Developing a Communication Plan to Support Distance Education Students

March 21, 2019 Kyla Farroll

Colleges and universities with remote, online students face unique challenges in communicating one-on-one with students and constituents. Based on where the school is recruiting, students might be across time zones or live abroad. Adult learners might have full-time jobs and limited availability to connect with school staff during the day. Beyond time and location logistics, today’s students have preferred methods of communication and expect any business or organization they engage with - including their school - to abide by those preferences. 

Considering all these factors, schools need multiple, flexible communication channels. This approach can help students make their way through the enrollment process and beyond with one-on-one lines of communication between individual students and staff members. An effective communication plan that can be used across all departments will help ensure successful engagements between students and staff. 

Knowing where to start creating your communication plan can be a challenge in itself. How do you know you’re using the right technology, at the right time, and -- perhaps most importantly -- delivering the right messages? Here we provide insight on how to get started, the tools involved, and various factors to consider.

Building a foundation

Before you create and implement an effective communication plan, we recommend taking time to build an initial foundation. These key steps will help you:

  • Establish a CRM platform with campus-wide access. In a CRM, you can manage all tools, and staff will have the necessary data to give them a 360-degree view of the student. Having key student data readily available helps staff provide a more personalized experience and prevents students from having to repeat information.  

For example, if a student visits the Financial Aid department and needs to proceed to the Bursar’s office, the Financial Aid advisor can make a note on the student’s record regarding the conversation and what the student’s next steps are. Upon arrival, the Bursar’s office can clearly see that information and be able to help the student in a seamless transition. The student won’t have to rehash what just occurred with Financial Aid.

  • Encourage departmental collaboration to coordinate groups and avoid conflicting or overlapping messages. Broadly speaking, Admissions, Financial Aid, Academic Advising, Career Services, and Alumni Engagement should all work together. Incorporating other applicable groups, such as Residential Life or Athletics, will help ensure a truly comprehensive plan. 

The goal is to unify departments and share communications, so students are not hit with multiple emails, phone calls, or texts, especially on the same day. By working together, campus departments and groups can share their communications, especially when the content has enough similarities, such as getting the student through the enrollment process.

  • Create a Center of Excellence (CoE), which monitors, updates and governs the student communication plan to ensure consistency. This is not intended to micro-manage or approve content, but rather to look at the communications as a whole, and periodically determine what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved. 

Having a dedicated group to evaluate the overall student communications gives great insight into what is sent, when, how frequently, and via specified channels. The CoE should function across these main pillars: Strategy & Planning, Building & Delivery, Maintaining & Operating, Adopting & Sustaining.

Comparing tools

After you’ve established this foundation as the starting point, you can make decisions regarding which tools (email or telephone, for example) to use, when to use them, and what to use them for. 

This table outlines the four primary communication tools that schools may want to consider using in a communication plan for one-to-one student engagement.

While these are the best methods of communication for one-on-one engagement, don’t underestimate the power of the school’s website and social media for widespread message delivery, and the subsequent interactions staff could have with students who respond to that content.

Building the plan

With specific tools added to the foundation, you’re ready to come up with an effective communication plan. The following provides guidance on things to consider, but it’s not an exhaustive list.

Staffing model

This is a critical factor, especially for schools who are recruiting across and enrolling from all U.S. time zones or internationally. When rolling out multiple communication channels, they must be supported in accordance with the times students may use them, which could result in off-hours for staff.
Evaluate the volume of students being supported as well as their geographical locations.
Consider high-traffic communication periods, such as right before or toward the end of terms/semesters.

Departmental engagement and access

Departments across campus should already be collaborating as part of the established foundation, but now it’s time to get into the weeds and determine who has access to the tools for what purpose, and to also define message content.

  • Avoid silos and get people talking interdepartmentally to ensure cohesion and unity for the sake of the students.
  • Combine messaging when possible across departments so students receive single messages that encompass all of the information they need.

Platform and tool support

While departmental SMEs are the best source of determining what to communicate and when, they may not have the bandwidth to manage the necessary preparation, delivery, and monitoring needed for certain channels. Dedicated departmental resources can act as administrators to ensure communication management and to collaborate within the Center of Excellence. This helps to avoid overlap, to work through competing priorities, and to monitor what is working and what isn’t.

  • Establishing administrators will help maintain security and consistency, so a wide variety of people do not have access to change key content within the system.
  • Establishing a small number of people with administrative access provides a funnel for information and requests, making maintenance and management of the system more efficient.

Managing student preferences and unsubscribes

A factor of effective communication is reaching students using their preferred methods of communication. The CRM platform should contain not only their preferences, but also opt-outs, and messages should be tailored to the students’ requests. This could result in utilizing multiple channels for individual messages to different students, but duplication has to be managed and avoided.

  • Opt-outs and unsubscribes need to be carefully maintained and managed to remain compliant with established regulations
  • Despite preferences, official communications may require delivery through defined methods; continue to use these and find ways to alert students to these notifications so key information isn’t overlooked if the delivery method isn’t preferred.

Generally speaking, these guidelines are just the tip of the iceberg. They can provide a general understanding, however, of some of the necessary elements for a successful one-on-one communication plan. System implementation, onboarding, and rollout are also big pieces to this puzzle. And, once established, keep in mind that these tactics aren’t just for distance education students; they also apply to on-campus students who might prefer texting to walking into an office to talk with someone. 

Defining scenarios and use cases for messaging and communication methods will be helpful as teams work through the steps to devise a plan. In next week’s blog, we’ll provide communication do’s and don’ts for when you’re thinking about when to use which tools and specific content.

About the Author

Kyla Farroll

Kyla has provided team management and leadership within the higher education industry for over two decades in CTE schools, a mid-sized university as well as an online university. Wanting to share her deep knowledge and experience in Academic Advising, Admissions and Financial Aid through more broader industry channels, Kyla transitioned to Appirio in 2018 as a Senior Consultant.

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