Student Services Go Social
- By Matt Villano, Monica Gullon
Colleges and universities are
discovering that social networking
and other advanced web tools are
now key to improving student life.
Like fine wines, Web 2.0 technologies get
better with age. Gone are the days of the pointless chat room;
this is the era of social networking juggernauts such as Facebook, MySpace,
and Friendster. Services offered by these
firms are helpful in facilitating connections among users in
every industry and of every age. In higher education, however,
a handful of schools are using social networking services to set
new benchmarks for communicating with students. Some of the
schools on this list include Middlebury College (VT), the University
of Arizona, and Tulane University (LA). Following is
a look at how such institutions have embraced these new applications
to keep their most important customers satisfied.
Eighteen months ago, the manager of the Middlebury
College bookstore was unaware of Facebook. Today, he
has set up a special Facebook page for the
bookstore that boasts 1,200 fans and is leveraged for
competitive edge, on campus and off.
It's hard to believe that about 18 months
ago, Bob Jansen, manager of the Middlebury
College bookstore, was unaware
of Facebook. Today, Jansen is all about
the social networking site, having set up a
special Facebook page for the bookstore that now boasts nearly
1,200 fans. More important: He's leveraged
the site to gain a competitive edge,
both on campus and off.
In case you've been living in a cave
for the last two years, Facebook is the
wildly successful social networking site
launched in 2004 by Harvard (MA) whiz
kid Mark Zuckerberg as a way for students
(and others) to connect. Today, with
100 million users posting photos, videos,
and comments, it's the most-trafficked
social media site in the world. The downside?
Only other Facebook registrants
approved by siteholders as "friends" can
access the content siteholders provide.
Back in 2007, when Jansen first gave
the site a gander, he was surprised to learn
that 93 percent of Middlebury students
were on Facebook, and that most used it
daily. Seeing an opportunity to reach out
to students on a platform they were comfortable
with, he joined the site, created a
personal profile, and started promoting
the store. Within weeks, he had amassed
hundreds of friends.
That initial endeavor was a learning
experience. Jansen first signed up under
the name "Book Store"-- a violation of
Facebook rules, which state that members
must use their real names. He then edited
his profile to tell users more about himself,
but cleverly manipulated the space to
convey information about the store.
This time, Jansen posted photos of the
store, video advertisements, and special
discounts to his Facebook friends.
He also used the "update" and
"event" features on the page to advertise
promotional events at the brick-andmortar
store. The first event, dubbed
"Friends of the Bookstore," was held
that April. The parameters of this inaugural
effort were simple: Everyone who
came in and mentioned the Facebook
page received 30 percent off.
Web 2.0-driven websites also are impacting students' access to textbooks.
Here are some new student services you should know about.
- Chegg This online service allows students to rent books for a substantial savings
off list price (rental fees vary depending on the text), with the option to buy
at the end of the rental period. Chegg also has green appeal: It plants a
tree for every book rented, bought, sold, or donated. The company's affiliate
program (open to all users; not just schools) encourages organizations
to include Chegg banner links, text links, and search widgets on their websites;
in return, Chegg kicks back 10 to 12 percent of sales driven its way.
- Campus Book Swap Campus Book Swap acts as a bulletin board, helping students buy and
sell used textbooks. Students post their used titles with comments and
asking price. Books are sorted by school, so students see only those
texts listed by others on their campus.
- Flat World Knowledge Mixing tradition with innovation, this open source textbook site allows
instructors to select free textbooks that are written by experts and rigorously
reviewed. Educators can mix-and-match chapters or add their own
materials. Students can select from a variety of formats: print, audio, bythe-
chapter, and more. Flat World also offers its own community, where
users can discuss the lessons, swap study notes, and learn from the
book and each other.
"Turnout was amazing," remembers
Jansen, who notes that sales increased
327 percent compared to SDLY (same
day last year) on the clothing and gift items. Profitability doubled, even after
accounting for the 30 percent discount.
"That told me right then and there that
there was something unique about this
platform," he asserts.
Banking on this success, Jansen
expanded his Facebook presence even
more. Eventually, toward the end of last
year (and with help from a student), he set
up the "Fan Page," an independent space
that he could use in tandem with his own
network of friends to promote the store
and inform users of upcoming news.
With this double-barreled approach,
the bookstore manager advertised the
store's second Facebook-only event: A
"60-Second Shopping Spree" in October
2007. During this event, bookstore
officials randomly selected two lucky
students from a batch of 427 customers
who showed up to shop for supplies over
a three-day period. Just as the clock was
set to start, bookstore employees ducktaped
the winners together back-to-back,
and gave them 60 seconds to
conduct the spree.
Last year, nearly 40 percent of Tulane's 1,600 incoming
freshmen used RoommateClick to find a roommate.
Even students who didn't find roommate matches benefited
from using the site by making new friends.
Jansen videotaped the entire episode
and immediately posted it on the store's
Facebook page. Within 12 hours of an
e-mail blast about the event, 30 new students
were waiting to sign up as fans.
"Generally speaking, Facebook promotions
cost me nothing, and they are
many times more effective than print
advertising," the manager says. "It's
allowed me to connect effectively with
students and get our message across."
Since the shopping spree, Jansen has
held other events at the store and he
advertises each of them on Facebook. In
each case, anywhere from 500 to 700
current students participate. He also has
put together Facebook promotions that
extend to the school's e-commerce bookstore website. In some
cases, these events have attracted alumni
According to Jansen, the best part of
using Facebook to connect with customers
is that those students who have
signed up as friends and fans can respond
to event invitations and post comments,
giving him instant feedback on specific
promotions or marketing campaigns.
