A Plan for Maximum Participation in Campus-Based Text-Messaging Alert Systems

I know how to maximize campus community participation in your alert messaging system. Since the start of the current semester, I've spent time talking with students about the issue, and, after I had the kernel of an idea, I consulted with an internal expert. We both agree that the system we've come up with is a win-win for the school, its students, faculty, and staff--and the community. In fact, we'd be surprised if there isn't a campus somewhere already using some variant of this technique.

The Challenge: Getting Voluntary Participation
How do you get students (and others) to opt in to text-messaging campus alert systems, such as the one used to good effect earlier this semester at the University of Colorado? Once they've opted in, how do you capture their attention and get them to keep your system loaded with their current information?

Earlier in this academic year, it looked as though one way, albeit impractical, to get students to opt in was to have a crisis on campus. At the campuses mentioned above, student signups to the alert system increased dramatically post-crisis. However, even on campuses that have had crises, administrators are finding that participation is not at the level they would like.

The Solution: Monthly Lotteries Using the System
As usual, the first solutions I came up with were cheap ones. That's just the way I am. Even when a project is fully funded, I can't help it; I try to find cheap ways to make things happen. So at first I was thinking about a "big splash," one-time lottery for something that is nearly always in demand on a college campus--something that the institution already "owns" and thus doesn't have to purchase: parking space!

Just imagine what your public relations folks could do with various permutations on the theme of someone winning semester-long prime parking space!

Then I got to thinking about the process of selecting the winner. At first, the concept was selecting a random recipient from among those who had opted in by a certain date in the first month of the semester. Unfortunately, that method would probably create an immediate decline in attention and signups once the winner of the prime parking spot had been named.

That's when I consulted the internal expert: my wife, Sheila Calhoun. Sheila's worked in the corporate wellness, fitness, work-life arena since before earning her masters degree in the field in 1984. She knows the kinds of things that work to get large populations of individuals making behavior choices that are healthy for themselves, and it is certainly a "healthy choice" to opt in to a crisis warning system.

So, here are our suggestions, very practical ones, assuming that your institution considers this important enough to at least budget some intelligent staff time to the effort.

1. Publicize the fact that you will be having a monthly test of the text-messaging alert system and how those who are current in your system can win a prize (prizes).

2. Set up your system so that your monthly test alert can be replied to in a way that responses are collected where a staff person can access the names of those who reply. Determine, based on your own campus' sensibilities, when a good day and time for testing the system would be. If you are a commuter campus, you might not want to have that time be a peak driving time. You might want to be sure that the test takes place during a time when not many classes are in session, or you could be hearing from some annoyed faculty.

3. Solicit prizes from the campus business community. Each campus will have a different set of opportunities here, but bookstores, large rental management companies, and restaurants are obvious partners for this scheme.

Think big here. The opportunity you are offering the retail community is a big one. For example, at a school the size of the University of Michigan, a campus-wide alert that reaches a significant percentage of students, faculty, and staff is going to be read by tens of thousands of people. You are essentially offering to send an advertisement--a benign, low-key advertisement--to your community, under circumstances that ensure the message will get attention.

Sheila recommends having a number of smaller, yet significant prizes rather than a single big one. Here in Ann Arbor, we have Borders Bookstore #1, so we can go to a chain and still feel like we're being "local," so instead of a single $500 Borders coupon, perhaps five $100 ones or 10 $50 ones would work best. (I recommend going to your local businesses first, instead of chain stores, just to ensure that in this one way your institution's economic power is put to the best local purpose.)

I hate to mention this because I prefer the support to local businesses connection, but you may be able to find a corporate sponsor for the whole thing. You know, Sprint or AT&T just might cover all your costs if you let them purchase the right to provide the prizes for the entire school year's alerts.

4. Craft your alert and transmit it. You know, "This is a test. It is only a test. If you reply to this test within 30 minutes, your name will be entered into a random drawing for one of 10 $50 yummy Zingerman's Delicatessen gift certificates."

5. Implement a random selection for your winners, get the prizes to them, and publicize, publicize, publicize. If you have to, purchase a small display ad in the student newspaper to show the names of the winners and their prizes.

Then, if you try this, please let me know. If you are already doing it, also let me know. My e-mail address is terry.calhoun@scup.org.  Good luck. Getting maximum participation doesn't help you with the real problem, which is how and when to actually use the system. On the other hand, you'll at least be making those decisions with a system that reaches a lot of the community!

About the Author

About the author: Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). You can contact him through CT's IT Trends forum by clicking here. View more articles by Terry Calhoun.

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