Chatbots are here and they’re on many of your favorite websites. You’ll see them pop up to assist you with online shopping or research, welcoming you with such openers as: “Hi, I’m a helper bot! Do you have questions?” And as you may have noticed, they are becoming popular for assisting prospective students on some university websites. You might even be using a chatbot already. Chatbot automation is undeniably helpful for answering FAQs quickly, routing inquiries, and handing off some manual tasks.
But chatbots should be used with care. They don’t meet students’ emotional needs and can fail to understand complex questions. So it’s important to be strategic, using chatbots where they shine and using live chat where chatbots might hinder your enrollment results.
What exactly is a chatbot?
The terms live chat and chatbot are sometimes used interchangeably, but live chat refers to a live person answering questions via a text-based web chatbox, while a chatbot uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to determine whether a user question is one it’s been programmed to expect. If so, the chatbot gives the user a pre-programmed answer, or passes the user off to a live person.
So how does that apply to the student experience?
Imagine it's the fall of a student’s senior year of high school and they are trying to make one of the most impactful decisions of their life. They start browsing your undergraduate admissions website and a chat bubble appears in the lower right hand corner. They ask a question about the computer science program and your admissions counselor responds with a follow-up question about how the admissions process is going, and empathizes with their experience. Your counselor follows up via SMS based on the rapport they've built.
Later that week, the student visits another undergraduate program admissions portal, asks a similar question about the computer science department and the bot responds with a link to a website, and a prompt to state whether it answered your question or not. Another one of their other picks has no communication option at all, and the student spends time trying to find contact information, eventually ending up filling out an inquiry form, using an email address they rarely use except for college admissions.
These scenarios play out daily across thousands of college websites. Your role as an enrollment marketer is to help make hard decisions around which scenario is best for your institution.
Why is it hard to provide a personal experience to students?
In an ideal world, we would love all prospective students to build a relationship with an expert from the university and have a completely personalized, one-on-one experience. The fact is that enrollment marketers are working across a funnel that goes from basic brand awareness all the way down to whether a student makes their deposit and shows up to orientation.
This means that you are constantly facing a scale problem. How do you take your limited resources and create the most personal experience for your applicants? Moreover, how do you make the interventions that make the biggest difference, while balancing return on investment?
Enter chatbot automation as a scaling tool
An Educause QuickPoll from 2021 reports that 36% of IT departments are using some form of chatbot automation for student communication, and an additional 17% are piloting new AI-based solutions. Only 15% of institutions reported using AI as part of marketing and recruitment, but 43% of responding institutions were either taking steps to incorporate chatbots and AI into their marketing and recruiting or tracking them for the future.
The rationale for this is clear. AI and automation—and in particular chatbots—are being sold and pitched as a solution to scale that doesn't require changes in staff allocation. This framing is dangerous for those focused on student experience, as academic research has shown that escalation to humans is often necessary when using chatbots.
Unfortunately, when a chatbot is adopted without staffing, you end up with poor student experiences and missed opportunities for deeper relationships.
Use human amplification as a solution to scaling.
"Technology should not aim to replace humans, rather amplify human capabilities,“ said Douglas Engelbart, one of the fathers of modern computing.
I've found that the best solution to scale is to lean on chatbots and automation for transactional requests that require timely and efficient assistance, and lean on humans in situations where the desire is to strengthen your brand and build emotional loyalty by making students feel happy, appreciated, and valued.
In our experience working with higher ed enrollment, and providing both a live chat tool and a custom chatbot focused on human amplification (called CoPilot), we’ve found that chatbots can be great at tasks like starting and ending conversations, scheduling calls, qualifying inquiries, and routing visitors to the right person. But they aren’t good at handling complexity or building relationships with students.
The challenge for strategic enrollment professionals is to pick the blend of human interaction and amplification necessary to build relationships and boost enrollment, while making best use of their resources.
With the right mix, it's possible for the right students to get the one-on-one personalization and attention they need at the right time that will deliver a sense of belonging.
Tips for chatbot success
Here are our top five tips for navigating chatbots in enrollment:
- Web chat with or without bots is easier to pilot than you think. The average admissions counselor can chat with up to five prospective students at the same time. You can hide chat when you don't have staff available. You might already have the staffing necessary to test chat as an information gathering and yield increasing tool.
- Frame chatbots as amplification, not automation. Prospective students want a personalized experience and a relationship with your institution. Use chatbots for what they are good at, but keep the focus on creating relationships with the right student at the right time. Solutions that integrate with your enrollment CRMs (e.g. Technolutions Slate) help provide the context necessary to be even more personal.
- Let your human staff do what they do best. Have your chatbot escalate to a human both for complex and emotional needs (and when a topic is ambiguous). Also, give students an option to escalate simply because they prefer talking to a human.
- Get expert help when programming your chatbot. There’s nothing more frustrating than a poorly trained bot that fails to answer students’ standard questions or gets tripped up by simple conversation trees. We offer this service because we know that programming a chatbot effectively requires some expertise.
- Look for an accessible-first solution. Not all chat and chatbot solutions are created equal. To meet your institution’s legal requirements of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Federal Section 508, complying with WCAG is a good start. But look for partners who push beyond just checking the box on compliance.
Chatbots are great for one-off, well-defined questions and answers, but fall short on nuance, complexity, and building relationships. Connect with and serve prospective students better by using chatbots in the right way: as a co-pilot, not your main pilot. Most of the time, they'll want a human on the line.
Ben Congleton is the Chief Executive Olarker (CEO) and co-founder of Olark Live Chat. For the last 13 years he's helped thousands of organizations communicate with the visitors on their websites including hundreds of higher education institutions. Ben was a NSF STIET Fellow at University of Michigan's School of Information. He currently lives in East Palo Alto, California with his partner and two daughters, where he likes to ride bikes.