SOC12: In the Shadow of the Colossi: Alumni online communities in the age of Facebook and LinkedIn

Francis Zablocki 
Online Community Manager, SUNY Geneseo

The audio for this podcast can be downloaded at

Speaker 1:  This is one in a series of podcasts from the HighEd Web Conference in Austin 2011.

Mark:  Again Soc12 I’d like to introduce Fran Zablocki from SUNY Geneseo.  I just found out that he is a University of Buffalo grad and talking about the conference in 2013.  Both looking forward to that in a big way.  So without anymore talk here, let me introduce Fran talking about ‘In the Shadow of the Colossi’, Fran it’s all yours.

Francis Zablocki:  Thank you, Mark.


Francis Zablocki:† Thank you.† I am particularly excited about going back to Buffalo getting some insanity, suicide wings where some people sell.† Iíll start that group up right now.† You can come to me.† Weíll go get some good stuff.† Iím here today to present ĎIn the Shadow of the Colossií alumni online comminutes in the age of Facebook and LinkedIn.† Those are the colossi.† Thatís me in the front boat right there.† Thatís you.† Oh! I'm losing my mic.

Mark:  How was that one?

Francis Zablocki:  Ha Ha.  See?  Works much better.  So that’s you in the boat behind me and we are heading into the shadow.  It’s very brave of you to come with me in this journey.  I appreciate it. Who am I?  Fran Zablocki, online community manager SUNY Geneseo Alumni Relations.  What have I done?  In the last year and a half I have planned, built, branded, and launched SUNY Geneseo’s new online alumni community.  What am I going to talk about today?  I’m going to talk about the state of the alumni online community industry, some of the software products that are out there that are available for you.  I’m going to talk about the strategy and execution that we used for ‘U-Knight’ which is what we branded, the online community Geneseo and I’m going to talk a little bit about what kind of results we’ve had after a year?


And what kind of lessons we’ve learned.  So first off, the state of the industry.  There are only a couple of these full service alumni systems.  Andy Shaindlin from Alumni Futures who I highly suggest you follow on Twitter and take a look at his blog because he is, in my opinion, the foremost authority on alumni issues today caused these 'walled gardens'.  These are closed to non-alumni.  They are only open to the population of your alumni body.  They trade the size of the network for exclusivity.  They’re behind the password.  Only your alumni can get into the network.  And the advantage that these systems have is that they leverage your alumni trust.  OK.  There’s a big difference between the demographic that the enrollment and admissions folks used.

And the alumni office deals with because with enrollment and admissions, you have a lot people of similar age, of similar technical capabilities. With alumni, it runs against it.  You could have somebody who doesn’t use technology at all.  You could have somebody who is very savvy, some recent alums. And so trust is actually a huge factor.  Not everyone in my audience necessarily trusts Facebook.  Not everyone in my audience necessarily trust social media and so it’s important that they have another option if they need it.  Or an additional option if they need it. And so that’s what these communities leveraged to be competitive with the big social networks.  Two big examples, two competitors in this full service alumni system area are IModule and Harris Connect.


Show hands, how many people are using one of these systems right now at their schools?  OK. Quite a few.  They offer or at least claim to offer many different features.  And so you got an online directory.  You have email marketing.  You have events management, online giving options, membership management, social and curry networking, content management all of those things.  Not all of those things are necessarily useful.  And I’ll get to that a little bit later.  But those are the core components of those full service alumni systems.  Then you have companies such as EverTrue who make products specifically for alumni and nobody else.

So EverTrue is a mobile alumni app that is doing great things with Brown and a couple of other schools and allowing your alumni to connect just targeting that audience.  Then you have solutions that are crossover solutions such as Constant Contact which a lot of us probably have used in the past for email, marketing, and event management, things like that.  These aren’t specifically target source alumni.  But you can use them to do a lot of things you would need to do.  And then, of course, you have the two colossi, Facebook and LinkedIn.  These are open public networks.  They overlap almost all the features of these private networks that we’re talking about Harris and IModule.  The challenge is for any alumni office who is going to implement one of these private networks is to be relevant against these huge colossi.


How do you possibly compete against Facebook and LinkedIn?  I obviously had a moment of panic when I got hired at Geneseo.  They had just signed a contract, a five-year contract for Harris Connect.  I was not there before they made that decision.  I got there and was told that, “You need to make this work.”  Did I just inherit a system that is dead in the water?  I had 10 months to get it live.  The solution that we came up with at Geneseo was U-Knight Geneseo Online Community.  How did U-Knight come to be?  This was the project plan.  Here’s the elevator speech.

