Conversational Chatbots Are About To Take Higher Education By Storm. Here’s Why.

It’s no secret that today’s consumers are squarely in the driver’s seat when it comes to how they do their buying. Whether they are shopping for home goods, technology, or a new toothbrush, today’s consumers have come to expect an experience that delivers instant gratification, personalized service, and frictionless ease.

This goes doubly for brands serving younger customers. People who have grown up in the digital age have even higher standards when it comes to speed and convenience. They also have pretty strict preferences about how they engage with brands.

Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that higher education is going through a communication crisis. Notoriously traditional, colleges and universities are having to adapt quickly to an entirely new set of rules when it comes to how they engage, enroll, and retain students. Don’t get me wrong; parents and adults continuing their education make up a significant portion of the higher education audience. It’s just that Millennials and Generation Z have been the biggest catalysts for change.

So much of what sustains higher education institutions depends on their ability to create and maintain strong, personal, “human” relationships. But many institutions are stumbling when dealing with Millennials and other demographics who rarely check email and are offended if anyone calls them without permission.

How are colleges and universities going to market to and nurture relationships at all stages of the student lifecycle?

By doing what they’ve always done, but in a new way.

It’s always been about the conversation.

At Mongoose, we’re all about helping people connect and communicate. Specifically, we connect higher education institutions with their constituents: prospective students, current students, parents, and alumni. Forging these connections is what gets us up in the morning.

We work closely with over 500 colleges and universities. Our close relationships with these institutions give us direct insight into the communication challenges they face. Attention spans are continuously decreasing and communication preferences are evolving all the time. For instance, while professionals tend to live in their inboxes, students are very inconsistent about checking email and often have multiple email addresses that they use for different purposes. It’s a challenge just to figure out which address will actually reach them.

In addition, there’s an emerging “secret shopper” trend in which people checking out higher education institutions want to be able to evaluate their options quickly and anonymously. If they are forced to complete long forms, they simply drop out of the process and never become an “inquiry” (which is comparable to a lead in the B2B world).

These new communication paradigms are part of what inspired us to develop Cadence, our texting platform. Cadence makes it possible for higher education institutions to engage students, answer their questions, and guide them through the process all the way from the college search to applying, enrolling, orientation, support, and ultimately educational success. Cadence helps our higher ed clients succeed by taking the mystery out of the college process. It helps deliver higher enrollment and retention rates as well as better alumni engagement by providing constituents with fast, convenient access to the information they need in a format and medium that they prefer: text messaging.

As it turns out, Cadence is a great example of what Drift calls “conversational marketing.” From day one, we’ve been taking a conversational approach to marketing; we just didn’t put a label on it. For us, it was simply what made sense for our company and for our clients. It has been and continues to be a very effective strategy, but we had reached a point at which we could see new opportunities to expand this approach to additional channels and points of interaction.

Now, the conversation is evolving.

As we began exploring new conversational marketing options, one of the things we consistently heard from our clients was the need to use staff time as efficiently as possible. Optimally, they wanted to be able to reserve staff time for conversations that truly demand authentic human communication.

The obvious solution was to automate certain transactional communication tasks. This would help streamline the internal communication process, increase productivity, and free up resources to handle more complex tasks that require human input. It would also deliver a better experience for constituents who, in many cases, did not need or want a lengthy conversation. For instance, a student who is simply attempting to look up a grade isn’t looking to have a dialogue with someone; they just want access to the information they need as quickly and easily as possible.

With these objectives in mind, I researched chat solutions that we and our clients could use to facilitate online conversations with our respective audiences. Once I found Drift, it was love at first bot.

At Mongoose, we’re not just about creating connections. It’s not enough to connect two parties; we need to help ensure that the communication is effective – that everyone is getting the information they need. Drift helps us do exactly that.

With our new offering, Mongoose Harmony – powered by Drift and customized for higher education – schools can now utilize an intelligent chatbot that effortlessly guides website visitors to the right content, captures lead information, and routes conversations to the appropriate staff.

