Creating an exclusive online community for fall 2009 accepted students

A couple of weeks ago I argued reasons why it might be more effective to piggyback on existing strategies that exist at your institution rather than create a stand alone social media strategy. In this post I alluded to considering your Facebook Fan Page like a Cafe, which was inspired by Chris Brogan’s post entitled, “Cafe-Shaped Conversations.” After putting the two together, and brainstorming with some colleagues, we came up with “Cafe New Paltz,” an exclusive online community for fall 2009 accepted students. We’re using Ning and will launch this on January 2.

Cafe New Paltz

I teamed up with a colleague in our Office of Undergraduate Admission (Shana), who I’ve worked closely with on our Facebook Fan Page over the last year, among other eRecruiting-related initiatives, as well as my graduate assistant. My Senior Web Producer has an uncanny way of seeing inside my head and making my visions become a design reality (see graphic on right).

The idea Shana and I pitched her boss builds on their strategy to increase the academic quality of our incoming fall 2009 student body. There are more specific goals within that overall theme that I’m not going to disclose here, but this is a trend we’ve been working on for many years.

We’re going to start by inviting the ~1,400 early action accepted students into this community when we send them an e-mail through Ning’s invitation feature on January 2. Around March 1 we plan to invite the general accepted students pool to join in.

My graduate assistant and Shana’s intern will be serving as the community’s “baristas.” They have been working together to develop ideas for the content they’re going to produce inside this community. They will have weekly videos called “Flavor of the Week,” and every video will end with an actionable request to engage the accepted students to produce content of their own within the community. Shana is even sewing them custom aprons to wear. 🙂

This is an exciting new adventure for us, although I know there are many universities have created communities for accepted students for the last few years. I plan on this being the first post in a series of posts about “Cafe New Paltz” that will document this project and the milestones along the way. I’m hoping it will be a resource for those who have not started something like this, and can be a place where we exchange ideas to build stronger communities for our students. Given the tight budget climate, this is the type of initiative that can score big for little financial investment.

This project is extremely timely given the recent Facebook scandal for the class of 2013 groups. I know these accepted students will still use Facebook, but I’m glad we’re giving them a safe, gated community to interact with each other without any squatters trying to take advantage of them.

Tell us about your community! Or, are you trying to start one for the first time?

  • I love it! Do you have any plans for ongoing marketing for the community?

  • Brilliant idea. I think you are right, why not piggy back off these social network web properties. The tools are right in front our faces.

  • Rachel,

    Great idea. You may not be the first doing this but so what? You are able to learn from others and now teach others through your efforts.

    It’s been a long time since I was in college and these options did not exist. I can imagine how powerful it could be for incoming freshmen to already ID people that they may have common interests etc. Sounds basic I realize but the awkwardness will be reduced greatly and the friendships will sprout up more quickly having this to ‘get acquainted’ with your future classmates before the hell that is orientation.

    Looking forward to following your progress. Best of luck.

  • Rachel Reuben

    @Karlyn Yes. Stay tuned to the series of posts. 🙂

    @Matthew Thanks so much!

    @Frank Well thanks! That’s why I’m hoping. That’s what I love so much about the Twitter and higher education communities – everyone is so willing to learn from and help each other out. Proud to be a part of these communities.

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  • Here’s my thoughts.

    Back in the 90s I set up an e-mail discussion list for admitted students. It was opt-in, and those that participated seemed to enjoy it, planning meetups, etc. Some cited the e-mail list as the reason they enrolled. The participation rate was so-so, but students back then often shared an e-mail account with their whole family, if they used e-mail at all.

    I (with great support from our college Webmaster) went the private, branded social networking site route (phpbb forum hosted on our college Web site) three or four years back. The forum was behind a login, and even joining required approval to ensure privacy of discussions. (We set up a means of preapproval for admitted students, and a database would be pinged to check for preapproval when they created their forum account.) It went decently, more utilized than the e-mail list of an earlier time. Plus discussion topics could have a longer life given the structure of a forum vs. the short life of topics of discussion on an e-mail list.

    Facebook wasn’t really a high school-utilized network when I went the forum route. But it is now.

