Communications Supercharged: How the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Use of AI-backed Texting and Chatbots is a Model for Other Institutions

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a public research university and the flagship of the University of North Carolina system. The 232-year-old institution offers degrees in over 70 courses of study. The University’s student population is just over 30,000.

Location

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Institution Type

4 Year Public

Number of Students

30,000

Customer Spotlight
Jen Drake
Jen Drake
Student Administrative Business Analyst

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a storied history. Chartered in 1789, the school was the first state-supported university in the U.S. and boasted the first collegiate team in the Carolinas.

But until the 1980s, the iconic Tar Heels were the only team in its conference that didn’t have a costumed mascot, just an ornery live ram called Rameses that appeared solely at football games beginning in the 1920s. That changed when the University introduced an anthropomorphic, larger-than-life, faux-fur Rameses during the ’87-’88 basketball season.

Now “Rameses” is the affectionate nickname for a new fixture on campus: A friendly, bilingual Chatbot, which the Scholarships and Student Aid office launched in August 2019.

Almost immediately, the office experienced a drop in the volume of emails and phone calls from students seeking help with the financial aid process. Students and administrators alike appreciated the Chatbot’s ability to respond to questions 24/7 — and provide consistent answers. That first year, Rameses had about 1,000 conversations with visitors to the Scholarships and Student Aid website.

The next year, in 2020, that number quadrupled to about 4,000 conversations — impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But then in 2021, when four additional offices rolled out the Chatbot, users tapped it for approximately 7,000 conversations.

“So far this year, in 2022, we’ve had 5,700 conversations and definitely are on track for more than 10,000 conversations … as students get more familiar and as the content expands throughout our campus,” says Jen Drake, a Student Administrative Business Analyst at the University.

Consistency might seem simple, says the University’s Associate Registrar Kelly Miller, but it’s not necessarily easy for their “very large, decentralized campus,” she says. Getting students consistent, accurate information is always a challenge.

Now, students can access the Chatbot from multiple websites and channels — and get answers from one library of information.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re on the cashier’s website asking when grades are going to be posted or on the advising website trying to figure out how to pay their bill,” Miller adds. “They’re going to get the same answer, regardless of which website they are engaging Rameses from.
That has been transformative on our campus.”

That transformation kicked into high gear when the University applied Rameses’ AI to smart mass text campaigns, some of which allow for two-way communication between students and the institution. Both the Chatbot and the text messages are making an impact, with exponential improvements in engagement statistics.

It’s good to be a Tar Heel.

Rameses’ Campus Tour

Because the Scholarships and Student Aid office had such success with the Chatbot, it wasn’t difficult to pique the interest of other administrative departments.

“Our Student Aid office [team members] were real champions for this product,” says Drake. “Their emails dropped from thousands to hundreds. Who doesn’t want that?”

Optimizing staff efficiency while providing better service to students “was the key selling point,” she adds.

By June of 2021, the Registrar, Academic Advising and Cashier’s offices were on board and ready to launch at the start of the fall term. It wasn’t a moment too soon for the Cashier’s office, which had recently encountered staff reductions due to budget constraints.

“They simply did not have enough manpower to be able to ask or to answer all of the questions that came through,” Drake explains. “They were desperate for the Chatbot to go live on their website.”

The International Student and Scholar Services Study Abroad offices deployed the Chatbot in November. Drake says that with every new department coming on board, Rameses’ knowledge base expands and gets better at answering students’ questions.

If a student or visitor visits the Registrar’s site and has questions about Financial Aid, the Chatbot can pull in that information because it’s “all connected behind the scenes.” A user can ask any question from any of five administrative office “launching points’’ (subdomains within unc.edu) — which has been “a really great benefit to our campus,” says Drake, noting that Rameses helps free up staff time for in-depth conversations with students who need more assistance than email or a chatbot answer can provide.

Implementation and Updates

“The implementation process was straightforward, simple and quick,” says Drake. “We received some outstanding support from our client success manager, who helped train us and walk us through the steps, which involve receiving access to the tool to administer the Ocelot content library.”

Prior to launch, each office reviewed frequently asked questions and “internally floated responses to be sure everybody was on board with the initial content,” she adds. “And then we had the ability to optionally add additional details for some of the more generalized questions. But those were tasks that could be done once we launched.”

The most difficult aspects of the journey with Ocelot so far are twofold: Waiting for “folks to review and sign off” information for the Chatbot’s library — and convincing colleagues it was possible to onboard, train and deploy new technology in a matter of weeks.

Sure, it’s cliche to compare a university to a supersized cruise ship attempting to turn at speed. In this case, however, there’s truth in the analogy: Change hardly ever happens that quickly. But with Ocelot’s help, the University made it happen.

Consistency Among Variables

The UNC – Chapel Hill team appreciates the ability to tailor Rameses’ responses with fast facts as well as links to resources on the schools’s website.

“We don’t want to put pages of information in a chatbot response,” says Miller. “If students are asking when grades will be posted, we can point them to the calendar. But we can also have links to the grading page or to other places they need to go, like if they wanted to appeal a grade or whatever. We found those links to be very beneficial for people who need more in-depth answers, but we can still give them a quick response via the chatbot. They can get the information they need to dig deeper on their own [if they want].”

