The popularity of text messaging should be evident to anyone who has spent any time on a college campus. Students can’t resist texting, even in classrooms, and it continues to outrank any other daily activity carried out with a mobile phone. The average teen receives nearly 3,000 text messages each month – and 97% of them are read! Although several schools offer SMS (Short Message Service) texting options for emergency notifications, admissions departments are justifiably hesitant to use this resource for student recruitment. It has the potential to be a very effective integrated marketing tool but requires strategic implementation to avoid abusing the connection between student and institution.
One revelation of the Noel-Levitz 2013 E-Expectations Report was a surprising openness among students to receive text messages from colleges and universities. While two-thirds of students are willing to receive texts, fewer than one in five reported receiving one from a campus. The reason that less than half of schools take advantage of this tool is likely a combination of the challenges of managing an additional communication channel and a perception that it is ineffective and unwanted by students.
Text messaging is a particularly personal form of interaction that cannot easily be ignored, resulting in annoyance and a resistance to further communication when used improperly. However, when the content is relevant and helpful, it can strengthen relations and lead to enrollment conversion. It is very important that some form of relationship has first been established with the student before a text message is ever sent. Best practice is to let prospective students choose whether or not they would like to be contacted in this way and then it’s up to content strategy for schools to nurture this trust. Unsolicited advertising may backfire by turning the student away from the university, so each message must strive to deliver real value.
The challenge is to engage students sufficiently without overdoing it. M.I.T. is one university that refuses to “exploit the addictive nature” of texting, but just because SMS may not be a broadly applicable tool for the majority doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Giving prospective students the option to sign up for text updates from their first contact with the institution opens the door for personal correspondence over time through a potentially more convenient and less intimidating communication channel. Reaching out to students as individuals, personalizing messages with their first name or referring to their interest in a specific program, can make them feel valued and further the relationship. If even a “thank you” is received after a helpful alert, it may indicate that texting is an effective means of communication with that student.
Example: St. Mary’s University in Texas has been a successful advocate of text opt-ins for prospects to stay connected with individual “meaningful messages.” While only about 5% of 40,000 inquiring students opted in for text updates, 30.8% of those did end up applying, compared with 10.9% of all prospective students. The yield rate of texting students that paid a deposit to attend the university was 42%, compared to 26% of all accepted students. This opt-in is easily accessible on their admissions page, promising to keep subscribers on track “to manage the admission process, meet all of the deadlines, and provide reminders about special admission events,” with a disclaimer that although there is no charge, standard message rates may apply.
The purpose of texting for student recruitment is to focus conversion efforts by identifying the most promising early inquiries, therefore narrowing the so-called funnel to qualify prospects. Even if the vast majority chooses not to opt-in for text alerts, the ones that do are significantly more likely to apply and enroll. The personal and easily accessible nature of the communication format can sometimes make the difference in convincing prospects to take the next step.
Here are some sample messages that St. Mary’s sent at different stages of recruitment, texting each month of the recruitment cycle, speaking in the language of today’s texting generation and condensing messages to the 160 character restriction:
- Not yet applied for admission: “Be early, catch the worm. Submit ur admission application by Jan 15 for priority consideration. Get info at www.stmarytx.edu/admission.”
- Joining the school’s online community: “Cre8 a profile on the St Marys online community at www.BeARattler.com by Feb1 to be entered to get ur $200 enrollment deposit waived!”
- Registering for orientation: “Bob, R u ready 4 Orientation? Sign-up is now open. Go to https://gateway.stmarytx.edu. We R lookin 4ward to seeing u on campus!”
Other Uses for Texting
Many schools have made use of the ubiquity of texting to engage with students. A tool called “Poll Everywhere” can enhance admissions or classroom presentations by allowing speakers to create poll questions, voted on by the audience through text messages, with results instantly posted in real time. A presenter could theoretically apply the results by focusing on subjects of highest interest.
Schools such as Dalhousie have developed an integrated messaging service for broadcasting important information, Carleton University has a parking payment system activated via SMS, and universities such as Brock have made contests that students enter by texting “agree” or “disagree”.
Like any campaign, recruitment teams need to consider how SMS marketing fits into their overall integrated communications plan. Texting is better for some applications than others – sometimes email may be preferable. Coordinate admissions, financial aid and campus life departments to craft direct, informative and valuable messages at appropriate times. Include relevant calls to action to help measure the campaign’s success, such as a URL to “register now.” No one wants to be flooded with texts so to prevent irritating your prospects, always include a method to opt-out, such as ending each message with, “to opt out reply STOP.”
While it is always challenging to manage and track additional communication channels, it can be even more costly to remain complacent in this changing competitive environment. Even if a medium is only used by a relatively small percentage of students, that may still be more than sufficient to justify integrating it in your content strategy and development. Researching with your own prospective students to reach them on their own terms is a proactive step towards recognizing recruitment marketing requirements of today and tomorrow.
Has your school used texting for student recruitment?