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It's the Community, Stupid!

A seven-step plan to raise and nurture any community online
University Business, Oct 2008

BLOGS, WIKIS, PODCASTS, videocasts, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and more have made their way into the world of higher education. Whether you work in admissions, communications, marketing, PR, student services, advancement, alumni relations, web services, or information technology, it’s impossible to ignore these dynamic new technologies.

In today's crowded social web, it's all about engagement and speed.

Yet it’s easy to get blindsided and miss that it’s really not about the technology but the community. While we can’t predict today what the next Facebook or YouTube will be, we can get ready for the online communities of tomorrow. It might take a village to raise a child, but what does it take to jumpstart and nurture a thriving online community? A bit of luck, a lot of work, and this seven-step plan I developed for the closing keynote speech I gave in July at the eduWEB conference in Atlantic City, N.J.

It’s very easy to think that we know exactly what our target audiences want based on our professional expertise, personal experience, or simple hunches. However, this is not always the case. That’s why it’s very important to poll the members of your targeted community, whether they are high school seniors, current students, graduates, young alums, or donors. Find out about their needs, their expectations, and their preferences straight from the source before starting any social initiative.

Favor an online survey over focus groups, since your resulting initiatives will be implemented on the web. Ask what you can do for your constituents, in order to make sure you fulfill a need and don’t add to the communication overload.

What is the core mission of web, marketing, communication, and PR professionals working in higher education? When you start to think about it, the answer is really simple: You are all in the relationship- building business. Every day, you are trying to do your best to build long-lasting relationships with the constituents of your institution. Consequently, you should identify and define your goals for your interactions with the community.

At this early stage, spend some time spelling out quantifiable goals: more inquiries, more applications, better yield, better buzz, more donations, etc. A few weeks, at the most, should be enough to come up with these goals that will help you measure the success of your social initiatives. Don’t let this step last months. The web is a very dynamic and reactive space, so early movers always get an advantage.

Let’s be realistic. Your constituents live busy lives—offline and online. With so many online social spaces at their fingertips, they need for your institution to offer something really special to get and keep their attention. Providing the opportunity to network with peers and friends won’t cut it, especially if you choose to set up your own private platform.

Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, the three major players in online social networking, are already providing this kind of service to millions of users. Don’t waste your time (and your institution’s money) trying to compete with the big guys on their turf. Instead, differentiate your online community initiatives by providing exclusive content designed to fill the needs of your target audiences. If you can offer exclusive access to information and resources your community members won’t find (at least not easily) at the social networking malls of the web, you will increase your chances to have them visit your own little social workshop.

What kind of exclusive content should you offer? For prospective or admitted students, you could provide access to exclusive resources about residence halls, courses, and events, or even straight answers to their most pressing questions right from representatives of your institution. For alumni, in particular for younger graduates, the exclusive content that will differentiate your online space could take the form of job postings or links to topical news and information.

You probably know that the saying “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t work for websites. The flourishing search engine optimization and online advertising industries are the living proof of the need for promotion on the web.

Do all you can to keep the most engaged users of your online community engaged.

When it comes to developing strong communities online, the building process is a powerful tool to engage users. Instead of spending months on requirements analysis, feature lists, and vendor demonstrations, the best course of action is to launch quickly (after doing your due diligence if you chose to go with a proprietary solution) and then to modify your social platform by incorporating suggestions from early adopters. This dynamic approach will help your institution develop an engaging social space based on the real needs of your community.

In today’s crowded social web it’s all about engagement and speed, so don’t miss the boat by spending months and months debating over details.

Once your community initiatives have been launched and members have started to join, don’t think your job is done. It has just started. Start listening to the members of your community. Watch what they are doing and monitor what they are saying. This will help you identify the most active and the most engaged users of your online community.

You also need to do all you can to keep these users engaged. This can be done by publicly acknowledging their contributions or implementing their suggestions. If you recognize their efforts this way, these “super” users will become the best ambassadors and stewards of your community.

Once again, there are so many choices for networking, staying informed, or getting entertained on the web that you will need to remind your users to come back often. Don’t assume most of them will visit your online social space on a regular basis. They will forget about it, especially if you’ve chosen to use a platform that isn’t already part of their existing routine, such as Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn.

That’s why you should send them—using the communication channels you have learned they prefer (see step 1)—reminders about the latest news and developments in your online social space. These community updates should be sent via email, RSS feeds, and/or published on your blog, Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn pages. A multichannel wide-net approach will help your message get to your target audiences—on their terms—and increase your chances of getting read.

While conversations are the best ways to develop and nurture relations, they cannot take place without the input of the community anymore. And since you are in the relationship-building business, you should start to view your (online) community members as your real bosses. They are the ones who will make or break your community and are ultimately the ones who will help you build those long-lasting relationships with your target audiences.

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.