Let’s keep in touch: thinking about university communications from a BI perspective

By Salome Gongadze, Behavioural Insights Intern and final year King’s student |

Being an intern at What Works has caused me to start seeing everything from a behavioural insights (BI) perspective. I have been using this new BI perspective to reflect on my time as a student representative for my course, and my experience trying to get students to engage with university communications, such as important notices and on-campus opportunities.

In this blog, I share a student-led effort I was involved in to improve engagement with university communications using social media. We created a dedicated cohort Facebook group which, as I will show in this blog, offers some useful insights into how we can encourage students to engage with university communications.

Engaging students in university communications is an important challenge

At an urban multi-campus university like King’s, efficient digital communications are important to get right to make sure the large, mobile student body is appraised of important information. However, doing this is not as simple as just sending mass emails out, because some students do not always keep up with their emails. I found throughout this experience that social media communications – in this case Facebook – went some way towards reaching students who weren’t engaging with their emails. However, even this was not without its challenges.

The course Facebook group became an important channel to engage our coursemates

The ‘DPE 2016-2019’ Facebook group was originally created by the first-year student representatives from the Department of Political Economy (DPE) to create a space for students to communicate feedback. [i]  We chose Facebook because it was a place where many students logged in frequently and because it sends notifications whenever a user posts within a group, which would automatically pop up on students’ devices.

We quickly realised that it could also be a useful place to post important information for students as well. By making posts about various university happenings and notices – e.g.: ‘check your emails for a link to new module registration’– we could help reinforce those messages for students who were prone to missing important communications from the department in their inboxes.

Student communications: lessons from Behavioural Insights

There are several different frameworks for thinking about applying BI, including MINDSPACE and EAST. The What Works team uses the ACES framework to think about ways to apply behavioural insights to student experience. ACES stands for Affirm Belonging, Consider the Choice Architecture, Empower and Enable, and Support Social Connections.

Considering the Choice Architecture: messaging fatigue and message salience

It has been demonstrated that people are drawn to novel, simple and accessible stimuli that stands out.[ii] Research from the Behavioural Insights Team shows that communications in novel formats, like handwritten notes instead of typed ones, can improve response rates.[iii] The fact that I was posting a university-related communication outside of KEATS or KCL email where students typically viewed them may have generated a novelty that helped the messages stand out.

People’s attentiveness is impacted by the frequency of messaging and declines when ‘messaging fatigue’ sets in. Messaging fatigue occurs when a person stops paying attention to messages due to overexposure.[iv] Our posting of notices to the group developed in response to a messaging fatigue phenomenon in DPE students: some students were not checking their emails regularly or were getting too many irrelevant emails sent indiscriminately to wide mailing lists to give each email attention. Unlike email inboxes, the Facebook group offered information personalized only to their course and department, which may have incentivised them to keep engaging with it regularly.

Also, though posting in the group helped overcome email messaging fatigue by changing up the messenger and format, I could observe that over time my repeated posting on the group itself was resulting in its own messaging fatigue. At times when I was posting many notices into the group, there was a gradual decline in viewer counts. When comparing my viewer counts to the viewer counts of a post made by a student posting for the first time, their post was typically viewed by more people. It is also possible to connect this to salience – once the novelty of my posting had worn off somewhat, people began to respond to my posts at lower rates.

Support social connections: students communicating with students can be powerful               

We know from behavioural insights research that the source of communications influence how effective a message can be, and how much weight a recipient gives to information.[v] I believe that the fact that information was communicated by a fellow student in a post on the Facebook group, even though this was the same information found in an email sent by the department, may have helped some messages get through to students who ignored emails. Research has shown that messages communicated from peers can be particularly effective in university contexts.[vi]

Over time I observed that the group generated some positive spill-overs as well. Student reps’ administration of the page helped keep them visible and promoted them as approachable points of contact for both feedback and signposting of other services. In addition, other students started to post their own notices, events, and requests on the group as well, creating a positive circle of communication and peer-to-peer support among the cohort.

Reflecting back

Thinking about this Facebook group from a BI perspective offers an interesting natural case study for studying communication in a university context. The identity of the messenger, the novel context of the message, and the frequency of the messages all impact the effectiveness of communications in a university context. The creation of shared digital spaces of communication also fostered important social connections, which are key to a successful university experience.

The wider lesson to be learnt from this case study isn’t that Facebook is a better communication tool than email or that universities need to move over to social media to reach students. Rather, this case study helps illustrate how behavioural insights impact communication and the importance of designing the student experience in a behaviourally-aware manner. Understanding how people behave, including their real-life communications habits, and generating interventions that are mindful of these behaviours is a key component of the BI agenda.

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[i] Every course at King’s has dedicated student representatives who are elected on a yearly basis to pass feedback from the cohort to their department at regular meetings. I was a student rep for my course for three years.

[ii] Behavioural Insights Team. (2015) EAST: Four Simple Ways to Apply Behavioural Insights. Available at: http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/BIT-Publication-EAST_FA_WEB.pdf.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] So, J., Kim, S., Cohen, H. (2016) Message fatigue: Conceptual definition, operationalization, and correlates. Communication Monographs, 2017(1), 5-29.

[v]  Cabinet Office and Institute for Government. (2009) MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy. Available at:  https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/MINDSPACE.pdf

[vi] Sacerdote, B. (2001) Peer effects with random assignment: results from Dartmouth roomates. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(2), 681-704.

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