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Episode #13
Filling Seats Podcast | June 21, 2022

Live chat on websites and why it converts with the CEO of Olark

In this episode:

You’ll hear from Ben Congleton who is the CEO of Olark, which provides live chat for university websites.

You'll hear him talk about:

  • The importance of live chat, and what its benefits are over texting
  • How different universities have utilized chat and what their successes have been
  • How universities can manage live chat, even with a small or understaffed team
Ben Congleton

Ben Congleton

Co-Founder & CEO

Podcast Inst Logos-13

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Host: You're listening to filling seats, the state of enrollment, marketing, and higher ed. Hosted by StudentBridge. In this podcast. You'll learn, what's working to grow shape and sustain enrollment. At colleges and universities directly for marketers thought leaders and ed tech innovators, because anyone can design a brochure, but not anyone can fill seats.

[00:00:30] Host: Welcome to episode 13 of filling seats. In this episode, you'll hear from Ben Congleton, who is the CEO of Olark, which provides live chat for university websites. You'll hear him talk about the importance of live chat and what its benefits are over texting, how different universities have utilized chat and what their successes have been and how universities can manage live chat, even with a small or understaffed team. Let's meet ben!I've kind of an interesting background. So prior to starting Olark I was always into business on the side. And always in the education. My dad is a college professor than at multiple universities. My sister is a college professor. Her husband is a college professor.

[00:01:15] Ben Congleton: I have uncles who work in university libraries. So for me, higher ed has always been kind of like the family business. And so I was well on my way to doing a PhD and kind of following along in that business, I was at the school of information at the university of Michigan. And, I was at this crossroads of should I go and start a company and try to make impact that way?

[00:01:36] Ben Congleton: Or should I continue on this trajectory and go get the PhD and go into academia. And I had , this opportunity where I had this side project, this little chat product, and it started taking off and at the same time, my girlfriend now wife was at another institution where, she was working on her PhD and I was kinda like, oh, if I stick around here at the university of Michigan,I'm not going to be with , my significant other and also, forever.

[00:02:04] Ben Congleton: We're going to have this two body problem of two academics trying to end up in the same location. And I think, I had this itch to go try to start something. And so I left the university of Michigan and I moved up to California and I started , this company , called Olark live chat. Come on.

[00:02:19] to really serve, really anyone who wanted to communicate with designers on their website. And this was around 2009. And so back in 2009, the only people chat on their websites were basically banks and like Comcast. And so you can imagine, rolling this out,starting off given my academic past kind of university libraries where some really early adopters of ours, but pretty quickly we noticed that basically everyone who had a website needed this software.

[00:02:47] and the business was growing and growing. We're serving e-commerce businesses. for awhile where it's Shopify is live chat where we're in many places. And then, more, more recently, probably in the last, two or three a year. we started getting more and more interest from higher ed and higher ed has always had a special place in my heart because of this sort of family connection, my experience being an academia, and my wife actually works in higher ed administration as well. so it's Stanford. And so it's a very. it feels like a very natural group of people to hang out with and help. And we started hearing from more of our higher education customers about some of the challenges they were facing with,both COVID and just in general, gen Z and figuring out how to reach them and communicate, using the way that they were.

[00:03:32] Ben Congleton: They won the communal. And we noticed more and more sign-ups, of people just adopting, Olark for career services or for internal it, or for HR it or for,admissions and enrollment. , and the more conversations I have.

[00:03:49] the more excited I got about the opportunity to really do something and help because, one thing that's unique about Olark is that,we're bootstrap. So we built this,on the backs of our customers, paying us and growing the company out this way.

[00:04:02] Ben Congleton: And we often like to think longterm and think about the social impact we can make in the business. so an example, this would be accessibility has always been a really key element of our business. It's something we've cared a lot about. And it turns out that higher ed also cares a lot about this.

[00:04:19] Ben Congleton: the more we talked to higher ed customers, and we realized that we shared this value around accessibility. I was like, wow, here's some people that we got to hang out with. We get to work on problems that they really care about. And that gives us the ability to go work on accessibility, not just as a passion project, but it's something that we have people pushing us to do a better job there.

[00:04:42] Ben Congleton: And that's led us to partnerships with like value debt. We're working on a way for someone to be able to. leave a American sign language video message when someone's not available directly to chat with them, or a transition from chat to,a real-time video call where they can communicate via American sign language, someone's native language,if you're coming from the deaf community.

[00:05:04] Host: That's really

[00:05:05] Host: cool.

