By James Hirsch
For the Office of Admissions, a versatile, high-performing communication platform is essential in managing correspondence with prospective and incoming students. Each day, the office issues nearly 65,000 targeted communications providing information about the University of Iowa and its programs.
Dispatch is the system that allows users to create and manage communication campaigns that include emails, texts, voice calls, and documents. It was custom-built at the UI to meet the university’s needs.
“We use Dispatch to send marketing messages to students, for official admit decisions, and for procedural messages about coming to Iowa,” says Scott Fiddelke, director of marketing and communications for UI enrollment management. “We also use it to generate letters to students and families, and to tailor our messaging for specific populations—for example, students with a high grade-point average, international students, or students interested in a certain field of study. It’s a huge tool for us in recruiting and guiding students through the admission process."
Dispatch was initially developed for the admissions department in 2012, but adoption across campus has grown tremendously as other units are introduced to the tool and see what it can do, and as new capabilities are added. About 59,000 messages were sent during Dispatch’s first year in production. Last year, over 37 million messages were sent—a 629 percent increase over the course of six years.
Nearly 200 workgroups on campus use the system today, for everything from simple emails to widely distributed digital newsletters, such as Iowa Now—the official, one-stop source of UI news for faculty, staff, students, alumni, families, fans, and friends—and UI Health Care’s daily e-newsletter, Noon News.
One key feature of Dispatch is the ability to monitor the success of campaigns through metrics such as open rates and link clicks. It can automate communications based on timing—for example, to send relevant emails at various points after admission. Recipient actions such as filling out an application for financial aid or scheduling a campus visit can also trigger messages to get students important information they need, when they need it.
Integrations aid in targeting communications
The Administrative Information Systems department in Information Technology Services (ITS) developed Dispatch, and ITS provides the infrastructure to support it. Dispatch integrates with enterprise systems for workflow and billing, and with student and employee data, allowing more targeted communications.
"With Dispatch you can integrate with the data warehouse, hook it up to web services, call into Active Directory to find group memberships, or talk to the identity warehouse,” says Michael Alberhasky, a senior application developer in ITS who manages the Dispatch service. “There are lots of ways to integrate with data on campus to target specific people rather than just blasting out to everybody every time.”
Kris Ackerson, grant development manager for the Iowa Social Science Research Center, started using Dispatch last month to send targeted grant opportunities. He finds it much more efficient and effective than his previous process of asking departmental administrators to forward on information.
Alberhasky helped Ackerson set up targeted populations using UI data to identify faculty and students in certain departments. The targeted approach yielded 18 inquiries from a single communication.
Enhancements and expansion
Dispatch has seen several enhancements in its six years of existence, with the addition of features such as text messaging, calls, and the ability to upload graphics or audio files. The speed of sending messages has increased substantially; Dispatch can send twice as many messages in a third of the time as before.
“It’s kind of a night and day difference in what we’ve been able to do over the past four years,” Alberhasky says.
Ryan Lenger, manager of communication and collaboration services in ITS, says this speed, paired with the modern feature of providing message senders with open rates, made Dispatch appealing for a revamp of the UI mass email service. ITS is piloting new software that relies on the Dispatch email engine to send messages, and full deployment will happen this spring.
“Dispatch is also a good fit for modernizing the behind-the-scenes process of vetting and approving mass mail messages,” Lenger says. “Currently approvals are handled with a paper process, but the new system will integrate with the online workflow tool to improve accuracy and speed of approvals.”
In response to user feedback, Alberhasky is working on making the Dispatch application more user-friendly by creating templates, a feature he aims to release this spring. He’s also working on a system editor so users can simply drag and drop content into templates.
“Right now, it’s the user’s responsibility to come up with an HTML template that they can put their content into,” says Alberhasky. “That’s not always easy if you don’t know how to code, and when you design an HTML email template it’s really hard to do based on all the different email clients you have to support, and you have to worry about how it is going to look on a mobile device.”
The templates will also help with branding certain types of official UI messages.
“All the messages are properly signed as coming from the University of Iowa,” Alberhasky says. “If you tried to send messages through other tools, you would end up in the recipient’s promotions tab.”
UI employees interested in Dispatch can email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a consultation.