This Book Changed My Approach To Communicating With Young People

The 160 Character SolutionDespite what the title says, The 160 Character Solution is not about text messaging. Not really, anyway. It’s a fascinating window into the intersection of behavioral economics, communication innovation, and the complexities of education that many of us within the industry become blind to after we acquire our “college knowledge.”

Honestly, the title made me skeptical. I didn’t want to read hype about text messaging. Maybe this is why I put off reading it for three months. But I urge you to do as I say, not as I do. You should read this book sooner rather than later. Why? The 160 Character Solution changed the way I think about communicating with young people—something I’ve been doing for over a decade.

What I Will Change After Reading The 160 Character Solution

The way young people communicate changes rapidly. Anyone who hasn’t had their head stuck in the sand for the last few decades knows this. But I failed to think about the true speed of change—communication preferences change even within a single generation. Take millennials, for example. I’m a millennial. I was born in 1982. I don’t get SnapChat. I finally downloaded it a week ago after realizing I was one of the people with my head stuck in the sand. Other millennials, born just 5-10 years after me, have been using SnapChat for over a year and integrated it into their communication toolbox.

If your business or organization works almost exclusively with young people, you should expect your communication strategies and tactics to evolve rapidly as well. If you’re focusing on Facebook or Twitter as your “emerging technology” you’re too late. When presenting to our senior leadership recently, I mentioned that Facebook and LinkedIn had been around for over a decade. The look on some of their faces was extremely memorable. That decade passed without many of them bothering to recognize that the way people communicate had completely changed—and they weren’t even considering Instagram, SnapChat, or Periscope.

I’ve let myself get comfortable with “the big three” (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn—swap out YouTube if appropriate), telling myself that young people don’t want us to co-opt their personal communication networks with institutional messaging. But Dr. Castleman’s writing has helped me realize that if we want to communicate with students who are not already familiar with the institution—first generation college students, underrepresented populations, low-income families—we need to break out of institutional norms. Right now, that might mean text messaging. In a couple years, that may mean the hot new app that young people are wild about but organizations are afraid of. If we pull our heads out of the sand, get to know the habits of our constituency (or target audience, depending on your terminology), and carefully test and scale communication interventions, we can increase college attendance, student achievement, graduation rates, and successful student loan repayment.

This is hard stuff. It challenges the way I’ve approached my work for a decade. But I’ve been playing it safe—I’ve advocated using a communication method after it had been used “in the wild” for five years or more. This made me a trend-setter in higher education (using Facebook to communicate with students in 2009), but maybe that’s not enough. I admire people like Dr. Castleman and Dr. Josie Ahlquist (she embraces and researches new technology like SnapChat) who are pushing the envelope in this area. The 160 Character Solution was the final push I needed to critically examine my own work in this area.

What’s In The Book

This was supposed to be a book review, but I got carried away with my major “aha moment.” If you’re not sure you want to read it yet, here’s some more helpful information:

  • The book is only 129 pages. You could easily read it in a week.
  • Please don’t skip the introduction and conclusion. They provide important context to the content included in the chapters.
  • In my opinion, chapter three is the most actionable. Perhaps that’s why it’s titled Encouraging Active Decisions. Here, Dr. Castleman describes three strategies to help young people make complicated decisions: planning prompts, commitment devices, and loss framing.
  • While chapter four (Following Our Friends—Or Not) seemed a bit out of place to me, it will sound familiar to many of my student affairs colleagues who have studied student identity and development theory. It may be a fresh perspective for enrollment management folks. Particularly, I think the section titled Lower-Touch Interventions to Promote a Sense of Belonging could help inform the storytelling strategy used by many campus marketers and recruiters.
  • The 160 Character Solution Post-It NotesI suspect every reader will walk away with at least one actionable idea. I had tons of ideas related directly to my work helping young people understand their student loans—check out my post-its!

Who Should Read The 160 Character Solution?

Anyone who can influence the way a campus or organization communicates with young people about complicated topics will benefit from Dr. Castleman’s book. This includes:

  • College and university admissions staff
  • Financial aid administrators
  • Student retention officers
  • Student success coordinators
  • College and university marketers and communicators: The book will give you a reality check about the role of email and the campus website in many students’ college search and matriculation experience.
  • Student loan servicers
  • High school counselors
  • School choice advocates and administrators
  • Education researchers

If you don’t fit into any of the categories above, but you love Freakanomics, you should also read this book. I recognized the names of many economists I’d heard on the podcast.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book in October 2015. 

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