Over in the interesting comments to last week's posting about free speech and online venues, Peter Osborn asked
Why do you think an investment of resources in private-label social networks is a bad one and under what circumstances would you change your mind? Do you, for example, see any potential in LinkedIn alumni groups?
On the topic of LinkedIn Groups, my short answer is "Yes, I see potential." I've explained why in prior posts. Recently, for example, I wrote about using Group discussions on LinkedIn, and the second half of my posting about social network growth last July contains my latest views about making LinkedIn Groups useful to alumni associations. Last April, my colleague Elizabeth Allen guest blogged about managing Groups, and has written about social site group management on her own site as well (and plans to do so in the future).
[Updated 31 October, 2009: Here's another posting from Liz Allen about using LinkedIn Groups effectively: LinkedIn Group Management: Are You Using the Tools?]
As for an alumni association building its own site, I was a little surprised CASE CURRENTS pursued this in the article I mentioned last week. The value of asking the single question ("Is it worth it to have a private label network site?") has decreased steadily with the rise of third-party sites such as Facebook.
Instead of a single question, now there are several inter-related questions to answer, and the answers will vary from institution to institution.
- Can we provide alumni (and students) with content or services they can't get elsewhere?
- Does our audience need this content, either because it helps them solve a problem or because it fulfills some desire for them?
- How many alumni need to be active, for how long, and how frequently - and in which ways - before we can declare that our site is a "success"?
- Can portability address the issue of putting our brand in front of our alumni, without requiring them to visit our site?
- What do we measure to evaluate the service, and how do we compare our information to metrics from other venues (including third-party services and traditional, face to face interaction)?
- How about opportunity cost? Could time spent on our in-house community be better spent on traditional activities, third-party site community management, or new endeavors?
The point is, arguing for or against school-hosted and school-managed network sites is complicated, and will become more complex as commercial services (some of which are yet to be invented) provide additional utility to alumni. My initial feeling is that in the face of tight budgets, static or decreased staffing, and more external venues to monitor, only organizations with very generous resources can justify the commitment to designing, building, launching, marketing and maintaining a truly private in-house site.
As for the other part of Peter's question (about "when I might change my mind"), I will do so when third-party sites are flexible and open enough to allow seamless integration with our own online communities. If alumni associations didn't have to think of social networks in terms of "public" or "private" and "open" or "closed" then this wouldn't be an issue. We would be talking about functionality and utility and not access. Meanwhile, it is very important to remember that LinkedIn and Facebook are not completely "open" networks – yes, anyone can join, but you can't connect with their members unless you join as well. They are "walled gardens" too – they're just vastly larger than our alumni-only walled gardens.
We have many other challenges in the meantime: understanding changes in regional club or chapter behavior, partnering with career offices in a weak jobs environment, the evolving integration of printed and online "publications," the relationship with fundraising activity – the list is long. Even if you are lucky enough to have the resources for staffing an in-house community online, you still have to address how our audiences expect and need us to participate in third-party sites. For almost all of us, the answer is still difficult to see clearly – we are still in the early stages of true online community.
I am interested to hear examples of how both internal and external services are helping your program, or harming it. Leave a comment.