End Your SMS SOS: Building a Texting Strategy that Gets the Job Done

In this session from the 2020 eduWeb Digital Summit, RHB Senior Integration Consultant Megan Miller discussed how to craft texting strategies to create and maintain engagement with prospective and current students. Truly, Megan’s suggestions can help you reach a larger audience more effectively and easily. Read her comments here, and enjoy the slides via video here. Megan is joined by Brendan Foley, one of eduWeb’s conference track chairs and the director of communications at the Morehead-Cain Foundation.

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Brendan Foley: Alright, well we are going to take a little bit of a pivot here to the next session here. We have Megan Miller, who you’ve probably seen several times if you have been watching other sessions with eduWeb. You know, behind the scenes, all of us have been incredibly grateful that Megan is part of the team because she can get pretty much anything done that we need. And I put her in the terrible position of having to prepare a presentation and run a conference at the same time, so that is my bad. But Megan is going to be talking us through some texting strategies, which are really relevant, especially in this physically distanced world. And Megan, I’ll let you take it from there. Thank you so much.

Megan Miller: Yeah. Thank you so much Brendan. Hi everyone, it’s really great to see you. I’m going to go ahead, let me get myself to where I can share my screen and make sure that that’s pulled up so that we can get going. I’m also actually going to turn off my camera because I have found that it tends to block part of the slide show, so I’m just going to do that as well and get started.

I’m so glad you’ve decided to join me for this presentation, where we’ll discuss the art of texting our target audiences without making them hate us, which is a bit of an oversimplification but I do think taps into that deep existential sense of dread that we often experience when we hear that term “SMS Marketing”.

My name is Megan Miller, and this week I’m probably most familiar to you all as the chair of operations for eduWeb. But most of the time I am working as a senior integration consultant with RHB. We’re a marketing consultancy serving higher education, and in my role I have the opportunity to consult with institutions about how they leverage their CRM technology. I’ve spent more than a dozen years in higher education and marketing, and prior to joining RHB I served for 6 years at Seattle Pacific University, where I was the director of enrollment communications. I’m also a PMI-certified project management professional, so I personally really appreciated what Katie and Laurie just said now. Beyond that, I am the self-designated “World’s Okayest Mom” to my two boys, who are 5 and 8, I am likely the most enthusiastic fan of tacos that you will ever meet, and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll note that the only GIFs that I use are those from, well… that Canadian show that everyone loves [Schitt’s Creek], 

which I think everyone will agree is a good way to operate. But the most important thing for you to know about me is that I really, truly LOVE marketing communications and discovering ways to employ technology to make them more effective, so I’m really looking forward to sharing with you today about utilizing text messaging in your communications plans. 

Texting is a communications channel that I think we allow to be unnecessarily intimidating, so today my hope is that I can empower you a bit on what I think is a prime opportunity to be more effective and relevant in our work as higher education marketers. Specifically today, we’ll talk about four things: the tools we use, how to actually communicate with our audience, building and scaling our texting plan, and everyone’s favorite topic, which is regulatory compliance.

But first, before we get into all that fun, let’s go ahead and take a really quick look at what we know about how our audiences engage with and perceive texting as a communications channel. 

I’ll start by saying that when I was pulling together stats to make this infographic, I kind of was facing an existential dilemma in terms of what data to include. There was just so much out there, which right there should tell you something about the value that marketers see when it comes to texting as a marketing strategy. We see that 98% of Gen Z owns a smart phone—no surprise there—and 45% say they use theirs, and I quote, “almost constantly.” Also not really a surprise. But beyond that, they’re using messaging apps A LOT. This is one of their primary modes of communication. But it’s not just Gen Z. Essentially all of us appreciate texting as a communications channel when we’re the recipient.

So knowing all that, how are we doing? Well. let’s just say there are lots of opportunities to grow and improve here, shall we? We haven’t quite made texting the priority that we can, but the good news is that there are ways to address that, so let’s talk about them.

Let’s look first at the tools we have available to us in our texting adventures; specifically, we’re going to examine long and short codes, keywords, and platforms.

