Ivy.ai Takes Chatbots Beyond Higher Education’s Hallowed Halls

Chatbots, taken at surface value, are the artificial intelligence (AI) versions of the connected economy contact center. But some companies are making these conversational widgets much more than a support function. With a shot of creativity, chatbots can be a proactive strategy for customer engagement.

“Having technology with heart has always been very important to me, and in that regard, I would characterize us as a kind of the glue for the whole institution that we contract with,” Ivy.ai CEO Mark McNasby told PYMNTS.

“So, the use cases vary dramatically, but our specialty is a consultative approach, where we’re looking at all of the available information from the institution or company and then we tune the bot to the business model. So, if a university is trying to create more student engagement, for example, we’re able to arc the conversation toward encouraging the student.”

McNasby’s company is based on a conversational, natural language processing AI model, but it’s that consultative approach that has opened doors for Ivy as well as the consumers that interact with its products.

Based in Boulder, Colorado, it started from McNasby’s roots in educational technology. After exiting a resume-building startup aimed at college students, he had an idea for using AI to stimulate and maintain communication between students and their school administration, giving birth to Ivy in 2016.

Since then, the company Ivy.ai has a 97% customer retention rate and has been selected as an Inc 5000 company for three consecutive years. With over 800 bots built, Ivy.ai bots handled more than 6.2 million unique conversations in 2023. 

After starting in higher education, it has expanded into healthcare and government, bringing that consultative approach to each vertical. Use cases show how AI can be used as a proactive conversational tool as well as a reactive one.

For example, its Healthcare product — in place at Illinois Valley Community Hospital, and St. Claire Healthcare in Wisconsin among others — acts as a guide for patients, assisting with website navigation, simplifying appointment scheduling and making prescription refills and personal health information readily available, personalizing responses based on the patient’s history.

“As you think about a patient’s experience in a hospital, we can act as a digital front door,” McNasby said. “Maybe it’s a question about visiting hours, or maybe it’s a question about finding a provider. But we can also do proactive outreach.

“For example, say someone had a minor procedure. Well, the system can automatically send a follow-up recommending the protocol they should follow after they get home. It works in a therapeutic capacity, a marketing capacity or a customer service capacity.”

Chatbot vs Search

But it’s bread and butter is still in higher education, and it is here that Ivy provides administrators as well as their students with immediate and engaging communication options.

McNasby points to his company’s work at Indiana University as exemplary. The school aimed to provide better IT self-service support options to students and enable support staff to spend more time on more complex problems.

After launching the Ivy chatbot to accomplish both, it took a survey. Over 260 students were asked to find information using both the chatbot and the university’s search engine. Students were provided with one of two questions to present to each tool. For each survey question, the researchers found a statistically significant outcome in favor of the chatbot. Students rated the chatbot with a higher level of overall satisfaction and said they would be more likely to use a chatbot to answer their questions than a traditional search method. According to the study, it’s also substantially less difficult to use a chatbot than it is to use traditional search.

Ivy recently completed its own research in the higher education field and found that AI can have revolutionary implications for the student as well as the administrative experience. Its survey of 600 university administrators found that higher education administrators expect investments in AI to pay off in dividends, as 78% of respondents believe it will lead to revenue growth and direct cost savings. Over half (52%) believe it will lead to lower tuition costs. Respondents working in admissions were 50% more likely than average to report a positive impact, with 62% seeing an increase in student enrollment and retention rates.

Read more: Colleges and Universities Weave AI Into Lesson Plans

McNasby sees a lot of “green field” for more usage of AI on campus. The research found the majority of administrators are not using the technology to its full potential.

For example, only 32% of respondents who use chatbots leverage them to enhance student engagement and retention. Additionally, several key student services are not AI-enabled, with only 26% of users implementing AI-powered technology in admissions counseling and 18% in mental health services.

McNasby points to technology differences to help Ivy compete in the chatbot market. He said current as well as potential clients need to understand some of the underlying AI technology better. For example, when Ivy started out, all of its products were intent-based, meaning a user would have to declare a purpose when interacting with the bot. Generative AI — which Ivy now uses — is able to maintain what he calls “one source of truth” and respond to the user if given the proper behavioral data about his or her interactions.

“We also want to teach our customers is that chatbots are a strategy,” he said. “It’s not about standing up a bot and hoping for the best. It needs to be tuned to the company’s needs, whether it’s to recruit students or match a patient to a payment plan. It’s time to put more thought and more strategy into what was a simple, intent-based technology.”