Your App, The College Campus, and Acquiring The Snapchat Generation.

I spent the better part of 2016 traveling to and working with students across a number of large U.S. universities, launching an iOS app. I learned a lot about the landscape, and turned to many friends who knew the space better than me. I’ve written down some of the key things anyone hoping to launch a tech product in the college space should know. Each paragraph here could be its own post, but I’ve tried to condense it to the most important bits.

Disclaimer: these learnings are extremely generalized, and there are always exceptions to the rule. The following learnings occurred at Sonoma State, MSU, Miami of Ohio, DePaul, WashU, Mizzou, Indiana U, U of Illinois, UMich, and Notre Dame over 2016.

Some of my Airbnb history in various college towns

Your App Doesn’t Matter Until it Does

College kids don’t identify as early adopters. “New” is fine for describing your product, but nobody I met was excited about being the first or only person on an app (until it blows up, when everyone wishes they were the first). The “everyone’s doing it” attitude is still very effective, and Fear Of Missing Out is real — but even more real is the resistance around trying something if “nobody’s doing it.”

College students are spread very thinly between several apps and social networks. Don’t forget their ‘utility’ apps are actually also social apps; Groupme, Whatsapp, Facebook are considered smartphone staples, and not necessarily ‘fun’. When everything exists in the land of 140 characters and 2-second-snap-tap-throughs, it’s safe to say attention spans are limited. Don’t assume that just because you know your app is amazing, that they care about what you have to say long enough to agree with you. Long copy, long explanations, complicated visuals, or long ads are just plainly ineffective and honestly will screw you over in the long run if you can’t get your value prop into a one-liner. I’ll also go deeper on this when I talk about product First Time User Experience later on.

There are Two Types of Influencers

Apologies in advance for the following Mean Girls style breakdown of the two types of campus influencers you should have on your side. I’m gonna generalize, and I’m half-kidding, sort of.

There are the Cool Kids, and there are the String Pullers. You need both on your side for a successful campus activation. Cool Kids set trends. They are the Instagram models, the Fraternity Sweethearts, and the D1 athletes everyone wants to be hugging in their profile picture. They’re charming and excitable, but can often also be unreliable. They’re busy, and their priority is not you. And that’s okay. Make the deal sweet, have them commit to coming to an event or putting the word out on social media, but don’t rely on them to own your success.

Team meeting with some of my best campus interns

String Pullers are important. They’ll be able to open a lot of doors that would otherwise be closed, and get your message out from on the ground. They’re the Greek Presidents, club Events Coordinators, the guy doing work-study in the admin building. My most valuable team of students were all members of Delta Sigma Pi, the business fraternity, at a Big 10 school — they had the drive and judgement skills to know what we were trying to accomplish, and the social skills and know-how to get it done relying on the people they knew. They could puppeteer the String Pullers.

It’s rare that someone is both a Cool Kid and a String Puller, but it happens. Incentivizing students will be different for your interns, your Cool Kids, your String Pullers, or your campus reps. There are probably enough learnings on sourcing those people and incentivizing for a whole other blog post, though. Another one is about launch timing — because the first thing you should have any String Puller do is give you a calendar of every single campus event happening over the next semester.

The Barrier to Download is Higher Than Ever

Many college students are not the decision maker when it comes to their cell phone or data plan. This means you are the one having to take their data caps and full storage into consideration. Most parents will only shell out for the 16GB iPhone, and most don’t have unlimited data plans anymore. In fact I bet if you approached a college student on the street right now and pitched them the coolest app on the planet, there’s a good chance you’ll hear, “Sorry, I can’t download it now, there’s no wifi,” or “Shoot, my storage is full.” So promote your app in a wifi zone.

When it comes to storage, kids delete photos and purge apps a lot more than they back up their phones. You are competing for storage space with SO MANY THINGS. Don’t fool yourself. Even if they do download your app, you will have to fight to stay there.