    Last year I proactively set up a “class of” Facebook group and it was multiple times more successful than previous approaches. Facebook is popular with high school kids right now, so it’s a good place to be. The return on effort is solid given the participation rates. In my opinion, Facebook right now provides a better return on effort than any other approach. (I considered Ning.) And, virally, when a student posts in the “class of” group, it shows up on their Facebook wall, helping brand the institution 🙂

    Why build a store across town when kids are already hanging out at the mall?

    As you noted, if an institution doesn’t take some control/participate in the Facebook “class of” group (even if they create an external social network), it will have a life without the institution, anyhow. So an institution creating their own social network doubles the work, essentially, if they plan to also keep tabs on the Facebook group. There isn’t usually time to double the work, so something gets neglected.

    Facebook groups, btw, have extensive settings. The group itself can be private and require approval to join. Uploading of pictures, videos, etc. can be locked down or open to all members. Etc.

    Something might/will replace Facebook as the social network du jour, and when that happens I’ll set up shop there, instead.

    Through these changing approaches, one thing has remained constant in my experience. “If you build it, they will come” definitely is **not** true. If the only messages you send re: the group are on January 2 and March 1, the social network will likely be a ghost town. It takes dedicated time and significant creative, proactive effort to build membership. And it takes considerably more daily time to keep activity and momentum going in the group.

    Hopefully this comment is helpful. I’d get more specific in terms of tricks and tools, but 1. I have to grab dinner now; and 2. There’s that tension between collegiality and competing schools potentially reading this post. I know who signs my paycheck 😉

  • Rachel,

    This sounds great! Will you have any opportunities for current students to participate? Sounds like a great way to get incoming students involved with clubs and organizations before their even on campus!

  • Opps.. Tom’s picture appeared in my last comment.. I’m confused as to why, but it might be because I put in InnoGage’s website or because I was logged into InnoGage’s mybloglog. Either way it wasn’t Tom. Ha but good luck!

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  • Rachel Reuben

    @Drew Our two baristas are current students (one is an undergrad, the other is an MBA student). This is not going to be opened up to the general student body – this was developed exclusively for fall 2009 accepted students. Maybe down the road we’ll consider a larger initiative, but we want to focus on this one right now.

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  • @Rachel, I’ve found that the current students who make the best “workers” in these groups are those who were very active in previous versions as prospective students. Something to keep in mind for the future 🙂

    There’s a phenomenon with unofficial “class of” Facebook groups at some colleges where current students take the initiative, with absolutely no prompting, to be information resources for incoming students. (One of the student volunteers in the ’13 group I admin came on board this way last year.)

    These students get much of the info correct, but not all, so oversight is useful. A student at a school doesn’t always know the details about how things work, be it campus jobs, financial aid, or even different social aspects at the college.

  • nice! communities such as these should have been brought up long ago. very classy idea to enlighten students before they even start getting back to school.

  • I’m with Rob S. on this one. The dust has settled on the #2013 thing with CollegeProwler on FB, and I’ve been watching the discussions in my campus’s Class of ’13 Group. There are current students, as Rob says, who are participating, and the rest of the discussion is flowing quite naturally. Almost every early admit has joined. It looks like about 40% have made at least one comment, and 90% of that group has made more than one contribution.

    They don’t have ANY idea, as far as I can tell, who created the group, and they don’t care. And there’s no admin and that doesn’t matter either.

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  • This past summer I put together a Ning site for our online MA program. The Fall 08 students had the opportunity to meet each other online in the site prior to the semester(summer 08).The returning students were finally able to see pics of eachother. The site has taken off and keeps on growing!
    We have added:
    A weekly blogger-
    A private faculty group
    A book exchange group.
    A graduation group
    A career group
    An Alumni group
    A Greek Organization group
    Hundreds of pictures posted by students from all over the world( from the birth of their child to their puppy).
    We added google analytics – and have gathered so much info!
    I learn something new everyday. I learn what works and what doesn’t.

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  • This is a brilliant idea and I am very sure that other universities and institutes will also follow you on this. This will be a great platform for new student to be familiar with each other that actually takes too much time in an ordinary way. Very soon students will also begin sharing their new ideas and knowledge.

  • That is the nice idea. It should have brought up long ago. Facebook Fan Pages is also helps to market your product.
    As Chris Brogan’s said,”To considering your Facebook Fan Page like a Cafe, which was inspired post entitled, “Cafe-Shaped Conversations.””