Monday, May 19, 2008

CHE: Colleges Create Facebook-Style Social Networks to Reach Alumni

Chronicle Of Higher Education April 25, 2008

Colleges Create Facebook-Style Social Networks to Reach Alumni


Trying to emulate the popularity of Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, hundreds of college alumni associations have begun to offer their own online social networks, seeking to stake a claim on the computer screens of current and former students, especially young alumni.

But many of the sites have struggled to attract alumni and to keep them interacting with the devotion they show to their online profiles on other networks. That makes the sites less useful to colleges, which want to foster closer ties with alumni and keep tabs on their whereabouts for fund raising and other purposes.

"Social networking is definitely hot, and people want to know what to do," says Andrew Shaindlin, executive director of the alumni association at the California Institute of Technology.

The question, he says, is, Do these exclusive networks fill a need for alumni?


Colleges have long tried to tap into Facebook by establishing affinity groups there, but they cannot easily mine the site for data or contact information. So, in order to embrace the social-networking phenomenon themselves, many institutions have simply built their own networks.

Reconnecting People


While online socializing is one attraction for alumni, career development has grown as another major draw for the colleges' networking sites. Now job hunters can more easily identify and contact fellow alumni who are employed at companies where they want to work. Some employers that pay a fee can tap into the sites to recruit alumni from specific institutions or who graduated with certain majors.


Several companies offer platforms for institutional alumni networks, and two have taken a particularly large share of the business. Affinity Circles Inc., which was created in 2002 by Stanford University students, offers a product called inCircle and says it has about 95 college customers. Another company, iModules Software Inc., has offered alumni-centric products since 1999, including one for social networking called Encompass. More than 500 colleges and universities use its products, the company says.


"We don't do many events where we can reconnect 2,300 people simultaneously," says Mr. Brandon. "We see a lot of groups of friends reconnecting online."

Specialized Sites

While most alumni associations have used commercial vendors to construct their social-networking presences, a few colleges have built their own.

Elon University released its online "town square," called E², last May. Administrators were looking to revamp the alumni association's Web site to make it more dynamic. They ended up building a social network not just for alumni but also for current students, faculty members, and even parents.


The site has a feel similar to that of a Facebook profile page but with several additional features, including the option for students and alumni to post résumés along with their profiles.


Alumni may find the network more attractive than current students do. "I've heard there's a lot of resistance from the students to using it — they think it's cheesy and repetitive of Facebook," says Caroline E. Sage, a 2002 graduate. "But I do know a lot of people who have reconnected, and I have been surprised by the alumni involvement.


A Closed Environment

Carleton College, too, is creating its own alumni-networking site, using an open-source framework called Elgg. The exclusivity of existing platforms was one reason campus officials decided to forgo commercial vendors and build their own site, which will allow alumni to interact with people outside the college community.

"They were all working in the model of creating a closed environment where your alums can do all the stuff they can on Facebook," says Mark F. Heiman, a senior Web-application developer at Carleton. "We looked at that and said, 'This is not going to work. Nobody is going to sign on to this.'

"That message has not been lost on some alumni directors, who see the restrictive nature of the social-networking sites offered by colleges as a major drawback.


He suggests that colleges focus on working as best as they can to stay connected with current and former students through Web sites those people already use, including the career-networking site LinkedIn.

Most software companies that build online-networking systems for colleges have been reluctant to confront the issue of how having closed environments can put those systems at a disadvantage. Mike McCamon, vice president for marketing at iModules, says his company is considering steps to allow alumni associations to interact with iModules customers at other institutions but has no immediate plans to do so.


Section: Money & ManagementVolume 54, Issue 33, Page A18



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