For a new prospective student (or parent), visiting a college or university website can be completely overwhelming. Often, they don’t even know what a bursar is, never mind how to find out what one does or how to contact them. For better or worse, a lot of institution websites are both broad and deep, and are also constantly expanding with new information. Often, older information isn’t deleted, so a visitor might end up having to sift through 16 years of content (and several layers of navigation) in order to find what they are looking for. To say it’s daunting is an understatement.

Drift does an amazing job of helping visitors complete tasks on a website easily and quickly. It gives our clients a simple and effective way to get students and their families the information they need without having to tap the institution’s administrative resources. This makes students and parents happy, while at the same time reducing the internal workload.

In the same way our own product, Cadence, gives students a medium in which they feel comfortable asking critical questions that ultimately influence:

  • Inquiry generation
  • Application conversion
  • Enrollment yield
  • Graduation rates
  • And fundraising and alumni engagement

All extremely vital KPIs for higher ed institutions. Drift’s chat technology helps our clients streamline website-based conversations in a way that’s effective for students and efficient for staff. Both solutions take a customer-centric, conversational approach to the task of providing relevant, contextual information.

We see plenty more conversational opportunities ahead.

In addition to helping our higher ed clients implement Drift on their sites, we also use Drift within our own organization.

I’m proud to say that 12 Mongoose team members have already earned Conversational Marketing Certification. Drift’s newest program has helped us learn and build upon the skills needed to make the most of our conversational marketing efforts. It’s provided strategies for starting conversations and for implementing conversational marketing in a way that creates a better customer experience.

And we’re not stopping there. Our commitment to conversational marketing is so strong that we’re expanding our team. We’ve already hired two conversational marketing specialists and are looking for more. This is clearly a strategy that is only going to become more important as younger generations mature into college-aged young men and women, and we want our clients to be prepared to take full advantage.

There are some technologies that require specialized attention and support within a company. Take HubSpot or Salesforce, for example. They are powerful tools, but to reap the full benefits you need someone with specific skills to focus on integration and optimization. We ran HubSpot for nine months before realizing that we needed to bring someone dedicated to manage it. Now, we get a lot more value out of the platform. The same applies to conversational marketing technologies.

Because “conversational marketing specialist” is such a new role, we’re having to define the requirements as we go along. To ensure that the candidate can help our higher ed clients drastically improve the way they communicate with their constituents, we’re focusing on a core set of skills and traits, including:

  • A personality that is charismatic, approachable, and inspires trust
  • Excellent communication and writing skills
  • Keen business sense
  • The ability to understand analytics and website traffic

And, of course, this individual will also go through Drift’s Conversational Marketing Certification program.

While some organizations might hesitate at the expense involved in filling a new full-time position to focus on conversations, we believe this role will deliver a very positive return on investment by driving exponentially beneficial outcomes for our organization and our clients’ organizations. In the big picture, it will be a relatively small investment when compared to the benefits.

At the end of the day, our goal is to use all the technology and knowledge at our disposal – Cadence, Drift, and the passionate expertise of conversational specialists – to help colleges and universities adapt to the rapid changes in constituent communication. We can help institutions deliver a superior buyer experience that creates stronger, more effective customer relationships while at the same time increasing operational efficiency.

It’s a win for students and for institutions. And it just makes sense.

If you’d like to be part of the conversational marketing movement, it might be time for you to check out Drift’s Conversational Marketing Certification. It’s free when you sign up for Drift Insider (a free content subscription that gives you access to an extensive library of exclusive interviews with authors; management lessons from the brightest minds in business; how-to sessions at the whiteboard from top leaders in sales, marketing, and product; and more).

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You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is more passionate about higher education communication than Dave Marshall. His desire to create out-of-the-box solutions is evident in Mongoose’s innovative and intuitive software. In addition to providing strategic direction and endless inspiration for our company, Dave is focused on finding novel ways to solve each institution’s unique challenges. 

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post. Interested in contributing content to the Drift blog? Email Molly Sloan at msloan@drift.com.