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August 17, 2005

Are you concerned?

Do you know where your future alumni are tonight?

Social networking sites threaten your relationship with Gen Y’s

Forty percent of the colleges in the United State have adopted online directories and communities to gather email addresses and other data from their alumni so they can communicate more frequently with less effort, collect donations and build networks within their alumni.

These organizations and university alumni associations that do not have online directories and communities are facing significant competition to connect with their young alumni from a new breed of social networking communities.

Websites like www.myspace.com and www.thefacebook.com  are offering opportunities for your current students and young alumni to stay connected.  We held a focus group with students of a small east coast college regarding their participation in social networking sites. 

What we learned was a real eye opener.   

• Heavy users were on the commercial web sites, updating data and looking at others profiles for over 2 hours a day
• Nearly all filled in VERY long registration information fields, sharing IM, cell phone, dorm room information, roommate information and very personal information
• Students were saying and posting any information or photos they wished
• Students assumed the college approved of the site because they were required to use their .edu address to register

The amount of data and information provided to the public and fellow classmates would make any development officer drool with excitement.  Knowledge of the types of activities interests, groups and organizations helps any development officer craft a more customized ask.   The problem is, the information about events, activities and groups they belonged to is on a commercial website and will not be available to the development officers.

Colleges that I’ve spoken to who face FERPA regulations are astounded at the amount of data that students are sharing with others on their website.  It appears although the government wants to protect their privacy and information, students seem to care little.

Thefacebook.com is a commercial website founded only 3 years ago that provides its service for free and displays ads to generate revenue.  With virtually no advertising and based on the viral marketing recommendations of students talking to other students it has grown to over 2 million users and it is in the top 10 most active sites on the net.  The company recently received $12 million in venture capital money to continue marketing and developing their product which is capturing a significant amount of time with your students and young alumni.  Myspace was just purchased by The News Corporation for $580 million recently. Both companies are aiming to continue to broaden their relationship with your students and alumni.

So that brings me to my point……

If you do have an online directory, and for those that do not, you have formidable competition from just these two commercial websites to develop a relationship with your alumni. 

As students continue to update data and information within social networking sites like thefacebook.com they will solidify a relationship and develop behaviors that will be hard to change.  As their relationship with the commercial web sites deepen, the chances of them coming to your website to update data, learn about events, contribute or network with others becomes remote.

The data they provide commercial website will not help you:

• Obtain change of address or email address
• Communicate needs in annual giving and capital campaigns
• Send monthly eNewsletters to keep them informed
• Network alumni

In order to ensure that you have a relationship with your students on campus and your young alumni, it’s time to rapidly develop an Internet strategy. 

What are your thoughts?

Are commercial social networking websites ….a friend or foe?

Posted by Don Philabaum on August 17, 2005 at 12:17 PM | Permalink


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I've seen a lot of online communities bomb after launch because neither the company nor the community was interested in the long-term. No one's heart was in it because the community was contrived from the start. Inside everyone said that a community was necessary to compete; outside early adopters jumped onboard but quickly flamed out.

Commercial Web sites have more staying power because their purpose comes from the bottom up. Commercial sites have more reach and larger numbers which adds to the value of being a member. You can't beat them so why not join them?

I'm wondering if organizations that lack the political and technical support necessary to sustain a community shouldn't leverage facebook, Live Journal and the like.

Anyone with a .edu address can access facebook, including alumni directors and development officers. Why not join and create alumni groups within facebook and offer yourself as a point of contact? Or just join those that alumni have already created groups? Even institutions that have official alumni communities should use facebook to drive traffic.

But since we're "in their house" we have to follow their rules. If you over stay your welcome or behave poorly, you'll alienate your alumni.

Alumni are blogging like everyone else, but are we aware of what they are saying? Many bloggers publish their blogs under their own name. They often create or join loose groups of fellow bloggers by publishing their interest; be that coffee, cycling or their alma mater.

As a member of Live Journal you can search these interest groups to see who else shares your interests. Find out if your alumni have listed their alma mater as an interest in Live Journal. If they have browse those bloggers posts.

Again, this is their house so you have to tread very lightly. The value may not seem immediately obvious, but the insight you will gain over time will help you better understand your constituents online needs.

I think commercial Web sites are part of our garden and should be tended as one of our own.

Posted by: Bob Robertson-Boyd | Aug 18, 2005 8:53:28 AM

I agree wholeheartedly with Bob Robertson-Boyd's comments about leveraging these existing "outside" commercial sites for our own purposes. A sort of quiet revolution is possible, I think, where we buy in to the fact that our institutions' students are using these tools as a matter of their regular online interaction. We join as well and create a channel for monitoring the young alums' use of these tools and make strategy decisions based on what we see.

We are not going to convince, trick, cajole or otherwise talk our alumni into using our own sites instead of Facebook or even LinkedIn etc. We should adopt those sites as adjuncts to our own, and focus our internal efforts on offering students and alumni tools they CANNOT get from outside sources. Between our ability to offer privileged access to our school-specific closed community online, and their natural desire to use external tools to leverage overlapping networks, we will have done the best thing possible to track them and to learn what their networking needs might be.

Posted by: Andy Shaindlin | Aug 23, 2005 11:43:31 AM

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