Effective Student Communication Begins at the End: With Strong Calls-to-Action

Rachel Tilley

Your morning alarm goes off. Do you hit snooze, or do you get out of bed? Visualize this everyday event, and ask yourself: What makes it harder or easier to take action at this moment? I like to ask myself this question when I plan, prepare and publish messaging and content for students. 

Today’s student faces a multitude of challenges in the enrollment and financial aid process. Disjointed communications with jargon-filled messaging contribute to a disengaged student body. Personalization and calls to action hold the key to positive student engagement, improved retention, and a stronger relationship between admissions and financial aid teams. But most of the time, students aren’t receiving the personalization they need to feel supported and compelled to act. Only 16 percent of students say they receive personalized college outreach. 

Creating student communications in the enrollment cycle has taught me a lot about how to engage hard-to-reach audiences. Here are some strategies you can implement to create purposeful communications that encourage your students to avoid hitting the snooze button.  

Plan effectively and identify your call to action 

For every communication you want to send, it's essential to first determine the specific action you want your students to take. Then, consider how you can make it easier for them to take that action. One thing we’ve seen many customers do is to create an editorial calendar. This is a simple tool (you can do it in a spreadsheet) that helps you prioritize and organize the communications you need to send. Editorial calendars are also useful to help reinforce your institution’s brand, tone and style. But an editorial calendar is just the first step. Here are three planning-phase essentials:  

Look to the past. Carve out time to review how past communications have performed. Can you spot common themes among the messages that did well? And what about the ones that performed poorly? What steps can you take to improve them? Identify check-ins throughout the year and collect data—qualitative and quantitative-- on your student engagements, send times and delivery methods. Focus groups and surveys are a great way to get valuable insights and anecdotes from your key audiences. In a focus group I once conducted with students, I was surprised to learn their preferred channel for event invites. I also discovered what times of day they were more likely to pay attention to an email. Gathering data, ideas and suggestions from students is always a great way to learn new and interesting ways of engaging with them. 

Share your calendar. Are there other people or departments or communicating regularly to your audience? The planning phase is an excellent time to spot overlap, competing deadlines and opportunities to support cross-department goals. Effective communication requires collaboration. Bridging the gap between outreach efforts will strengthen your messaging, tighten your brand and enhance your engagement rates. And students will take notice. 

Consider your cadence. Communications must be nimble and strategic. Remember that action you want your students to take and the number of interactions it may take to get them there. Deadline reminder emails are a great example; two emails sent one week apart may not be effective, but three emails that go out one week, four days and 48 hours before a deadline may work well. The data will tell you. 

And don’t forget: Create some wiggle room within your editorial calendar to prepare for the inevitable, unexpected and urgent communication.  

Prepare your communications and strengthen your call to action 

You've planned out a specific, actionable CTA for each communication, and you feel confident about your approach. Now, it’s time to strengthen your CTA delivery. 

Choose effective delivery methods. You want to make your CTA powerful. First, determine the urgency of your communication and the best way to deliver your message: Is this an effective email or text message? Next, enhance your CTA by learning what channels and methods work best for your students and, most importantly, what motivates your students to act. 

Keep it simple. Avoid burying your CTA in a long email or on a text-heavy webpage. Will your students be able to identify what you want them to do? Is there any reason they could miss your CTA or hesitate to take the next step?  Sharing important steps or directions for students in an email can be a challenge. In my experience, email with complex instructions for students is like oil and water. To simplify the delivery and the message, consider creating a web page with the most important information. Prioritize the CTA and include FAQs and contact information. This way, you can send students a short and sweet email that directs them to a page with all the information they need. 

Test it out. Testing your messaging is the best way to understand its clarity and prevent missteps. Testing should go beyond proofreading and finding broken links. Try taking the same steps you want your students to take. Experiencing your students' user journey will help you understand how to improve and support your CTA. When I test communications, I always think about a class assignment I had once, where I was asked to write out instructions for making a PB&J sandwich. The real test came later: My teacher followed our instructions in front of the entire class. This step highlighted the small details we missed (like opening the bag of bread.) While it was funny to watch a simple process go askew, it was helpful to see process improvements in action and watch someone take the journey we laid out for them.  

Publish your communications and measure 

It’s finally here: You’re ready to publish. You've invested time and work to get your message to this point, and your communications deserve more than a set-it-and-forget-it approach:  

Remember your obstacles and your audience. There’s a trust gap between students and school administrators, and it’s due to communications. 59% of students say the gap in trust between students and school leadership is due to a lack of consistent communications. This is an obstacle that we can overcome when we remember the unique struggles of the audience we want to reach. When you send communications to students, you are competing with a lot of noise. Students are inundated hourly with texts, emails and notifications. If possible, collect input from your students about what times work best for each type of communication you send. Remember, optimal send times are unique to your students, who are unique communicators themselves. Your audience research and available analytics will provide you with information on how and when to reach your students.  

Analyze your performance. Assess what has worked and what hasn’t by using available data. In addition to click-through rates and open rates, go deeper into your analytics. For example, segmenting your audience by cohort, class or other demographic will give you a better sense of who is getting stuck (and where the roadblocks are cropping up). 

Creating purposeful and successful communications takes time, research and trial and error. Luckily, higher education's cyclical nature makes it easier to optimize your communication strategies. Above all, the better you understand your students (and what motivates them to act), the easier it will be to improve the effectiveness of your communications. 



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