[00:05:05] Ben Congleton: and those kinds of opportunities are just it's a cycle. And it gets you more and more excited. And, we started learning more about some of the CRMs in this space. So as a company that's been helping lots of people in partnering with a lot of CMM vendors Salesforce.

[00:05:19] Zendesk and a lot of these other help desks for many years, we learned about slate and Ellucian. And some of the stuff that has been doing with Microsoft dynamics, even target X uses Salesforce in the backend. So a lot of the learnings we had from B2B became really natural transitions over to what higher ed is going through right now, which is this desire to, I would say really level up digital marketing and,I would say in a way, like, higher ed has become a more competitive, environment.

[00:05:48] Ben Congleton: And I think that requires,advances in how we think about marketing and think about, the student life cycle and think about, how we, as, a higher ed marketing professionals, enrollment professionals, make decisions and. And I don't know, it just feels it's been a pretty neat opportunity to come in there and take that B2B experience in a similar, very competitive market or last 13 years, and bring that home for Thanksgiving dinner or whatever.

[00:06:13] Ben Congleton: I'm having a conversation with higher ed institutions.

[00:06:15] Host: So you told me a little bit about the Olark journey. So let's talk specifically about, what is Olark, what does it do? so Olark does live chat on websites. We are one of the first companies that made it possible to embed chat into the lower right-hand corner of your screen. Now this is everywhere, but we were one of the first companies to do that. we're probably on tens of thousands of websites.

[00:06:36] we have thousands of paying customers. These customers, cut across a lot of different industries, but,couple of hundred, higher ed institutions use us. and it's a, and it's a big focus area for us to do to this passion around accessibility so the things that we've done working with higher ed is one integrating with CRM. So building out a, really a well-built, integration for a slate, for example, I think taking all those learnings we've had working with Salesforce for years, we've embedded that into some of our automation around slate, so we can do.

[00:07:11] Ben Congleton: Bots, in terms of branching tree automation structures, helping students detect. or say like, oh, I'm a current student, I'm a prospective student routing. If you're a current student say, like routing to your advisor, and if you're a prospective student routing to your admissions counselor, we can do things like,capture all the information from the chat and push that into slate.

[00:07:31] Ben Congleton: So it can be used for the next person. Who's having a conversation with that student or as a signal to determine engagement. broadly speaking, you can think of us as like chat engagement for your website with a specific eye towards, increase in conversion. So in higher ed, this would be like increasing enrollment yield or increasing, let's say, an engagement KPI, your career services, and you're measured on how many students you talk to.

[00:07:56] we could help you increase that number if you're in higher ed enrollment and you're trying to move people through a particular stage of the funnel, maybe you're looking at post admit to housing, registration. this is an area where we've helped, university of Oregon bring in some of their RA as in summer housing staff to make it possible, to communicate with students while they're in that process of setting up housing, because they learn that , if someone has housing set up.

[00:08:20] Ben Congleton: They're going to show up and they're going to come to school and up to that moment, there are a lot of questions. It's a little easier to not get your deposit in. And it's just, there's just so many unknowns.

[00:08:29] Host: Something that I think we could probably all say about higher ed is that it's a little slow to change, little resistant, a little, we do things the way that we do them. So what are some of the common. objections that you get to live to.

[00:08:44] Ben Congleton: the biggest objection is how are we going to staff this? And I think , there's a couple of ways of overcoming that objection. one is. most universities have access to work study students via federal money. additionally, most universities already have staff whose job it is to communicate with people.

[00:09:03] Ben Congleton: inside the register's office. Inside of financial aid, inside of admissions counseling. So universities are full of staff who already have a job that is to communicate with. my question for them would be okay, you have people whose job is to communicate with people and you have someone who's literally knocking on your door, trying to move through a process to enroll at your university.

[00:09:24] these people will definitely talk to someone if they're in their office. And so I think that they should probably talk to the person who's in the process. filling out a form or making a hard decision between what university they're going to apply to, or understanding the ramifications of financial aid packages, which are incredibly complex for people to navigate.

[00:09:43] Ben Congleton: Jesse's not going to pick up the phone, the gen Z, his parents aren't picking up the phone anymore, barely. And so I think as a university, you have to think that a chat and small text based communication is basically the way that generations are now communicating.