"The whole experience becomes much
more interactive," he says of the sales
relationship on Facebook. "I also have
started looking at people in terms of them
being friends rather than customers."
Moving forward, he'll continue to roll out
Toward the end of 2008, for example,
Jansen installed technology in the store
and on the store's e-commerce website to
augment the power of Facebook by creating
a customer rewards program. The program,
Panther Rewards, allows customers
the ability to earn 5 percent cash back on
their purchases, and has increased traffic both in-store, online, and to Jansen's
Facebook page as a whole. "My goal is to
create a technology 'engagement vortex'
that over time begins to draw most
of the Middlebury College community
and events on campus through my networks,"
Housing Without Hassle
Facebook isn't the only profile-oriented
social networking service making waves
these days in the world of higher education.
At the University of Arizona, technologists
are utilizing a similar social
networking technology from Lifetopia to address a different
challenge: room assignments.
The need for this technology was simple.
For years, the 5,700 University of
Arizona incoming freshmen who live in
the campus's 22 dorms have had the
option of selecting roommates before
they arrive, or accepting random roommate
assignments from the Office of
Residence Life. In most cases (those in
which students have selected each
other) these connections work just fine.
In other cases (those in which Residence
Life makes the matches) roommate
connections can end in conflicts
that Residence Life must resolve.
"Students who request to live together
are far more likely to resolve their
problems on their own, rather than
dump on us," says Steve Gilmore, assistant
director of Residence Life. "If we
choose their roommate, they look to us
to solve those problems."
Tired of being dragged into these battles,
last year Gilmore set out to find a
better way to manage roommate assignments.
After investigating a number of
solutions that didn't fit the bill, he discovered RoommateClick, Lifetopia's fully hosted
roommate networking service that costs
students $20 per year to use.
For student users, the service essentially
provides a community of potential
roommates. Here's how it works: During
their senior year of high school,
incoming freshmen register with anonymous
screen names and respond to
questionnaires about everything from
their hometown to study habits; personality
type to sleep schedule. This information
goes into profiles students later
can personalize at will.
Once an incoming University of Arizona
student has replied to the questionnaire,
he or she has access to all of the
other University of Arizona profiles in the
system. In this pre-qualified community,
users can meet each other, start communicating,
and make connections. As they
get to know each other, users then can
request to connect outside the RoommateClick
service (say, on other social
networking websites or in person), and
see if they might be compatible for a
potential roommate assignment. They
then apply for housing with a roommate
request, eliminating the reliance on the
Office of Residence Life to make a match.
Financial Aid Goes Social
WITH THE ECONOMY IN THE TANK and lending frozen just about
everywhere, there's a great new way for students to find an "angel" to provide
funds: a recently founded social networking website called GreenNote.
The site helps students turn their personal
connections into low-cost loans for
school. Students can get money for higher
education without any hassle, and lenders
(students' friends and family) get a significant yield on their investment (6.8 percent).
Loans can be as small as $100, or
as large as full tuition.
Founder and CEO Akash Agarwal says
he was inspired by the success of microloans
in the Third World. "It's an innovative
way for students to bridge the funding
gap," he says. "People are already doing this offline. We're trying to do this in
a much broader, efficient way."
In addition to providing the platform, tools, and promissory note to make the
loan binding, GreenNote works with universities to certify that students are
enrolled, and then distributes the money directly to the schools, assuring that no
funds from well-meaning family and friends are frittered away on spring break.
According to Agarwal, more than 170 schools are already working with
GreenNote, including Stanford University (CA), Santa Clara University (CA), and Occidental College (CA). The company also works with colleges
and universities to help them develop programs that educate students about
the GreenNote loan platform. Here's how the program works:
- A student creates a profile on GreenNote.com, detailing her academic
goals and career aspirations.
- She shares it with her network of family, friends, and associates.
- Lenders such as friends and family members sign up through GreenNote
to help the student attend a specific university.
- GreenNote formalizes the agreement and draws up legally binding docs.
- GreenNote pays the school directly with funds from lenders.
- When the student graduates, GreenNote distributes the student's payments
to lenders, who abide by forbearance policies similar to the largest
student aid lenders.
"The more we can put the students in
the position of making their own decisions
to room together, the less likely
we'll have to deal with conflicts," says
Gilmore. Although Lifetopia allows him
to have input into the questionnaire,
Gilmore has opted to remain hands-off, in
order to give students more control over
the process. "At this point, it's presented
to students as an option they can take
advantage of if they want to," he explains.
"We tell them, 'If you are interested in
finding a roommate but you don't know
someone already, here is a service available
to you that could give you a little
more control over who your roommate
might be, rather than accepting a random
While it's still too early to tell how
dramatically the service has reduced
housing conflicts, there's no denying its
reach: Out of 5,700 incoming freshmen,
nearly 1,000 have forked over the $20 to
sign up. A nice plus: The university has
seen $5,000 of this $20,000 purse-- just
enough to cover expenses. The rest of
the money goes to the service vendor.
In Louisiana, Tulane University also
has had success with this same roommate-finding
website. There, Veronica Marquez,
housing assignments coordinator,
reports that last year nearly 40 percent
of 1,600 incoming freshmen used
RoommateClick to find a roommate.
Marquez notes that even students who
didn't find roommate matches benefited
from using the site by making new
friends. What's more, "At least they can
say, 'I looked and I couldn't find somebody,'"
she offers. "That decreases anxiety,
and whenever you can decrease
anxiety for students and parents, you
make everyone's lives easier!"
They Say They Want a Revolution: Green
residence halls aren't just energy-efficient,
they also help promote student awareness.
Help on the Run: Students continue to embrace mobility, while auxiliary services move to here, there, and everywhere.