Opening the intercom with your open course participants: Tracking and engaging students

Earlier today I popped in the site to see if they had anything new. After login in, having a quick nose I moved on. Minutes later I got this email:

Email from

My initial reaction was:

Looking at how they did this there are some clues in the email. Notice the email contains a link with ?source=intercom (campaign tracking), and the email domain for the sender is Visiting the site it’s immediate to see the pieces fall in place, Intercom providing a customer relationship tracking/engagement service which allows condition based automated messaging.

intercom dashboard

If you click ‘Start using intercom’ more is revealed about how this service works. By embedding a code snippet to your sight which returns the logged in user email (in the advanced setting this can be encrypted/hashed rather than plain text it appears you still need to send either a user_id or email in plain text as well as hashing)

intercom setup

And true to their word in 30 seconds I was able to track active on the ocTEL testbed site.

intercom test dashboard

Tracking user logins is a standard feature on most platforms (and can also be enabled in WordPress with the last login plugin), but there are nice features of Intercom that might make it a useful component within an open course situation. As well as tracking ‘last seen’ Intercom are able to track location, extended social profiles and levels of engagement. The fact it’s easy to install is a big plus, but if you are prepared to pay the $50/month you can get your hands on some nice additional features. As well as auto messaging you can reassign message replies to other users (the scenario I have in mind is reassigning messaging to other tutors).
So what would your reaction be if this tool was used in a course like ocTEL? Are there similar or better tools out there that you know about?
PS I’m currently having problems getting the email encrypted version of the embed code to work. Others might have more luck
Update: Here’s the code to add to your theme’s function.php to added support


Join the conversation

comment 9 comments
  • Roger Harrison

    Hi Martin – I’m not a techy but I sort of get the idea of the end result, and I’m interested in seeing if I can get this passed by my Faculty to introduce as part of plans I have to try and get more wider interaction amongst students on a course I teach online. I’m taking #ocTEL MOOC which is where I first got the idea for this idea of brining all the conversations into one place – the Daily Newsletter.
    Apart from the actual mechanics of how it is done (which is beyond me), I wonder what data protection issues might arise? This is the first brick wall I’ll come across when I present the idea. Though I suppose if students are deciding to opt in to this, then they are agreeing with the idea. But would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    • Martin Hawksey

      Hi Roger,
      The site is using a variation of the techniques used for other services like Google Analytics so on one level you could address this using similar ‘informed consent’ practices, making it clear data is being based to a 3rd party. Where it gets more sensitive is that within the configuration of intercom you can decide to passback the logged in user email address and/or id. You could just send an id but I’d imagine this will prevent you using the build in emailing features. Intercom are very aware of this sensitivity and in their documentation they recommend you look at their privacy policy closely and also include some sample text which you can include in your site. When registering for ocTEL participants had a mandatory checkbox to accept ocTEL Terms of Participation and this would be the place you could include the Intercom example text or variation of.
      Hope that help,

  • Colin Gray

    Really interesting tool Martin, cheers for sharing it.
    I’m more wondering about the opposite use – sending out enquiry emails to user who haven’t logged in in a certain amount of time. I feel with my own online courses that it’s often not so much a lack of desire to participate, it’s that people are busy enough that it’s actually easy to forget to get in there for a couple of days, and, by then, it takes a bit of effort to re-engage.
    Have you any experience so far in OCTel what makes regualar visitors keep coming back? And what makes dropouts, drop out?

    • Martin Hawksey

      The email if not logged in for X days appears to be one of the options which also caught my eye.
      The ‘regular visitors’ question is tricky. The forums generate 66% of our traffic while the course reader is 25%. Worth noting however that 30% of traffic is generated by links in the daily newsletter and links to blog posts aren’t tracked. Looking at the forums there only a few contributors, but would image more are in an auditing mode. I’ve no data to back it yet but imagine a lot of people get bored or behind.

      • Colin Gray

        Yea, had the same experience on my recent course. Out of 50 sign-ups I had probably about 10 visible contributors.
        It’s actually tempting to make the course not-so-open, sign-in only, just so that I can track the lurkers too. I wonder if there’s a way to do that without closing all of the content off… I plan to look at my standard Google analytics to look at visitor numbers, but it doesn’t tell me which of them are part of the course, and which are just random visitors. Would be good to differentiate.

        • Roger Harrison

          Hi – 10 out of 50 is good! 20%. Though of course one wants to try and deliver the course to those who were initially interested too, but I wouldn’t be too disappointed with this level.

          • Colin Gray

            Thanks Roger, you’re right, it’s not a terrible result, but it still feels like a very low number. Really keen to work on ways to increase the percentage of engagers…

  • Roger

    Hi – so is this different to something like grasshopper and which do you think is preferable in terms of ease of use for setting up?

    • Martin Hawksey

      Hi – yes grsshopper is primarily designed to suck in various RSS feeds and pushing out an automated email summary (with some web interface). Intercom is more for login website login monitoring but you could use it for a manual email push. If the email out is your primary goal then there are other tools perhaps better suited for this like MailChimp which gives you stats like number of message opens (I know Martin Weller used this for his h817open course). For ocTEL we replicate grsshoppoer functionality using the feedwordpress and mailpress plugins. The rather scary background to this is here

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