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Let’s be clear: just because the average teen texts dozens of times a day doesn’t mean they want to get texts from you —or the college or university you work for.

Of course, teens spend a lot of time texting each other. You can’t speak to a teen these days without hearing the dings or buzzes that signal the arrival of an incoming text. And the more popular the teen, the more dinging and buzzing there is as members of her friend network reach out through a channel and a device that teens consider to be very personal.

Some of these exchanges are private — a teen sharing intimate thoughts with a close friend. Others involve groups of friends conducting a conversation around social plans or other topics. But one of the most important attributes of texting (and apps like WhatsApp) is that teens can curate exactly who is involved in these conversations and exclude people who don’t belong.

In her (excellent) book about teens and social media, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, danah boyd wrote, “Teens have many words for the kinds of everyday surveillance that they have grown accustomed to: lurking, listening in, hovering, and being ‘in my business.' Many of the privacy strategies that teens implement are intended to counter the power dynamic that emerges when parents and other adults feel as though they have the right to watch and listen.”

Remember that this generation of teens watched older brothers, sisters, and friends get busted by parents, teachers, law enforcement, and college admission officers for oversharing on social networks. They’re not about to make the same mistake, if they can help it. They don’t want adults creeping on their Facebook feeds, and they’re careful about what they post — if they post at all. And while they will text with adults, it’s usually with adults with whom they have a relationship.

Given this context, it’s a good thing that colleges are cautious about texting teen prospects and applicants rather than just texting away. Responsible consultants like Mongoose advocate a strategic approach to texting — including a holistic, campus-wide policy to avoid spamming.

What teens say about texting today

We’ve surveyed teen college prospects about texting twice in the past three years, both in research with Chegg in 2015 and with The National Research Center for College & University Admissions (NRCCUA®) this year. As part of our “Mythbusting” series, we fielded similar questionnaires with teens and college marketing and admission professionals to identify overlaps and gaps in the responses of these two groups.

In 2015, responses were about evenly split between teens who wanted texts “often” and “sometimes” and those who wanted them “rarely” or “none.” At that time, only nine percent of respondents said they wanted to be contacted by a college via text message, and only 14 percent said they had texted with a college representative.

In this year’s survey, which explores a range of tactics higher ed uses in marketing to teen applicants, we revisited the topic. [We’ll release a white paper about this research in January.]

We learned from teens that 82 percent had not received a text message from a college. We asked those who had what impact it had on their perception of that college; a third (33 percent) told us that it had no impact; and 56 percent said it had a positive impact.

Not only can the right kind of text make a good impression, teens say they’d welcome certain kinds of text messages. Asked what kinds of information they would like to receive from a college via text message: 

  • 79 percent wanted application reminders
  • 71 percent wanted info on admission-related campus events
  • 64 percent said they’d like reminders about financial aid.

And, we note that a majority (55 percent) of teens, when asked how they’d like to be contacted by current students or admissions officers, said they’d like to be texted.

So our findings indicate that teens in 2017 may be more open to receiving and exchanging texts with college representatives than those who responded to our surveys a few years ago. 

Still, colleges take note: caution should still prevail. 

Teens want useful texts, not spam. And they don’t want random college representatives cold-texting them. If they indicate they’re open to communicating with via text messaging, text them. Follow their lead and they’ll appreciate your sensitivity and courtesy.

Michael Stoner is president and co-founder of mStoner Inc., a digital-first agency committed to tailored solutions that deliver real results.

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