Chalk proves more effective than e-mail

University of Illinois communicators ditch technology for old-fashioned chalk to reach students, and the results are impressive.

University of Illinois communicators ditch technology for old-fashioned chalk to reach students, and the results are impressive

Chalk this one up to experience—when communicating a message in today’s wired world, low tech can prove more effective than high tech. At least that’s what communicators at the University of Illinois discovered when they successfully tapped the power of chalk to reach its massive student body.

Communicators faced the challenge of informing the university’s roughly 43,000 graduate and undergraduate students about a new emergency messaging system. The problem was that most students fail to open e-mail messages from the university and mass e-mail is the primary vehicle for reaching the campus community.

“They don’t have an interest in hearing from us—unless it’s about classes and even then [they usually don’t],” explained University of Illinois communicator Robin Kaler, who works at the university’s flagship campus spanning the central Illinois towns of Champaign and Urbana.

So if not by e-mail, how do you communicate to such a large audience?

This is where chalk enters the picture. Students often cover University of Illinois sidewalks with chalk messages. So to inform students about the new emergency messaging system members of the communication staff used regular chalk to write “Sign up now!!! emergency.illinois.edu” on sidewalks in high-traffic areas of the campus.

Forty-eight hours after the messages were written, registration doubled from 1,500 students to 3,000, Kaler said.

“One thing we have recently found is, to reach students it’s really most effective to use the same methods they use to reach each other and chalking is a huge one,” Kaler said. “It’s a major method of communications among students.”

In this vein of reaching students using their own methods, university communicators also planned to launch a Facebook group dedicated to enrolling students in the emergency messaging system. A student has volunteered to start the group, Kaler said.

The most low-tech form of communication

This wasn’t the first time University of Illinois communicators have used chalk to communicate a message. They developed this method last summer when they wanted to inform the campus community of UI Mobile Web, a mobile version of the university’s Web site viewable on certain cell phones.

“It was in the summer and it was a nice day and chalking the student quad sounded like fun to the people who did it,” Kaler said of the idea’s inception. The school’s former marketing director came up with the idea, which doubled the number of people viewing the UI Mobile Web from 750 to 1,500 overnight.

“It was so dramatic we said, ‘Let’s add that to our list of communication vehicles in the future,’” explained Kaler, who noted the communications staff used two buckets of chalk that cost $1.98 each.

She called chalking the university’s most low-tech form of communication among an arsenal of communication vehicles. Kaler said these vehicles include door-knobs hangers, posters and fliers, and print messages on various items. Officials will also hand out fake tattoos and wrist bands that contain certain messaging, as well as send students e-cards. Kaler said her staff will even place items in communiqués sent to parents, because reaching out to mom and dad remains an effective way of alerting students.

100 percent buy-in

Getting 20 percent to 25 percent of this student body to register for the new emergency messaging system is considered highly successful, Kaler explained. With a student body of around 43,000, achieving one-fourth buy-in from a group with a tendency to ignore university message is a great challenge. Kaler insists, however that she is still striving for 100 percent buy-in.

Lessons from the University of Illinois communications department

Having problems reaching your audience? Try these low- and high-tech ways of communicating a message when e-mail fails to do the job.

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