[00:10:03] Ben Congleton: Why don't we also answer questions to people that are on the website in context? Literally trying to apply and enroll, why don't we help those people enroll? are this highly engaged people are going to go dig around and try to find a contact phone number when they won't even call a restaurant order takeout

[00:10:23] Ben Congleton: I think it's kind of a no brainer. And then the other thing is that a lot of people worry about staffing 24 7. Broadly speaking. I don't think there is an expectation for there to be 24 7 staffing for all communication. you already have a phone number, So why don't you just delete your phone number because you don't answer the phone outside of business hours, right? if you're worried about that, why don't you get rid of that email form on your website? Because you're not gonna respond instantly. I think that. chat is pretty nice because you can, set it up.

[00:10:53] Ben Congleton: So you only turn it on when someone is available to chat with people. When there's capacity someone's staffing and have some availability. They're shutting the website.

[00:11:01] Ben Congleton: When that person is in three to four chats or, at whatever capacity limit you set now there's no chat. you have a lot more control. chat on a website as a channel than you do over almost any other channel, which is another reason why it makes sense to experiment with it, to use it as for information gathering, like one story from, university of Montana, one of our customers is their registrar's office was the big adopter of chat they had a system when a chat would come in, they would.

[00:11:28] Ben Congleton: Use that information to update their website and improve their resources. And eventually they got to the point where they had very few chats because people were able to find most of what they're looking for on Google. the other way of adjusting some of these objections is using automation and bots to increase efficiency and move things through, which is something that a lot of their more and more vendors kind of slime automation stuff.

[00:11:49] and we do plenty of the automation stuff as well, but I'm still, I'm a very big believer that. the cases where someone wants to reach out to you are almost always exceptional cases and that the person is almost always already searched Google at this point. And The automated bots are pretty good at very common frequently asked questions and we don't get me wrong.

[00:12:09] Ben Congleton: We do that. But I think ultimately if you want to build a sense of personalization and belonging and connection and create relationships with the students that you're working with, especially during the enrollment admissions process, you will need to have some way of handling exceptional cases quickly, and that involves people.

[00:12:26] .

[00:12:26] Host: As someone who worked in a university campus tours office and answered phones I would say that It is infinitely better to. Be typing like, Hey, this is my name. You could copy paste it wherever you need versus you're on the phone.

[00:12:42] Host: And they're trying to, you know, S as in Sam and P as in Paul and, whatever I'm on this page, I see this thing. you have to go find it. I mean, you can only be on the phone with one person at a time, but you could be chatting with three to four people at a time. You can get help. You can make sure.

[00:12:58] what you're saying is the correct thing. we were looking at some data about gen Z and , there was something that we came across about, the anxiety that they feel having to use the phone and send emails because.

[00:13:11] Host: Are not used to the common pleasantries of like,hello, how are you? I am, well,I was on this page they don't know how to do that. So it just feels so foreign to them and uncomfortable. So most likely they just

[00:13:24] Ben Congleton: It would be like, if you asked one of us to send a fax, I think the key thing is you need to use the medium and the method of technology, people are used to communicating, and there's tons of advantages of using that medium.

[00:13:35] Ben Congleton: So I, from my standpoint, it's anyone who has a phone number that you can call. Should have chat. Anyone has an email address, you should email should have chat. If you can get by without having a phone number, an email address, maybe you don't need chat. That's fine. But I think broadly speaking,it, it seems very straightforward to me.

[00:13:52] if someone can visit your website, you want to be there with them and you want to be able to use the fact that they're on your website. Like you said, here's a link to this piece of information. Imagine being on the phone and trying to say, like, go visit this webpage and trying to say that out verbally with someone, or like try to point to some item on a form they're trying to fill out, with Olark you can actually co-browse with someone as they're viewing the website.

[00:14:16] Ben Congleton: So they're filling out a form or something you can actually click on items and guide them around it. it's pretty.

[00:14:22] Host: I feel like a lot of the use cases for chat are typically very transactional and customer service oriented. Have you seen any schools successfully use it for like a true prospective student engagement strategy? Like, Hey, you can chat with a current student and ask questions have you seen that actually?


[00:14:41] Ben Congleton: We have a lot of Wisconsin, technical schools as customers of ours. And, they ran a campaign kind of an enrollment campaign , where they sent out a bunch of email. And then you would come chat with someone from admissions to ask questions about the university, similar to a college fair, basically. And they boasted incredible numbers from running an activity like that. So I think that there's opportunities and we've seen B2B companies do something similar. yes, there's a lot of, transactional questions and you can limit those transactional questions, By figuring out where you deploy chat. if you're deploying chat, somewhere. Inside of your, your website, for example, the questions you get there might be a little bit less transactional and there may be some opportunities for more,deeper relationships. if it was a, I dunno, UVA using us for career services, for example, there's, more nuanced questions when someone's trying to get help applying for a job, a resume feedback, et cetera.

