If you really need to reach someone quickly do you send a text or an email? I’m guessing your answer is “a text message”. Though simple, texts are more likely to be seen and responded to in a timely manner than emails or calls, and they can have a big splash. Reminders and information sent via text an  be used to help someone get a job, stay engaged in a task, or meet important deadlines. Signal Vine, a text messaging platform funded, in part, by the Employment Technology Fund and field tested by The EdTech Center with the support of Walmart, understands this and uses the affordances of texting to support student retention and persistence.

Signal Vine’s initial roots are in college access. Initiated in 2013 as a solution to mitigating “summer melt”, the enrollment drop-off between high school and college that happens when students miss deadlines for completing financial aid forms, health documents, and other college administrative tasks. Signal Vine now uses texting to nudge not only students in high school and post-secondary settings but also participants of programs in community-based organizations (CBOs) that provide upskilling, career exploration, and job search services for adults whose prior education has been limited or cut short. By using the two-way text messaging application, advisors at these CBOs can make use of both programmed and instantaneous nudges to help program participants meet program requirements and to announce job events.  

 

Based on Nudge Theory, the idea that positive reinforcement and suggestions can influence behavior, Signal Vine relies on data analytics to cue and then send personalized and proactive text nudges. The goal of the nudges is to support positive behaviors that lead to employment, persistence, and completion goals. The platform, therefore, addresses a common challenge of organizations working in support of learner success: lack of ability to reach individuals and/or lack of sense of control over getting participants to complete tasks that lead to measured outcomes.  To make this work, user organizations set up a framework and timeline that identifies “nudges,” and defines the message content and deliver times required to move learners toward completion of a task.

Leveraging our adult learning and workforce development network, the EdTech Center reached out to and collaborated with Orange County Asian And Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA) to understand the possibilities for Signal Vine use in a workforce development CBO. The focus of our field testing supported use of Signal Vine in new settings where adult basic education learners might be present. The focal end-users were job seekers recruited for hiring event for a Home Depot and other program participants who needed nudges for turning in time cards/payroll, reminders and general program information, scheduling, and surveys.

 

Learnings from Field Testing

Field testing at OCAPICA helped Signal Vine develop a deeper understanding of how texting can improve participant engagement, evaluate the utility of onboarding materials for OCAPICA staff, and measure its positive impact on several aspects of program  participation: response rate and speed to requests for specific tasks, overall participant engagement in the program, and increased efficiencies in staff time. Through this work, we learned about the promise of text nudging platforms in adult learning and workforce development, evident in the following findings:

  • 40 hours of staff time saved using the platform to contact participants instead of email
  • Doubling attendance at Home Depot hiring fairs
  • Over half of the program participant responding to text nudges within minutes.

Read on for more details.

 

Signal Vine can help people get jobs

OCAPICA decided to use Signal Vine to send nudges to support attendance at job recruitment events after attendance at previous events that had been low. For the previous events they had relied on word of mouth and email, which the advisors said resulted in fewer than 10 people on average showing up. They said that the nudges did in fact spur more turnout; after using Signal Vine for nudges they got 25 attendees.

OCAPICA advisors reported that attendance at Home Depot hiring events approximately doubled after using text nudges.

The message of the text (actually a string of a few texts) was simple:

To which participants responded with:

Note that the set up of the nudges required anticipation of the many forms a text response might have taken for signaling a response (e.g., “yes, y, yeah” all signal an affirmative response).

OCAPICA sent out nudges to 200 program participants in minutes (far less time than previous practice of personalized emails), of these, there were 27 texts sent back to confirm attendance and ask questions. Home Depot made an offer to everyone who showed up.


Signal Vine features make it easy to track nudges

The nudges crafted and delivered over the course of the field test were mostly about administrative requirements like filling in time sheets and send regularly over the course of the field test. To set them up, OCAPICA would figure out the language and media to send, the group of recipients who needed to receive the text, and when they needed to go out. Then, they sent the information to Signal Vine, who quickly programmed nudges into the platform. The shared administrative dashboard supported collaboration amongst the OCAPICA staff, helping them see who received which messages and what if any responses were sent back to them. Sylvia Cocharan, and advisor from OCAPICA said, “The way Signal Vine was set up helped us all make use of it. On the dashboard each participant was categorized and all program area leaders could access all participants there. Before we were messaging them one by one.”  

Before Signal Vine, it was not only more time consuming to contact program participants, but also more of a challenge to keep track of who was contacted and whether or not they had responded. Using the Signal Vine platform also made it possible for everyone to collaborate.  The Job developers and support staff had access to inbox so they could help respond to messages from job seekers who responded to nudge messages. Josue, “Always having more than one eye on things helps make sure there is coverage. We are each able to flag message. This is a time saver that has eliminated lots of phone tag.”Also useful was being able to use a computer keyboard to send a text was helpful, unlike in the past, when they did send texts but did so individually from their smartphones. This made communicating to their participants’ phones quicker. Personalization was also a benefit. Josue, “When you send out message you can choose how you address people. You don’t have to individually send a personalized message.”

