As many institutions struggle to address enrollment and retention challenges, it’s more valuable than ever to engage students in empathetic and personalized ways. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Tara Hughes was working as Interim Assistant Director of Strategic Communications & Student Success at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI), a public university in Ventura County, California. She knew that implementing an effective engagement strategy would be the key to inspiring and supporting CSUCI students through every stage of their academic journey.
Led by Tara, the CSUCI team embraced the idea that the right technology could power a strategy that would enable them to see things from their students’ point of view — so they could meet students where they are. By partnering with Mainstay to develop their behaviorally intelligent chatbot named Ekhobot, CSUCI aimed to provide students with instant answers, send them empathetic nudges, and deliver relevant resources at scale.
1. Uncertainty among students caused by the COVID-19 pandemic
2. Ambitious graduation rate benchmarks defined by CSU’s system-wide initiative, GI 2025
1. Increase retention rates
2. Strengthen student engagement
3. Cultivate a deeper sense of belonging among students
By combining the key elements of Behavioral Intelligence (IQ, EQ, and CQ), Mainstay enabled CSUCI to achieve their student engagement goals in significant ways.
Using Intelligence (IQ) to deliver instant answers
With their behaviorally intelligent chatbot, Ekhobot, the CSUCI team began instantly and automatically answering more questions from students around the clock — via the channels students prefer to use.
This type of timely, accurate support is especially important during times of uncertainty, but one-on-one conversations with students can quickly become overwhelming to staff members. Using a behaviorally intelligent chatbot made it easy for CSUCI to engage students at scale instantly, while giving their team the time they needed to focus on their top priorities.
Automating accurate answers to students’ most frequently asked questions was just the first step for CSUCI.
The impact of empathy (EQ) on student engagement
With a background in counseling, Tara has a deep understanding of the importance of empathy — especially when it comes to communicating with students. She wants each student to feel that someone really cares about them as a unique person.
To infuse empathy into CSUCI’s student engagement strategy, she used Ekhobot to actively listen at scale to what students say. Insights from conversations with the bot made it possible for Tara and her team to provide students with empathetic, personalized responses and address their needs and concerns.
“The thing that has never led me astray, is just trying to put myself in the students’ shoes,” says Tara. “What is it that I want to know, or how would I want to be interacted with? We need to have a level of empathy and be able to relate, to express that human element, to create a stronger community.”
Ekhobot’s warm, inclusive personality has opened the door for students to have judgment-free conversations with the university. Tara has been thrilled at students’ level of willingness to share personal stories — the LA Times wrote this article about the student response to CSUCI’s bot in March of 2021.
Another way CSUCI uses empathy to support students is by creating word clouds of student responses to Ekhobot and sharing them back to students. Tara says, “I take cues from our students. I want students to feel they aren’t in this alone, so Ekhobot gathers their feedback, and I collate it and give it back to them to say, here’s what you’re telling us. It really helps to create a strong sense of belonging.”
Sharing these messages with the student body demonstrates to students that they are truly being seen, heard, and understood.
Contextual relevance (CQ) for deeper student engagement
Ekhobot has empowered the CSUCI team to capture the student voice in ways that were never possible for them to do before. This includes providing individualized and authentic support that considers contextual relevance for students.
The team does this by accessing aggregate insights about conversations the bot has with students from Mainstay’s Student Engagement Platform. Then, they use those insights to send targeted, relevant nudges to specific segments of the student population. These contextual conversations are especially effective at sparking positive student behaviors because they’re tailored to the recipients’ unique circumstances.
For example, Ekhobot is able to send automated text messages that gently remind students who may need financial aid to fill out the FAFSA in time for the priority deadline. When CSUCI went remote during the COVID-19 pandemic, the bot reached out to students who needed extra help transitioning to online learning, and directed them to helpful resources, like the university’s 24/7 counseling service.
The team also used Ekhobot to get honest feedback from students about their virtual learning experience. The bot texted a survey that asked students to share their concerns. Because this survey was delivered in a way that created a safe, judgment-free environment for students to share their sentiments, it achieved a 21.4% response rate. The responses not only helped CSUCI’s team evolve their virtual learning program, but it also revealed the times of day students were most active, which informed decisions about staff scheduling and when to send text campaigns in the future.
The students’ overwhelmingly positive response to this personalized approach has paved the way for fresh, creative communications campaigns. The team used Ekhobot to crowdsource and share custom Spotify playlists that help students feel more connected to their peers and their college. The playlists brought the community together and helped students maintain a strong relationship with CSUCI — even when they weren’t on campus.
“It’s so easy to think you’re the only person that struggles,” says Tara. “If I can disrupt that and prove that [students] are not alone, and that we have the ability to choose how we respond, and to focus on things we’re grateful for and things that are getting us through this time. I want to help guide students in a positive way.”