Five steps to evaluate a text messaging platform in higher education

higher ed texting students

December 17, 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, it’s hard to argue against the emergence of text messaging in higher education.

Students are welcoming messages, yet at the beginning of 2016 less than half of schools are using text messaging campaigns to assist in recruitment and enrollment. With this opportunity gap, many colleges are evaluating text messaging vendors.

Whether it is a one-off texting campaign to nudge students to apply, or an enterprise text messaging platform that will guide students all the way from completing their application to checking in with them before graduation, these five steps will make your text message platform evaluation go smoothly and help you make an informed decision for the best system for your institution.

To begin, it is very important to evaluate your goals for texting students. These alarming stats can convince you of the opportunity, but just because other institutions are doing it doesn’t necessarily mean you should act similarly.

1)   The first step in the evaluation process should be an internal team planning exercise to define why you are looking into texting and what success looks like. You can start off by asking yourself these questions:

  • What are the outcomes you are seeking?
  • How will texting students assist in reaching those outcomes?
  • What are you trying to achieve informationally?
  • Who will be involved in the texting of students, and who will be involved in the different steps of the vendor evaluation?
  • What is the budget for this project (including both the software and staffing cost)?
  • When is the timeline to go live?

It’s OK if you can’t answer all of these right away, but this exercise will give you the broad scope of the project, which is helpful to define and conceptualize. At times, pushy sales reps can come in with their own agenda, so it’s important to be transparent with vendors about your evaluation plan and stick to this process!

2)   The second step is to create your short list of potential vendors based on your own research and conversations within your network. The ideal number of vendors to evaluate is between 3-5. More than five vendors, and a thorough evaluation can take up too much time. If you evaluate less than three vendors, you could potentially leave out good fits.

If you are having trouble making this short list, social media channels like LinkedIn or Twitter can be good places to ask for suggestions. The #EMchat (Enrollment Management) and #SAchat (Student Affairs) streams on Twitter are two places where industry peers discuss these types of topics.

3)   Having an educational exploratory call is one of the most important — yet often skipped — steps in properly evaluating a vendor. First, however, I want to take a step back to give an example that Mark Roberge, my former sales director at Hubspot, used when sharing how salespeople and evaluators can learn from the patient-doctor relationship:

As a former rower I have been known to have some bad back pains, and occasionally I go to the doctor. I start off by telling the doctor about my symptoms, how I’m feeling, and I notice that the doctor is listening to everything I’ve been saying. Based on what I’ve said, the doctor then gives me these suggestions: “Did you try resting and taking ibuprofen?“

“Yes, I did, but it felt like it was in this certain area in my spine.”  

From there, she guides me to what a potential solution might be. It could be a prescription for a medication or she could refer me to another more specialized doctor like a chiropractor. My doctor never pitches me about the latest popular drugs on the market and wouldn’t tell me I should be taking steroids before I even tell her about my situation.

Like the patient-doctor relationship, vendors and evaluators should be transparent with each other. The evaluator sharing their situation shouldn’t be afraid to talk about their goals and their concerns with implementing this new plan, or to ask the vendor for suggestions. The vendors should be doing the listening and be open and honest about suggestions and potential fits with their product.  

It’s also important to ask the questions that might disqualify the vendor before the relationship progresses to the demonstration. Is the price of the text messaging platform in the price range of your budget? Can the texting system integrate with your CRM and SIS? Do you have the staff time to operate the text messaging platform?

If both parties are being open with each other, the vendor will be prepared to show a presentation that aligns with the institutional goals, and make the best use of everyone’s time on the demo, instead of showing your team the newest flashy tools that might not even be relevant.

4)   Generally after these exploratory calls, you can get an understanding of the top two or three vendors that could be a good fit, and which ones don’t make sense for your project. The next step is to ask the potential vendors to present a demonstration, but ask each vendor to make sure it is personalized to the goals and challenges presented during the first call. During the demo, it’s a good idea to bring on the key evaluators and users, so that you can learn how the text messaging platform will match your institution’s goals, how the team will use it, and how the vendor has addressed your institution’s concerns.

It’s also best if each person comes prepared with questions that will be relevant to their role. Be sure to cover support, onboarding, scalability, use cases with similar institutions, and what is and isn’t included in onboarding and support. To come extra-prepared for a demo, make a scorecard with checklist items of everything that is important to you. Often times demos can blur together, so it helps to take notes and have a system to compare different platforms.

5)   The last step, of course, is the decision. It’s best to debrief for a few minutes after each demonstration, and then for a longer period after people have viewed all of the demonstrations. You can take into consideration everything you’ve learned up to this point on the exploratory call and demonstration, but there are other factors to consider, as well.

For one, it’s nice to work with people that you like and are helpful. If a company impresses you with their software, but the points of contact are unfriendly or unhelpful, that is something to strongly consider. When you are purchasing a higher education text messaging platform, you are not only buying the current software, but also the future product. Is the vendor forward-thinking and a company that can grow within your institution? With messaging applications now being more popular than social media, it’s important to give strong consideration to vendors that can interact on multiple channels like SMS text message, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and other platforms. If they are unable to grow with your institution and the environment around you, it could end up being more costly to re-evaluate another platform a year or two down the line, especially when taking into account the opportunity cost.

I hope this information is helpful to you as you embark on this process. Evaluating a higher education text messaging platform is not a task that can be completed in a week, and our team at AdmitHub wants to help you make informed decisions about the latest cutting edge research that helps students and staff alike. We offer a complimentary higher education communications consultation for enrollment and student affairs leaders to glean a better understanding of your communication strategy and share best practices for engaging with students over text message.  We also use this opportunity to talk about the power of nudging students, and discuss emerging technology like other messaging applications and chatbots. If you’d like to schedule a consultation with us you can request a demo here.

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