The Social Side of College Admissions

Part II: Provide a Clear Structure - Community-Building Lessons from NACAC 2010

October 11, 2010

This is the second post about the lessons learned from our educational session, entitled Facebook 101, at this year's NACAC Conference. You might want to check out our previous post (Seed Your Community).

I really liked a point made by Stephanie Elpers at Butler in our educational session. When they've run video contests with current students, they've focused on specific subject areas. They don't just say make a video about Butler. They ask current students to create a video showing their Butler "crib" or their favorite spot on campus.

She's providing structure. It's important to do the same in your communities. By defining a clear understanding of how members can engage in the community, you lower the barriers to engagement. By creating boundaries, you actually give users more freedom to interact.

Specific, detailed questions are much easier to answer than broad, general questions. Think about it. If someone asked you to "Define yourself", you'd probably have to think about that one for a while. You have to think about what the question means to you, then decide what criteria you are going to use to answer the question. Not only that, you probably would have a different answer for this question depending on who asked it (e.g., your boss at work, your religious leader, your spouse or child).

If someone asked you to name your favorite football team or TV show, you'd probably be able to conjure up a response pretty quickly. The question is pretty straight-forward. There's not a whole lot of room for interpretation.

Now think about these two questions for prospective students:

  1. What's your favorite thing about College X?
  2. Where are you from?

For a community centered around College X, the first question would seem more relevant, right? But I bet the second question is going to elicit many more responses.

Here's why I think so:

The first question can have multiple interpretations. What's my favorite thing about the campus? the academics? the student body? Also, my answer may depend on who the audience is. If it's my friend, I may say the parties. If it's an admissions officer, I may respond that it's the top-notch biology program. There's really only one answer to the second question.

Creating a structure may seem heavy-handed, like you're trying to control the community. In fact, it's the opposite. You're helping to remove ambiguity. You're quickly establishing norms, letting your users focus less effort on understanding what they should and should not do in the community and more effort on actually building relationships.

A quick word of warning: Providing a structure does not mean dictating the conversation. If your community members take the conversation in unexpected directions, let it happen (unless it's inappropriate, of course). By creating a clear structure for the community, you're providing the canvas, the paints, the brushes, and some inspiration. However, you need to let your community members paint the picture they want. If not, they'll go elsewhere.

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