U-Knight is a collection of online sites and services that help Geneseo alumni find and connect with each other and the institution by sharing news, conversation, experiences, and expertise. But, I want it to boil it down to even one small piece or just one sentence, is a place online for alumni to do the things that they want to do to engage with each other and Geneseo.  And I wanted to start broad.  I wanted it to be able to cover a lot of different things because I didn’t want to get pigeon hole in with one particular type of technology.

So we had some really distinct goals right from the beginning.  One is the launch in 10 months.  We wanted to get 10% of all of our alumni to register for this system for this program within one year.  We wanted to establish and grow an online social media presence for the alumni because we didn’t have much of a Twitter and Facebook presence for that.  And we wanted to get new alumni, 50% of the graduating class of 2011 registered, at least 50% register for U-Knight before they graduated so they were in the system right from the start.


Identified four components of a successful launch.  We needed this to be collaborative.  I wasn’t going to be able to do this by myself.  I needed to have the help of all the different people who I work with in the advancement division and some people that I had worked with in some other divisions.  We needed to have rock-solid data integration with Banner, which is our main system, I mean record-keeping system.  We needed to make sure that we chose the right features from the right providers.  And most importantly, we needed to make sure that we marketed the heck out of this.  So that we could establish this brand as something that was in people’s minds in the same sphere as Facebook and LinkedIn. So no small task.  The project team. I guess it is cross divisional, we had Advancement Data Services.

The DBAs, we had the alumni team including myself, our web developers, and web designers, marketing office.  One of them is here right now Laura Canyon.  Not just the Link Magazine publisher but also an integral part to the success of this project.  And the project manager, me.  The first issue before we got do any of the fun stuff.  And the first issue for any of you before you come up with a brand, come up with the logo, try to figure out the next is data integration.  The online community is only as good as your online directory.  The online directory is where people is going to be able to go and find each other and be able to search someone up that they have lost touch with.  Be able to find out who else is in the same city they just moved into.


Your online directory is only as good as your data.  And if your data is garbage you might as well not even start the project.  So the first thing I had to do is go to the data folks and say, “Where are we at with that?  What are we missing?  What’s good? What’s bad?”  So you have to keep a really close relationship with those data folks.  Things that we came across during this process was data integrity.  We were missing a lot of information in our alumni.  A lot of club and association information that over the years, people hadn’t grabbed before people had gone out the door with their diploma.  We had to deal with privacy.  How much information is OK to share?  Even in a private network where the people are going to be comfortable with sharing.

We settled on what would be in a phone book and what would be in a print directory?  And then we took a couple of special steps with things like email and phone numbers where email is actually masked in the system.  So you can contact somebody one way, but you don’t know what their email address is.  That prevents people from spamming. Gives them some extra step for them to actually get in contact puts the onus of contacting back on the person who received the email.  One of the hugest issues for us was authentication.  Before, about 1995, no one knew what their identification number was at Geneseo, it’s an internal number only.  No one ever told them.  There’s no point whether they were to remember that.  Current students know these G-IDs, Geneseo IDs, like the back of their hand they know it.


But, older alumni don’t know.  So we need to figure out a way to get those to them that was secure so that they weren’t calling our office 50 times a day to figure out what that is.  And it must synchronize nightly.  It has to talk to Banner every night.  You can’t even let it go a day because you’ll end up with data redundancy. You'll end up with one piece of data that’s out of date coming before and not the one that should be in there.  So those are some of the data integration issues.  Next up is feature selection.  What actions do alumni want to take?  Just like everybody else, they want to share, they want to find, they want to promote, they want to participate, they wanted to discuss.  What actions does Geneseo want alumni to take?  Well all of the above, right?  But we also want them to lead and to support.

How do we find the right mix of features?  Who is the right provider for each of those features and let’s not use a feature just because we’ve already paid for it.  Harris Connect says they can do social media.  Can they really do social media?  The answer is no.  They can’t do it.  Can they do email marketing?  Yes.  Can they do events management?  Yes.  How do break it up?  What was the ultimate decision?  Well it’s a mixture.  The online directory, alumni search, you can see permanent email, event registration, and class notes all that was Harris Connect.  Broadcast news and direct dialogue as you’ve expect, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  Job postings and job search, LinkedIn and Harris Connect share that role.  Photo sharing, Facebook and Flickr.  Photo galleries are Flickr.


We have an FAQ in the social media directory on the website and we are trying to figure out what we’re going to do with our mobile apps.  So you’re talking about all these things on the umbrella of U-Knight.  But there’s all these different systems.  How do you get the message across that this is out there without getting into the weeds with all these different systems.  Well we have to market it, we have to promote it.  And we have to take an umbrella strategy to it.  We need every site and feature tied to one brand.  OK.  No matter where you get your information, you’d know that this is U-Knight, this is the Geneseo online community.  This umbrella strategy also gives us the advantage of having flexibility for the feature.  We can change the feature mix.

