T-Mobile just let students redesign a crucial part of its website and this is what happened

People walk by a T-Mobile store in San Francisco, California
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Would you trust a team of students to improve your marketing?

When T-Mobile U.S. wanted to better understand who was visiting its website — people who were already customers or those who were just researching phones or plans — it asked university teams for help.

The company also wanted to know whether website visitors already owned a mobile device but wanted to switch networks, and improve its understanding of which parts of a web page people were interested in, both crucial for improving the chance of a sale.

"If a customer was looking at a page on the website that actually had two or three different topics on it, it's sometimes difficult to work out what the thing that they were interested in that we should start pivoting around. We knew this area of our digital experience wasn't … as good as it needed to be," T-Mobile's vice president for digital journeys Giles Richardson told CNBC by phone.

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The task was part of a partnership with Adobe, which has run an annual analytics challenge since 2005, where teams of students compete to win a $35,000 prize as well as potential employment. MGM Resorts International, Sony PlayStation, Starwood and Lenovo are some of the companies that have run challenges, with entrants given access to Adobe's technology to solve live business problems.

The winning team focused on streamlining the digital experience with T-Mobile and presented a simplified version of the online path a potential customer might take, estimating their improvements would make T-Mobile an additional $8.1 million in annual revenue.

"Sometimes it takes an external fresh pair of eyes to say: 'This is really hard to find'," Richardson said. Watching the students' presentations wasn't always an easy experience, he added. "And it was a little bit of a dentist's chair experience sitting through six finalist teams run through how terrible they felt (parts of the website experience) was."

The winning team from the University of Utah also made Richardson reevaluate the importance of store visits and customer service calls.

"They said: 'Right, we went and real-world tested this. We went to stores, we called the numbers. We walked through, we mystery shopped,' ... Well you know we probably don't do that enough, so you know we feel like we know our service, but do we? And do we keep testing it on a very regular basis?"

Richardson expects to fly 20 semifinalists from the challenge to its head office in the Seattle area for introductions to the company and intends to hire ten people.

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For Adobe, the point of the program is to change the perception that marketers need to be technical to work with data — as well as finding candidates. It has hired more than 50 students since the contest began.

One of them, Nate Smith, is now group manager for product marketing for Adobe Analytics. He entered the analytics competition in 2009, with the challenge of helping homeware company optimize its online marketing budget. "They were spending a lot of money in Google properties but the demographic makeup (of) most of their users (meant they) actually came through Yahoo," he told CNBC by phone.

"One of our recommendations was to pivot their spending from Google to Yahoo and they saw the average order value from Google to Yahoo users went up 13 bucks just on an average order value basis."