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Web 2.0 for R&R

Are you exploiting Web 2.0 tools for recruitment and retention? If not, you may be sacrificing your competitive edge.

Web 2.0 for R&RARE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES doing enoughto take advantage of Web 2.0 and social networking toolsin their recruitment and retention efforts?

'Not even close," says Sam Richard, a 23-year-oldjunior in the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Richard is one of six students in ASU's Student Ambassadors for Recruitment (StAR) program who writes a blog, answers e-mail from students, and communicates using students' Facebook pages. He points out that too many schools are still relying on the traditional recruiting practice of setting up a card table and a banner in a high school gym. "That approach is no longer valid," he insists.

Richard credits new media tools with helping him stay in touch with prospective student Leah Luben. Although Luben had already received acceptances from The University of Chicago and Harvard University (MA), she was interested in ASU's nonprofit leadership program. After an initial face-to-face meeting with Richard in her hometown of Tucson, the two continued to communicate through e-mail, his blog, and postings on her Facebook page. "Through those interactions online we maintained a relationship that helped her make the decision to attend ASU," he says, adding that ASU's admissions administrators realize how essential these tools now are, if they want to communicate effectively with high school students. "That's one of the reasons the StAR program is in existence," Richard explains. "For us, it's second nature-- or even first nature. When I'm looking for 'friends,' I now send a text message to Twitter to let them know what I am doing, before I even think to pick up the phone."

"When I'm looking for 'friends,' I now send a text message to Twitter to let them know what I am doing, before I even think to pick up the phone." -- Sam Richard, ASU student ambassador recruiter

Cautious Approach

Although most schools' recruitment efforts are now more technologically sophisticated than Richard's description of card table and banner, studies by the National Research Center for College & University Admissions suggest that most universities are still quite cautious in their approach to Web 2.0 tools.

"There's an awareness, but not much implementation," says Ron Morris, director of admissions marketing research and training for the NRCCUA. "There are lots of discussions going on, but that doesn't mean universities are getting it done."

According to a fall 2007 NRCCUA study, only 2.1 percent of admissions websites have the ability to instant message (IM) current students to ask questions about their experience, and only 5 percent have blogs penned by current students (see "Just How Far Behind Is Your Campus Website?"). Still, while it may be common practice for prospective and current students to communicate using Facebook, having current students use social networking tools to officially represent the school makes some higher ed officials nervous.

"Those I have spoken with who have been more aggressive in doing this have been positive about it, but [reservations about it] usually come back to the control issue," Morris says. "For boards of trustees and presidents, many of whom come from the corporate world, the inability to control the message freaks them out. They are talking about the image of their institution, and it makes them very nervous to rely on an 18-year-old who may be homesick or have a professor she doesn't like."

"The inability to control the school's message 'freaks out' some presidents and boards. It makes them very nervous to rely on an 18-year-old who may be homesick." -- Ron Morris, NRCCUA

University 2.0

Joanne Toone, associate director of admissions for the University of New England (ME), had to overcome just those types of senior-level concerns when she helped launch six student blogs two years ago. "We explained to [the university executives] that the things they might be concerned about would be published elsewhere anyway. This way, we actually have more control," she maintains. "Students trust this form of marketing; they want to hear from other students because they trust their word much more than ours."

The blogs are just one aspect of what Toone has dubbed UNE 2.0, which includes online chats, a Facebook presence, and YouTube and iTunes video and podcast offerings. She's excited about using the new technology and considers Web 2.0 tools cost-effective marketing, but she also warns that getting faculty and staff to create videos is a challenge, and keeping track of student blogs and updating Facebook pages is time-consuming. "You have to go in and check on them every day," she notes.

Toone reports that UNE is growing but is something of a well-kept secret outside of the New England area. "We thought that the technology would add a 'cool' factor, help us stand out, and introduce us to students from other parts of the country and overseas," she says. Students from California, for instance, may not visit a Maine campus just from reading about the school or receiving an e-mail, but if they can take a virtual tour and get an invitation to join an online community of prospective students, that can help form a real connection, she points out. Her next goal is to build connections between current and prospective students using the social networking site Ning.