We have all been the recipients of both long code and short code messages. Short code messages are generally what we’re seeing for those massive text blasts we get, while long codes are what we’re used to seeing from our friends and our family. But let’s get into the details of that. 

Long codes are sometimes known as 10-digit long codes, or 10 DLC, so it’s a 10-digit phone number coming from a specific area code and phone number. They’re designed to be for one-to-one communication and usually fire at 1 message per second, so they aren’t a great option for that last-minute messaging to large groups, but on the other side, they do feel more relational and like they’re coming from a real person, so they’re a really important tool for some types of text messages. Of course, the one that you see here is not a great example of using a long code effectively, because that is very clearly not from a human being but is from some kind of platform that the DoubleTree Hotel in Minneapolis is using. 

Short codes, meanwhile, are designed for many-to-one communications. They’re a 5- or 6-digit number that is used for mass marketing, and they can fire at 100 messages per second. This makes them a great option for just-in-time messaging, but they’re designed primarily for one-way communication. They tend to be less likely to be filtered by mobile carriers, but they’re also very clearly not a personal message. Again, this is a screenshot of a text message that I got from my children’s school district. They used a short code. I did not like the message that they sent me, but at the same time, they were using that platform correctly, so good job, Kent School District.

I’ll feel like I’m just going to quickly note that there’s a third option here, which is email to SMS. This is again designed for many-to-one communications, but it’s also a strategy that is really popular with spammers, so it’s probably going to be a really bad idea for your strategy. The message here that I’m showing is one I actually received from a school that I had done some secret shopping at back in 2016. I’ll note that this message here is actually not a terrible message, minus the fact that the sender was messaging a very old list, clearly, but having it come from an email address immediately makes it seem less authentic.

If you’re using a short code, keywords are going to be a great tool to use. Keywords are essentially the SMS version of a CTA button that you would see in an email and can be used to manage subscriptions and also send a recipient immediate information based upon the topic they’re inquiring about. The image here shows a keyword used for opting someone into a text messaging list. We can see those words here that are used for unsubscribing, words like STOP or UNSUBSCRIBE as well. Most texting providers are actually going to automatically flag and unsubscribe recipients who respond with these standard keywords, so that’s a really useful way for ensuring compliance. We’ll talk about compliance later, but know that your platforms are already looking out for you in some ways there. If you are using keywords, they do need to be one word, so you do need to keep it simple, so keep that in mind as well.

So how do we send all this out? Let’s talk about platform options that we have for getting our messages out in front of our audience.

Our first option is Pay as You Go platforms. Those allow you to send out as you need without monthly fees; you’re paying per message sent. Some of the popular ones are EZTexting, TextMagic, and SimpleTexting. They use a short code service, so they’re a great option for those simple, transactional messages. If you’re just dipping your toes into texting, it can be a really great way to get started. Generally, though, you’ll be uploading lists into the platform, and there aren’t really great, fantastic options for integrating that with your CRM, so as you scale they may not be a really sustainable option for you.

Your second option: enterprise solutions. These are those subscription-based, customizable services designed for your school’s specific business processes. Mongoose is probably the best-known in higher ed, and Zipwhip is a really popular one for B2C marketing in general. Mongoose is a really great platform, I will add. Even though there are a few other ones, I do think that they do a really great job. These allow for more automation; they can include intuitive autoreplies to messages that students send based upon the key words that students are using within that message, and they integrate more robustly with CRMs. They’re able to make things more personalized. They use long codes, and so they feel very much like they’re coming from a real person. They also offer a mobile app oftentimes, so that makes them accessible wherever you are, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about work-life balance.

Finally though, there is the option of an API to CRM. Twilio is the industry leader in this option, which enables you to send a message directly and receive a message directly from your CRM instead of going into another platform. You’re texting directly from your CRM, such as Slate or Salesforce, and it allows a complete integration with your CRM. It also gives you a consolidated overview of your record’s interactions with your institution in one place, so you’re getting that whole picture. Sometimes though, it’s not going to be able to do as much in terms of automation or some of those other really cool tricks and tactics that those enterprise platforms are using.