[00:15:32] what we're seeing right now, and this is more of a trend is moving a little bit past that transactional nature and trying to get it into, the CRM, because most relationships are made up of many.

[00:15:44] Ben Congleton: Transactions, if you will. And I think part of it is understanding the context of someone when they go through the process. So a lot of what we've done with the slave integration is when a chat comes in, you can click on it and you can see the whole slate history. I know all the context around that student and be able to have less of a transactional conversation.

[00:16:04] Ben Congleton: And I think. it really comes down to having that context so that you, as the admissions counselor or the RA, or as the counselor, or as the financial aid person can prompt the larger relationship conversation can create that sense of belonging. And I think that starts with, understanding what's happening outside of, the history and the chat.

[00:16:26] Ben Congleton: Cause all like, there's a really good way of capturing everything. these are the visited, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I think it helps having that awareness. Whenever you have a conversation with someone, whether it's in person or in chat or online.

[00:16:40] Host: . What do you see as the benefit of chat over texting? Or do you think that eating.

[00:16:48] Ben Congleton: Oh, that's a good question. I think each have their place. we've always been a chat or in company, but I think a couple of the advantages of chat over texts in chat has some disadvantages too. And I'll talk about them, but the advantages of chat over texting is that, in this world that we live.

[00:17:04] attention, Is the thing that we have the least of, because over the last 20 years, really smart people have basically optimizing ways of taking our attention away from things,so when someone is actually on your website and browsing around, you have their attention, right?

[00:17:20] Ben Congleton: And so they are engaged in this situation and you have the ability to move them through whatever process you're trying to move them through. And that's what chat gives you. The chat gives you here you are. You're on my website. You're evaluating my school. Versus some of your other opportunities.

[00:17:37] Ben Congleton: You were paying attention to mean that now I can pay attention to you as well, right? That there's no asynchronous chronicity, right? There's this is a synchronous conversation between someone who is interested, engaged in something and someone who can support them with text messages. I think it's a really good tool to bring people back into something when they're not in it.

[00:18:00] but it does require someone to act on it. It also, the context is more limited, right? , if you text me and I'm on my phone, and you want to send me a link to visit, And I click on that. Now I'm no longer in that conversation with you in a easy way with chat, you are in that.

[00:18:17] Ben Congleton: And in fact, you don't even know whether I clicked on that link or not, or I'm ignoring you when we're on a text conversation. So I think the advantage of kind of the web based chat is it provides a little bit more context about what's going on in the moment. And it provides that level of synchronicity.

[00:18:33] Ben Congleton: The disadvantages are that. If you're not on the page, It's not a notification technique to bring you in. So I think good strategies involve a little bit of both. and I think, this is a direction Olark is moving in as well as is helping to bridge those gaps and create that cohesive, student experience, that, that kind of combines texting and chat.

[00:18:54] Ben Congleton: But I think If I had to pick one or the other, in terms of, for building relationships with people or helping move them through the funnel, I would probably take a look at where are the gaps in the enrollment funnel that I'm trying to fill. , and maybe AB tests a little bit, or figure out which tool is going to be better at solving this need.

[00:19:15] Ben Congleton: When people are on your website, I think is a great time to move them through a process and get them onto the next step and answer the questions and really stand out from whoever, however they're comparing you with.

[00:19:25] Host: , other than Olark of course. what marketing technologies do you see making a huge impact with enrollment teams right now?

[00:19:33] Ben Congleton: I think there's a lot of. more interesting startups happening in a space, or companies that have been in the space for awhile. They're seeing a lot of growth. obviously I'm a fan of what student bridge is doing. I think that,Jonathan has a nice division over there of how to create a more personal, lasting experience.

[00:19:48] Ben Congleton: And I think the idea of richer campus tours is something that. That makes a lot of sense, especially when people are doing a lot of shopping without actually visiting universities. I think that was happened during COVID, but I think it's, I think I would expect that to continue post COVID, maybe fewer campus visits, maybe, finding the college fairs, I think may take a slightly lesser role and some of the selection process,Other technology trends.

[00:20:18] I think, for me, I feel there's a lot of table stakes that are still needed to get put in place. even the adoption of slate, which, has been in market for a while is still, new, exciting for all the universities. and I think that there's the idea of like, oh, we have a CRM and then there's actually using that CRM to its fullest extent.

