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Good communication is crucial in so many aspects of life and work. Having worked with many Higher Education clients during my career in the Salesforce® world, I’ve learned that one challenge universities and colleges often need help with is achieving — and maintaining — effective communication with their constituents. That’s why I decided to write this article. It explores some best practice communication strategies in Higher Education — and how technology can help you put them into action.
It’s common for the Higher Education sector, and organizations within it using Salesforce, to divide communication strategies into certain areas. These include admissions, recruiting, student success/advancement and alumni communications. However, the principles we’ll look at here cascade across all use cases, institution sizes and technologies. Keep them in mind and they’ll help you whenever you’re in need of a little guidance.
So, let’s get started with the first strategy for improving communication in Higher Education:
1. Always consider the timing
Okay, so it’s a little trite to say “timing is everything”. But it’s very, very important to effective communication in Higher Education. Just because somebody’s data became available in your system doesn’t mean it’s the right time to email them. Stop and think first — put yourself in their situation.
Let’s say you’re thinking of reaching out to a new student applicant. What time of day, and day of the week, is best to contact them? When are they most likely to be busy versus free? Are there any relevant deadlines you can orient your communications around? Which season is the prospective student in — back-to-school, midterms, finals, holidays or their summer vacation? Contact them at a time when your message is most relevant and make sure to give them enough of a notice period to act, while also not leaving them long enough that they may forget or lose interest.
Using automation and workflows, you can ensure your plans are put into action exactly as you envision them — reaching the right people, at the right points in time. Automatic reminders mean you don’t have to rely on memory or checking schedules, and with easy-to-follow flows and customized templates tailored to different audience segments, you can take the hard work out of reaching out to everyone. You can even know if an email has been read, via a change to a record, which may then be a great time to contact them again and ask if they have any questions
Whatever the use case, and whatever the technology, start with the right time for your constituent and work backwards from there.
2. What’s the context?
When you contact a student, member of your alumni or faculty, or anyone else, you need to have a clear purpose. The recipient also needs to know what that purpose is — so tell them why you’re talking to them and why it’s relevant to them. To really make the right approach here, you need to understand their context, so you can apply that knowledge to your messaging.
The best way to do that is to ask them — what’s going on in their student lives? — and harness the data you collect about their activities. Digital polls and questionnaires are perfect for gathering research, as is integrating and utilizing data from any online communities and other sources. When you’ve gathered useful data from your interactions and communities, data analytics tools such as Tableau will enable you to visualize and understand any trends among your audience(s), which means you’ll be able to tweak and tailor your messages accordingly.
Once you have a firm grasp of the context your communications are in, you’ll find that you’re more effective in reaching constituents — and getting the responses you want.
3. Motivation matters
An incentive can really help motivate your audience to act on your message — especially when it’s about something that’s not so exciting but very necessary. Tell them what’s in it for them.
For instance, some students may be tempted to skip an induction session on campus at the start of a college semester. But if they know that’s when they’ll receive their library card, meal card or even a student discount card, they’ll be more likely to attend. And when you have a compelling message, with a strong incentive, the next consideration is: how do you deliver it in an impactful way?
When you place your messages prominently on an online portal or community, you can be sure they’re being noticed, Salesforce Experience Cloud can be very valuable when it comes to engaging your students and delivering these messages with maximum impact — in the online spaces they visit frequently to handle tasks like self-service admin, or where they share and receive information from other students and faculty.
There’s another big plus to mention. The engagement data you gather can be used to inform, improve and personalize future communications. That helps you determine better ways to motivate your audience, so you can get better and better responses.
4. Make it easy for them
Whether you’re communicating with staff or faculty, students, applicants or alumni, ease of use must be a priority. It needs to be as painless as possible for them to take your call or respond to your message. That also includes communicating with people in the ways they prefer — like their favorite social media channel.
Organizations used to shy away from using social media to communicate with their students for obvious reasons. It was hard to track, record, measure and ensure privacy. However, now there are the right tools available so you can meet your students where they are. Using Salesforce Service Cloud, you can offer social customer service by listening, responding and ultimately supporting your constituents via popular channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
You can also integrate your support systems with Salesforce Customer 360 and all the other data you hold about your constituents. This allows staff to have a full and detailed picture of every constituent they’re dealing with, allowing them to respond even more effectively and resolve issues more quickly.
5. Intentional but not merely transactional
Yes, many times we reach out to people because we need to get an answer to a question or we want them to take a particular action. And as I mentioned earlier, sometimes it’s useful to provide an incentive. But when you reach out to your constituents on a solely transactional level, that interaction won’t be very meaningful. The best higher education communications strategy involves creating — or strengthening — connections.
So, how do you make it more meaningful? Well, for example, let’s say you need to ask students for some documentation related to financial aid. Think about how you can ask them a question that will reveal what is top-of-mind for their financial aid. Once again, you can use social listening and polls to gain insights here. Next, figure out how you can ask the same question for each financial aid outreach and then feed back their answers into your CRM. Now you can share this information with other parts of the university, as appropriate, to form more meaningful relationships with your students.
You’ll understand your students and their needs/concerns better and they’ll know that you do. That raises your interactions beyond being simply transactional, for all parties involved.
How we help our clients leverage these strategies
So, those are the five important communication strategies in Higher Education that I wanted to share with you. I hope that you make good use of them in how you interact and engage with every student, staff member, alumnus, member of the faculty and anyone else your educational institution engages with.
At VRP Consulting, we use all these strategies in our work for the Higher Education sector. Recently, we helped a prominent US university to provide a nationwide online learning platform, with a solution powered by Experience Cloud and Appinium. It means they can now reach, engage and provide vital support to students across the USA, using an online portal to deliver compelling messages and valuable content.
We also helped a top-10 American business school to transform their marketing communications, empowering them with new tools and insights via tailored and optimized implementations of Sales Cloud and Marketing Cloud. Because they needed a little more expertise on hand, without the expense of hiring dedicated staff, they also engaged our Managed Services practice to assist them as they got to grips with the technology, and for any further minor enhancements. Now they have all they need to reach prospective students and donors as effectively as possible.
Ready to use these communication strategies in Higher Education?
If you’re interested in bringing the power of Salesforce to your own educational institution, we can help you, too — whatever your size and needs, wherever you are. If you’re concerned about cost or timescales, our QuickStart practice also delivers short-duration, high-value implementations, which are detailed in a brief guide available on this page. You can also learn more about our Higher Education expertise here.
Get in touch — we’ll be happy to explore the possibilities with you and see how we can help you use these best practices, supported by the right technology foundation.
About the Author
General Manager North America, VRP Consulting
Drew Graham is the General Manager of VRP Consulting North America. Before joining us, he spent six years at Salesforce as an Account Director. Prior to this, Drew was an executive for both high-growth digital companies and large consulting firms in the USA and Europe, and is experienced in sales, marketing and technology platform development.