High school students live mobile lives. They’re always on the move between home, school, after-school activities, work, friends’ houses, and hangout spots. Email is typically unreliable and phone calls are nearly impossible. For an organization that serves talented low-income students, it can be easy to lose touch with them.

Chicago Scholars selects, trains, and mentors ambitious students from Chicago, helping them get to college and build on their success after they graduate. The program’s success depends on finding the students who need their help most and developing long-term relationships. To work with students in 2017, that means text messaging.

“The response rate is much higher,” said Jessica Bergmann, Senior Associate of College Access. “I remember when I was a student I was inundated with emails.”

In fact, through a combination of text messaging and other outreach strategies, Chicago Scholars received its highest number of applications ever: 1,815.

Recruiting Future Scholars

Chicago Scholars used text messaging in multiple ways to recruit students. First, it set automated messages. Students who begin an application get a text reminder to contact teachers and mentors for letters of recommendation. And they get another message when their application is 50 percent complete to encourage them to keep going.

“There’s a strong correlation between texting and application yield count,” said Tony Calero, Director of Data Management and Analytics. “The percentage of students who complete the application is now well over 50 percent thanks to this automated, behavioral nudge.”

Chicago Scholars also sent out surveys via text to learn what kind of help students need most. The survey attached categories to specific codes. For example, a student who feels she needs more help with applications presses “1” and a student who needs guidance on letters of recommendation can press “2.” These responses were then used to inform how Chicago Scholars support students through the application process.

This year, Chicago Scholars also experimented with “open hours”—a time when students can text any question to the Chicago Scholars team. The initiative proved to be a huge success. “We got three hundred questions on the first night,” Bergmann said. “We went much later than 8:30.”

The system also sends automated messages to remind students of counseling appointments. They receive five reminders in total—one when they schedule the appointment, then seven days, two days, one day, and one hour before the appointment. This has led to a big increase in appointment attendance.

Bergmann also uses text messaging to help her plan events. In the days or hours leading up to an event, she sends a text message to everyone who is registered to confirm whether they’re really coming and uses that information to adjust the amount of food she brings or the number of staff members who attend.

Even the enrollment process is made more efficient by text messaging. This year Chicago Scholars not only sent acceptance messages via email, but also by text. Each student who was admitted received a link to a personalized enrollment page. “In the past we had a hard time getting word back,” Calero said. This year 90 percent of scholars who were accepted replied within 30 minutes of receiving the message. “The link is right there in front of them—we were catching them in that moment of excitement,” he said.

Sophisticated Technology Infrastructure

All of these text messages are possible because Chicago Scholars has invested in a sophisticated technology and data infrastructure and has skilled staff members such as Calero to keep it all running smoothly.

Chicago Scholars uses Salesforce as its CRM system. When students enroll they are required to enter a cell phone number, which is included in their student record. The texting platform Mogli SMS can then access those numbers and send messages either to broadcast groups or as automated responses to specific interactions, such as the completion of an application or setting up an appointment with a counselor.

According to Calero, it was quick and easy to set up Mogli SMS. He first had to enter the API credentials and then change the contact pages so that users could see the text messages in the record, but that was it. Surveys were a little more complicated because he had to account for misspellings or typos, but overall the process was pretty straightforward.

But Calero’s role goes beyond implementing technology. “As a system administrator, my favorite part of my work is telling them there’s this cool new technology,” Calero said. “I want to be able to bring that technology frame to the table and it’s cool to see what innovation comes from those interactions.”

Working Through Early Challenges

Overall, Chicago Scholars’s texting efforts have gone smoothly, but early on it did encounter a few challenges.

The first texting platform it used was called Telerivit. It was inexpensive, but once Calero had it set up, reliability issues emerged—not every message was getting sent and not every reply was coming in. Calero thinks that the reliability issues were tied to the fact that he had to use an actual phone to route the messages through.

Notifications of incoming messages were also a problem. Initially, Calero set up every message to appear on a Slack channel. From a technological standpoint, it worked well. The problem was not everyone in the office liked using the Cloud-based collaboration tool, Slack. As a result, messages sometimes were overlooked. Email, that old standby, proved to be the solution. The messages are set to a recruitment team inbox and then separated into a texting folder.

“It helps us sort through priority,” Bergmann said. “The system wouldn’t have been successful without that feature.”

Future Innovations

While its texting outreach and engagement is outstanding, Chicago Scholars is considering additional opportunities to simplify workflows and better engage with students.

Student satisfaction surveys are a technologically simple addition Chicago Scholars is considering. More complex, but doable, would be segmentation that takes into account how students interact with text messages and adjusts message content or frequency based on student preferences.

Calero also thinks he can improve the way incoming messages are handled. “My dream is to use Zapier’s email parser that allows to you reply to a message and the parser takes that message and converts it into an object record that can then be fired through Mogli to the sender,” he said.

Whatever innovations Chicago Scholars develops, it will have to continue to be thoughtful about what it tries and how it evaluates the results. “We’ve done a lot to test with small sample sizes first,” Bergmann said. “We’re still trying to figure things out, but we want to be very intentional about how we track success.”

Learn About Texting for Your Nonprofit

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