Jul 18, 2018

Mobile Apps vs. Robocalling: Which is Better for Emergency Alerts?

Robocalling plays a central role in broadcasting emergency alerts and school announcements for many K-12 schools and districts. But new technologies and changing social norms may mean it's time to rethink the way you're communicating with families. Are mobile apps the answer? 

The Rise (and Fall) of the Robocall 

School districts have been using robocalling (or autodialing) systems to reach parents since the early 90s. These systems save countless hours for school staff who previously made calls manually. They also allow districts to get emergency alerts, such as school closures, out to everyone at the same time. 

When the systems first became available, they were cost prohibitive for all but the largest districts. But as prices came down, robocalling became accessible to almost everyone. Over the last decade, it has become an almost ubiquitous method for reaching families with urgent school announcements and important information. 

However, the way that people use their phones has changed—and those changes impact the effectiveness of robocalling systems. As people have moved from landlines to cell phones and new communication options have arisen, the voice call no longer has the primacy it once held in people's lives. Today's families are: 

  • Ditching the landline: Robocalls were invented in an era when landlines were nearly universal and were the main method of communication for most families. This was true even in the early days of the cell phone era; while one or both parents may have had a cell phone (usually for work), it was still considered important to have a "family" line. Now that most teens and tweens—and, in some families, even younger children—have their own personal devices, the landline is beginning to disappear. In 2017, less than 46% of U.S. households still had a landline, and that number is dropping rapidly. This means that there is no longer one central "family" line to reach everyone. Since autodialing systems typically charge by the phone number, this forces schools to either choose just one parent to get the message (which can cause conflict in families or perpetuate outdated gender assumptions) or significantly increase their robocalling budget. The switch also impacts the type of messages districts can legally send by voice call; while schools are exempt from FCC rules imposed on telemarketers when calling a landline, they are NOT exempt from rules governing calls to cell phones—and since many people now use cell phones as their "primary number" on emergency forms, schools have no good way of knowing which type of phone they are calling. This means they must limit the use of robocalling to true emergency alerts (e.g., school closures and lockdowns) or ensure that they have explicit opt-in permission to include parents' cell phone numbers in autodialing. 
  • Declining calls: When the phone does ring, people are less and less likely to answer it—especially if it's not from "Mom" or another close friend or family member. While the abrasive ring of the landline once demanded immediate attention, most people now screen calls aggressively on all of their phone lines. Mobile phone users routinely keep ringtones off and let calls go straight to voicemail when they don't want to be disturbed. 
  • Ignoring voicemail: But at least the robocalling system can leave a message on voicemail, right? Maybe—but that's no guarantee that anyone will ever pick it up. Many people, especially younger generations that are now entering parenthood, never bother to check their voicemail. Since voice calling is not the primary way they communicate, they assume that any messages left there are likely to be telemarketers or political calls. Anyone important knows better ways to get ahold of them. 

Adding to these problems, families may switch numbers or turn off a landline and forget to update the school with their new information. And for many families, phone coverage is inconsistent and highly dependent on fluctuations in income. Families living in poverty may have cell phones, but that doesn't mean they always have their service turned on. They may instead rely on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or other mobile apps that let them communicate through their phone's WiFi capabilities. All of these issues significantly cut into delivery rates and overall effectiveness for robocalling services. 

What About Text and Email? 

Of course, there are plenty of other options for getting in touch with families. Some services allow schools to send text messages or emails instead of (or in addition to) voice calls, and may even allow parents to choose their preferred delivery mechanism for school alerts. 

Email suffers from many of the same problems that plague voice calling. People may not check their email on a regular basis, or may let the email account they provided to the school go dormant. Mass emails frequently go to spam unless the recipient specifically takes steps to whitelist the school. Gmail—which controls 26% of the email market—now aggressively sorts emails into categories such as "promotions" and "updates" that reduce the chances that people will see them. In an age where most of us are suffering from email overload at work, and fewer people are using email for personal communication, a school email can easily go unnoticed for days, if it is ever seen at all. 

Text (SMS) is by far the most used communication platform today. More than 81% of Americans say they text regularly, and most text messages are seen within three minutes of delivery. However, many people reserve texting for friends and families and find text messages from businesses or organizations intrusive. Some people still do not have unlimited texting service. Of course, texting will not work if cell phone service is turned off for nonpayment, or if the recipient changes numbers or drops coverage. 

Text messaging is also less than ideal for information that recipients may need to reference later. Texts are designed to be read and deleted quickly and are easily buried in the flow of new communications coming in. 

Why Mobile Apps May Be the Answer

A mobile app offers schools a more efficient and effective way to get their message out to the people who need it. An app-based mobile notification system offers a number of advantages.

  • It reaches people wherever they are. More than 90% of teenagers and adults keep their mobile phone within arm's length most or all of the time. A mobile app can push alerts to people on the go. 
  • It does not rely on cell phone service. While many families allow their cell service to lapse when money is tight, their phones still receive internet-based messages when they are connected to WiFi. Free WiFi coverage in libraries, coffee shops, restaurants and city centers allows these families to receive communications through internet-based apps even when they do not have SMS or phone coverage. 
  • It makes emergency alerts more visible. Apps can push critical notifications to the place where they are most likely to be seen—the lock screen of the mobile phone. These notifications are much less likely to be ignored than an email or voice message. 
  • It is cheaper and easier to implement than a robocalling system. 
  • It eliminates worries about FCC and Telecommunications Act compliance. Apps do not rely on telephone or SMS communication and can be considered opt-in by definition. 
  • It offers more flexibility. Apps can deliver both broadcast and personalized messages, link directly to the school website or online resources, and enable users to store, sort and control their communications according to their preferences. 

eChalk Notify offers a new approach to mobile notification systems. It is fully integrated with eChalk websites, so administrators can update the website and push emergency alerts out to their audience in one easy step. It also allows students, parents and staff to stay up-to-date with personalized news from the classes, clubs, teams and departments they belong to. 

So, is it time to ditch your robocalling system? Every district is different, and it's important to know your audience. But with more than 90% of adults ages 18-49 now carrying a smartphone, it's worth consideration. A mobile notification system, supplemented by email and web announcements for those without smartphones, may give you better reach than your current robocalling strategy.