Alright, since we now know what our options are for how to text, who should we be texting and what should we be saying to them? 

I think for a lot of us, we immediately gravitate toward prospective students. We talked a bit about stats for Gen Z a few minutes ago, and they’re a group we know use mobile devices regularly, so it feels kind of like a no-brainer. And yet … .

Quite frankly, we can be pretty bad at this. First of all, it’s fairly obvious here that there is no stock photographer who has any sort of understanding of how students actually use their phones, although I really do wonder what that guy in the green shirt up there in the left corner just received on iMessage, because it looks like it’s pretty scandalous. Seriously, you all, please just screenshot this slide as an example of how poorly a lot of marketing professionals seem to be understanding how teenagers are using technology.

The point here is that we have turned texting into this HUGE production when we’re building our comms plans, and we’ve overthought it to the point where we are just pushing noise to someone’s device. Stop sending noise and start sending value with your text messages. 

This doesn’t mean that texting shouldn’t be used for transactional purposes. Reminder: texts can actually BE incredibly valuable; I know I would miss a lot of dentist appointments without them, personally. But the point with reminder texts is that they need to be helpful and not burdensome. This comes down to cadence and content of messages. A reminder message that goes out the day before a campus visit, for instance—that’s really helpful. If you’re sending three over the course of a week, that’s excessive and that’s really going to be a little too aggressive. Also make sure that the messaging that you’re sending in those kinds of transactional texts includes a really clear direction on what the student needs to do next so that there’s little confusion.

But texting with prospective students is also an opportunity to foster relationships. Using a conversational tone is going to go a really long way, so text like you talk. Using a formal tone is incongruous with the medium. Save that stuff—that really formal, flowery language—for your admission letters. Choosing an institution is a very personal choice that has a lot of emotional drivers behind it, and that means we need to meet students where they’re at by connecting using a preferred mode of communication. And that’s essential. 

Now, there is one thing that’s really important to remember here as we talk about how we’re texting prospective students, and that’s that you really need to make sure you’re identifying the texting persona you’re going to use and you need to be really consistent with it. Are you wanting to use the voice of an admissions staff member? It’s probably not going to be helpful to use a short code number then, considering that real human beings don’t have five- or six-digit phone numbers. And if you’re going to be sending different kinds of texts to students—so those reminder messages or those confirmation messages as well as some of those more relational and conversational messages—please remember that text messages on our phone show in a thread. So that means if you’re using that same phone number for both kinds of messages, your recipients are going to see all those messages in the same thread. They’re going figure out pretty quickly that those personalized texts that they’re receiving aren’t as personal as they originally thought. That creates an instant loss of trust. Trust is a currency when we’re recruiting students, so please don’t make simple mistakes like that that blow it. If you need to purchase two phone numbers or three phone numbers, do it, but make sure that there’s consistency throughout the number that you’re using.

If you’re thinking about your current students, they’re another group that you absolutely should be texting as well. I notice that there tends to be a really big disconnect between the ways we communicate with our prospective students and how we talk to them once they’ve arrived on campus. Well maybe arrived on campus, or maybe virtually when there’s a pandemic. We become incredibly transactional and institutional once they enroll. How often are we telling students that any messages from the university will ONLY be sent to their “.edu” email account? And why do we do that? Because it’s easier for us from an IT perspective?

Just because someone’s paying tuition doesn’t mean that they’re committed to us forever. Students transfer, they drop out, and we need to keep engaging with them throughout the course of their journey on our campus. Why aren’t we using the channels that we know will be most effective in helping them understand what they need to do to succeed on campus?

Regardless of what audience you’re talking to, please keep it concise. Texts need to be limited to 160 characters or less in order to be delivered in one message, so if a message is important but complex one, texting isn’t going to be effective on its own. In those scenarios, what I like to advocate is that you send the more complicated information, the more detailed stuff, in an email, but also send the student a text saying that there’s an important message that has been sent to that email address. Make sure you also spell out what that email address is so that the student can reply and let you know if it’s incorrect. That way, you’re making sure that they see that email, but you’re also making sure that they’re getting all the information thoroughly.

