Communicating With Students Beyond Email

In a discussion today, the issue of students not reading a certain group’s email newsletter came up. The group wanted a more effective way to communicate news since the emails weren’t being read and important information was going unnoticed. Intuition tells me that students today still use email, but more frequently opt for other methods of communication whether it’s text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, IM or any other number of tools at their disposal. Some quick and dirty surveys would verify this one way or another, but others have also come to this realization so I don’t think it’s a big secret.

So here was a group of people that casually tossed out that email is a dead medium for students as though it wasn’t big news — everyone knows that. If it’s so well known, why is it still the preferred method of communication for the university where I work? We still email (or snail mail) applications and forms, still email newsletters and updates to people, still (and by default) issue email addresses to new students and staff (but not an IM/Twitter/etc. account), still use it for faculty/student communication, and on and on.

The group I was helping suggested that all news be posted to a news area of their website and then tell their students to go to the site for the information. Granted, their current site doesn’t have a news area so putting that information on the web is a good, basic, easy step and we’ll do that in the next iteration of their site. Offering an RSS feed of that information should also be made available. But you still have the issue of motivating students to read the information or sign up for subscriptions. How do you do that?

  • Expand your content ideas: Maybe the news items aren’t being read because they’re not relevant or interesting. A note about an upcoming deadline isn’t sexy, but is relevant to some so don’t lose sleep that everything you write needs to be gripping. Do, however, think about how a news item can be more than it appears to be. For example, if you have study abroad students who convey their experiences via a blog, you don’t have to settle for a news story about it with a link. You could instead embed a Google map that shows all study abroad students and offers links to their blogs and a profile. Is it more work — yes. But it may be worth the effort and the Google idea can be put to use in other parts of the site. Besides, the quality of content trumps quantity of content every time.
  • Advertise with the tools students use: If students are neck deep into text messaging, Facebook, MySpace, IM, Twitter, etc., then leverage them to get your announcements in front of them. Yes, this will also take effort, but if the goal is to reach students, then you’re better off utilizing these tools rather than ones students are ignoring — it’s all about the customer, right? Plus, services already exist to automate this effort
  • Track communication usage: Conduct a survey periodically to see what tools and services students use to communicate with one another. As they change, change with them. If surveys suggest that MySpace usage has shrunk below some threshold you set, then throw your efforts behind Facebook or whatever the next big thing happens to be.
  • Leverage your captive audience: Each entering class is a known quantity and can be shaped to some extent. As they transition into college, you likely issue email accounts to each person. Why not similarly mandate that each student set up a Twitter account (and/or others) and follow your various Twitter feeds? Too cumbersome, resource intensive, just plain crazy? Maybe, but it gives you yet another opportunity to open an avenue of conversation. Perhaps a pilot program with a small, defined audience is a good place to test the idea and work out the kinks.

And remember, there’s no such thing as perfection. You won’t communicate 100% of your messages to 100% of your audience 100% of the time. But the more tools and services you use to get the word out, then the more likely you are to reach people. Email will still have a place, but perhaps a lesser role compared to others. That’s completely acceptable.

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