Miller regularly convenes a team in her office to review Chatbot transcripts and analytics that Ocelot provides. They can see the most commonly answered questions on campus during a given week, a particular day or any span of time they choose. They can also see which questions the Chatbot couldn’t answer and use that information to update the Chatbot library and ensure that the next person who asks that question gets the answer they need.

While Miller and her team review the Chatbot analytics, they can quickly identify and update areas like broken links or variables that need updating.

Variables are key terms that are custom to an Ocelot client’s school that repeatedly appear in conversations across the institution, such as department names, URLs and email addresses. Of course, these variables tend to change from year to year or even within academic terms. And they might pop up in (for example) both Financial Aid and Cashier’s office chatbot conversations. Ocelot’s platform allows customers to update variables whenever they need to do so, and those variables automatically refresh across the entire knowledge base.

“You can imagine how that can save your staff considerable time and energy — and again, help with that consistency on campus,” says Miller.

The Power of Text Campaigns

Why is texting a great communication tool for higher education? The short answer: It reaches students. Ocelot sees an average 98% open rate on text campaigns. Ninety percent of recipients read those texts within three minutes and 82% read every single text message. That’s a drastic improvement over email.

But text messaging does have limitations. Without robust infrastructure, mass texting can create a support nightmare for those in frontline positions on a college campus. But Ocelot’s AI-powered platform integrated with CRMs such as Sales Force and Technolutions’ Slate (a higher ed enrollment, student success and advancement communications platform) can help tremendously — especially if the text messaging application also integrates with the Student Information System (SIS), such as PeopleSoft, Banner, Colleague, or Anthology.

With this kind of integration, Ocelot clients are able to personalize texts and design their texting campaigns for the outcomes they want. Plus, AI communications recognize students’ natural language patterns, quite literally understanding how they speak.

Customers can configure AI responses according to the most likely questions students will have when they respond via text. That takes the pressure off staff, but the system allows for escalation. The AI-backed bot answers most questions, but if a student has a high-touch question or problem, they’ll be transferred to a live person.

Combine that with messaging and analytics, and text campaigns can be a great barometer of a school’s communications effectiveness.

Supercharging Through Two-way Texts

At UNC – Chapel Hill, text communications via Slate (supported by Ocelot’s AI) are easy to integrate with other services and systems on campus, which leads to a seamless digital experience for students across departments. In addition, supercharging that impact is possible through enabling two-way communication.

The team at UNC – Chapel Hill has seen impressive results with several one-way text campaigns and enjoyed experimenting with two-way texting as well.

“The ability for agents and counselors to be able to quickly respond to students was a factor in our decision to do a ‘go big or go home’-type campaign first,” says Drake, noting that their initial outreach was a critical one-directional message to about 200 students regarding financial aid.

“I will admit I was a little nervous pressing launch on that first communication to so many students but it really was very straightforward to configure and monitor,” she adds. “As students started to respond, the Rameses Chatbot would respond in kind. And some students did have questions.”

After a few other successful text campaigns and a new Ocelot feature (a reusable text number that stays the same between campaigns and will be recognizable to students), the University sent its first two-way text. They sent an institutional aid reminder to about 600 students — and they were ready with three trained counselors poised to reply.

“The responses came in from students instantaneously or not at all,” says Drake. “We had a flurry of messages immediately upon sending the text and had some great opportunities for further information we sent via email if it was of a sensitive nature. And just this week, we reached out about [another] institutional aid deadline.”

This time, they tried a “yes/no” campaign. The message said: Do you have any questions for us? Type yes or no. If the student replied with a “yes,” the system responded with instructions and links to several actions they could take. It also offered them an opportunity to respond with a specific question for a counselor.

“Our engagement bumped from 3% to 5% to about 20%,” Drake reports. Although it was a small sample size, she and her team were encouraged by that improvement.

“We’re really able to support students in a different way,” she says.

High-Tech Can Be High-Touch

“Our students face complex systems and offices that each have their own purpose,” says Drake. “That doesn’t result in a student-centered experience. To my mind, a student-centered experience is taking a student’s question and reducing the administrivia.”

For the University, the student-centered experience becomes more seamless every time a new department adopts the Chatbot (or simply adds to Rameses’ knowledge base, which the Undergraduate Admissions office chose to do). Meanwhile, hardworking staff members have dramatically more manageable inboxes, so they can focus on the work they do best: provide high-touch, personalized support to students.

Higher education professionals are often skeptical that change can happen quickly. But the University’s implementation and deployment of Ocelot across three departments took just five weeks. Overall, the Tar Heel team couldn’t be happier with the process and the ongoing support.

“Our client success manager was phenomenal,” says Drake. “We’ve had other support questions and issues, and the responses are quick, timely and helpful. From a strategic vision perspective, … the future growth, constant improvement and release of additional functionality Ocelot has given us since we’ve been clients … has been really thoughtful.”

In light of the way students consume information and communicate today, AI-powered chat and texting is a powerful tool and compelling differentiator for UNC – Chapel Hill, but most importantly, Drake says: “It just makes sense.”

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