Online Communities: In-House vs. Public Published 2006-04-23

A recent survey of new college graduates claims that “Social networking is a dominant new trend, replacing many traditional avenues for entertainment and the sharing of information.  There is a big shift away from alumni networks, supplanted by significant gains in social networking sites and the use of instant messaging. In fact, only 32 percent of respondents indicated they would seek out alumni for social purposes, down from a high of 70 percent in 2003. Conversely, visits to social networking sites have grown by 30 percent among frequent visitors.”

This is a quote from two folks (Andrew Shaindlin and Elizabeth Allen) from Caltech’s Alumni Association.  Their belief, as they relate in Online Networks: A New Tool for Alumni Relations, is that such public online communities as LinkedIn, Tribe, Friendster, and Classmates, are useful tools that educational organizations can use to promote alumni communities. Using a public (third-party) solution in place of an in-house network allows a school/college to leverage the array of tools and services already developed and tested.

But, more interesting is Shaindlin and Allen's discussion on the benefits of opening the community to those beyond the alumni.

...allowing alumni to connect in a single mass (e.g., being individually listed in a typical online alumni directory) is to miss out on the potential of the network to grow proportionally to its scale. Instead we should enable alumni to label or tag themselves with characteristics they find relevant and persistent to their networking needs.

These tags will include characteristics that are both related and unrelated to their time at their school/college offering a richer online community experience.

Shaindlin and Allen suggest that the role of a public (third-party) online community is to supplement a school/college's in-house alumni network, not replace. With an ever increasingly digital-savvy alumni, opportunities are opening for schools/colleges to maintain connections with their graduates. Thus, the challenge is to identify these opportunities and provide innovative solutions that enhance the relationship between the school/college and their alumni as well as encourage relationships among the alumni themselves (and with the rest of the "outside world").

Although most public online communities are free, these services, to be used effectively by an institution, will come at a cost.