9 Ways to Ensure Students Don’t Ignore Emergency Notifications

Marketing your campus’ emergency notification system must be a year-round endeavor. Here are some creative ways to entice students to opt-in.

9 Ways to Ensure Students Don’t Ignore Emergency Notifications

With the 2019-2020 school year underway, college and university decision-makers are focused not only on fostering a productive learning environment, but also keeping students, faculty and staff safe amidst an increasingly complex threat landscape.

Critical to campus safety is keeping all stakeholders informed with quick and accurate information on potential and real-time critical events, ranging from active shooters and severe weather to cybersecurity breaches and campus protests.

An Emergency Mass Notification System (EMNS) can only be as successful as its ability to reach and engage with as many stakeholders as possible — and the biggest obstacle to make that happen is ensuring contact databases are accurate and students and faculty sign up to receive the alerts.

EMNS registration is not a challenge exclusive to colleges and universities. State and local public safety, law enforcement and government agencies have long struggled to improve alert system opt-in rates for residents. Yet even today, only a fraction of community residents who can register to properly receive alerts typically do so, in turn hindering emergency management efforts.

While emergency alerts are “pushed” to target audiences, the reality is that campuses first need to “pull” students to the systems via simplified registration, effective communication of the value proposition and frequent updating of contact information.

Colleges and universities must devote more resources and strategy to branding their EMNS in a way that drives registration and engagement — and do so in a way that doesn’t shift a heavy burden to the students themselves.

To do so effectively, there are several strategies to consider.

Market Your Alert System

Many education institutions have already completed step one when it comes to building awareness of the notification system: reaching out to students at the start of the school year with general information about the school’s EMNS, how it works, how to sign up, benefits, etc. But the process shouldn’t stop there, as that outreach comes at a time when students are inundated with back-to-school information, and it can be hard to process and retain everything coming at them.

Marketing the system is a year-round endeavor that should include the following components:

  • Social media. A 2018 Knight Foundation survey found that 89% of U.S. college students got at least some of their news from social media over the previous week. Facebook was the most popular outlet, followed by Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. The data can’t be ignored when it comes to communicating with students not only about emergency events but the notification system itself.
  • Many colleges now have active and widely followed accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media channels. Branding your notification system and providing updates and reminders through social media is critical to maintaining a steady drumbeat of branding to an audience with a compressed attention span.
  • Student and employee materials. Many schools still distribute hard copy materials, like student and employee handbooks, or include that information on a student-focused or employee-focused website. Schools should consider promoting their emergency alert systems as part of this content.
  • Information booths. Most campuses have a central meeting place like a student union. An information booth, at the start of the school year, during the start of each new semester and other times when students will congregate can raise awareness about the school emergency alert system.
  • Posters and informational fliers. Paper products seem so old school, but posters on bulletin boards in high-traffic areas or informational fliers can still be effective. Fliers can be mailed to student and staff addresses or handed out on campus.
  • Engage with student media. Many colleges have student newspapers, TV stations or radio stations. In some cases, they may run public-service announcements for free or for a low cost. Many colleges also make up a significant piece of the surrounding community and local media can also be a tool to get the word out.
  • Get creative. In combination with other promotional efforts, colleges could consider contests or prizes for new emergency alert sign-ups. Many students would jump at a chance to win the latest iPhone or a $250 Amazon gift card.

Keep Students Engaged

In addition to challenges with getting people to subscribe to an emergency alert system, there are some best practices for keeping them. There’s an art to deciding when to send alerts and what to say in them:

  • Send only relevant alerts. Students are bombarded regularly with communications noise from teachers, administrators, parents and friends, so campuses must be wary of overusing the alert system to communicate minor developments.
  • Spam is everywhere, and alert systems that send out too many messages risk being ignored when there really is an emergency. The last thing a school wants from its mass notification system is a series of messages that are unnecessary or are sent to the wrong group of people.
  • In some cases, the entire student body or all staff and faculty may not need to see an alert. Tailor alerts to the group of people affected whenever possible so that it feels relevant and customized.
  • Alerts also need to convey urgent, vital information that the campus community needs to keep safe. Even during an emergency, too many alerts can oversaturate users.
  • Create the right messaging. Keep messages short and to the point. The content and structure of messages are important. Messages should not be wordy or lengthy. You need to convey information as clearly and directly as possible, while referring subscribers to additional information, perhaps through a link to a website.
  • Offer immediate actions that should be taken by individuals, such as heading to a storm shelter, evacuating the area or avoiding traffic in an affected area.
  • Test the system. Administrators might think they know how the system will work and how students will respond, but it is all hypothetical until the messages are actually sent. Test your system regularly to ensure it works as intended.
  • Like any complex communication system, messaging in a mass notification system needs to work in critical moments. If it’s not working properly, operators do a disservice to the campus community.

Build Trust in the System

Finally, decision-makers must recognize you can’t create an information bubble around campus. Social media disinformation, in particular, challenges emergency management. An MIT study found that false news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than true stories, and it takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people. Social media disinformation — whether intentional or accidental — complicates the efficacy of campus emergency notification systems if students’ first source of news is a false one.

Bottom line: students must trust the notification system, gain a comfort level on the source of text messages, calls and alerts that are sent, and information must be accurate, up-to-date and detailed enough to provide actionable next steps.

In the absence of trust, students will turn to less credible sources that can endanger lives.


Ann Pickren is the president of OnSolve, a provider of cloud-based notification and collaboration tools.

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