Of operant conditioning, text messaging and college admissions letters

In a few days I’ll be giving a speech to a group of university and college recruiters. The talk is about new technologies and how they might shape academic marketing and recruitment in the future. I’m fairly sure how I’ll lead off. Not surprisingly, I’ll touch on reaching students through their cell phones. But it got me thinking: What practical advice can I provide recruiters about using mobile marketing?

That was yesterday. It was the same day I received a cheering email from my friend Mike. His daughter has been going to a West Coast college that is extraordinary in the way it teaches. But after a year of this non-traditional teaching approach, she has decided it’s not for her. Instead, she applied to a university in Massachusetts. She was on pins and needles, as were her parents. Until yesterday, when the acceptance letter arrived.

Now, my friend’s daughter didn’t have a second choice. She was willing to take a year off and try again at the same university if she didn’t get accepted. She’s unusual in that regard. Most students apply to several, to see which of them accepts them. To my knowledge, each acceptance (or rejection) arrives by the U.S. Postal Service. I wonder why. And I wonder if a more immediate notification might give the college that uses it an edge over the others competing to be the one they choose to attend.

I’m thinking it might. I’ve been reading lately about why email is so addictive. According to this excellent post, the culprit is operant conditioning.

This phenomenon is the mechanism by which behavior is influenced through outcome. It’s the explanation for “once burned, twice shy,” as the saying goes. And on the other end of the spectrum, it’s why we respond to a teacher’s compliments with harder studying, and to a casino’s winning hand with another gamble.

These last two examples are appropriate because in both, the reward does not come every time. Both teachers and casinos know the same key to success. It’s a secret confirmed by scientists through careful testing.

Namely: That the best way to reinforce behavior is to reward that behavior, but not every time. Instead, you reinforce randomly.

This is why email gets us hooked. We don’t receive emails that reward us every time we check the Inbox. But it’s enough to cause us to check again and again — more frequently than we probably should.

Going to your physicial mailbox was at one time the best example of this virtuous cycle of looking, discovering, and looking again. But the pace of our world has accelerated, especially for those in the school-aged generation, and a U.S. Postal mailbox has lost much of its power. Now we’re a society hooked on email, and computer-based instant messaging, and mobile text messaging – listed in order of addiction intensity. Text messages are immediate, intimate, and the most effective mechanism for keeping a person yearning for the next positive reinforcement.

I suspect some schools already offer applicants the chance to opt into receiving initial news of their acceptance (or rejection) by email. (Official word would still arrive in print, however.)

But I wonder: Why not cut to the chase and use the medium that truly gets students where they live? Why not use their cell phone?

Would receiving word of your acceptance be more of a thrill if it arrived by SMS (i.e., text) message? And if so, would this allow for a more social celebration with peers? And would this high-fiving lead to more students choosing the “text messaging” school over the others?

I know, there are many factors in a choice of college: financial aid, reputation, convenience, friends. But could this message, received  through a student’s most powerful “operant conditioner,” tip the balance when all else is equal?

Please let me know. My talk is on May 23. I’d love to step in front of the group armed with your perspectives.

2 Replies to “Of operant conditioning, text messaging and college admissions letters”

  1. You are right to think about SMS/text messaging as an effective way to reach students. Corporate and enrollment marketers can use this channel in a variety of interesting ways to build awareness among this hard-to-reach-group. Text messages and IM are how youth communicate now. Email is the new snail mail. There is a white paper for college recruiters who want to use text messaging at http://www.campusmediagroup.com/news.asp

  2. My first response to this was “what is this world coming to?” Then I stopped to think. I dated back to the evolution of communication throughout my time. I remember a time when sending letters was the accepted form of communication. I’d get a pen pal at school, with their physical address – not even an email address! Next came email. I believe email is now the main form of communication, and I think receiving an e-acceptance letter would be awesome, and probably will be the next step. I still remember the start of the “Zach Morris” style cell phones, when text messaging was unheard of. Want to know the last time I picked up my phone to call someone? My mom, and only because she doesn’t know how to read text messages on her cell phone. Other than that, I do most of my communication through SMS messaging. So my first response of “what is this world coming to?” is just right! Our world is finding easier ways to communicate, and grasping them. I would love to receive a text message informing my acceptance to a school, and then followed by a formal letter in the mail. It is a much easier way to speed up the process, and would be very helpful to individuals who are applying to many schools and basing their final choice off acceptance to each. It’s neat to look back and see how communication has evolved over time, and I’m excited to see what’s next!

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