Part III: Auto-Pilot Leads to Crash and Burn - Community-Building Lessons from NACAC 2010

October 18, 2010

This is the third and final 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 two posts (Seed Your Community and Provide a Clear Structure).

One of the main things I noticed about our panelists was that there were a lot of differences in their specific approaches. There was no magic bullet. In fact, each seemed to be utilizing Facebook in very different ways.

Butler has taken a very open approach. They seem to have numerous ways that prospects can interact with their school on Facebook. Several departments have Facebook Pages, as does the university as a whole, the athletics program, and the admissions department.

High Point, on the other hand, creates a private Class of 20XX group for admitted students. Users have to be approved to join the group and, if they decline the admissions offer, they are removed from the community.

Susquehanna has taken a bit of a hybrid approach, utilizing our Facebook Application, which includes a walled-off section for admitted students, as well as Facebook Groups.

However, the one consistency was the resources and effort dedicated to Facebook. All the schools on our panel were taking an active role in cultivating relationships with prospects and admits on Facebook and were improving their efforts on an on-going basis.

Butler posts something every 1-3 days on Facebook. High Point has run a variety of contests and has a staff member constantly checking Facebook. Susquehanna monitors data on use of its Facebook Application and runs group chats among its community members on Facebook.

Each has prioritized Facebook as a viable outreach tool. And, moreover, none were satisfied with the status quo. One of the cool things I noticed after the panel was that each had picked up an idea or two from their fellow panel members, from our survey findings and research, and from audience members. These were schools that were consistently experimenting with new tactics and revisiting existing practices.

None of these schools is on auto-pilot. While their specific tactics may vary, they're all tinkering and tweaking, trying to figure out where their efforts are having an impact and where they're less effective.

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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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Facebook's New Groups: Is It the End of Class of 20XX Groups for Colleges and Universities?

October 7, 2010

Yesterday, Facebook rolled out a makeover for their Group functionality. It's a pretty major shift for Groups, seeming to emphasize small, more personal collections of individuals rather than large, more anonymous groups. This intent was made clear in Facebook's blog:

"[Groups are] a simple way to stay up to date with small groups of your friends and to share things with only them in a private space."

I'm still trying to wrap my head around whether this will have a positive or negative impact on colleges' Class of 20XX Groups for incoming freshmen, but I figured I'd share my thoughts.

Chat

It seems natural to start with what is probably the most powerful new feature. The new group chat functionality looks like it could be a great tool for admitted students to take advantage of. It offers the potential of real-time interaction with future classmates, a really positive way for these admits to form stronger bonds with each other. Another nice twist is that group members don't have to be Facebook friends to chat with each other.

Potential Spoiler: While there has been no official word from Facebook, some blogs have reported that chat functionality may go away for Groups with more than 250 members.

Powerful E-mail List

The new Groups might be best viewed as the next generation of e-mail lists. By default, a Group will send all its members an e-mail every time someone posts. Previously, the Group admins were the only ones that could trigger messages to every member. Moreover, you can give the Group an e-mail address so that you can share new posts via e-mail without coming back to Facebook.

I'm not sure if this functionality is a blessing or a curse for Class of 20XX Groups.

For a small personal Group (like a family, a close-knit collection of friends, study groups), this could be a great replacement for e-mail blasts to share photos, to update classmates about assignments, or to coordinate plans for a future trip, for example. However, will your admits find it overwhelming for an active Class of 20XX with several hundred, maybe even more than a thousand, members? This also gives Group spammers more potential to be disruptive in large Class of 20XX groups.

Group notifications are a setting that can be changed by Group members. They can choose not to receive e-mails and even limit which notifications they receive to the following triggers:

  • A member posts or comments
  • A member posts
  • A friend posts
  • Never notify me

Admin Features Limited

Admins are not able to customize Groups like they were before. You can't control what functionality is available (e.g., enabling or disabling videos or photos, limiting who could post photos, links, or videos). As I mentioned before, you are no longer the only person that can message the entire group.

Approving Group Members

One shift that I think will make managing large Class of 20XX Groups more challenging is that all Group members must be approved by an admin. Until approved, they cannot post or comment in the Group. Previously, you could set a Group as open, allowing anybody to join without approval.

If I'm an admitted student or a counselor on the road, is approving every member going to be an onerous task?

Privacy

There will be no indication on your Facebook profile of which Groups you are a member. Additionally, when you join a Group, it will not show up in the news stream of your Facebook friends. I could see this being a big benefit among graduate students, who may not want to let their work friends know they are applying.

Old Facebook Groups

Existing Groups will continue to function like they always have. Currently, there is no way to shift old Facebook Groups to the new Group system.

The Future of Colleges' Class of 20XX Groups

Does Facebook's new Group feature signal the end of Class of 20XX at colleges and universities? Probably not. The Group chat functionality is a pretty compelling new feature that could really help future students get to know each other. However, Facebook's new Groups do seem to be intended for smaller groups where most of the members know each other. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out for the Class of 2015.

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Part I: Seed Your Community - Community-Building Lessons from NACAC 2010

October 5, 2010

I may be a little biased, but I think the Facebook 101 session we put on at NACAC with 3 great admissions professionals went really well. The attendees had some great questions and my fellow panelists offered some valuable tips from their own experiences using Facebook to reach out to prospective and admitted students.

For those of you who couldn't be at the NACAC Conference in St. Louis or were there, but couldn't make the session, I figured I'd share a few of the insights shared by our panelists (from Susquehanna University, High Point University, and Butler University) and from our audience in a three-part series of blog posts. While the focus of the session was on Facebook, I think these lessons apply to community-building in general.

Plant Some Seeds to Grow Your Community

One of the things we heard several times from the panelists was the importance of seeding the community with content. You don't want your first wave of students to join your community with nothing to do. You'll have wasted all that effort getting them to the community with no payoff.

Think of it like a party. You want to welcome the early visitors. Make sure they "feel at home" and have a good time. The more fun they're having at the party, the more likely the next wave of visitors will have fun. If the first visitors start dancing, I bet the second wave of visitors is more likely to dance. If they're sitting bored on a couch, your second wave of visitors may not stay too long.

Some ideas for seeding your community:

  1. Start a few discussion topics before launching the community
    You probably know the types of questions and information your prospects and admits want. Define some space in the community for interacting around those topics. If you've got a great Study Abroad program, start a topic, list the countries where students can go, and ask community members to share which country they'd like to visit.
  2. Solicit their input
    A successful community encourages users to share their thoughts and questions. Provide some easy hooks for getting involved. Ask new members to introduce themselves. Post questions often. I think that a blank wall is an uninviting wall.
  3. Be Ready to Respond
    Have a team of admission counselors and/or current students waiting to answer questions and to post replies. You want to make the community feel lively even for the first 10 members to join.

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