To keep up with the rapid digital evolution, many in higher ed are experimenting with new technologies. The latest? Chatbots. Here’s what you need to know.

Chatbots are a form of artificial intelligence, but that characterization may be a little too upmarket. Basically, a chatbot is a computer program that answers your questions. You know those live-chat boxes that pop up on a web page, asking if you need help? Those are sometimes staffed by people and computers, whereas chatbots are run solely by a computer. These bots are gaining popularity in markets because they can help consumers get their questions answered fast, and that’s great for customer service. Colleges and universities are experimenting with chatbots to communicate more efficiently with potential and current students, about admissions issues or financial aid questions.

Georgia State University recently implemented chatbots, and after four months, 63 percent of students used the platform regularly. The university calculated that it would have taken a full-time staff of 10 to answer the same number of questions in the same amount of time, totaling a savings of $200,000.

Chatbots can certainly be a boon for users, who can get an immediate response without scanning multiple web pages. And the benefits aren’t limited to users. Consider all the routine and recurring work admissions and financial office employees must accomplish every day. By having a chatbot handle some of these rote, time-consuming tasks, employees are freed up to be more proactive with their work.

So should every college and university roll out a chatbot strategy? Not exactly. Here’s a plan to get started.

1. Start small.

This technology can be a huge investment of time and money. So consider a low-impact way to test it out, and see how students engage with it. You might try replacing the FAQ section of your website with a chatbot. Or think about how much information is in your student handbook: a bot might be a good replacement online, letting students type in questions and get instant answers. If simple bots like these do well, offer tailored campus visits with prospective students, with the help of a bot who asks questions to formulate a personalized experience.

2. Preserve human interaction.

Chatbots can be useful, but certain tasks require real people. For example, the admissions process centers on building relationships between one human and another. Students need to feel accepted and cared about, with someone who can learn who they are and help guide them. No bot can do that. Use them for simple questions, or even scheduling an appointment with an admissions counselor perhaps, but that’s it.

3. Tread carefully.

A bad chatbot can be disastrous. Consumers who have a negative interaction with a bot often stop engaging with that brand, so the pressure is on to provide an excellent experience. It’s vital to set expectations up front: users want to know when they’re talking to a computer versus a real human. And you’ll want a quick way to direct users to that real human if the bot isn’t meeting their needs. Remember: a bad encounter can truly ruin how they see your brand, so take extra care in how you program your content.

We often find some of the best inspiration for higher ed marketing strategies outside the higher ed industry. Here are a few of our favorite chatbots:

  • Pizza waiter:

    Domino’s was an early chatbot adopter, making it easy for users to place and customize food orders by text, tweet, or voice command. Users can then track and change the order through Facebook Messenger.

  • Sassy concierge:

    The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas recently launched Rose, a flirty and humorous bot that acts as guests’ personal concierge for a broad range of needs, all via text message.

  • Music evangelist:

    Spotify recently announced it would launch a chatbot via Facebook Messenger that makes it easy for friends to discover and share music. The bot comes with search tools, extensions, and more.

A chatbot can be an illuminating way to showcase your institution’s brand and to give potential students a glimpse of what your school is like. And while it can be less expensive and less time consuming than an app, it still requires time, money, and people. Implementing this technology is not for everyone if you can’t fully commit those resources. But if you and your team are ready to test some new technology, chatbots are an excellent place to start.