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Business Technology: Text Messaging: The Newest Recruitment Innovation

Admissions departments deploy text messaging to engage and inform prospective students.
University Business, May 2006

This fall, Baldwin-Wallace College (Ohio) became a high-tech pioneer when it added text messaging to its recruitment communications arsenal. "B-W welcomes Juniors to campus! Let us help you to get started on your college search with our 'More-than-a-tour Tour.' If you would like to attend reply Y," said the initial message sent to select prospects.

"It's become increasingly more difficult to reach applicants via e-mail," explains Susan Dileno, B-W's vice president for Enrollment Management. Colleges and universities have to always be looking for that new way to get through to a prospect with a message that says, "We remember you and we hope you won't forget us." Text messaging provides a direct line to the prospect, something that e-mail can't always be relied upon to do, she adds.

It's common for prospects to provide multiple e-mail addresses, and then there is a high bounce-back rate. The Admissions department has seen its e-mail response rate plummet to 10 to 30 percent. Direct mail can be problematic as well, plus its cost is fairly high.

"We can't inundate students or it becomes obnoxious. We have to make the message meaningful."
-Susan Dileno, Baldwin-Wallace College

At the same time, the cell phone and text messaging dominate the teenage communications landscape. The average 16- to 24-year-old carries a cell phone 24/7. "E-mail is a way to communicate with old people. Why not deliver messages in ways that students are accustomed to and prefer?" asks Dileno.

Indeed, a 2006 Noel-Levitz report titled "Navigating Toward E-Recruitment" identifies text messaging as an untapped recruitment communications option.

Enter TranSend ED, a company based in Sarasota, Fla. After the vendor approached Baldwin-Wallace officials, the college signed on as a beta site for its permission-based text messaging platform. The new software allows colleges to send personalized communication via text messages to groups that have selected what information they want to receive.

Although text messaging and e-mail are similar, Baldwin-Wallace differentiates text messages from e-mails. The Admissions department does not broadcast generic messages to the entire prospect pool. Instead, the college relies on the technology to customize and individualize communications to strengthen the connection with applicants. For example, it may select a subgroup of students who have not attended an open house and send them a reminder with upcoming dates. The platform can facilitate business transactions, too. Applicants interested in football might receive a code for tickets to an upcoming game.

The technology is really a means to achieve and accelerate traditional admissions operations, says Jeannine Prussack, director of Product Development for TranSend ED.

After a prospect responds to a message, an admissions counselor or coach can begin a one-on-one text messaging dialogue-which the Admissions office can monitor. With enthusiasm for the technology high at a few schools, TranSend Ed aims to quantify results by completing a study of response rates and times.

Despite the excitement, Baldwin-Wallace is taking a gradual, respectful approach. For the average teen, text messaging remains a highly personal mode of communication reserved for close friends and family. "We can't inundate students or it becomes obnoxious. We have to make the message meaningful," Dileno continues.

Hartwick College (N.Y.) is test-driving the software this spring with its pool of accepted students, who get weekly messages emphasizing the fun side of college life. Hartwick places a strong emphasis on personal communications, and the Admissions office has had great success communicating with applicants via instant messaging. Both instant messaging and text messaging are cost-effective and reach millennial students in their comfort zone, says Jacqueline Gregory, director of Admissions.

Comfort zone or not, some colleges and their teen prospects regard the cell phone as personal space. When California Polytechnic State University surveyed students about text messaging, the majority responded that it hit too close to home. "The results really surprised me. I thought it would be a natural progression," admits James Maraviglia, assistant vice president for Admissions. One of the complaints in the Cal-Poly survey was the cost associated with text messaging.

It costs recipients between 10 and 15 cents to receive a text message. The school pays, too. Baldwin-Wallace pays a flat fee of $8,000 and a per message fee of 15 cents for the text messaging platform. Rates are discounted after 100,000 messages, but neither Baldwin-Wallace nor Hartwick will reach that threshold this year.

"Text messaging is relatively cheap for us," contends Dileno of Baldwin-Wallace. Direct mail costs about $1 per message. While e-mail remains a bargain at a few cents per message, student response is sluggish. Gregory estimates that texting costs will run Hartwick between $150 and $300 monthly. Current long-distance charges for calls between the school's admissions counselors and prospects range from $150 to $450 monthly.

"Creighton University applicants can get a text message about their acceptance three to five days sooner than with traditional methods."

The recipient cost structure is a moving target. Major cellular providers like Sprint and T-Mobile are expected to restructure service plans to include unlimited texting, eliminating any cost to student prospects. Not all plans will offer free texting, and current contracts may not expire until 2008, counters Mary Chase, director of Admissions at Creighton University (Neb.).

Another stumbling block for colleges and universities is the cell number itself. "Many schools have not collected cell phone numbers or don't know how many they have," explains Prussack. The remedy is simple. Early last fall, Baldwin-Wallace had a mere 500 cell phone numbers. The Admissions department updated forms on its website and requested cell numbers on inquiry cards and applications. Within five weeks the college gathered 2,000 numbers.

Once a school gathers the numbers the next step is to request permission to send text messages. This year, Baldwin-Wallace sent an initial text message seeking permission to send text messages. Another option is to ask prospects to check a box on applications or inquiry cards.

About 30 out of 1,300 high school seniors expressing interest in Baldwin-Wallace opted out of the text messaging program. Most students who opted out cited a lack of interest in the school, not cost or privacy concerns, says Dan Dowhower, director of undergraduate admission.

The high positive response at Baldwin-Wallace bucks expectations. In the Noel-Levitz survey of 1,000 high school juniors, only 44 percent indicated they would be receptive to receiving a text message from an admissions representative.

While the pioneers tiptoe into the texting frontier, others are taking an even more cautious approach. Both Creighton and Cal-Poly inform applicants of positive admissions decisions via a text message if the student grants permission to send notification via text message. "It's a way to meet students' expectations. The benefit is that the student finds out three to five days sooner," says Chase.

Neither Creighton nor Cal-Poly expects to expand text messaging. "Students are not extremely interested. They don't want us to turn their cell phone into an e-mail box," states Chase.

In fact, the pro-texting camp agrees that turning the cell phone into an e-mail inbox is a mistake. Schools can avoid that trap by sending a limited number of focused text messages. A Baldwin-Wallace applicant might receive as few as five messages throughout the application cycle.

Although Hartwick decided to send weekly messages for one month, Gregory explains that recipients are a dedicated pool of accepted students.

Schools can customize texting programs to meet their needs, but a few universal rules up the odds for implementation success. Gregory suggests that other schools first test text messaging internally, so admissions staffers understand the program and its features. The department should determine how to integrate texting into the entire communications program.

Lisa Fratt is an Ashland, Wis.-based writer and former administrator in the Marketing and Program Development Department of Northland College.

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