When it comes to handsets, in my experience the iPhone is still the reigning phone on campus. You’ll run into angry Android users, but if you can only start with one platform it should still be iOS.

Permissions Not Granted

Don’t assume your app permissions will be granted. Explain to users why you need access to their contacts, their pushes, their photos etc. Because if you don’t say why, most users will say no. Frustratingly, Apple doesn’t make it easy to backtrack and re-grant permissions from settings. So if users reject permission requests the first time, it’s unlikely they’ll ever allow them, and thus ever use your app.

This generation has grown up with the Golden Rule being to never give away personal information online. They’re told not to identify themselves, and to not post anything they might regret under their real name because it will stay forever and someone, somewhere, will show their future boss. So, when a random app you’re only mildly curious about asks you for your full name + email address + phone number + social media info + first born, you’re probably going to consider abandoning ship.

Additionally, the phone number has become the most private piece of personal info to a college student. It is the final item swapped over the development period of a new friendship, and it can be scary to give away. Be cognizant that if you’re building a friend/network graph based on phone numbers, you might find holes because nobody has each other’s phone number despite chatting away on GroupMe or Snapchat daily. Read more about this concept here.

Many college students also have a burner email account exclusively for marketing emails, so there’s a high likelihood your community emails are drowning in a sea of Victoria’s Secret deals. Some will give you their school email address, but remember a lot of seniors’ school email addresses will be deleted within the next year. People also sign up to apps and services using a fake email address, and only change it later if it turns out they’ve actually missed relevant communication or if they have to verify.

Make Your Point with Your Product

One of the biggest things I‘ve learned has been about product. Specifically, the art that is the First Time User Experience (FTUX). It’s very easy to create a well-intentioned FTUX that is completely wrong for the audience and that will be a growth blocker on a college campus.

Your main priority during FTUX is reassuring your user about why they’ve downloaded your app. What’s its Unique Selling Point? Why is it cool? Show them how to do the cool thing, and only the cool thing.

  • They can and will figure out how to use the rest of your app by themselves, but only if you make them want to
  • It shouldn’t take more than a minute to get through FTUX
  • It should be 80% highlighting the problem/solution, 20% demoing how to use it
  • Have a full tutorial available in your help section, and use standard UX practices to get them there
  • Your bugs should not be in your FTUX. If they can’t make it in, they can’t stick around to “bear with us while we fix this! ;)”

You don’t know frustration until you’re at a frat party in Michigan and kids are giving up and walking away because it’s taking them 4 minutes to get through a fancy sign up flow, and your interns are sprinting around grabbing phones and skipping through everyone’s FTUX using muscle memory in both hands.

And yes, you can make it easier on yourself and by using Facebook login because…

Everyone Still Has Facebook

People think Facebook is dead among the younger crowd, but it’s not, they just use it differently. Students can’t really get away with not having it. Class projects are done on Messenger, parties rely on the Events tool for getting the word out, and clubs operate via Facebook Groups. Status updates, however, are strictly reserved for life announcements, a rare witty remark, or sharing the flyer for your club fundraiser event next week. So make sure if your app uses Facebook O-Auth that you make it clear you’ll never post to their timeline.


Shoutouts go to Doug Messer of University Beyond, Riley Soward of Campus Insights, Kenny Borg of The Social Life, and Brooks Buffington of YikYak for their expert help, mentorship, and guidance at various points along the way. And to Justin Thorp for pushing me to write down what I learned. Thanks to my mentors and team in San Francisco — Hooman, Jeff, Rudy, Joe, and Justin, for letting me run away to college while on the clock.

Also special mention to my college consults & interns: Rachel, Bryan, Evan, Trinity, Aaron, T.K., Maggie, Gianna, Allison, Sophie, Erica, Rob, John, Minna, Amir, Monty, Preston, Everest, Charlie, Naum, Sierra, Kelsey, Alex, Brad.

P.S. Please reach out if you want to connect with any of the students I worked with. They’re incredible.


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