[Updated May 4, 2008 with links, at bottom, to two other blogs.]
The April 25, 2008 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an article titled Colleges Create Facebook-Style Social Networks to Reach Alumni. Since I was among the people interviewed by the article's author, I was interested to see what his angle would be. The result is a surface treatment of a complex topic, but a couple of points are worth a quick review.
The author points out that it's difficult for institutions to gather data and contact info from sites like Facebook, and so some schools are creating their own versions of social networks. In these networks, he says, job seekers
can more easily identify and contact fellow alumni who are employed at companies where they want to work. Some employers that pay a fee can tap into the sites to recruit alumni from specific institutions or who graduated with certain majors.
This is a growing function for online networks, but is not a new service; online employment systems are finally maturing, but digital résumé posting has been around since the 1980s. A company called eProNet broke this ground first, but was fatally ahead of its time. While eProNet kept member schools' alumni résumés in a database, only eProNet could access the records, since the web hadn't been invented yet. They performed applicant matching searches for employers and returned printed copies of the results.
An annoying aspect of online networks as recruiting platforms is the relentless tide of headhunters trying to infiltrate closed alumni groups. Caltech verifies the alumni status of every person trying to join its official group on LinkedIn, and rejects between 20 and 40 bogus applicants per month. These are corporate recruiters trying to gain a leg up on the competition. Unless alumni associations make a conscious decision to provide non-alumni with group access, this is an aspect of online networks that university staff need to keep in mind.
Back to the Chronicle. Some additional thoughts:
- The article equates alumni events with online communities as a proxy for alumni engagement. One can argue that "the more people who sign up, the better the result," but it's a non-sequitur to say that your online community with 10% of alumni registered is twice as effective as events, which attract 5% of alumni. They are different behaviors with different drivers and outcomes.
- Describing the heroic efforts of Elon College to build a campus-wide, private Facebook-like site from the ground up, the Chronicle quotes an Elon administrator as saying that because the site has launched, "There really aren't any ongoing costs." Users and web developers realize the importance of updating not only content, but functionality as well. If college leaders think the site is "free" because it's "done" and they're not paying annual fees to a software company, someone should point out that users join and abandon social sites faster than developers can update them. There are, absolutely, ongoing costs. All sites are works in progress.
- It was gratifying to see the article acknowledge a point that Caltech's Liz Allen and I first made in 2006, but which has only grudgingly gained acceptance, that
alumni directors...see the restrictive nature of the social-networking sites offered by colleges as a major drawback.
The University of Southern California's Scott Mory is right on track with his advice that schools should "stay connected with current and former students through Web sites those people already use..."
- Finally, Elon's assistant vice president Daniel J. Anderson is quoted as saying that "the jury is still out" on how much the college's private social network site will be used. That's probably true, but it's more important to realize that with online services, the jury will always be out. There's never a "final decision" on what site, or which type of service, will work for the long-term.
Disclaimer: Despite what the article claims, I swear I did not tell the reporter that "social networking is definitely hot."
The article can be found in the print version of the Chronicle of Higher Education, in volume 54, issue 33, on page A18, or online here:
[Update May 4, 2008:] Critique of the CHE article via Swift Kick Central
Conservative blog Phi Beta Cons mentions the CHE article too