How can a University build a loyal and vibrant alumnus when students can’t get to campus?

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

The current problem when it comes to higher education is that universities and organisations are tasked to provide information which they can’t deliver in person now, but engagement and retention through social media platforms that can help organisations retain a proposition of access to high quality learning or experiences and to high quality information as well as create networks with alumni. At the moment, universities all over the world are suffering, because they can’t have their students back. Social distancing guidelines are impacting universities and institutions that relied on people being together to create value. However, this problem can be solved by platforms dedicated to taking people away from Facebook, LinkedIn, and the "generic" social media channels. 

The key to long-term engagement with students or with staff begins by connecting with them on their first week in the campus or in the company. When students go to a new school or someone joins a company, there’s already a network there which are the people that work there already or the other students and faculty. The job then of the company owner or the administrator at the university is to connect those people and provide a platform and an ability for these people across the organisation to tap into that platform and gain value from it by taking part. Social media in the form of Facebook company pages can be a good place to have existing customers or students build a community, but the platform itself is too generic. There are also issues of distraction, the lack of confidentiality, and perhaps, above all, the complete inability to brand it. On any business found on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Google, people simply rent the "space" and serve as tenants. It is not owned by them, so it’s much more prudent to build out a community on a platform where the conversations, experiences, and the content all reside within the control of the brand owner. 

Universities are big businesses, because they underwrite the well-being of societies. They say Silicon Valley is the center of innovation, not so much for the companies, but for the universities that create all these great learning opportunities and connections for people. Now, university fees are under pressure, because in countries like America, where some universities are being mandated to not hold classes in person, if all the training is going online, then one of the essential elements of the value proposition for the university is gone. Those who have been to university keep in touch with people from there, because those people become their social and professional networks. Universities now have a challenge, and the question will be how to continue to add value when the infrastructure that was the value as much as the content is no longer available. The answer could be in a couple of platforms.

Hivebrite to the rescue

One solution is Hivebrite. It has an alumni management portal, and their proposition is that they can release the potential of the community. It was founded in Paris in 2015 and now has a New York office. Its features are perfect for institutions who aim to create a distinct entity for them and their alumni instead of just being a general group on Facebook. If you think about it, some degree of exclusivity is always part of the value of the network and the alumnus. 

One of Hivebrite’s features is the ability to build a full database to reach out to all the students and to get them connected at the outset and make them all part of the database. Whilst at university, students can connect with and find alumni not only from the college, but also narrow it down by course and by location. They can connect students looking for work with alumni who have jobs to offer through their Jobs Board. They also have a Business and Projects area, so that people looking at starting businesses can find fellow entrepreneurs and collaborators, and people looking to start projects can find other people with common interests no matter where they are around the world. It even has a full content management system and an RSS feed for third party content. 

Hivebrite allows direct marketing from administrator to members, and it also allows alumni to create their own alumnus groups which could be by geography or by course. They’re creating an extension of what would happen in the offline world, but all within the community that is governed and hosted by the university. Instead of randomly finding people on social media, everybody that has been to that college can be part of the system and remain part of the system throughout their student life. It offers ticketing too, so that people can arrange events and take payments. People can send invitations, use the mobile app, and have social network integration to promote events through the broader channels like Facebook and LinkedIn. In the SPEAK|pr program, the three audience groups are the internal, the partners, and the external. Communities are part of the internal audience, and they require platforms because they will have specific and sometimes private communication needs. Also, a key part of a community is to foster communication within it, not from the top down, but from person to person, and a platform like Hivebrite allows that to happen. 

Communication as a higher education establishment is interesting, because public relations for a university has to try and identify how a university can be special. How does it differentiate in a world where everybody is looking at online learning from companies with courses like Coursera and Udemy? Students look to join a tribes when going to university, and platforms like Hivebrite can create a community throughout the lifetime of students that fulfills part of that brief. They also have membership and alumnus programs, which is great, and on top of that, Hivebrite even encourages alumni to donate funds. A statistic by Blackboard shows that 83% of millennials have given a gift to a university in 2012, up from 75% in 2011. In other words, millennials are a generous group. They are donating back to their alma mater, and with this, companies and platforms like Hivebrite create not only communities but revenue streams for the university to engage with people for a lifetime. 

Alternatives to Hivebrite

Another service is one called Tribe which, according to its website, is a good alternative to Hivebrite, but the alumni management is not as good as Hivebrite’s is, possibly due to some of the custom modules, like the student-led modules or the memberships. Tribe says it’ll give your brand a social dimension, and it includes features like gamification, so that people that take part are rewarded for their contribution. In terms of pricing, Tribe offers a free plan for 500 members, and then it has a premium membership plan for $249 for up to 500 members on that. Hivebrite pricing is around $500 per month for a basic plan. Capterra ranks Hivebrite 4.6 while Tribe is 4.7 and might just be close enough to be just differences of opinion. 

There are other tools that can be used with different levels of sophistication integration. If you’re looking to create a product or a community, there are other platforms like Mighty Networks and Honeycomb, which has a launch fee and then a price of about $300 per month depending on the number of users. The key point is that communications now can be managed within communities or tribes, as Gladwell coined this term of marketing to tribes, and a university alumnus really is a tribe. It’s a group of people who decided to attend a particular institution in the same way that people decided to join a particular company, and one way to ensure that the company has a community is to work with a dedicated platform, which is not a platform for workflow. It’s not Slack or Asana. It’s not a tool for productivity, but it is one for community.

How to effectively build these communities

In the case of universities, for instance, the best ambassador is a former student, so getting existing students to sign up to a platform like Hivebrite or Tribe at the beginning of their experience is key, because it’s hard to catch them once they’ve left and started looking for work. From a public relations point of view, if a university has a platform which enables the community to exist regardless of whether the students are going in and out of the building, regardless of where they’re meeting their cohort directly or not, or seeing the lecturer in person, the community bonds that can be created through social media can also be very powerful. People are already doing that through conventional mass generic white label platforms like Facebook, but they can also now do them through these dedicated community marketing portals as well. 

One mistake, however, is not identifying the institution’s need which is the first step before deciding which platform to use. The difference between Hivebrite and Tribe is in the modules and the functionality. Setting measurements is the second point. How are you going to measure the performance and the activity of this community and its individual members within it? The third is understanding the value within the community and the network for the people within it. How do you take them away from traditional Facebook and LinkedIn and get them to play a part in this closed community and ensure there is still a human touch? Although some of these platforms are using AI to drive connectivity and amplification of content, it still needs to be like any community, one that has rules, guidance, and facilitation by people.

The next tip is that a "one size fits all approach" to content is not going to work. Different personas will have different needs. A first year student and a final year student will have different requirements. A new member of staff in one facility will have different requirements to an established member of staff in another facility. Finally, make sure the platform is user-friendly. Hivebrite and Tribe already do everything that you might want them to do and more, so building a platform is no longer required. Specifying and using that platform to put in relevant content and make it engaging is going to be the job at hand because, again, public relations talks to internal, partners, and external audiences. In summary, the internal audience really can be seen as a community. It has a certain kind of message that it needs, and that message needs to be dynamic and aligned with what the external audience are hearing, because the best possible ambassadors for your university or your business will be your current community and the people within that community.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

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