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Building a Great (and Social) Alumni Platform

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Over the past several weeks I’ve had more conversations with schools about alumni sites and alumni portals than I can even count. Big schools and small, public and private, are exploring and evaluating options for their next (or in some cases, their first) digital platform. And for the most part they are all looking for similar things: an infrastructure for social integration and community building, back-end interoperability, and of course the right tools to deliver an amazing online experience for their alums that will keep them engaged and coming back again and again.

There are several commercial options to choose from, many of which are delivered by the same proprietary software vendors who support the back-end administrative systems that house core benefactor data. But increasingly the colleges and universities that I’ve been talking to are interested in separating out the administrative solution from the online experience and are more interested in building a web platform that is as much a social hub for online alumni gathering (something the alumni want) as it is a transactional environment for online giving and events registration (something the school wants). And because there is not a great pre-packed solution that does this, especially not in an elegant way that fuses the entire institutional online infrastructure in one continuous experience, several schools are looking to build something to serve their needs.

So I have asked many of our clients - and have been asked by others - what it takes to build a sophisticated online social hub to support an institution's alumni relations efforts and development goals. And while there are many answers, the following 5 components are consistently at the top of the list:

1) Responsive design and a mobile-ready platform: if your alumni can only access your site from their desktops, then they won’t be accessing your site. Simple enough.

2) Unified content experience: bringing together access to all the content from your school’s web sites into your alumni environment creates for a deeper level of engagement using the content and the online experience that forms the basis of their loyalty in the first place.

3) Social collaboration tools: it’s not a one-way or even a two-way conversation but rather it’s a 3-way (and even 4-way and more) conversation that these sites need to support. Getting alums to interact with each other is what drives adoption and “stickiness”. As an example: I played rugby in college and I still stay in touch with some of my teammates, but it would be great to have an opportunity to collaborate, share information, participate in forums, etc, with my school’s rugby players from other graduating classes and even with today’s current players. If that social collaboration ecosystem was contained within the school’s online alumni platform that would be a powerful tool that the school could use for ongoing alumni engagement. Why should your school give that “business” to Facebook?

4) Open API support: you don’t want to build an island – tying in data and access to your Razor’s Edge system or Advance system or whatever other database and/or CRM system you’re using for donor management is important so starting with an open platform that can support your API needs is critical.

5) An amazing experience that is personalized: it goes without saying that anything being delivered online these days has to be functionally rich and also aesthetically pleasing, but it also needs to cater to the individual. When thinking about online engagement, think about a "segment of one". How will we engage this particular person online? What do we know about him/her that is different from what we know about anyone else that we can use to deliver an amazing online experience? The content and tools will get them there but the personalized experience will keep them coming back. So building on my rugby example – when I visit my alumni site it should serve me immediately with stories, news, content, and social opportunities all based on my interest in keeping tabs with (and engaging with) the rubgy team. Cater to me as a segment of one.

The good news is that all of this can be achieved using Drupal as the core infrastructure, and because Drupal is already imbedded in many of these schools and provides an open, flexible, and modularized platform on which to build, there are many schools currently working with Drupal to build their next-generation online alumni platform. And Drupal Commons, an open distribution of Drupal that packages together social collaboration tools, open API’s and a responsive framework, is serving as a great launching point for many of these institutions. So while the thought of building an online collaboration environment may seem daunting, the truth is that the effort required may not be as immense as it may initially seem. And that means the benefits to your alumni and to your institution could be closer at hand then you think.

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