Recently, Ryan Catherwood published an insightful article, The Problem with Alumni Network Platforms. As a follow up, Switchboard CEO and co-founder Mara Zepeda added some profoundly important observations in her article, When Alma Mater is Missing.
I also wanted to make a couple specific observations about this critical topic. After more than 25 years on the client side, and another four years consulting, I have spent the last six months working inside the platform provider's world. And in comparing all these viewpoints, I've noticed a few things about "alumni network platforms."
Is it Us or the Platform?
If alumni and students don’t coalesce online, there are several possibilities, which likely exist in various combinations and to various degrees:
- There is no demand for the platform. You’re answering a question that nobody asked; or they asked, and their answer lies elsewhere online.
- There is a demand, but your marketing is ineffective and you haven’t generated awareness and understanding. You answered a question that someone asked, but they didn’t hear your answer.
- People tried out the platform and found it wanting. They heard your answer to their question, but they need a better answer. They are moving on.
But before you declare success or failure, the first thing to ask is, “Are we helping people do something they actually need to do?”
[Community members don't want features – they want results]
Take "mentoring" as a current example. Everybody wants a mentoring program. But often there is no clear demand for it. Mentoring seems like it would be helpful, if only some people would ask for it! Kieran Hanrahan at Switchboard has treated this topic in some depth, so I won’t explore it here, but if you’re wrestling with the mentoring topic, I recommend you read his article about "the black box of mentoring."
People Want Benefits, Not Features
Back to helping people do things they actually need to do. You should answer these questions:
Are we helping them do it more easily, more accessibly and more effectively than some other, comparable resource?
Do they know you’re doing it? Did you get the word out?
Does it work? Are you measuring outcomes that represent success to your audience?
To answer the last question, you must measure your success against community members’ needs. This is tough to do, but it’s important to try. If students join your site looking for internships, then the numbers of internships offered and accepted are the numbers to track. Having a lot of people offer internships, with few takers, is not success. Similarly, signing up mentors is good only if the mentoring leads to improved outcomes and satisfaction.
Alumni organizers should check whether alumni or students want the litany of digital features that some platforms offer. You thinking “that’s so cool!” should not be the selection criterion. Ryan lists some of these features - an alumni directory, photo galleries, job boards, mentoring, e-newsletters, groups and discussion forums. Some institutions will also have merchandise sales, membership dues collection, event registration and calendars.
Some of these features do enable successful outcomes. But your community members don’t want features. They want results - jobs, housing, advice, referrals and sometimes, merchandise or services. Unfortunately, many software features are just bells or whistles that don’t help your audience members do what they really need to do.
Problems with LinkedIn
Ryan also mentioned that LinkedIn is “a better and more important tool” for “network-building and communicating with new contacts.” I was one of LinkedIn's very early users (about the 34,000th LinkedIn member out of the more than half a billion profiles now on LinkedIn. I joined in 2003!). My experience is that most LinkedIn users interact very little.
LinkedIn has great potential value, mostly because of its massive user base. However, LinkedIn is also infamous for its clunky communication interface, and for its cumbersome, hard to find, sparsely populated group discussions. LinkedIn makes it easy for individuals to sign up and fill out a profile. Everything else on LinkedIn is hard for the average user. If LinkedIn were truly effective, you might not want a third-party platform at all.
[This is a great time to ask, "What are stakeholders looking for,
and are we providing it?"]
LinkedIn is dropping the ball when it comes to alumni and students asking for help – or offering to help. Why? Because LinkedIn's communication tools are awkward and badly designed. Its alumni feature is difficult to locate, and its Groups have been hobbled and hidden as well.
So if alumni feel that LinkedIn really is "better and more important" than your own tools, you can definitely be doing more.
Building Awareness & Meeting Needs
Finally, back to marketing and building awareness. If you aren’t allocating resources to communicate the benefit of your platform, then the answer to Ryan’s original question is partly, “It’s you, not the platform.” But if community members do sign up only to find that your platform is hard to use, marginally beneficial and unpopulated – they will leave. Forever.
Yes, you have to market events and other activities, but increasingly, the opportunity cost of doing so is too high. This means every dollar or hour you spend promoting an event is at the cost of undermining your other efforts. Including your digital engagement.
Is that worth the risk? No! But what can you do? Well, start by doing fewer events (you're probably only attracting five percent of your audience to them anyway – at great cost in budget and staff time). Spend less on print. Segment communications more. Expect less from your legacy website. And re-write a team member's job description to include “network weaving” and brokering relationships, to build deeper (not just more) connections with stakeholders.
There's no silver bullet, but taking a cue from Ryan's questions, this is a great time to answer the questions, "What are stakeholders looking for, and are we providing it?"