Alright, so we know who we’re talking to and we know what to say. Now how do we get this all put into place?

As we’ve noted, texting is a channel that’s a natural choice for some messages and less effective for others. So we’ll want to start with that low-hanging fruit, and then scale from there. 

I like to recommend that you start building out your plan with transactional messages. Texting is a really great way to send reminders of tasks a student needs to complete, such as application items they need to submit or an academic advising appointment they need to schedule. They’re also great for deadline reminders or for increasing event yield. When you’re texting transactionally, still consider ways you can add additional value to the message. For instance, if you’re sending an event reminder to registered guests, if you include a link to your campus map and parking information, that will not just remind the student that you’re expecting them, but it’s also going to proactively answer some common questions that visitors ask. If you are going to send a link in a text, do avoid using URL shorteners such as bit.ly. Those sorts of messages are more likely to be viewed as spam by mobile carriers and then blocked or filtered out.

Once you feel like you’ve got good control of your processes for managing transactional texting, you can scale into relational texting. As I noted a few minutes ago, developing a persona for your account is going to help create a deeper connection with your prospective students. For example, sending a congratulatory message to admitted students from a current student or an admissions counselor may open up some additional opportunities for conversation that previously didn’t exist, and for many students who prefer texting to phone calls, you may see a greater level of engagement.

I’ve seen a few schools, for instance, replace a few of their student calling campaigns with texting campaigns, where a student ambassador or staff member sends a personalized text to a group of students, and then they monitor and engage with responses they receive back, and I love this, because one, it’s allowing you to reach the same group of students you were going to call more efficiently—it’s a lot faster to send out that text than to call each individual person—but it also does allow for things to be personalized and create real conversation in ways that students are more likely to want to engage oftentimes. Your opportunities here are only going to be limited by your imagination.

Before we move on from this, I do want to go back to this stat from earlier in the presentation, where a study by AT&T found that up to 66% of consumers would pay more for a product if it were supported by mobile messaging. We’ve been talking a lot about texting as an outbound marketing tool, but let’s also remember that it’s a channel that students prefer to use when they’re communicating to us. So, are there opportunities that we can explore to make that more available? We need to make sure that we’re accessible to what students need, and not just what we need them to do, so when we’re thinking about our business processes and communications, it’s a really great idea to start thinking through whether there are places that texting can come in and serve as a channel for students to take the actions that they need to, or to get assistance from us.

Now that we’ve talked about all that, let’s make sure none of you get sued or fined in the process. I’m not a lawyer; I don’t practice law or offer legal advice or anything like that, but I do want to make sure that you understand that there are some really clear restrictions around texting, but sometimes those restrictions aren’t as restrictive as we think they are.

So let’s talk about the TCPA, which is the Telephone Communications Protection Act and is part of what the FCC oversees. TCPA sets standards of how we communicate in general in terms of phone marketing. It’s how the Do Not Call List is configured and things like that as well, but they do have some regulations for texting. 

First and foremost, opt in always. Don’t start texting someone just because you have their phone number. Don’t do that in your personal life and don’t do that in your marketing. Always opt in. Express written consent is a really big deal here, which means that they’re not just saying that you can text but that they’re expressly acknowledging that they understand that they will receive texts from you. It can be written, or you can use a digital version of signature via E-SIGN. It’s not just a signature though. We can think about things like clicking a button on a form saying “I consent to receiving text messages;” that counts—or things where you’re consenting in another way where you’re putting it into writing in some way.

In addition, you need to allow opt out at any time. Any time that a student says that they don’t want to receive texts anymore, they’re out of there. Get them out—don’t send them any more messages. Allow them to opt out. As I said before, most texting platforms do a lot of filtering off of this now, so if someone responds with “Stop” or “Unsubscribe,” they will be taken off that list, however, if you receive a message from a student in another way saying, “Hey, I don’t want to receive texts from you anymore,” get them off your list. Take care of that.