We can change every single one of the companies that provides the apps for this.  If one better stuff comes around and we can keep U-Knight and we can keep everything under that umbrella.  We need a recognizable, memorable logos and I’m very fortunate to work with some very talented designers. I'm putting this together and the knight, the Geneseo knights were uniting.  I was able to actually get the two different marks.  This on the left hand side we got the main one.  But on the right hand side, I wanted to make sure we had something that was branded, but fit in all the weird little spaces that you see online.  We would have a square brand for our Twitter feed.  I wanted to keep it simple and funnel everything to a single place.


So every single piece of promotion pointed you and funneled you to one webpage and that was  Once they got everyone, I’m going to take action quickly.  So this was actually a cross media strategy.  It was not just an online social media strategy.  It was a cross media strategy ‘cause we’re trying to establish this tool as something that people would want to do and because all of our alumni get their communications through all these different channels.  We had to be present in every single one.  Online was the most obvious and this is where we pointed everybody to.  This is the U-Knight home page.  It’s not very snazzy, but it’s very functional.  It leads people right to where they need to go, let’s them take action on what they need to do.

Every single one of our pages on the alumni site has a login on the left hand side, which is branded with U-Knight and has links to all of our social media.  On the homepage of the alumni site, we have a quick links toolbar that takes people directly to those particular tools from the homepage.  The alumni blog which is also one of the things we started after the launch of U-Knight is branded with U-Knight.  The Twitter feed has the same brand.  Facebook is used and when we post in Facebook from the blog, the U-Knight logo shows up. All of these was intended to just overwhelm people with, this is the official brand.  This is Geneseo.  This is Geneseo Alumni Online.  Same thing with LinkedIn.


We wanted a social medial directory so that in addition to all the different things that we’re providing at Geneseo.  We will be able to give people a space to put their own social media if they were a clubber activity or a Greek group or something like that.  And also we’ll make it easily disseminated on one page so you can see very clearly which channels have what types of social media used for them.  Created a bunch of video tutorials, allowing people to know how to register and giving a survey of all the different social media.  This probably seems a little crazy, right?  Why would I need to know?  Have you take it hand in hand.  Tell me all these different social media?  It’s all about who the audience is to understand.

If you’re in an enrollment, you’re not worried about whether somebody knows what Facebook and Twitter can do for you. But if you’re an alumni and you’re trying to get people to come to an online site who may be afraid of that type of thing.  They may not have used it or maybe it’s the first they’ve ever used it.  You want to make sure that they have someone who can hold their hand through it.  Have a little brief tutorial.  This is what it is.  This is what it can do to help you.  That’s why we created those tutorial videos.  And a little bit more counterintuitive, we used print advertising.  We used traditional media to promote new media.  And we did that through a number of different places.  The most obvious and the biggest impact was their alumni magazine which goes out three times a year.

We didn’t buy add space but we’ve convinced our alumni magazine editor to give us a two-fold which is actually the bottom half of two different pages in three successive magazines.  We wanted to be modern.  We wanted to be clean.  We wanted to be something that will be compelling to get people to take an action.  So this went seasonally.  You can see the penguins for the winter, butterflies for summer.  We wanted to encourage people once the summer came along.  We’re about nine months in.  We had thousands of people signed up.  We wanted to get and use that, say there are a lot of people who are already here.  Don’t be shy.  Jump in.  On the back of each of the magazines, I wanted to just have a very simple message.


Something that would really stand out if this was sitting on a coffee table.  What can you do with this.  Share.  Share your big promotion, share your new addition, share the help that you need, or the help that you can give and we try to be a little bit funny about it, a little bit quirky.  That was a little bit of a departure from our normal communications plan.  Search.  Reach for an event near you, a business connection in Philadelphia or that gorgeous redhead who lived in Erie Hall.  That’s the type of thing that we’re hoping would resonate with alumni.

We did email promotion which I’ll freely admit probably needs most work out of all of the things we’ve put out.  But we wanted to tell people through our email newsletter that U-Knight was here and we ran some promotions and said, “If you can sign up by date, we’ll give you a prize.”  Well this guy, first he gets his free sweatshirt and refuses to smile.  Can’t really do much about that. It's the best we could get, a photo out of there, I was laughing about that one.  And, last thing we did in person engagement.  So this is actually what current students.

What better place to get current students actually pay attention other than when they’re standing in line?  So we tied in a program with students services called Countdown to Commencement where all the seniors basically take care of all the things they need to do before they graduate all in one place.  You know it was right at the head of that.  We had Kiosks that said register here, we had all of our staff trained to get people done.  Just get them in, just them registered 40 seconds, they’re done, they move on.  We give them literature about what it is.


