Failing Grade For Email And Text Nudges To Students

Despite the seeming urgency, college-bound young people persistently ignore emails and text messages reminding them to submit financial aid applications, according to Nudging At Scale: Experimental Evidence From ASAC Completion Campaigns, a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

For whatever reason, constant omnichannel nudging doesn’t work on the large scale. It may produce better results when done in a smaller, more targeted way.   

The authors sent 800,000 text messages containing input on financial aid to a broad sample of college-bound students, and various subgroups received emails and messaging.

Overall, 11.6 responded. And the authors found “no effect of a global approach” to nudging students. 

Why this disappointing results? It had nothing to do with the delivery method. “Students were randomly assigned to different combinations of physical mailers, text messages, and emails, and none of the combinations of channels had any effect,” the authors note.

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In addition, nudges at scale were “not effective for a wide range of specific student populations” in various stages of applying for college.

And the researchers found “little evidence to support that the way content is framed affects whether financial aid nudges are effective.”

In short, all of the standard practices of email and text marketing failed to produce results at scale. But were best practices really followed? It might seem obvious to conclude that the kids resented being nudged, whatever the channel.

But that wasn’t it. The authors hypothesize that the widely deployed Common Application and Large State messages were not as effective as those sent under the banner of community-based organizations.

In addition, the messages were generic, so students “may very quickly have concluded that they were receiving the same outreach as many other students.” They needed personalization.

Perhaps the money spent on the research should have been put toward hiring a good email consultant and/or simple A/B testing. Or perhaps they should have tried social media. 

The authors of the paper are Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Jeffrey T. Denning, Joshua Goodman, Cait Lamberton and Kelly Ochs Rosinger.

 

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