Make sure that you’re keeping records of your communications and your communications data and record of the consent you received from those folks; that’s part of TCPA. And most importantly in some ways, you’ve to remember that you can only send text messages between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.—in the recipient’s time zone, not your time zone,—the recipient’s time zone. Now, this can get really tricky. If you’re a school in New England and you’re texting a student in Hawaii during Daylight Saving Time, that’s six hours’ difference, so make sure you’re thinking really carefully through how you’re going to time those messages out. If you’re sending a message at noon, that’s actually going to that Hawaiian student at 6 am, which is outside of the time zone limits that we are supposed to be using. So think carefully about this and plan and time your messages accordingly, because violations are up to $500 per individual infraction. And “individual” means “each message that is going.” That can get pretty expensive. Let’s be careful, guys.

There’s a question of double opt-in as well, in terms of, “Do I need to do it?” This is when someone sends “Subscribe”; they subscribe and say that they want to subscribe, and then you bounce back to them and say “Let’s confirm that you want to subscribe” before they’re fully opted into your list. Double opt-in is designed for express written consent when you’re doing things with short codes and keywords, so what you’re thinking about is when someone first sends a message to you out of the blue and they haven’t been on your list already. It’s your way of confirming back to them that “Hey, you sent this message. I want to confirm that you do really want to be on this list.” So it’s designed mostly for promotional messaging where someone is texting into a number based upon some kind of marketing campaign that you have going on. So the important thing to note here is that it’s not required if you’ve already received express written consent. That includes, as I said before, actual written consent or things like forms where you’re checking off the box saying, “I opt in to receiving messages.”

And, finally, there’s the content requirements that we need to know about, in terms of “what do we need to say?” TCPA talks about the importance of having a really clear call to action in your messages. Make sure that there’s something the student’s supposed to do. Once you get into the more relational messaging that’s conversational and back-and-forth, the CTA requirement doesn’t really apply anymore, but when you’re doing marketing via text message, there needs to be a clear call to action in each message they receive. 

And then in terms of the questions about unsubscribe instructions and that whole standard “message & data rates may apply, cancel at any time by sending STOP”, that’s a whole lot of characters of your 160 characters for a text message. You only need to send that for the autoreply that comes after a keyword subscription, so for example this image here where someone is texting into a short code. It’s similar to double opt-in, making sure that that information is communicated in some way to the student.

Alright, so we’ve talked about a bunch of things pretty quickly. Let’s wrap this up into a few key points:

First of all, meet students where they’re at. Communicate to them in the ways that they prefer if you want them to actually engage with you. This means not just using texting as a channel to push out messages, but also being prepared to hear back from them and respond. Like I said a few minutes ago, time zones are important, but also time your messages accordingly so that you’re ready when they reply to a message you’ve sent, and also make sure you have a clear plan for how to engage via text and when you need to transition that conversation to another medium. So if you’re sending out a message to students that you think that they’re likely to reply to, maybe don’t send it out at 5 p.m. on a Friday when you’re all going to go home and not see what their responses are. Be ready to be there to respond; we all know that texting is a more immediate kind of message than, say, email, where we may tolerate a day or two of delay before a response. If we take two days to respond to a text message, we have missed the boat, so make sure you’re planning ahead on that. 

Second, be conversational and creative. No one wants to engage with a robot, so text like you talk. It’s really important to think about the student’s current journey and what they’re currently experiencing at whatever point in the lifecycle of recruitment or enrollment that they’re in. I would encourage you to think about that and be really creative about thinking about where there are places that texting can fit into that journey to supplement it or to replace business processes that you have in place.

And, finally, pace yourself. You can’t flip to a robust texting communications plan overnight. You need to build things iteratively, and just because you don’t do it all at once doesn’t mean that you aren’t achieving wins here. Sending one reminder text is way, way better than sending none at all. If you’re only texting one population, that’s a whole lot more effective than texting no one. So don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of the “good” here. Start small and then go from there. You’ve got to build, then you’ve got to test, validate, and scale over time. That will help you refine your strategies well and ensure that you’re not wasting time or money doing things that don’t work. 