[00:20:37] Ben Congleton: I think most schools are still at the, let's have a CRM and then. Get some reporting in it that really helps me make decisions. I think the schools have more resources or are able to do, I've seen some really amazing, talks by, some Midwestern schools on just the data that they're able to pull out and use to inform them.

[00:21:00] I would call there that go to student strategy in a way, right? cause a lot of college recruitment is completely regional, but to see The tactical and strategy layer on what zip codes they're sending admissions counselors to how they're using their regional representatives, I think seeing this sort of higher level data informed, strategies for, enrollment is something that, It's exciting.

[00:21:26] but I think it requires having that data in a good place so that you can start doing it. And I think,even, looking at your database next year, is still a challenge for many institutions. obviously looking at your incoming student database versus your current student database is still a challenge for a lot of institutions.

[00:21:46] Ben Congleton: And so I think getting the data hygiene and figuring out how you transmit information between. Is the backbone of which will enable some of the more fun and exciting and neat stuff that you could you'd be able to do. I think there's all sorts of neat things,like tools for students who apply using video.

[00:22:06] Ben Congleton: And, chat techniques for high schoolers to chat around and stuff like that. But to me, I think a lot of the excitement for me is how do you start unlocking the value of having a better understanding of your students and how you help them succeed? And then how we can draw on former successes at scale to, to bring in the next.

[00:22:27] Host: . what do you see happening in higher ed enrollment over the next.

[00:22:31] Host: few years?

[00:22:32] at a high level,, there's this upcoming demographic cliff based on the birth rates in 2008 around the recession, that were, is just about that. And so I think that the smarter universities are investing before that happens.

[00:22:47] Ben Congleton: And I think a lot of universities are, I would expect budgets for enrollment marketing to increase, and this is, would be top 10 schools probably won't care, but for everyone else, who,were enrollment is something they need to focus on.

[00:23:00] I think, are going to see budgets go up. I think they're going to see. more,support across where enrollment marketing is getting support. I would imagine that brand marketing should be partnered pretty well with neural marketing performance marketing should be tied in, I think in, in general, I would expect.

[00:23:20] Ben Congleton: Marketing to get a, a bigger seat at the table at the university level, we're already seeing more universities have cabinet level marketing positions. sometimes enrollment marketing roles up to VP enrollment. Sometimes enrollment marketing rolls up to a CMS. I think, the main thing is that there's a really strong, marketing function and a really strong enrollment function and that,the enrollment marketers are empowered to think strategically about how they work with admissions and the way in which everyone plays together.

[00:23:56] Ben Congleton: And I think. strong leadership will be required to get everyone to play nicely because I think that,historically, in many institutions the level of collaboration necessary to do all this stuff, Might not have been necessary in order to hit the enrollment goals.

[00:24:12] Ben Congleton: And so you could still hit the enrollment goals with a lot of leadership and collaboration and accountability and responsibility challenges within the organizations. I think we're going to see more of that get solved by the winning institutions. And we're going to see some of those who can't get that solved, suffer with declining enrollments.

[00:24:29] Host: So how can people get in touch with you or Olark and what can you help them? I know that chat is new to a lot of enrollment professionals and part of the reason. that I think a lot of people have a challenge is adopting. It is just lack of information. So our team put together this, higher ed enrollment checklist, you can visit it at checklist.

[00:24:49] we'll give you this, this guide that should help educate you around how to think strategically about using chat at your institution. to get in touch with me,pretty easy to reach on LinkedIn. The easiest way to get in touch with Olark is just to go to

[00:25:02] Ben Congleton: You can chat with us during business hours. you can also schedule a call. we have,plans ,where we basically out of the box, solutions that work with student bridge and that,make it very easy to start running pilots and gathering information and,go live quickly.

[00:25:18] we're very passionate about accessibility, which means we get through procurement very quickly around their privacy is also something we've put a lot of work into. We've been doing GDPR since GDPR existed. always happy to chat and try to get something started and moving.

[00:25:33] Ben Congleton: I think a lot of people think. understanding and running pilots and finding staff, just feels very daunting and it's not,it's pretty easy to get started and start learning. So I'm always happy to chat about that and how we can help.

[00:25:45] Host: thank you so much for interviewing with me today. It was great speaking with you,

[00:25:48] Host: Ben.

[00:25:49] Ben Congleton: Yeah, it was a super fun.


[00:25:52] Host: thank you for listening to the filling seats podcast, hosted by student bridge. If you'd like to connect with this episode's guest. Check out the show notes. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a rating and review and don't forget to subscribe. For more information about the podcast or to let us know, you'd like to be a guest.

[00:26:12] Host: Visit student Thanks for listening