Advice from Parlance: Texting is a Meaningful Channel for Alumni Engagement

Two people texting at a cafe

Two people texting at a cafe

Written by our Guest Contributor, Todd Miller. CEO Parlance

Recent graduates and younger alumni are particularly challenging to reach. Communication preferences from the youngest generation (Gen Z) to the oldest (Silent Generation) couldn’t be more opposite. Research has shown that the younger a person is, the more likely they are to shun phone calls and emails in favor of short, informal, instant forms of communication like text messaging and Snapchat. Millennials are significantly less likely to make phone calls than older generations, and Gen Z is even less likely to answer the phone. Data shows texting is one of the best mediums with the most traction across the largest number of people.  In this article, we will cover effective text message strategies you can use to boost engagement and participation.

As the lives of younger generations have increasingly moved to the digital space, their communication preferences have shifted as well as their use of language and grammar. For example, the teens of today will tell you that the use of punctuation in text messages can come across as being angry or overly intense. Many emojis have different meanings and uses than what a Millennial may think. A smiley face emoji can now come across as being passive-aggressive.

With such stark differences in preferences across generations, it poses a serious challenge for advancement professionals in developing appropriate communication strategies to reach alumni. Based on the research, texting is a great option. By using a tool such as Parlance, you can effectively engage thousands of alumni in real text conversations simultaneously and in a manageable manner. For those of us who are most comfortable with phonathons and emails, using texting can seem quite daunting; so here are five strategies we’ve found while helping with hundreds of texting campaigns for independent schools and universities:

1) Keep it short – The most common mistake when trying texting for the first time is sending messages that are too long. Think about how you would start a text conversation with someone you recently met? Would you send them a paragraph, or a short sentence or two? Texting is not designed to convey a large quantity of information in a single message. You must resist the urge to cram your entire campaign into a single message. Aim for the message to be under 120 characters. Less is more.

2) Make it a conversation – Don’t aim to message people, but instead converse with them. Texting is a far superior tool for conversing than emailing, so leverage this power by starting with a simple greeting and asking a question. By using an open-ended question, it’s clear your expecting a response and it won’t feel like an impersonal mass message. It’s even better if you can ask a question that’s not directly related to giving, so the person you’re texting doesn’t feel like they’re immediately being asked to open up their wallet. Trying to have thousands of conversations via text might seem overwhelming, but tools such as Parlance make managing conversations at scale easy.

3) Make it informal – Another common mistake is text messages that are too formal. Texting is not a formal mode of communication, as the youngest generations will even shun the use of periods and their texts will look like one large run-on sentence. While you don’t need to go that informal, it’s not the place for proper titles (ex. “Dr. Smith”) or full names (“University of a State National Alumni Association”). Instead, stick to first names, abbreviations, and slang names where you can (ex. “Hey Joe, I’m Sam from U of P’s class of 2018. Did you hear about the new football stadium plans?”). Lastly, keep in mind some donors may not even know what you mean by “gift”, so try using more common language like donation or pledge.

4) Personalize – No one wants to text with a bot. Make use of people’s names, class year, major, and personal details in crafting your messages. Merging in real data about a person into your messaging campaign will immediately help the recipient feel like there’s an actual person on the other end and increase the likelihood they will converse with you. Adding these personal touches only takes a few minutes of extra planning when developing your text scripts for a campaign.

5) Test your messages – Send your messages to yourself, your colleagues, or better yet friends and relatives not associated with your school to see how they interpret your message. Is it clear who you are and why you’re texting them? Would they be tempted to write back? Having a set of fresh eyes read a message can often find something lacking in your script.

Let’s put this all together as we take a not-so-great text message and turn it into something that will truly engage your donors:

“Hello from the State Tech National Alumni Association. This is our annual week of giving. We are asking all alumni to make a gift. Please go to this link to make one: https://giving.link.com/campaign/code”

This message screams bot. It’s long, formal, and not personalized at all. The only replies you will get is “STOP”, so let’s try again:

“Hi Mr. Smith. This is Samuel Johnson with the State Tech National Alumni Association. This is our annual week of giving. We are asking all alumni to make a gift. Please go to this link to make one: https://www.mygivinglink.com/campaign/code”

We’ve personalized the message, but it’s still too formal and is even longer now than it was before.

“Hi John. This is Sam from the ST Alumni Assoc. This is our annual week of giving. We are asking all alumni to make a gift. Please go to this link to make one: https://www.mygivinglink.com/campaign/code”

Just by switching to first names and an abbreviated name for the alumni association, we’ve made this message much shorter. However, it’s still long and isn’t going to inspire much of a conversation with the link at the end.

“Hi John, this is Sam from ST. It’s our annual week of giving. Can we count on you to participate?”

We’ve nailed a good length with just 97 characters in this message. The impersonal link is gone and instead we’re asking a somewhat open-ended question. However, the ask for a donation in the first message may be a bit too forward for some. Let’s try one last time.

“Hi John, this is Sam from State Tech.”

“Have you heard about the great new football stadium we’re about to start building?”

Here we’ve split the introduction into two short messages, immediately setting a tone of a back-and-forth conversation. No one will mistake this for an automated bot message. We’re not asking them to open their wallet either, but instead to simply engage with us about a topic related to the school first. If you can personalize this to something related to their own experiences, such as something related to their major, dorm, sport, or other activity while they were there, you will get more engagement. Once you’re talking, you can then tie this back into why making a gift is so important and make your ask.

Regardless of your texting strategy, not everyone will reply. To maximize your results, you will need to plan to continue to text people throughout the campaign to solicit a response or participation. Depending on the length of the campaign, sending one to three follow-up messages (use less follow-ups on shorter campaigns) to people who haven’t replied is appropriate. The tone and frequency of these reminder messages can have a big impact, as you don’t want to shame them for not responding or annoy them with too many texts either. Generally, your follow-up messages should become more direct as to asking for their participation in terms of a gift or pledge. Don’t forget to follow the tips above on these messages too!

If you’re ready to start texting for the first time, or need help revamping an existing texting strategy, we are here to help. Come visit us at https://parlance.app and set up a Zoom!

What to learn more in general about texting and communication by generation? Check out some of these resources for additional data and strategies: