Chatbots: Conversational AI for higher education

By Elise Hodge


In today’s global online environment, automation is key to gaining a competitive edge. Chatbots are one such automation tool that has been implemented by leading companies around the world as part of the automation of marketing, providing consumers with a simple solution to answering common questions. In the higher education field, these nifty tools are proving to be very handy for administrators run off their feet with student inquiries. Yet, while chatbots are one way to increase efficiency, there’s perhaps a fine line between automation and providing a human touch.

Chatbot implementation is on the rise

A Helpshift survey of 2,353 consumers across the US, UK, Netherlands, Germany and France found that twice as many people surveyed in 2019 would knowingly engage with chatbots because they are “very helpful” compared to 2018 respondents. 83% said they would make messaging their primary means of communication if they were guaranteed to receive an immediate response.

There’s no doubt chatbots are extremely useful for communicating answers to frequently asked questions. Universities can use chatbots to answer quick questions regarding tuition fees, start dates, application deadlines and scholarship information. Chatbots can even be tailored to assist with the influx of common questions that arise at specific times of the year, such as at the closing time for applications or at the beginning of each semester.

While consumers are open to engaging in this kind of automation, they are only interested if the interaction is convenient for them. When it comes to implementing chatbots as a part of your marketing plan, it’s your students who will be the harshest critics if the technology is executed poorly. A study, commissioned by PwC, reveals 60% of consumers will stop using a brand after just a few negative experiences. 59% of customers across the globe feel brands are so married to using automation and trendy design that they’ve “lost touch” with what makes up a meaningful human experience. If you are wanting to attract international students to your university or college, you must heed this warning and seek to maximise the student experience. One way to do this is to integrate a more personalized approach with your chatbots, or consider other marketing automation options which involve personalized communication

Creating an emotionally intelligent chatbot

For a long time, chatbots have been fairly black and white with their solutions. However, today’s chatbots do so much more than churn out basic data and facts. Marketers can tailor their chatbots to imitate real human emotions like sympathy, humour, and gratitude. Bots also have the ability to recognise complex human language, and respond accordingly.

Transparency is key

Of course, chatbots aren’t supposed to provide the same level of communication as human service providers, and your students don’t expect to get the same experience when they speak to a bot as they do a human. However, it can be incredibly frustrating for a person to spend time online talking to who they think is a human only to find out they are speaking to a machine. Unhelpful responses from bots are the second biggest annoyance, reported by 35% of consumers in Helpshift’s 2019 report. People are likely to be more forgiving of a bot that isn’t as in-tune with human language as it should be than one that uses human language poorly.

Organizations must value their consumers’ time

Three quarters of adults in the US say the most important thing an organization can do in a customer-service interaction is value their time. University and college marketers should focus on creating the right voice for their bots in every possible context, and then introduce the bots to their students as transparently as possible. The biggest challenge facing higher education providers will be navigating these chatbot features with care to provide a human touch without leaving students feeling tricked. If marketers aren’t upfront and transparent with their use of bots, they could risk losing hard-earned student loyalty.

Evolution of chatbots in higher ed

At George Washington University, chatbots are being put to work providing support for IT, administrative and teaching functions. Before the university introduced its chatbot, MARTHA, students would have to call, email, or walk in to campus within office hours to get the help they needed. Today, MARTHA fills the gap - helping students with common questions, like, “How do I reset my password?” The chatbot lowers in-person queues and increases student satisfaction with its quick response time.

University of the People (UoPeople) is leading the way in chatbot implementation for education providers. The organization is one of the world’s largest, non-profit, online universities with more than 20,000 students from 200 plus countries. To communicate more effectively with prospective students, UoPeople has a Facebook Messenger bot with Smartloop. The chatbot has the ability to provide interested students with essential information about the university, including the programs it offers and the costs to attend. The chatbot is even able to determine whether the person meets the requirements to attend the university and, if so, invite the student to apply. This takes lead generation to the next level, reaching students right where they’re at - on social media - and stepping them through a marketing funnel.

The University of Adelaide has implemented its second chatbot, designed as a conversational tool to help prospective students achieve a particular task. The key focus is on increasing international student enrollment while supporting the university’s inquiries team. The bot, launched in July, assesses an international student’s eligibility to study at the university. Prior to implementation, prospective students had to pay a $100 application fee to apply before finding out if they were eligible. Now, the bot is able to quickly work out if a student is eligible and let them know on the spot. Most international students make multiple applications. The bot moves students through the process quickly, giving the University of Adelaide a huge competitive advantage.

As a higher education marketer or administrator, you can learn a lot from these providers, and should take into careful consideration how chatbots can be used in new and exciting ways to attract international students. While the efficiency benefits of chatbots are undeniable, it is important to remember that prospective students desire personalisation and will require human contact from time to time for more complex problems. Automation tools, like chatbots, should be used to their full advantage but, most importantly, marketers need to strike the right balance between intelligent automation and human interaction for success.

Topics: Higher Education Marketing Marketing Automation