How does Unite Students communicate with 70,000 students?
Students have never been so connected – but with countless channels and apps fighting for their attention, it can be a challenge for universities and accommodation providers to make sure they have all the information they need.
In an exclusive for our insight newsletter subscribers, we caught up with Alex Bloor, Customer Communications Manager at Unite Students, to find out how she does it.
Q: Hi Alex! What are some of the key challenges with student communications?
Alex: It’s a very fast-paced role, and urgent situations can crop up at any hour. The collective knowledge we’ve built over the years means we can plan for those situations, but not everything can be planned in advance.
We have to continually adapt to how the university experience is evolving year-on-year for Generation Z, and keep pace with the changing ways in which they communicate. They prefer video content, which takes longer to put together than your traditional written content; where you do need to write things out, it has to be formatted in short, digestible segments to keep their attention.
That can be a challenge when you’re trying to speak to such a diverse range of students. They all like to be communicated with in different ways, and sometimes require different messages to respond to the differing challenges they face. For example, when we send out information about staying safe online, we send different emails to home students and international students: Chinese students are particularly at risk of getting spam calls from people pretending to be the Chinese embassy, so we need to share that information with them – but it wouldn’t be relevant to a domestic audience.
What are some key things to consider in how you communicate with students?
Tone of voice is critical and can make or break the comms you send out – it engages or disengages the audience immediately. It’s really tough to get right, because students are adults, but they’re only just starting to live independently and they’re still learning how to do that.
If you talk too much like a parent, they can lose confidence and feel uncomfortable about approaching our teams. It’s important that they feel they’ve got someone building them up, without being patronising. We prefer to reassure them and make it clear our teams are here to support them; it helps them build the confidence they need to thrive as independent adults.
There are other considerations too. Many of the students who live with us don’t speak English as a first language, and there are neurodiverse students who may struggle to concentrate or retain lots of information. Our approach is to be as clear and concise as possible, sharing information in a bitesize way, rather than in complex, formal paragraphs. And if we’re sharing resources in a mental health campaign, we’ll let them know what resources are available without being too prescriptive.
Before you worked in communications, you spent eight years working in our Manchester and Leeds buildings. How has that operations experience influenced your approach to student communications?
That customer-facing experience has been so important. When I worked in ops, it always worked best when we knew exactly what communications had been sent to students, so we had answers when they asked questions at the front desk. So that’s something I’ve really focused on in my role: now, anything going out centrally is shared with our operations teams, and they can ask us to clarify anything they’re unsure of.
Another area of focus is linking to dedicated resources where relevant, whether that’s signposting to our student support team or sharing links to sites like Student Space, run by the mental health charity Student Minds; this has plenty of information and advice for students as well as signposting to dedicated support services. Our front desk team are happy to help, but they’re not experts and will typically signpost to these services and resources anyway – so by including those links in our email, it cuts out the middle man and takes students direct to the support they need.
Maybe most important of all, I have years of insight into how students respond to urgent communications. When we sent a text, they’d see it immediately, whereas an email wouldn’t be seen until much later. I kept that in mind when I moved roles, and in the last six months we’ve introduced push notifications – the Gen Z equivalent of receiving a text – in our MyUnite student app, and there’s been 90% immediate engagement with those messages so far.
Many of the students who live with us are first-year students. When they first arrive, there’s a lot of information to share with them and their parents, guardians or guarantors. What’s the sweet spot between too much information, and not enough?
You’ve got to find the balance. A major part of that for us is using automation and smart tech solutions to provide students with tailored pre-arrival communications, based on how far in advance they’ve booked their room and how far in advance they’re checking in. That approach accommodates the wide variety of days and times when students arrive, including January arrivals.
If they’ve booked 30+ days before they arrive, we’ve got a long time to communicate everything they need to know. So we send a series of communications and touchpoints, allowing us to filter and drip-feed that information, and sharing key information about the check-in process as we get closer to their arrival – you don’t want to send that information too early. But if a student books with us a week before they arrive, time is of the essence: they’ll just get one email, with essential information right at the top.
It’s not difficult to engage a student who’s excited in the run-up to check-in – that’s when we see open rates of 90% or above. But we still want to send engaging content: nice imagery that accurately represents the student experience in our buildings, information that’s clearly outlined with headings, bullet points and buttons, and less exciting information – about, say, TV licences – between more fun features, like how to personalise your room.
How do you communicate with our nominations students?
It’s a slightly different approach and involves more collaboration with university partners – we want to complement their communications, not compete. They’ll send more communications to these students than they will to direct-let students, so we have to be mindful of that and send fewer. Sometimes we work directly with universities to get resources out.
The main challenge is welcome comms, as student contact data sometimes doesn’t arrive until late in the day. Some properties have different internet provision and laundry services, so we need to collect that information from our operations teams well in advance and adapt our templates so they’re ready when the data arrives.
At the end of last academic year, you ran a campaign encouraging students to tidy their rooms before checking out. What inspired this, how did you run the campaign, and how well did it work?
When I worked in operations, summer was notoriously challenging for everyone. It’s stressful for students – who doesn’t get stressed about moving? – but also for our operations teams: they’re turning around rooms for summer business, then again for the start of term. That’s more of a challenge if there are lots of belongings and rubbish left behind in rooms.
Inspired by those experiences, I wanted to run a campaign that gave students everything they needed for check-out well in advance. The campaign launched in April, initially encouraging students to do a spring clean. I worked with our marketing team, who got our student content creators to create some TikTok organising videos; they’re a really popular type of video on there and frame cleaning as being positive for wellbeing, rather than a chore. They were really popular and got great engagement.
Towards the end of term, the messages became more explicitly about moving out: we added a checklist in our MyUnite app where students could not only check out digitally, but also tick off what they’d done and access information about recycling. Not only would this make the check-out process easier for students, but – if successful – it would mean our teams had less waste to dispose of at the end of the year, and would have more time to work on turning around rooms.
Anecdotally, city teams reported that rooms were a lot clearer than they had been the previous year, with more students returning keys and more positive student feedback about the check-out process. The engagement with our communications was up 30% on what I’d usually expect at that time of year, while our contact centre had far fewer queries about check-out.
How do students benefit from good customer communications? And how do our employees benefit?
Students feel more empowered if they’re communicated to in a proactive, accessible and informative way, and those communications support them to have a smoother experience living with us.
From years of experience, we know that students ask the same questions at set points in the year, like Christmas: “Will there be anyone on-site over Christmas? What can I do if I stay here?” So we have those communications ready to go in the run-up to December. Every question we answer in advance means one less trip to reception or one less email to write, and more time to study or socialise.
Likewise, our employees don’t need to worry about writing their own communications – it’s all done for them, which frees them up to get on with providing a great customer experience. Now they’re looped in with what goes out to students, everyone’s aligned, and it makes everything a little bit easier.
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