When a Text is Worth More Than a Text

Learn why texting is emerging as a preferred channel to engage students.


Ask a college president what all of their students have, and they will invariably respond: “a cell phone”. 

One college president answered this question a couple of years ago by saying, “Students may or may not have a computer, but they will have a cell phone.”

At Ocelot, we’ve consistently heard variations of this answer over the past couple of years. The lone exception has been for rural community colleges. Their percentage is not as high as other schools. One VP at a rural community college communicated that the percentage at his school is perhaps closer to 70-80%.

While these conversations are anecdotal, what we’ve heard matches research from Pew, which says that over 95% of all Americans have a cell phone. And over 77% (as of 2018) have a “smart phone”.

Communicating with Students on Their Terms

Given the ubiquity of cell phones, they are an attractive vehicle to communicate through with students via text messages and “nudges.” A “mobile-first” or even a “mobile-integrated” communication approach can foster greater student engagement. 

But schools should be careful not to overuse or abuse them, lest they become “white noise.” Schools should understand that the mobile device is a “busy place” where a lot of activity is happening.

There is a great opportunity to use text messages in a way that students appreciate– ways that make their lives easier. And, in the process, ways that can mutually benefit the college.

Taking A Strategic, Targeted Approach

At a school conference before the pandemic, the consulting agency EAB presented an informative session titled the “Advising Office of the Future.”

One of key takeaways from the session was to use SMS text messaging with students in quick, targeted doses. 

For example, rather than sending a text that says, “The Registration deadline is next week. Please go to this link and complete the registration.”Instead, consider something much simpler, such as “Registration deadline is next week. Do you plan to register? (Y / N)”

The benefit of the latter approach is that it enables the student or prospect the opportunity to “quickly” respond. If the “ask” is greater than that, response rates will be much less.

And what does the school get with these Y or N responses? The school learns who is planning to register and who is not. And the school can then develop the appropriate messaging and human interventions to aid the group of students planning to register to get them through the process.

Segmenting students into “more likely to register’ and “less likely to register” enables a school to be more efficient with its time.

This example is a very simple instance of how targeted messages can generate very useful and actionable data.

The Path to a More Efficient Future

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s aftermath, colleges will need to be thinking more than ever before: how can our institution get more efficient? 

Targeted text message campaigns have the potential to achieve a double-win: (1) enabling schools to be more efficient with their time, and (2) reduce the friction and roadblocks for students when it comes to registration, financial aid, completion of paperwork, etc.

There is an expression “TLDR”. We’ve used it for years at Ocelot, since 2014. It means “Too long; didn’t read.” It came from an IT Executive who shared that if an internal email was too long, it would not get read — defeating the whole intent of the email itself.

We all can recognize that in an era in which “speed” is so important, lengthy emails will not have the same impact that shorter bursts of information or simple “Y / N” text messages will have.

If our goal is to help “serve students where they are,” then we should all be thinking about strategies that give students multiple ways to engage. Email, phone, in-person (when that is possible again), chat (live and AI-powered), how-to/explainer videos, and SMS text messages should all be part of the picture.

Schools can achieve great efficiency by combining “speed” with “simplicity.” Doing so is the formula that will work best given the ubiquity of mobile devices amid an era in which there are so many competing stimuli happening on mobile devices themselves.

To learn more about Ocelot’s text “Campaigns” feature, click here.