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The Alumni department (with help from Communications - my dept) is exploring the option of using a 3rd party company to create an online community. This site would be open to alumni as well as current faculty and staff. One of the challenges (aside from funding, admin buy-in, etc.) is developing a communications plan that will make the site a place people want to go to and go to often. Here are a few ideas that are bouncing around:

1. Have a few key contributors populate and contribute to the site before the official launch. We would do this so that people wouldn't be visiting an empty site, so they have people to talk to, "friend", etc. etc...

2. Profile interesting blog posts/university research on the main page.

I think students will love the site. But, I'm anticipating that we'll have challenges with faculty and staff feeling comfortable enough to let their proverbial hair down.

Any advice? What did you do when you rolled out your online community? How much staff time is involved? What would you have liked to have known before you started?

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I just presented about the topic last week at the CUPRAP conference.
You can find a few pointers, my slides and a few videos including tips from community managers in higher ed on this blog post about my presentation.

Hope this helps.
Karine, you are my hero. Thanks!
Well, thank you. Glad this helps.
Shannon, Lots to share on this topic. Let me start by recommending the book "Groundswell". One good takeaway is to focus on the relationships you want to build, not the technology.

One of my lessons learned with launching this site is the challenge of getting an online community off the ground. The initial launch period is critical. You need to actively nurture the site until it reaches critical mass.
Our school's alumni department created a community with a 3rd party vendor a few years ago. That vendor was bought out by another company, and so they've been forced to "upgrade" to the other company's product. The upside is that the community has the ability to sync with Alumni's Raiser's Edge database.

It has been difficult, however, for our alumni office, because the vendor's product is very complicated (though very powerful), and one really has to become an expert at using their web-based software to get the most out of it. (It is much more complicated than our main website CMS.) If there was a staff person dedicated to managing the online community, that might work, but at our small school, there is not such a person.

The amount of time involved in training and in building up the online community has been extensive. It is a project that could easily overwhelm the staff were they less disciplined. (They do have other responsibilities, after all!)

The other issue is that this online community asks users to participate in yet another social web site and one that only has to do with our school. It may not have enough going on in it to convince alumni to return frequently. I wonder if it might be better to simply build LinkedIn and Facebook groups or pages. The alumni are already in those networks, and we don't have to pay anything to build those groups. Or perhaps we need to work harder to leverage the groups on those social networks to make them aware of the unique advantages of our online alumni community.

In my own case, I very rarely interact with my alma mater's online presence, but I'm in touch with many of my old college friends via Facebook and LinkedIn.

The one thing I've learned about online communities is that it is not about us. It's about the audience -- the users -- and their interests. Create content about the audiences' passions, and you'll keep them coming back. Create content about yourself, and you'll be hearing crickets chirping.
John, for now, we are in the same boat. We don’t have a staff person dedicated to managing the proposed online community. How many hours a week do you think your person/people spend managing yours?

I’ve been looking for advice about online communities through Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. etc. There is a discussion thread in the Social Media Today group that’s been helpful: Community Managers: What do you foresee as your most challenging ob...

I like the suggestion of building a community that helps users “overcome a pain, a confusion or a need”.
Has anyone plugged an Application into Facebook? Has that increased participation substantially?

At Varsity Outreach, we've developed a Facebook Application for admissions and have gotten some good feedback from admission offices (we will be launching our first schools shortly). We think much of the same functionality is applicable on the Alumni side (searching and connecting with other alumni, targeted messages from the alumni / development office). We'd love to talk with folks regarding this.

Our thinking is that people are already on Facebook, so why make them sign up for another network to interact with alumni. Also, once they've made a connection, let them take the connection back to their main social network (i.e. find each other within your controlled environment in the Facebook Application, forge a relationship, then interact on the main Facebook site after that).
I'd echo the advice given by everyone so far, particularly Mark's comments on the importance of focusing on the relationships and not the technology, as well as the need to nurture the community.

Our Alumni office has worked through a couple attempts at creating an online community, the first dating back a lifetime ago in internet years, and the more recent attempt rolling out just before Facebook took off here in Canada. Both had their successes and failures, but neither took off the way it was hoped they would. We've found that our alumni are organizing themselves on Facebook and LinkedIn, and so as an interim solution the Alumni office is going to those spaces to build connections.

We are now starting a broader campus-wide look at the use of social media and a few themes have started to emerge. I think the two that might be most relevant to ideas, Shanan, might be:

Be clear on what the value of participation is - Why will people participate? What are the compelling reasons to join in? What are the tangible benefits? People need motivation and incentive to participate, the more clearly you can articulate what this incentive is, the more likely you'll be able to form an internal strategy that will lead to involvement.

If you don't know where to start, start by listening - There's a good chance your audience is already self-organizing itself online. Seek them out and get a sense of what conversations and interactions are happening, and use this as a starting point to decide how you might (or might not) participate in those spaces.

Some feedback on the ideas and a few other thoughts:

Seeding the site prior to launch - See if there are any active communities that have already formed (whether it's online communities, or maybe real-life communities that are looking for or would benefit from an online space) and approach these people to see if they would be interested in being "beta" users for your site. If they decline, it would be worth figuring out why, and that might point you in a direction for re-shaping your strategy for what you are offering.

Profiling interesting content on the main page - This one I think comes down to value of participation. It may be interesting to those of us who live and breathe what the university is all about, but it's worth checking in with your target audience to see whether it resonates as much with them. If it's content that already exists on top-level sites, having this content within an online community may come across as a marketing/pr/communications push from the university. But then again, it might be exactly the kind of content your audience is looking for - the only way to find out is to go and ask them.

Find a community manager who is a natural "champion" for the site - There is most definitely a need for a formal role to be given to someone who can help nurture and grow a community online. The best case scenario is to find someone internally who has deep organizational/institutional knowledge, who is already active in the different social media channels that exist, and who will gladly take on a community manager role with open arms. The last thing you want to do is force it onto anyone by making it a hard line in their job description.

Be open to the possibility that whatever you build and roll-out may become obsolete by this time next year - It's tough to deal with on all sorts of levels, but we seem to be entering a stage in the web where there are so many new tools emerging, and so many changes to the overall landscape, that investing heavily in any one platform is risky. Trends in the industry are moving so quickly that investing too much time and money into any one application opens the potential that by the time you start getting rolled out, you will have already fallen behind the pack.

Invest in people and culture - My current thinking around this is to completely avoid that investment in software and instead invest in people. Rather than spending thousands of dollars on a software license or custom-development time, spend it on finding and hiring people who can participate in the spaces that are already available online. Invest in professional development, networking and learning opportunities so that eventually you have people in-house who can provide expertise that comes from first-hand experience. And then do what you can to support this culture within your organization so that you can keep up to speed with the changes as they happen.

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