Curating a Social Website

Michael O’Neill (@mikeoneill76) is the program administrator for the Rensselaer Alumni Association social media accounts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute just launched its brand-spankin’ new RPIAlumni Social Media site—a culmination of more than a year of work, days of research on alumni behavior and studying what has worked for other institutions.

When I was first asked (back in early 2011) to start building and managing a social media presence for alumni at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I did A LOT of benchmarking. I took notice of how other universities posted, what they posted and when they posted. I also talked to colleagues at aspirant institutions and thought a lot about what would work best for our alumni.

Throughout this process, I noticed many institutions had websites that listed all, or most, of their official school social media accounts. I wondered, even back then, if that was something our alumni needed and would find helpful? Or were they more interested in finding and connecting with each other? These musings were quickly put on the back burner since my first priority was to create an operating plan and begin building our presence on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

In the next year and a half, I dove into social trends and really began to understand what’s most important to users of social media. I also learned more about the behavior of alumni on social media and how they consume information. The behavioral trends for RPI’s alumni are not dissimilar from overall web trends. They want to connect with their classmates, teammates, club members and friends. They like to see what fellow alumni are posting and they access our websites and social media presences on their mobile devices in greater numbers than ever before. (RPI saw an almost 50 percent increase in mobile traffic on its website as compared with last year.)

But, the more I learned about what is important to social media users, the more I kept coming back to my original question: Do our alumni need help finding and connecting with each other? The answer to that is an emphatic “Yes!” Our Rensselaer Alumni Association Facebook page is filled with posts from alumni who are either “checking in,” as one alumnus put it, or looking for their class members. I wanted to create a website that would help them do just that while also making it easier for them to see what is being said on the various platforms. Back to benchmarking I went.

Obviously, I didn’t want to copy another institution’s website but there were elements from different sites that I liked and thought could be incorporated into ours.

  • West Virginia University hits you with a call to action right away with “Connect” and then immediately follows it with big social buttons to help you do just that.
(Image property of West Virginia University)

(Image property of West Virginia University)

  • The trend for many institutional social media pages is to display a big cover photo that represents an institution’s personality. For example, when I landed on the Gould Academy’s website and saw its large cover photo, I immediately thought, “Yep, this feels like a social media page I’m used to.”
(Image property of Gould Academy)

(Image property of Gould Academy)

  • I knew one element that I wanted to incorporate was the curation of user-generated content and I like the way that Tufts University separated its social media feeds.
(Image property of Tufts University)

(Image property of Tufts University)

  • Finally, I saw that many universities list the social media platforms on which their official departments reside. I wanted to put a twist on that idea by listing official alumni platforms. While browsing Wright State University’s social media page, I noticed how they listed their entities—it felt clean, easy to read and just right for us.
(Image property of Wright State University)

(Image property of Wright State University)

The final element of the website had to do with consumption. Our alumni (and internet users in general) are accessing these sites more and more frequently on their mobile devices, and I couldn’t build a social media site that wouldn’t look good on tablets and smart phones. For me, building the site using responsive design—one design that adjusts to work across a range of devices from desktop computers to mobile devices—was a no brainer. With Google’s recent announcement that they will ding your site’s search rank for poorly-designed mobile experiences, I’m glad we decided to focus on mobile devices.

Throw all of these ingredients into a blender, add some special engineer sauce, hit puree and voila! We have our new RPI Alumni Social Media site.

Get Social with RPIAlumni

Get Social with RPIAlumni

There are a few bugs I’ll will work out in the weeks to come—for example, a couple of the social feeds only curate what we publish and the #RPI hashtag is also used for cars and the Raspberry Pi hardware—but most of the elements that I think are important are there.  I hope this site will be a useful tool to help RPI alumni connect with each other as our social media worlds only get bigger.

Do you have a social media site for your alumni or institution? Have alumni used it to connect with one another? Share in the comments.

4 responses to “Curating a Social Website

  1. Pingback: ROI, Digital Identity, Student Engagement and More: 2013 CASE Content to Guide Your 2014 | CASE Blog·

  2. Pingback: Get Social with RPIAlumni | Inqwired·

  3. I took over my position as Digital Strategist for the Wichita State Alumni Association a little over a year ago. My experiences and approach are very similar to yours, Mike. Taking over a social presence that was very small, the most important goal for me was to establish the brand’s identity first. I made URL’s and usernames identical across all platforms, focused on a humanizing approach to content, then moved onto establishing and growing our visitors. Direct marketing to our alumni helped, but what I found worked best was leading visitor generation through quality content. Organically bringing users in through current users sharing that content, is one of the most gratifying feelings in this position. We’ve reached a point in our social presence where we’re getting face-to-face feedback from users who look forward to our content. Very nice article, thanks for sharing your experience in depth. It’s always great to see others out there doing the same work.

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