Back in March I discussed predictions for the future of alumni relations. Eventually, I said,
[o]nline communities won't exist. Electronic interaction will be so completely integrated into all our behavior that we won't think of it as a separate activity, any more than we think of people we talk to on the phone as a "telephone community."
But until then, alumni associations are going to find online community software appealing. And as I mentioned last week, two providers of community software have recently published some ideas about social networks. I could probably fill a month of Alumni Futures with comments and thoughts based on these two papers alone, but I'll focus instead on one aspect that connects the two papers: the age distribution of Facebook users (links to each paper are at the end of this posting).
In February Harris Connect distributed The Impact of Social Networks on Advancement. Despite the sweeping title, the paper was mostly a preview of how Harris clients could connect their own site to Facebook. Harris reasons that alumni offices should connect their own communities to third-party social networks (an idea that's been around for a while), explains why, and describes a tool for doing that in a special instance (i.e., connecting Harris client sites to Facebook).
In a case study, Harris shows a graph of the "Facebook User Age Distribution" for a particular school's alumni (click the graphs below to open them in pop up windows):
Then in April, iModules published Leveraging the Facebook Phenomenon in Education Communities. White paper author Mike McCamon assigns Facebook to the class of "General Interest Communities" (alumni groups form "Common Interest Communities"). Like the Harris paper, the iModules piece includes a graph showing an age distribution of Facebook users:
The two distributions look similar, with the youngest users accounting for the vast majority of Facebook users. No surprises there. But seeing the two graphs side by side reminded me of the "Long Tail" described by Chris Anderson. I don't have room here to explain the concept of the Long Tail, but it's well-documented (and disputed) elsewhere. For most of us, it has its most common incarnation in concepts such as "the 80-20 rule."
So here's a thought. When alumni professionals talk about Facebook users, we usually presume that all users are equally important to our institutions, and that all are equally valuable network members. A person's a person, right? So if the Facebook alumni ratio of 23 year olds to 27 year olds is, say, 20:1 (as in Harris's case study), then the 23 year olds' segment of the alumni network must somehow be 20 times as valuable as the 27 year olds' segment. Right?
Only if all alumni are adding equal value to the network. But if anything, in almost every alumni activity (except undergraduate recruiting, and of course young alumni activities), I'm willing to bet that older group members add proportionally more value to the network than younger members do. Older alumni have
- more life experience,
- more career experience,
- broader expertise,
- more extensive personal and professional networks,
- greater perspective on the role of your institution in their achievements, and
- by and large, greater financial assets.
Bottom line: While the number of older Facebook participants is quite small, the potential value they bring to the alumni network is disproportionately large. So don't worry too much about whether older alumni will embrace Facebook (or any other General Interest Community) in larger numbers; instead, think about measuring the cumulative value of the alumni network, and where that value resides within the network.
And as usual, that brings us to another huge topic just begging for its own blog posting. So some day we'll ask how to measure the value of an alumni network. I have an idea about that too, and am curious to see what others think.
Meanwhile: Is your Facebook network's value hidden in the Long Tail? Are you measuring the value of your alumni networks? How?
Link to Harris Connect's "Resource Library" [requires registration for download]
Link to iModules's white paper: Leveraging the Facebook Phenomenon in Education Communities [152k PDF]