The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented communications challenges to light for many colleges and universities across the country. At Dallas College, an especially high volume of questions taxed their existing systems while their staff worked to support their students as effectively as possible. The institution recognized the need to enhance their communication systems early on. That’s why they partnered with Mainstay to create Ali — a personalized web chatbot that instantly and automatically answers their students’ questions and increases their staff’s capacity to engage in meaningful, one-on-one student interactions.
Results from July 2020 through March 2021
The Challenges of Supporting Students Without Web Chat
With nearly 105,000 credit and continuing education students enrolled in 2020, Dallas College is one of the largest community colleges in Texas. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of students were calling in with questions about school closures, remote learning options, and available resources. These students needed immediate guidance and support, but many of them were met with long hold times or dropped calls.
Staff worked around the clock at Dallas College to follow-up with students, but with many employees working remotely, the institution needed an additional way to connect with students. They knew it was time to explore a way to take their student engagement to the next level.
Recognizing First-Generation Students’ Communication Needs
Dallas College’s website was the primary point of contact for many of their prospective and current students. The college’s demographics traditionally include a high percentage of first-generation college students — a population that generally requires some additional guidance navigating a range of topics like application deadlines, the registration process, financial aid documentation, and scholarship information.
Staff members at Dallas College noticed that many of these first-generation students visited their website hoping to find a way to get guided assistance there. When they couldn’t find what they needed, these students would often call or email college staff for additional support. If phone lines were busy or they needed help after hours, they would frequently try every point of contact they could to get help, including the link to “Report Accessibility Issues” at the bottom of the web page.
Helping Students Navigate a Crisis
During the start of the pandemic, one of Dallas College’s top concerns was finding an efficient way to address the growing number of questions related to the college’s response to COVID-19. That’s when the college first partnered with Mainstay to add a COVID bot to their website that would provide immediate answers and support for their students.
From day one, hundreds of students reached out to the bot with questions related to the coronavirus. It became immediately clear to Dallas College that putting an automated chatbot on the institution’s website was an effective way to provide important, timely, and accurate information. The next step was to expand their bot’s knowledge base to support students throughout their entire learning journey.
Introducing Ali, the Web Chatbot With All the Answers
Mainstay worked with Dallas College to create a personalized web chatbot that could automatically and instantly answer a huge range of student questions 24/7 — right on the college’s website. In July 2020, Ali was born.
Ali’s knowledge base made it an expert on topics including enrollment, admissions, financial aid, scholarships, and even community resources. Students began embracing the web chatbot immediately. In fact, more than 15,000 students used Ali in the first two months alone — and their response was overwhelmingly positive.
Molly Bewley, Senior Director of Community Marketing at Dallas College, recognized the opportunity to leverage Ali to boost student engagement at Dallas College. “The motivation for change is to serve students,” said Bewley. “Having something available 24/7 to answer student questions and get them information is an amazing addition. We are really excited about growing and continuing to serve students in new ways.”
By ensuring Ali’s responses were informative and engaging, Dallas College significantly reduced the number of incoming emails and phone calls. In instances when Ali was unable to handle a request, Mainstay’s student engagement platform captured the student messages and logged their contact information. This enabled a staff member to follow-up with students directly through another channel if their questions were not answered by Ali.
Enhancing Student Engagement With Web Chat
Mainstay worked closely with Dallas College to develop a unique and fun personality for Ali, while making it apparent to students that they were not talking with a real person. Helping students understand both the potential and the limitations of a web chatbot made the experience more engaging and useful for them. The bot’s empathetic and relatable voice was appealing to students, which made them more likely to use it again the next time they had a question.
When Ali isn’t confident about an answer, a staff member steps in to provide a human touch and follow-up with the student one-on-one. Dallas College used Mainstay’s student engagement platform to run reports and identify the questions for which Ali had either no response or low-confidence responses. This enabled the institution to address those inquiries and ensure the best response was added to their knowledge base — making Ali even smarter and more engaging over time.
One of Ali’s biggest benefits was the ability for Dallas College to view insights directly from students in real-time. Brenda Molina, Assistant Director of Community Marketing for Dallas College, finds value for both staff members and students through these interactions. “Ali gives us a thumb on the pulse so we can see what’s going on and what students are looking for at that exact time. It gives us great insight into their needs.”
Jonathan Blundell, Senior Director of Digital Experience at Dallas College, notes another unexpected benefit: “We even found out about an outage in our system because students reported it to our web bot first, and we were able to get that info to our IT department.”
Expanding to Multi-Channel Student Engagement
Having experienced the benefits of automated student engagement firsthand, Dallas College expanded their strategy to engage with their incoming students through automated text messaging in December of 2020. Using Ali as a source of lead generation, they began connecting with students via multiple channels, and collaborating across various departments to drive positive student outcomes.
They started using Ali to feed into their “Tell Me More” campaign. This connection helped generate hundreds of additional leads for a drip email sequence, which the team used to follow up with relevant information through a series of emails and automated SMS text nudges.
This initiative also enabled Dallas College to create future outreach by targeting the students who engaged with the “Tell Me More” prompts through the website and their web bot. The campaign was a success — a huge majority of the students who engaged with Ali provided their contact information:
- Boosting student and parent involvement in campus activities
- Helping students feel a sense of belonging in the Dallas College community
- Promoting the use of the food pantry and other support resources during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Increasing the number of student advising appointments
A True Technology Partnership Rooted in Student Success
Mainstay continues to partner with Dallas College to deliver a winning combination of human interaction, web bot engagement, behaviorally intelligent SMS texting conversation, and student insights across the college’s integrated systems.
Following up with students through SMS texting campaigns closes the loop from interest to enrollment to retention. By capturing aggregate student data across multiple channels, Dallas College understands how they can best serve each student throughout their journey.
“Mainstay has helped tremendously with lead generation and data capture,” said Jonathan Blundell. “Our goal was to grow our email list by 10 percent this year, and through our partnership with Mainstay, we may hit a growth rate of 15 percent or higher. We are also looking to integrate with Salesforce to better track our marketing ROI by the end of the year.”
Moving forward, Dallas College is focused on institutionalizing their use of web chat to realize its full potential. Their next goal is to demonstrate to the entire institution the real potential for web chat and help ensure student success across every department.