Signal Vine allowed staff to reach more participants in less time.

OCAPICA has a very small staff that monitors hundreds of program participants. They needed to find a better way of doing outreach, getting people to recruitment events, and respond to administrative requirements in an easy and efficient manner.  Josue Rodiguez, an OCAPICA advisor, said, “We used it to send out a message that needed to reach multiple people at once with a couple of strokes of keys on a keyboard, delivered to program participants in a technology that is more user-friendly for them.”  They knew from work with their client-participants that texting was the preferred communication mode, and “so was a good match for our organization”. It was also a time and money saver. Sending batch nudges through Signal Vine instead of individual emails saved up to 2 hours of staff time per nudge.  During the testing phase, they sent 20 scheduled nudges, representing a savings of 40 hours of staff time in 4 months.  Yigal Kerszenbaum of the Employment Technology Fund noted upon hearing this, “That’s pretty amazing. Imagine 500 scheduled nudges over the course of a year. That would be 1000 hours of staff time; let’s say staff makes $35/hour that’s $35K each year, plus  increased effectiveness. That’s quite promising story to tell.”

End users responded to text nudges

OCAPICA participants in the Adult-Workforce group showed over 54% engagement, meaning that 54% of total active participants texted into the program at some time. This was much higher than engagement from email messages. OCAPICA staff said that though they had not officially tracked such communication engagement previously, they were sure they had observed more text responses than they ever had with email. Even more impressive was the speed of response, which on average was within minutes of it being sent.  These statistics reflect the success of their program; they signaled that program participants understood the expectations and opportunities and were, in turn, showing up for job fairs and turning in paperwork on time and in much larger numbers.

An interview with one program participant, suggested that nudges had helped her stay on track with program requirements and encouraged her to go to a job fair.  She mentioned that the text nudges were far more impactful than email “my inbox is so full they get lost” or the flyers that are posted around OCAPICA “I only see them when I’m there, but I look at texts all the time anywhere.”  

 

Use of media was appreciated by the counselors who wrote the messages

The Signal Vine platform incorporates Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), a standard way to send media-rich messages that might include multimedia content. This makes it possible to send emojis, GIFs and PDFs in text messages. The OCAPICA advisors made good use of this affordance by attaching GIFs and humorous memes to their nudges. Both talked about how this affordance enriched the texts they sent.  Josue Rodriquez said that he thought the sense of humor conveyed in the nudges got responses.

Sylvia Cochran said that she included emojis which boosted engagement. “A lot of participants who don’t usually respond really did.  The cute pictures we put in the text messages helped.”

Participants demonstrated appreciation of the humor in the nudges by responding with their own emojis, which OCAPICA had “programmed” their template to recognize. They added that the use of emojis to demonstrate to participants that OCAPICA was “with the times” and helped make the texts appear more relevant since the participants were used to emojis in texts.

Final thoughts

The Signal Vine platform takes some training to use; however OCAPICA’s continued use beyond the field test and pilot (and expanding implementation to support program participants in other parts of their work!) shows the effort can pay off down the road. Programs must be clear about their specific communication needs to be met using signal Vine as a communication channel; also helpful is a systems-view of thinking that will support setting up and associating message templates with the right recipient lists and timelines.  Finally, adequate staff time needs to be devoted to exploring Signal Vine’s user-community website (The Vine), playing with messaging, thinking through communication needs and recipients, and completing the message template. However, once an organization has decided to make the shift, their efforts are buoyed by the Signal Vine support staff and many resources found in The Vine.  In the end, these staff will be rewarded with TIME! Less time wasted in constants and at time fruitless email exchanges and more time to engage with program participants, enriching the experience for everyone involved.

 

 

About the Employment Technology Fund (ETF):  The Employment Technology Fund is the first social impact fund to invest in technology solutions that improve employment opportunity for lower-skilled, lower-income adults in the United States. By shaping the future of work, ETF and its portfolio companies will close the employment opportunity gap facing 103 million adults who lack the skills, training and opportunities to access family-sustaining jobs and meaningful employment, including women, minorities, and immigrants. Since launching in August 2017, the Fund has made seven investments including: Cell-Ed, NorthStar, SkillSmart, Nepris, Signal Vine, Care Academy, and PAIRIN. The Fund’s investors include the Walmart Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Joyce Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the ECMC Foundation. Learn more at  www.employmenttechnologyfund.com.

Thank you to Walmart:

World Education’s Technology Testing for Adult Learning & Employment initiative was supported by grants from Walmart and the Walmart Foundation. The opinions and ideas expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Walmart and Walmart Foundation.

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