In a previous post, we outlined ways to prevent school notification legal problems, so the next logical step is to show you how to avoid backlashes when launching a notifications program in your school or district. Make it easy – and legal – for your parents and staff to receive notifications by creating a school notifications opt-in page on your website to gain permission.
You might have heard of the saying, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” Well, that axiom may hold true in certain circumstances, but when it comes to parent participation in your school’s digital communication, you’d better get permission up front.
What does it mean to ‘opt in’?
Non-profits and schools now embrace the power of digital communications – email, websites, text and voice notifications – to engage their audiences,. So it’s important to understand the laws and best practices surrounding gaining permission to contact your school community.
Opt-in forms came about with the advent of email marketing. Our lawmakers determined that you should be able to not only filter out the unsolicited communications, but you must grant permission to certain organizations to contact you. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 administered by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission protects us all from being bombarded with ads and promotions of all kinds.
You complete an opt-in form to give consent that you’re okay with receiving further information. Many organizations and commercial enterprises use opt-in forms to build distribution lists for a newsletter or some other form of email marketing. Without getting permission, the communication is technically ‘unsolicited’ and should find its way into your bulk or spam folder.
You opted in, for example, to your phone’s operating system software, for those software updates technically cannot be sent unless you granted permission. For school administrators and teachers, a notification system is for more than just school lockdowns and emergencies. A robust notification system allows them to send districtwide, schoolwide and pinpointed notifications. (e.g., A reminder to all 5th-graders about packing a lunch for tomorrow’s field trip. Or Dear Ms. Johnson, your son Vince has not turned in his last 2 English assignments.)
To take full advantage of the power of notifications, permission must be granted.
The legal backdrop of school notification opt-in forms
Back in 1991, congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA, which essentially prevents pesky telemarketers from interrupting your dinner with those unsolicited phone calls. Just last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) updated these regulations to address growing concerns over unsolicited contact via other digital communications – namely text and voice notifications.
As long as it’s an emergency or a safety-related matter, schools are legally clear to digitally notify without getting anyone’s permission. Where it gets a little fuzzy is around non-emergency info (see Vince’s attendance above.) Notifications about missing class, assignments, events, and other non-emergency content fall outside this scope, and some school districts have been challenged in court about their right to reach out via mobile devices.
Don’t leave the fate of your notifications system in the hands of an angry parent who feels his or her rights are being tested, or some advocacy group that is out to see that your district gets fined. Get parents and staff to opt-in. Make it as automatic as possible by creating a landing page, and promoting opting in with website banner announcements, emails, social media posts, and parent and staff meetings.
How to make an opt-in landing page
Plan your page
Working with your web content manager or CMS website provider, create a dedicated website landing page to serve as a comprehensive source of the whys and hows of notifications opting in. In cases where your notification system is tied in with your CMS, your provider should be more than happy to help you create this important page.
Explain the reasons
Parents and staff need to know why they need to opt in. Remind them notifications are fast, extremely reliable, and an easy way for your school to inform parents and staff about time-sensitive school information – emergency AND other time-sensitive info. Also remind them it’s a federal law and that you must get permission to contact them via this method.
Show parents the range of content they’ll be getting. Assure them you won’t be cluttering up their phones with ‘junk news’ and show them how notifications can be used beyond emergencies and crises. Schools can segment notifications by district, school, class, groups (e.g., teams, clubs) and individual student. Info about attendance, events, assignments, registration deadlines and more can be sent right to parents.
Make it easy
Have an approval message ready to roll. e.g., “Text the letter Y to 12345 to begin receive notifications from XYZ school district.” You can even include some Notifications opt-in language during the school registration process, which can be as simple as “Check this box if you agree to allow the district to push notifications to the mobile device(s) registered on our school information system.” Put some FAQs on the landing page and be sure to include a contact person so you can personally explain and guide when necessary.
Confirm mobile devices
You must confirm that the device they’re opting in on is the same registered in your school’s SIS contact information. Check to see if your SIS and notifications provider are hooked up using an software integrator like Clever, which securely and easily connects your critical school data. Depending on your provider, you’ll likely need to make sure any and all mobile devices you wish to receive notifications are registered in your SIS account.
Give a deadline
Give parents a specific date by which you’d like them opted in. Align it with your overall school registration schedule, but the first week of school is a good target. If you have their mobile number in your SIS and they still haven’t opted in by your deadline, give them yet another opportunity to do so. State on your opt-in landing page that you’ll be texting them and they’ll need to reply with a “Y” to get on board.
Notifications are becoming an increasingly important part of the communications mix, so it’s important you understand the potential obstacles that can keep your notifications program from getting off the ground.
Make it easy on your entire school community – and yes, you can even have non-staff and non-parents ‘plug in’ to notifications – to opt in to your communications. Create a landing page that will generate greater participation and protect your school legally in so doing.
While there are potential legal hurdles such as covering your, um, bases with opt-in forms, the spirit of proactive communications should prevail. The more parents and staff you have using notifications to their fullest, the more informed, engaged and successful your school will be.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.