Getting smart about online communities

capI am excited about my new focus on helping universities, colleges, and private schools provide continuing, multi-dimensional value to their alumni through social media—and specifically, custom online communities.

The opportunities for engagement and exchange are rich and powerful in a higher education environment. Leveraging the strength of the profound personal connection through the “ambient intimacy” of online interaction can ultimately help increase giving, boost admissions referrals, and engage more alumni in meaningful ways. For alumni associations, the applications are very compelling:

• Increase investment in affinity products and institution-related activities.
• Enrich and deepen the institution’s “brand” experience for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends.
• Promote and strengthen the foundations of affiliation (class year, school/college, dorm/Greek organization, student activity, professional focus)
• Position the institution’s community to positively impact loyalty-related outcomes, such as annual giving, association membership, reunion attendance, and etc.

The challenge is maximizing the ongoing value of an online community by balancing institution content control with user participation. Remember, it’s about relationships—building on the ephemeral—memories, experiences, and bonds based less on practical deliverables and more the emotions of affiliation.

In his August 2009 Wall Street Journal article on corporate branded communities, The Fans Know Best, Dr.Uptal Dholakia of Rice University contends:

“Allowing discussion and activities like networking and socializing leads visitors to participate in the site for emotional and social reasons. It keeps them coming back, and thus strengthens the bond between them and the company (and each other). Part of giving up control is also giving visitors the freedom to complain and criticize the brand, or to wax lyrical about a competitor, to their heart’s content.”

Therefore, our task becomes more focused on orchestrating, monitoring, and responding–rather than drafting, editing, and deleting.

Though Dr. Dholakia is speaking of the corporate sector here, I think the ideas can be applied to association communities, as well. Visitors frequent communities, because they enjoy the experience—not because it is something on the to-do list. Think about the silly quizzes on Facebook. The “fun factor” should not be underestimated as a key driver of engagement. Yet, it’s possible for universities and colleges to deliver real value in the process. We must not forget the truly “social” component of social media—providing a platform for witty banter. And universities alumni already have a built-in affinity. The potential is boundless—to create what I call the “perpetual reunion.” It’s 365/24/7 engagement.

Dr.Uptal Dholakia offers a high-octane example of community-building savvy from the corporate world:
“When Lego Group set out to develop Mindstorms NXT, the latest version of its game for building programmable robots, it enlisted help from a group of adult enthusiasts whom it found on, the largest unofficial community of Lego fans. While the marketing target for Mindstorms is mainly teenage boys, the people that Lego reached out to were men in their 40s and 50s who knew each other from communicating and working together on elaborate Lego projects on

The group’s members, according to a Lego spokesman, contributed ‘incredibly valuable insights’ in hardware, software, design and usability based on their own experiences. The company credits the group with helping to make Mindstorms NXT appeal both to adults and ‘a new, younger generation of robotics enthusiasts.’”

Just think of the application for a university community—building connection between alumni, faculty, and staff—students and even prospective students. Not all colleges and universities are systematically monitoring their “unofficial” user-driven groups on LinkedIn, Fan Pages on Facebook, and Twitter feeds. But tracking and engaging these communities can provide a wealth of opportunities, alliances, ideas, innovations, and energy.

What are your thoughts? To learn more about unleashing the power of the web, contact me: elgantz @

4 thoughts on “Getting smart about online communities

  1. Hi Elaine,

    I agree, institutes of higher education can really increase brand knowledge and alumni brand relations by leveraging social media.

    As a recent graduate, I’ve found a lot of personal value in staying connected with my almauter, Mount Holyoke. Especially for young alumni (I’m a millennial), the internet is the best place for an institution to approach me–it’s my second home and social networks are my number 1 way of staying in contact with my friends from college.

    Since Mount Holyoke College started using social media–especially facebook–I’ve been able to keep an institutional connection with the college that I would have lost when I graduated. As you say, with this kind of connection, I’m much more likely to give.

    Thanks so much for the valuable thoughts!

    Let me know if you’d like to be in contact with anyone from MHC, as the former editor-of-content for the Mount Holyoke News, I am rather close with numerous people in the communications department there and would be more than happy to connect you.


    Alison Ramer

    1. Alison —

      Thanks so much for your kind words and your astute comments regarding social media. And thank you for the offer to introduce me to Mt Holyoke. I would love the opportunity to brainstorm with MHC’s online alumnae initiatives team.

      Love your blog! Look forward to connecting.


  2. Your blog so perfectly aligned with my thoughts on this topic. In fact, I just developed and facilitated a 2-day workshop for a non-profit this past weekend in Ohio, and your thoughts and my ideas were so similar that I had to keep checking that it was not something I had written. I totally am in agreement and the bottom line was that after the presentation, my group decided to go ahead and create their own branded online community. Your blog served to validate my thoughts on this topic and I really appreciate reading yours on linked in. Great blog, Elaine, and I look forward to reading more of them.

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