Alright, that concludes things for me today. I really enjoyed talking with you all about this. If you’d like to keep this discussion going, feel free to follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn, or you can send me an email as well. I also write about communications strategies from time to time on RHB’s Insights blog, so you can check that out at RHB.com/insights.

And with that, I am going to stop sharing my screen and turn on my camera and see if we have questions. Looks like we maybe had some stuff coming in. 

Brendan: We do have one, and that was a question from Susie. She asked if you had any examples about using texting in inbound marketing.

Megan: Yeah, so texting in inbound. So I have seen some schools do that well and seen some schools not do that well, just like everything else. I do think, again, like I was saying, it’s thinking about where those opportunities are to reduce the barriers for someone to be able to connect, and that’s why texting is really a useful option. I would say there are some challenges with this sometimes because a lot of the texting platforms that higher ed uses are much more centered around long codes than short codes, so those keyword options aren’t as available. So that may require some creativity in terms of what platforms you’re using or whether you’re using different platforms for different kinds of messaging. If you are going to have to opt for a few platforms so that you can empower that inbound more easily with those keywords and things like that, just make sure that you have a really good way to integrate all that in with your CRM. I think being able to somehow record all those communications, because you need to be able to keep that timeline of when are you communicating with people, making sure that you’re not hitting them like 14 times a week accidentally. We sometimes see that we have all these different communications that we’re operating, and sometimes we’re operating as ships passing in the night. We’re not looking at how they’re integrated in. So whenever you can find ways to integrate all your technology together and make sure that, even if you’re having to use more than one system, that there is some sort of central repository for identifying all of those messages and seeing what that student journey and timeline looks like, that’s going to be really key for you.

Brendan: Melanie had a great question about texting for either driving registrations or just using it to boost yield. What would your opinion be on that?

Megan: Yeah, I would say that if they’ve consented and if this is an event that’s really important to you and you’re spending a lot of money on it, I don’t know why you wouldn’t use it. Events are expensive to put on a lot of the time, and let’s be honest: students aren’t all that great at reading their emails. Their parents might read them for them because a lot of times their parents might just put their email address in that request for information form that they’re filling out on their student’s behalf, but students in general, especially high school students—if you want them to do something, you’d better send them a text message about it. And if you’re going to, make sure there’s instructions about how to get there. I think that’s where using redirects on your website is going to be really helpful; you’re going to want that URL to be pretty short, and like I said before, things like bit.ly, they’re not going to be great because those spam filters might just knock those right out of there. But if you are investing in events, events we know are a huge, huge indicator of a student’s interest in enrolling. The more they visit campus, the more likely they are to enroll—that makes sense. But it’s one of the best marketing strategies you have for prospective students. You know, you’re asking someone to spend four years at a place, they’re going to want to visit, so get them there on campus. And if you want to get them there on campus, you’d better invite them in ways that they actually know that they’re invited.

Brendan: Well, and you mentioned that once you use it to drive the invite, make sure you send a reminder that they’ve signed up for something before. 

Megan: Yes. That increases yield significantly too, and what’s also really nice is it can either help increase yield, or it can also help you track if someone needs to cancel. It helps you kind of clean up that registration list as well, and if you know that in advance versus them just being a no-show, that’s also really helpful as well for your staff planning.

Brendan: It doesn’t look like we have any more questions, and we are right on time, so I’m not going to take up any more of your time, Megan, because I know you have three more days of conference to run for us.

Megan: I have some things to do for this conference. Thank you so much, it was really fun to talk about this. It was fun to share my favorite texting stock photos with you all as well. It’s just fun to be able to talk; this is, like I said before, I just love communications and how we can use martech to make those better, so I’m really glad to be able to have a conversation about that at any time. Like I said before, feel free to find me on Twitter or LinkedIn if you want to talk about it more or if there are any things that you’re thinking about or where you think I got it wrong, feel free to let me know that too. 

Brendan: Alright, everybody enjoy the rest of your afternoon, we’ll see you around. Thank you.

Megan: Thank you!

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Megan Miller

Megan is a Senior Technology Consultant at RHB.