A few years ago, it was very fashionable for schools to invest heavily in building custom social networks that were designed for their alums to use.  The upside of building your own social network is that you own all the data, and you make all the big decisions that determine what happens on the social network.  The downside of building your own social network, however, includes:

  1. You can’t begin accruing any benefits until you successfully get your alums to create user-names and passwords, and get them to actually spend time on the social network. 
  2. You need to spend a lot of time making decisions that don’t advance any of your goals but are necessary in order to create a positive user-experience for your alums (these decisions include things like placement and size of buttons, navigation of the site, and all the things that companies like Facebook invest millions of dollars in figuring out).
What’s the alternative to building your own social network?  The alternative is what I call “online community building.”  This involves identifying all the primary social networks where your alums and donors spend time, and establishing a presence (or an “outpost,” to borrow a term from Chris Brogan) that connects you to the community.  You accomplish this by following the rules and conventions of each specific social network – remember, if your alums are spending time on Facebook or Twitter, it means that they themselves are largely acknowledging that they respect the rules and conventions of the platforms.  

You create value by focusing on your innate advantages: (1) you are organized, and you can keep your alums and donors updated on events and news; (2) you have access to key members of the community, and can provide interviews, pictures and videos; (3) and centrality – you are at the center of things, and you can use social media to enable your volunteers to help you deliver content to the community.  I’ll have more to say about online community building for schools and charities in the future.  The important thing to keep in mind is that focusing on this approach allows you to spend your time on the things that you’re good at, which include connecting to your alums in a way that they appreciate, and on the other hand outsourcing the decisions that generate zero value for you, such as determining the layout of a registration page, or the size of a “submit” button. 

Will Marlow co-founded AlumniFidelity to help his clients reposition their fundraising to benefit from Web 2.0 technology and marketing techniques. He’s working with clients such as UVA, the College of William & Mary, the University of Oklahoma, Bowling Green State University, Randolph Macon College, and he loves nothing better than a thorny marketing challenge.  Read more about Will Marlow here, or email him at will@alumnifidelity.com.