being in-the-know — so only finding a weekly newsletter in their email inbox or needing to scour social media for an update can leave them feeling disgruntled. A mobile app provides instant gratification and instant updates using notifications  for this need-to-feel connected group.
  • You currently heavily rely on social media to keep your community informed. Some schools and districts think that social media is a mobile-first strategy because parents access these platforms primarily on mobile devices. However, if your school or district is using social media as a primary means of communication, an app is essential. Social media leaves too much out of your control, while an app ensures you control the narrative..
  • Your website isn’t mobile-first. While we’ll be the first to say you need a mobile-first website and a mobile app, a mobile app can be a “quick fix” for schools without the time or budget for a complete website redesign.
  • You want to cultivate a happier, more engaged community. Data suggests that mobile apps help build brand loyalty — likely due to the immediacy and transparency of communications. So, if you want less parents complaining in your social media comments, an app may be for you!

Dive in More: 

What Makes a Great Mobile App?

Not all mobile apps are created equal. So once you’ve decided that your school or district is ready to implement one, you’ll want to do some research first. There are given key features you should be looking for in your mobile app:

1. Integration with Your Website or Other Communications Tools

This one definitely tops the list — because really, who has the time to add updating another communication channel to their to-do list? Ensuring your mobile app integrates with your current communications or website platform, and implements C.O.P.E. functionality is key to ensuring you’re staying sane while your community is staying informed. You only want to have to put the information in one place, one time, and have it go everywhere you need it to on your website and within your mobile app.

2. Content Personalization

When you log into the apps on your phone, they remember who you are and what your preferences are. This is a big one for school districts in particular! For many school districts, families may have children at more than one school and just want to view the content for those schools — not every school. Apps that allow users to select only the content they want to see with  content personalization make this preferred user experience possible.

3. Push Notifications

More than 80% of mobile users have push notifications enabled on their smartphones — meaning today’s mobile user enjoys to receive those up-to-the-minute updates. Push notifications are a proven way to keep your community engaged and in-the-loop, so don’t purchase an app without them!

4. iPhone and Android Compatibility 

Your community is filled with Apple iOS (iPhone) and Android users — so be sure that the platforms you look at accommodate both operating systems.

5. App Aesthetics and Usability

This one is a no brainer! The look and feel of your mobile app is important, as today’s user expects a modern user experience. Providing your community with a user experience they are familiar with will go a long way to increasing community adoption. In addition to the overall aesthetic, and interface, make sure you can fully customize your school or district’s app with your brand colors and logos to ensure a seamless cross-platform experience for users.

Choosing the Right Mobile App

Your choice for a mobile app will likely come down to a comparison of cost, time to implement, and feature set. To choose the right mobile app for your school, we recommend reviewing two to three options before making a decision. Make a list of what’s most important to you and your community, and go from there! Here’s our top five list for features:

1. Integration with Your Website or Other Communications Tools

2. Content Personalization

3. Push Notifications

4. iPhone and Android Compatibility 

5. App Aesthetics and Usability

Ensuring Adoption: How to Encourage Your Community to Use Your Mobile App

Once you’ve made the investment into a mobile app for your school community, you want to be sure that the app is actually used.

Test the App in Advance

Today’s generation of parents comes bearing high standards and low patience. So, if you launch an app with broken links or incomplete functionality, they may be quick to call it quits. For this reason, we recommend doing a soft launch about 1-2 months before the official launch of your app and get together a small group of beta testers to identify any hiccups.

Launch iOS and Android Versions

Getting exact numbers on Apple vs. Android’s market share isn’t easy — but research suggests that if you launch an app for only one operating system, you could be missing half of your audience, or more! Launching your app for both mobile platforms will ensure wider adoption. 

Introduce the App at the Beginning of the School Year 

If possible, introduce your school’s mobile app at the same time you introduce your other communication mediums. This will help you establish a communication channel baseline of “this is how, when and where we communicate” from the get-go and avoid confusion.

However, keep in mind the beginning of the school year isn’t the only time to launch an app. Just remember if you launch at any other point during the school year, it’s important to sell the value of using the app — especially if parents are used to getting their information elsewhere. 

No matter when you decide to launch, it’s also important that you communicate that the app is available periodically throughout the year. Parents often miss information if it is only shared once.

Pro Tip: Tippecanoe School Corporation in Indiana has major buy-in for their school district’s app. Aside from a five-star roll out and implementation, they’ve created an easy way to inform community members on a regular basis: mobile app “business cards.” These cards are kept in each school's main office to promote the app. The cards include basic info about the app and a QR code to go directly to that app in the App/Play stores for instant downloading. Brilliant!

Make it a Useful Tool with Up-to-Date Content

Remember: people (like you and your community) prefer to use mobile apps because they are simple, personalized, and more convenient. Think of the most popular content on your school’s website that your community wants one-touch access to — such as directories, calendars, resources and news — and ensure that information is in your app and up-to-date.

Use Push Notifications

Your parents are busy — so if you’re relying on social media, your website or email as your sole means of communicating, using a push notifications feature in your app will not only add a level of convenience for your families, but can help ensure adoption. When your families realize they don’t have to go hunting for important updates, and they’ll be sent directly to their smartphones, they’ll sing your praises! 

Pro tip: Don’t over-use push notifications. Using them multiple times a day can actually discourage users from keeping them enabled! Aim to send no more than one push notification per day, unless absolutely necessary. Make sure it provides your community with multiple topics they can subscribe to. Overload them with notifications and it won’t be long before they disable notifications altogether.

How Finalsite Can Help

Finalsite launched its first responsive website in 2012 — even before big names like The New York Times and Amazon. And since then, our innovative team of designers have led the charge on not only responsive design, but mobile-first design — a form of web design that considers the mobile experience in tandem with the desktop experience to provide a seamless design from device to device.

But we know for schools, a mobile-first mindset stems beyond just a website. The Finalsite Mobile App makes it easy for schools and districts of all sizes to keep their app-loving community engaged with a user experience that checks every box. 

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Mia Major

Mia is a creative and passionate school marketing thought-leader. Since joining the Finalsite team in 2013, Mia has produced hundreds of pieces of content with one goal in mind: helping private, public, and international schools improve their online presence. In her current role as director of demand generation, Mia focuses on full-funnel inbound marketing strategies. She's also a co-host on The School Marketing Show, a frequent blogger, e-book author, Expert Course consultant and webinar host. She loves putting storytelling at the heart of all communications — and before joining the Finalsite team, Mia was a TV and radio broadcaster, wedding cinematographer, and author for various online magazines. She is an army wife, mom, and rookie photographer currently living in southern Georgia.

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