The total student communication pipeline

Two-year college communicators spend a lot of time trying to reach the next group of prospective students, but could it be time to start paying closer attention to communicating with current students?

Given the current spotlight on two-year colleges, Volunteer State Community College (Vol State) in Tennessee has determined that keeping students in college and supporting them until they get their degree makes as much economic sense as student recruitment.

More than any other time, government leaders, corporations and national organizations are looking closely at community college graduation rates. For a large majority of schools, those completion rates aren’t so good. While the reasons can be attributed to any number of challenges that two-year colleges face, one reason might be the lack of a persistence-based communication strategy.

At Vol State, the marketing and PR department describes “persistence communication” this way – actively communicating with current students to provide the support they need to be successful in class from semester to semester. While this may sound like something for academic or student affairs to oversee, there is an important role for public relations to play. So what are the advantages of getting marketing and PR involved in the mix?

Different approaches

Public relations offices are in charge of many of the communication tools needed to reach current students: social media, texting, publications and the web. Most PR offices already participate in some form of student persistence communication, but the challenge is taking it to the next level. It requires a change in perspective, one where communicators develop their communication strategy by thinking like a current student. At Vol State, this is called the total student communication pipeline. It could also be called the student need cycle because it encompasses the college life cycle of students – giving focused attention to their challenges and needs along the way.

It’s no secret that communicating with current students is challenging – they’re bombarded with all sorts of messages both on campus and off. They read dozens of text messages and social media posts each day. So what do students do with all that stuff in their brains? The same thing all of us do. They ignore any message perceived as unimportant. For a message to register, the information must be relevant to the student’s immediate needs, be short and catchy, and cause the student to take action. Communicators must be persistent; students may see a message a dozen times before it takes hold.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges. The article originally appeared in an issue of NCMPR’s magazine, Counsel.

At Vol State, the public relations team knows that its messages need to be echoed across multiple communications platforms and treats all of its messaging as an individual campaign. Here are six key considerations that are part of the college’s “Total Student Communication Pipeline”:

  1. Create a home base for information. It’s important to establish a webpage or blog post for long-form information and web links. Remember to use a blog platform that automatically formats posts for mobile. Mobile-friendly messaging is critical. Vol State uses Bitly to shorten links to its blog, making them easier to share via text message, Twitter or Facebook.
  2. Consider all available communications platforms. Don’t discount old-fashioned advertising techniques that can supplement digital marketing. For example, outdoor signage can reinforce important social media messages. At the start of the school year, the Vol State marketing department reminds students of their goal – to complete a college degree. Later in the semester, outdoor banners let students know when priority registration is open. Another traditional platform to consider is the good old U.S. Postal Service. Mailing a postcard with information about resources for current students has the added benefit of increasing the odds that someone else in the household will see the message (hint: mom and dad).
  3. Text your message. In addition to the longtime emergency text system at Vol State, there’s now a text service branded just for student information. All registered students are automatically signed up. Why is texting important? Most students pay attention to text messaging. Many don’t read emails, some hate Facebook, and others despise Twitter. Texting isn’t a silver bullet, though. Many students get dozens, if not hundreds, of text messages each day. Adapt your content to a well-crafted, one-line message.
  4. Timing is everything. When you have an important message to share, use all digital communication platforms: web, blog, Facebook, Twitter, text and email. Choose a fixed window of time for a messaging campaign, and avoid clutter by spreading out important messages. While it’s good to have fun on social media, you don’t want to clog up communication platforms with dozens of unimportant posts and bury important messages.
  5. Put yourself in their shoes. Remembering what it’s like to be a student is one of the most important aspects of communicating to current students. A successful communication strategy will follow the student through his or her college life – from the first semester to May commencement. Consider messages about practical things in August and early September – campus maps, parking and getting acquainted with the college’s social media and communication platforms. When classes are in full swing, focus on academic resources. Vol State promotes several weeklong campaigns for services the programs under an umbrella called the “College Success Zone.” Those campaigns highlight its Language Center, math tutors, library research and supplemental instruction resources. In mid-semester, messages about academic resources can be repeated, this time with a focus on help that’s available with long-term assignments and support for students who are overwhelmed with coursework.
  6. Expect the unexpected. Things will come up at your college that are tough to anticipate, so talk to students and faculty members on a regular basis. When the Vol State faculty noticed that students were getting behind in coursework after a series of snow days in 2015, the PR staff quickly put together a messaging campaign to let students know how to catch up, even while at home. No doubt, community college PR offices are up to their eyeballs in work, and additional messaging sounds like a lot more work. Committing to increased communication with current students doesn’t mean that your department’s current responsibilities should take a back seat. But perhaps it’s time to consider readjusting priorities.

Student success is in the best interest of your college, and PR and marketing offices are best equipped to communicate with students. If your college’s marketing department isn’t already involved in this mix, it should be.

About the Author

Eric Melcher
is coordinator of marketing and public relations at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee.