As demand for instant and centralized student support continues to grow in higher education, many colleges ask us how they should implement and then continually manage their university-wide chatbot. Do student success and enrollment-focused chatbots need a group of ten people to manage it, or is it a part-time job? Do contributors need IT skills, writing skills, or both?

We were asking ourselves similar questions three years ago when we launched our first conversational AI solution, a chatbot for Georgia State University targeted towards decreasing summer melt and reducing barriers to enrollment. GSU’s chatbot, Pounce, made a meaningful impact in that first deployment as cited in the results from the Randomized Controlled Trial.  

As we’ve worked with colleges to map out their student-oriented communication, these teams have adapted how they provide a conversational experience for students. Gone are the days when every department reaches out separately to students with boring transactional emails that rarely get opened. A centralized chatbot manager can send information from all administrative departments straight to each student with individualized constant communication  While this work can be done within part-time hours, institutions that have involved both a strategic group and a dedicated chatbot manager have been best set up for the most aligned and effective deployment of conversational AI.

In an ideal team structure, strategic leadership guides the direction of the chatbot deployment, allowing it to effectively impact relevant areas that contribute to student success. Oftentimes, student affairs and enrollment management leadership share details and specific goals with our Partner Success team so that we can help map out the communication strategy accordingly. IT leaders can be involved to ensure we’re generating actionable data and can leverage existing data to make messages more personalized. Specific departments like the Office of the Registrar, Financial Aid or Career Services are often closely involved to use conversational AI to assist during peak times and help with completion of tasks.

What’s important, and extremely beneficial, is that each of these leaders is guiding the chatbot manager with direction, data, or insight, which they can use to communicate directly and more effectively with the student body.

This group of strategic leaders is kind of like the Council of Elrond in the Lord of the Rings. You can debate who plays who in the Council, but each strategic member brings their own unique area of expertise to guide and support Frodo (who in this analogy is the chatbot manager). And yes, there can also be a Samwise Gamgee in this scenario.

At the University of Wyoming, Katie Carroll isn’t known as “Frodo”, but as “Cowboy Joe’s Handler”. Not the live-action Cowboy Joe you see at the UW football games, but UW’s texting “robo pony” that they use to communicate with all their incoming students!

Katie is the Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Wyoming, and she crafts the communication sent from their texting chatbot, Cowboy Joe. UW started using AdmitHub in March of 2018, and saw impressive results, reducing their summer melt by 32%. Katie took on the role as chatbot manager from day one and continues to plan out strategic communication, coordinate with other stakeholders on campus, and analyze conversations.

I had a conversation with Katie to learn more about her successful approaches in managing their chatbot. She broke down her important responsibilities and attributes that would make a great chatbot manager.

Being the Voice of Your Mascot Bot

College students don’t shy away from mobile messaging and also want quick responses, so text message chatbots are tailored to resonate with today’s generation of students. However, students also want to text the way they like to text. For colleges, that means using the terms and acronyms that students use, and sometimes not being as formal and lengthy as email communication (which is most likely still the official form of communication for the institution).

The chatbot manager cultivates the voice and personality of the chatbot that is helping students on their path to and through school.

Katie likes to envision putting on an Ironman suit communicating to students and make the messaging hip and fun. She describes their chatbot Cowboy Joe as spunky and occasionally sassy,  and that students are more likely to open up to the chatbot to ask questions that might be otherwise intimidating to ask one of their counselors in person. Katie describes a twinism with CJ (Cowboy Joe for short) and enjoys playing the role.

Not sure how to get started texting students?

Check out our guide for Effective, Engaging Text Message Campaigns!

Coordinating and Reporting to Stakeholders and the Strategic Group

While the chatbot manager helps create the voice of their chatbot, they are frequently coordinating with and sharing insights with other stakeholders on campus.

It’s part of Katie’s role as chatbot manager to share student insights with her colleagues and share how other parts of the institution can leverage Cowboy Joe.

Katie gave the example of showing the most frequently asked questions to Wyoming’s Marketing and Communications team. For years, the Marketing team would use a variety of methods like focus groups and surveys to guess what students cared about before creating marketing collateral. This direct insight from students and the connection between the chatbot manager has allowed the marketing team to be more aligned with their collateral and better informed when making decisions.

Katie also involved other departments like Financial Aid and Orientation because Cowboy Joe answers many of their frequently asked questions, especially during peak times. This way, students aren’t receiving a ton of emails from different administrators — instead, they’re receiving reminders (and fun interactions too) via one consistent text message thread, where they can also ask questions back to the bot!

Katie continues to be the voice of the chatbot, and communication funnels through her as she coordinates with other stakeholders on campus to make a centralized 24/7 communication channel for their students.

Honing in on the Why with their Chatbot

Katie, along with other great communicators, often asks herself before sending out a message, “Is this message going to be helpful? Will it get students excited or involved? Will it help them avoid a barrier that has tripped up students in the past?” Katie mentioned she doesn’t want every message that goes out to students to be something that needs to go on their to-do list, so their chatbot is there to celebrate small victories and pat them on the back as well.

As conversational AI continues to grow in higher education, new roles develop and evolve. Early lessons we’ve learned are:

  • If you’re thinking of a centralized approach for student communication and student success, be sure to involve stakeholders from all across campus.
  • Determine who from your team will be a passionate and empathetic chatbot manager to grow and learn with the bot.

By implementing these suggestions on your campus with conversational AI, the effectiveness, scale, and impact can be tremendous.