Again, these are young students going to use a social media site or using traditional media to get them engaged.  Using netbooks to keep the size down.  And I know QR codes are something that I want to move into.  But out first attempt at getting business cards to be social media friendly was convincing to the entire alumni staff that we needed to have our social media presences on our business cards.  This is an example of the front and this is the back.  I think it’s great that that our associate vice president for alumni has this on her cards so whenever she goes out in these alumni.  Whenever she talks about the U-Knight, she can say, “Here you go.  This is the information you need.  Take a look at this website.”  And this is even more low tech, staff manuals.  A little bit of internal marketing.

You know what we got major gift officers and we’ve got other people who aren't going to know what this is unless we tell them about it.  And you know what? They may not go online to see it but at least they can talk about it intelligently, they can promote it at the event signal into this alumni.  Here’s a really quick and easy way of looking at it.  U-Knight at a glance.  What is it?  That’s for internal staff use.  They can share it with other people.  After all this marketing promotion we’re able to launch on time in 10 months.  And that was in 2010 in October so we are exactly one year after.  We’ve had almost 4,500 registered users.  That’s 90% of our goal and 9% of all alumni has registered for U-Knight.  Over 55% of the class of 2011 singed up before graduation.  But that was exceeding our goal.


After starting a new Facebook page we all have 2,660 as of a couple days ago with a 10,000 unique visits to the U-Knight homepage.  We’ve had 15,000 alumni directory searches and this is actually the one metric that I considered the most important because getting people in the door is fine.  Making sure that you’re actually doing something once they’re in the doors even more important.  This is what we wanted them to do all along.  We wanted to make sure that people were looking for each other, making those connections.  That number shows me that people are using that tool.  Two hundred fifty class notes were submitted online.  These completely changed our class notes structure from one that where people can only see it when they had the alumni magazine in their hands to real time.

Again, for this crowd, I know this seems kind of low tech and it seems kind of old knowledge in way but in the alumni world we try to reach out.  We’re trying to target a really broad demographic.  We tried to use different tools and techniques to reach different generations so we wanted to have a ride different tactics for that.  And I’m really proud to say that during this year, the U-Knight program won the SUNYCUAD, the State University of New York, award of excellence for best in category for alumni programs.  That’s a really great achievement for us, good recognition.  But not everything went well.  And we certainly learned a lot of lessons along the way.  At least for me creating an online alumni community involved an awful lot of offline work.

As you can see from all the different print and low tech marketing.  It required an entire division, not just me.  I mean I manage the project, but it was the ability of everyone to collaborate as me being able to go and pull in resources from different areas without having to worry about getting pushed back that made this successful.  Then again, using traditional media to promote new media works, cross media, not new media, not old, but cross media is the goal when you want to cross promote all of your different channels.  Private networks can be relevant in conjunction with public networks because your alumni trust you and they may not trust those other networks.


They may trust them but they may want that extra connection.  They know when they talk to somebody in the U-Knight network that they are fellow alumni.  They automatically have that affinity for each other.  There’s an understanding there that may not be present on something like Facebook or even LinkedIn.  Another thing I’ll warn anybody, if you don’t already know the Harris, IModule.  They say they’re all inclusive.  They’re not.  They say they have these different features.  They don’t really.  Some of them are in beta indefinitely.  Kind of false starts. Harris has a social media, a feature that you can buy for $1,500 a year.  Kind of hard to sell that when you can get amazing social media on any number of different sites for free all the time especially since it didn’t work during the demo that they tried show me.

So that kind of thing, there’s all kinds of bloatware so make sure you go piece by piece through the software.  Figure out what will work from it and figure out what doesn’t work and just throw it to the side and move on.  Another thing we had to do, which I wasn’t sure how are they going to react, but I had basically rewrote their entire frequently asked questions section as did Laura.  Laura helped me out with that as well.  The writing wasn’t up to par.  It was technical writing that probably hadn’t been edited in about five years so we had to update it.

We just scrapped it.  We wrote it all ourselves.  We said, “Look, here you go Harris.  You guys can have what we did.  But this wasn’t up to par you.  You really should take a look at this.” And being able to work with our IT team was huge too. Being able to create a self-service ID generator is probably the single thing that saved us the most time in customer service calls.

People were able to go in and authenticate using different criteria other than their G-ID on our server and have the G-ID send them automatically based on those criteria being filled out correctly and so the number of technical support calls we had of, “I don’t what my G-ID is?, “I can’t figure out how get into the system?” were drastically reduced from the number that Harris normally has for its clients.  Just as last Thursday and this was me on last Thursday. I had another moment of panic.  And I’m still panicking because we purchased the Harris Career Advisory Network in July of this year.  LinkedIn Classmates just released beta on Thursday.  I feel like maybe our new career advancement network which was going to be next big thing might have been made irrelevant overnight--