"Blogs are good, but they're not as dynamic as social networking groups," Toone insists. "I'm hoping to get a mixture of incoming and current students to use Ning to create their own groups and post photos and information about themselves."

Personalizing the Experience

As Gettysburg College (PA) worked on upgrading its admissions web presence last year, it sought to personalize the experience for prospective students by linking them to topics and people on campus. On the "myGettysburg" portion of the site, once prospective students create an account, they start receiving personalized messages.

"They plug in interests as well as academic, co-curricular, and extracurricular information," explains Paul Redfern, director of web communications and electronic media. "They might enter biology, baseball, and other outdoor activities, for example. After that, information related to those topics will automatically populate their myGettysburg portion of the home page whenever they log in. Under their contacts, people they've interviewed with at Gettysburg will automatically appear, as well."

Prospective students also can communicate with each other, but Redfern says Gettysburg decided not to develop a sophisticated social networking capability. "As we looked at building the tool, we found that our prospective students were already using social networking sites like Facebook, so we had to ask ourselves if, strategically, we wanted to rebuild something like that solely for our own students and prospects, when here was something they were already using for free."

Redfern believes colleges have to figure out how to use Facebook strategically, without having a strong presence there. He says Gettysburg placed a news story about the class of 2012 on its own website, and it got posted on Facebook anyway, where it received many more hits than it would have on the school's site alone. "It was still getting lots of hits there long after we took down the story from our front webpage," he says, pointing to the importance of having a presence in the larger social networking world. "You have to think about how to push your news stories in a viral way."

Just how far behind is your campus website?

University Website Interactive Features

Does the site have the ability to instant message current students to ask questions about their experiences? 2.1%

Does the site have virtual diaries or blogs maintained by current students, which discuss their experiences as students? 5.0%

Is there a live chat room that is monitored by admissions office staff and that answers questions related to the college/university and the admissions process 4.7%

Is there a bulletin-board-type discussion area that allows posts (related to the college/university and the admissions process) from prospective students and responses from admissions office staff? 1.1%

Source: The October 2007 National Research Center for College & University Admissions ninth annual Enrollment Power Index, which ranks the admissions websites of more than 3,000 postsecondary institutions.

Facebook-like?

Dennis Dutton describes Sterling College (KS) as a small Christian college out in the middle of a wheat field. As the school's VP of enrollment and marketing, he is continually seeking ways to connect prospective students. "Once the students are here, the social networking becomes less important as they get to know each other," he says. "But before they get here, it's great to be able to connect Katie from Kansas City with John from California."

As part of a larger website redesign, Sterling worked with EducationDynamics, and late in 2007 launched a Facebook-like site for incoming students called SCPeers, so that they could get to know one another online before they reached campus. "From talking with students, we realized how much they live on Facebook," Dutton says, "so we have to tune into that."

Sterling also has started experimenting with marketing on Zinch, an online community where students can create profiles detailing their extracurricular interests. "We can send out messages to a targeted set of students in a five-state region who have expressed interest in a faithbased school," explains Rob McNeal, a Sterling admissions counselor. By initiating a "shoutout" to the school's Zinch site, students can express an interest in the college. Then, "We go look at their profile," McNeal explains, adding, "It doesn't necessarily make a difference regarding whether they are accepted or not, but it is good to have that information."

And to aid student retention, the college has created Sterling Insider, a component of its Freshman Year Retention Experience (FYRE) system from EducationDynamics. Student profiles from SCPeers are rolled over into the Sterling Insider site, to help the first-year students continue to connect with other new students when they arrive on campus. Sterling Insider and the FRYE program help undergraduates troubleshoot a wide range of personal and academic issues, directing students to campus and web resources that address everything from homesickness and test anxiety, to resolving roommate woes. Because the program is so new, Dutton says he doesn't have solid numbers yet, but he will be studying the impact of the new tools to determine if there's a difference in retention between students who are engaged online and those who aren't.

Prudence Is Key

As Richard at Arizona State suggests, schools should keep their focus on using only as much technology as is necessary to create a real-life relationship, and not on using technology for its own sake. He thinks it's best to let the user decide which medium is best for getting more information. "Users can IM, read and respond to a blog, and check out the website," he says. "Or they can come on over and have a cup of coffee and I can tell them all about the nonprofit scene in Phoenix."

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