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Facebook Applications: The Game Changer?

New ways higher ed institutions can use social networking
University Business, Feb 2008

IN NOVEMBER 2007, FACEBOOK launched a series of new features including "Pages," which allow colleges, universities, and other schools to create a presence and recruit "fans" among the users of the popular social networking website. Until then, institutions as well as organizations, big companies, or even small businesses were not really welcome on the popular college student online hangout. All were barred from setting up a user profile by Facebook's terms of use. Some institutional offenders even had their accounts taken down, losing all the connections established over time with their Facebook "friends." Before Facebook Pages, institutions could only set up groups, the same groups used by the aficionados of the wildest beer parties or the proponents of the weirdest campus causes.

Within a month after the launch of the new feature, more than 700 Facebook Pages were created by institutions, alumni associations, university offices, and college departments.

What are the reasons behind this impressive adoption rate? Facebook Pages don't cost a dime, are quick to create, and are easy to maintain. As a result, investing a couple of staff hours to Facebook is a no-brainer.

That's probably why higher ed institutions have adopted a more conservative approach with Facebook Platform.

Launched at F8, an event in San Francisco organized last May by the company, Facebook Platform opened windows of opportunity for IHEs. In a press release, the social networking website was "calling all developers to build the next generation of applications with deep integration into

Colleges and universities could leverage the medium to create some robust tools for students.

Facebook, distribution across its 'social graph,' and an opportunity to build new businesses." Six months later, this call had been answered more than 13,600 times with third-party applications fully integrated into the social networking website, engaging 60 million users on a daily basis.

How many of these have been authored by university developers?

Just a very, very small portion.

In mid-December, a search for "university" and "colleges" among listed Facebook applications returned fewer than 200 applications, and most of these had been developed by private third parties.

In the meantime, the incredible success of the first <b>Stanford</b> class covering Facebook applications last fall proved there was a real interest among students, the media, and even venture capitalists for these applications. Taught by BJ Fogg, Dave McClure, and Dan Ackerman-Greenberg, "Creating Engaging Web Applications Using Metrics and Learning on Facebook" was one of the most popular computer science classes offered at Stanford that semester. KissMe, a Facebook viral hit with more than 2 million installations as of mid-January, were designed by students enrolled in this class.

Chris Mocko, one of the Stanford students behind the KissMe application, believes that any application can achieve success, whether it is a mindless one that simply sends kisses to friends, or an educational one that provides more intrinsic value to the user. According to Mocko, the most important rule of thumb for all application developers is to keep things simple. "When KissMe reached 100,000 users, I was shocked at how such a simple application became so popular," he says. Success on Facebook Platform requires a very refined and to-the-point user experience.

Fred Stutzman-a PhD student at the School of Information and Library Science at <b>The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill</b> who has researched identity, social software, social technologies, computer- mediated communication, and more specifically Facebook-thinks colleges and universities could leverage the medium to create some much-needed, robust tools for students. "However, I would encourage a careful design process. Simply because an application is in Facebook does not mean it will be successful," he points out.

Mike Richwalsky, assistant director for public affairs at <b>Allegheny College</b> (Pa.), has developed a few Facebook applications. He is another strong believer in this proactive yet careful approach. While Facebook applications can offer value to current students or faculty and help institutions connect with alumni, friends, parents, and the local community, they can also bring a powerful marketing opportunity to reach prospective students. Last October at the HighEdWebDev conference in Rochester, N.Y., Richwalsky, along with an Allegheny colleague, Josh Tysiachney, introduced Facebook Platform to a room full of web professionals in a presentation titled "The Game Changer."

"I would advise colleges and universities to develop a strategy for their Facebook presence. It's not as easy as writing a bit of code and having success. There are many issues to think about before, during, and after you build your application," explained Richwalsky.

What types of applications have been developed by early adopters in higher ed?

Allegheny College and <b>Butler University</b> (Ind.), among other institutions, have built small applications to republish updates-news stories, campus events, dining hall menus, etc.-already available on their websites. "The app itself is pretty simple. It takes the RSS feed from our athletic webpage and pulls it into Facebook, where users can choose to put in on their profile either in the 'narrow' column or the 'wide' column," says Brad Ward, electronic communication coordinator at the Office of Admission at Butler. In just a few weeks, Butler's update application was installed by 10 percent of the student population, a reach achieved through viral marketing, without any promotional efforts.

Several institutions, including <b>The Pennsylvania State University, the University of Michigan, Mississippi State University,</b> and <b>Allegheny College,</b> offer applications allowing students and faculty members to search the library catalog without leaving Facebook. Most of these applications only offer a service already available on the school's website, portal or intranet. They don't tap into the power of the "social graph," the network of Facebook friends.

Students can find a new study buddy or post comments about a course to the dedicated wall.

On the contrary, Course Profiles goes far beyond importing an existing service into Facebook. The application was developed by a team at <b>The Open University,</b> which teaches 33 percent of all part-time undergraduates in the UK and is a distance learning leader. Students who have installed Course Profiles can display courses taken on their Facebook profile just by selecting the related course codes. They can click on the title of a course and access another panel to check out course details, access a list of Facebook friends enrolled in this class, find a new study buddy, recommend the course to their friends, or post comments about it to the dedicated wall.

Launched in early October 2007, the application was installed more than 1,500 times by the end of November, representing a reach of 37.5 percent of the Open University Facebook user base. "This success has been the result of addressing a particular need, successful experimentation with the viral forms of marketing afforded by Facebook, and the use of 'Facebook Flyers,' which represent more traditional forms of web advertising," says Stuart Brown, corporate communications officer at The Open University. In its first month of operation, the course application initiated 748 visits to the institution's website, visits resulting in a number of registrations on full courses, according to Brown.

From Facebook to the registrar's office in less than four weeks? That's a fast and promising return on investment, which some have already noticed. The Open University's development team has received several requests from their Facebook users to add courses from other institutions. Other universities and colleges have also expressed interest in the application.

<em>Karine Joly is the web editor behind ,a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.</em>

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