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This post is written by Jon Horowitz, Digital Strategy Consultant at Horowitz Strategy.

The core value of alumni online communities today is the same as it was when the first communities premiered more than 20 years ago – that a university can provide a secure online destination for alumni to find and connect with other alumni without fear of outsiders or impostors.

Of course, more than 20 years ago, there was little competition to alumni online communities.

Today, that same digital space is occupied by scores of networks competing for overloaded, dwindling attention spans. Where those attention spans are drawn to are those networks that are easiest to access and those where people can connect across broad spectrums of friends, family, and colleagues. Their favorite social media channels, of course.

The ubiquity of these social media platforms – coupled with their frequently evolving features and access to multiple, far-reaching social and professional circles – has put the squeeze on university alumni online communities. Whether on account of the limited functionality, the lack of urgency to visit, the access barriers, or the ambiguity around the online community’s purpose, alumni, by and large, are not visiting. It’s not habitual, there’s little draw, it’s a passive experience, it’s vanilla.

But one thing an online community can offer is that core value: a secure online destination free from outsiders and impostors.

But is that enough? Might that trump the facades of Facebook? Can that supplant the instantaneousness of Instagram? Could that tweak the tweeters on Twitter? Or snap back at the snap-decision changes to Snapchat? Could that be the missing link from LinkedIn?

The fallout from the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal may just be the tipping point that finally pushes the masses to question the devilish barter of personal data for hyperconnectivity. A permanent spotlight now shines on the fears and concerns that have been swirling around social media for quite a while – that the reality of these platforms is that the users are not the consumers but the product. Their data and activity a commodity to be bargained for by advertisers and, so it appears, more sinister agents.

This is one big truth that heavily favors the private alumni online community.

Another is that there is no certainty that the people on social media who identify as alumni are the people they say they are – or that the profile data they are sharing is accurate.

With the majority likely to be legit alumni, alumni offices certainly should not be expected to curb their marketing efforts on social media. However, with the potential for unsavory characters posing as alumni, the risk is much greater to those real individuals who may get caught in these characters’ webs.

A third truth is that even the online community providers are conceding to this brave new social media world, enabling social sign-on instead of provider-based sign-on or external authentication through the university. Might this blurring put online communities at risk?

Put bluntly, the time may be just right for the resurgence of the alumni online community. Because the alumni online community offers that core value that social media cannot. That a secure online environment, free from outsiders and impostors, can be truly beneficial for alumni. No personal privacy strings attached.

But with the decade-long exodus away from online community use that on the whole never had impressive, sustained activity, what can be done to bring alumni back? Or, to bring alumni to these online communities at all?

Recent efforts to catalyze use have not yielded the intended results of significant levels of activation, adoption, or ongoing use. These shortcomings may stem from a failure/settlement mindset.

The Provider Standpoint

Online community offerings have been tame. One mindset that persists is that there is no competing with social media, so the online community should simply be a complement to social media or other digital interaction. Another is that the angles of mentoring, professional matching, or job boards could be the hook. A third is, indeed, that private community factor. But more broadly, offerings have been tame because the universities and their alumni are not asking collectively for anything revolutionary.

The University Standpoint

The limited use of online communities seems to have triggered more schools to move the online community to the low priority list than to propel the providers to do better or to seek some kind of change. Some university staff members see the online community as nothing more than a sure-why-not tool that comes with empowering the data integration between one provider’s core alumni database and another’s digital engagement platform. Others see it as essential only because a handful of vocal alumni would lead a revolt if the community were dissolved. But few see that core value – or how to leverage it.

So How Can This All Change?

Digital leaders, advancement leaders, alumni affairs leaders, and career services leaders from across universities must join forces to discuss what’s working and not with the modern spin on private alumni online communities, to determine what services alumni need or are asking for, and to collectively press a consortium of key online community providers to roll out more dynamic services as a means of not just being a potential catalyst for alumni activity but also as a means of saving their own companies from losing clients or worse.

Online community providers must more proactively survey their advisory boards and clients to mine this same information, and then from the gleaned options, fast-track plans to incorporate major changes to the online community tools that could provide that spark to ignite online community activity.

These tools may actually become the social media antidote that they were once shortsightedly touted to be, but to do so these online communities and those who sell and advocate for them must not only clearly showcase the core value, they must establish a new, airtight value proposition to alumni that connecting with others from their alma mater can truly be beneficial – to the alumni. And it must come from that spark – a mix of technological innovation created with a brilliant yet practical purpose previously unseen in private online communities.

And once such enhancements are rolled out at schools, alumni offices must prioritize marketing the online communities and incentivize sign up, or better, sustained use. They must market the core values, market what might resonate with the alumni audience. And do it truthfully and persistently.

Will this work? That’s uncertain. But without sweeping changes in an array of places, the potential exists for the digital social constructs to crumble and, with them, the chance for meaningful alumni-to-alumni, alumni-to-student, and alumni to institution connections.

Driving digital strategy at Princeton University and Rutgers University for 13 years, Jon Horowitz’s experience at the intersection of communications, technology, and engagement propelled him into his current role as an independent strategic consultant for higher education institutions. With experience as a team leader, strategic planner, project manager, content developer, and producer across the spectrum of digital, Jon’s panoramic perspective of the digital landscape in higher education advancement and alumni relations is unique. A two-time CASE Circle of Excellence Award winner and thought leader in alumni engagement, Jon now brings his breadth of experience to higher education clients seeking strategy around all things digital as they relate to alumni relations and advancement – from communications to analytics to technology.

 

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  • Kayla McCulley

    Thanks for this piece, Jon! The part that really made me stop and think: “…these online communities
    and those who sell and advocate for them must not only clearly showcase
    the core value, they must establish a new, airtight value proposition
    to alumni that connecting with others from their alma mater can truly be
    beneficial – to the alumni.”

    The question then that teams must define clearly for their community members – what IS the value of connecting with other alumni, really? Most alumni association mission statements articulate the benefits that a graduate derives from affiliation (lifelong learning, access to information and events, opportunities to volunteer, etc.), but most of that is in relationship to the institution rather than in relationship to each other. I think part of the answer is the positive feelings that come from supporting, serving and communing with others who share the unique experience of having attended XYX University – it is our job as alumni engagement professionals to tell more of those outcome-based stories.

    • Jon Horowitz

      Brilliant point, Kayla! In an earlier blog post I mentioned the need for an “alumni first” mindset for alumni relations and advancement. And you perfectly hit on that point by noting that perhaps the alumni association mission statements need reconsideration. While the relationship to the institution is important, the relationships between alumni may be even more so. It seems that alumni engagement pros can be charged with two key things here — 1) your idea to tell more of those outcome-based stories and 2) to do more to facilitate alumni-to-alumni interactions that become those great stories.