December 5, 2010

Final Presentation: alumni.nyu.edu

Filed under: CommunITP — Tags: , — *aly* @ 4:38 pm

The goal of this project is to develop and nurture a robust online community of NYU alumni by working within the constraints of our content management system (CMS) and leveraging existing social media outlets. I started a new job in May and was tasked with improving alumni relations via our recently launched web site. Since all of the vendor and implementation decisions were made before my arrival, the task is a challenging one. The site alumni.nyu.edu runs on a vendor’s proprietary CMS with limitations that prevent the organic growth of online community. Each step of a user’s progression through the site’s usage lifecycle–from awareness through first time, regular, or passionate use–is fraught with challenges.

If an alumnus/ae becomes aware of the site and would like to join the community, the first major hurdle he/she is presented is the first-time log in. In order to determine that a user is a genuine NYU alum, he/she must provide a unique identifier. This number is an ID that is generated from the alumni database and is unrelated to any other ID number an alum may have used during his/her time at NYU. There are two ways an alum might find this number: on a printed mailing piece or by calling or emailing the Alumni Relations office. Neither solution is ideal or particularly convenient.

Once logged in, it becomes quickly apparent that there is only one additional resource. He/she now has a profile to update and can search through other member’s profiles, friend them, or send them an email. The design of the interface is horribly clunky and there is relatively little real interaction. The site looks and functions like no other popular networking site and none of this particularly encourages repeat visits.

Additionally, this interface provides no place for a community manager to interact with any of the members.  The site content is unidirectional and despite the “log in” feature, it remains part of an older paradigm where the web is a read-only information source.

To combat these restrictions and develop and curate alumni community has proven to be a challenge of creativity. To start, I’ve focused on improving and streamlining existing outreach tools. The monthly email newsletter to our list of 150,000 alumni was well written but poorly designed and appeared to be completely unrelated to the alumni web site. I redesigned both the newsletter itself and the pages on the site where the full content is stored. The newsletter now contains shorter blurbs, more images, and clickable banners that all drive users back to our site. Our web site traffic shows a consistent spike in activity on the day the newsletter is emailed.

So, with the newsletter helping to raise awareness of the site, the next step is to figure out a way to entice users to log in despite the significant alumni ID hurdle. To this end, I am working on adding tempting content that requires authenticated access. From the stats on our newsletter, we know that alumni are most interested in benefits. Knowing that people are more willing to go out of their way for a deal, I’m working on revamping our benefits section so that the discount information is only available to those people willing to log in.

Because the community components of our CMS are so poor, I have also worked to leverage existing social media outlets with our site. Our Facebook fan page has over 11,500 fans, our LinkedIn group has 13,545 members, and our Twitter account has 2,100 followers. We use each of these services to initiate conversation with our alumni community and use content from our web site as the source of these dialogs. Some of the conversation is purely an attempt to keep people clicking the like button and centers around NYU reminiscing. Other threads link back to content on our site and are used to promote events or new content.

All of the changes I have described may seem to be small fixes to an enormous problem that could be most effectively solved by finding a new CMS vendor. However, they have been manageable with our current resources and do give us rapport with our alumni community so that when we do one day upgrade our site, we have an existing and robust communication channel to our community. Ultimately, the challenge of working within the constrains of a less-than-ideal online community environment has forced me to work more creatively and to explore and leverage existing highly-trafficked social media outlets. We may not be able to build a robust community of alumni IN our web site but we certainly can build a robust community AROUND it.

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