Not long ago a post came onto my radar from Oberlin College and Ma’ayan Plaut about some new aspects of Facebook that might be of interest to Universities. Things move so fast in the social space I was not initially drawn to learn more and simply filed it away as "something to look at later." Now, after finally taking a long look at Groups for Schools as announced by Facebook, I've begun to formulate a very strong opinion. Schools need to wean themselves away from using Facebook at all to communicate with students - and quickly.
I had initially just intended to write some comments on the fine posts we've seen thus far, but felt compelled to write a full-on blog post instead. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or over Twitter @douglasLmiller.
There was hesitation for some in Higher Ed to get involved with social media in the first place. I believe that in part, this is because so many Higher Ed tech vendor relationships can be abusive. What I mean by that is the folks at the top of the food chain who most often are responsible for giving the green light to a particular vendor powered project, are traditionally not well versed in technology. That single fact has probably led to more dollars hemorrhaging out of higher ed than just about anything, and the industry knows this and has therefore been traditionally slow to adopt new vendor relationships, especially those bearing new technologies.
Now here comes Facebook and everyone at the lower levels is telling folks at the top "we can get our message out to students where they already are and it's free!" Folks who have been around see it as a vendor relationship nonetheless and therefore they are suspicious. They know something is wrong. They can't quite put their finger on it but they know enough to drag their feet and let some other college be the guinea pig.
Well, enough time has gone by and enough colleges have established presences on Facebook to make even the most conservative of decision makers open to the idea that "they need to be there." Best practice documents have been written, awards in innovation passed out, conference topics exhausted, white papers abound, policy and procedure have been accounted for and personnel acquired to make it all happen. Now that it has all been codified and homogenized it is apt to be destroyed by Facebook itself with the advent of Facebook Groups for Schools.
What I see in "Groups for Schools" is the action of a company that believes the industry simply will not say no. How could we? That is why the line must be drawn here. That is why Higher Ed simply needs to step away. For a few years now, we've driven traffic to Facebook via Pages, hoping to leverage the "free" platform to engage students. Now that students expect to see us there, we couldn't possibly retreat, right? So we stay despite having our conversations stolen and the terms of engagement redefined on our behalf and in our name? To what end? Where does it end? With a Facebook brand University online attempting to disrupt the very industry it purported to support?
1. Who is in charge here?
By now, students are used to hearing formal voices of authority come through the informal tubes of Facebook, Twitter and beyond. There is an expectation that their schools, like the brands they so know and love, are in complete control of conversations that occur on the platform. What Facebook Groups for Schools does is set that on its ear.
Already in some of the groups that have found their way into the "walled gardens" from our school, there is some confusion. In particular, students seem to be aware of the fact (perhaps more than Facbook) that schools are not usually prone to letting them be "Administrators" of things, least of all not without some serious paperwork.
By rolling this out on behalf of schools Facebook has dealt a serious blow to a school's ability to allow Facebook to continue to be a platform for official school conversations if only because official school representatives cannot effectively participate in those conversations as anything but their private Facebook selves. Granted, faculty and staff can join the groups as long as they feel comfortable doing so with their own private identities. But therein lies the rub - most folks I know in the industry who are charged with community management on Facebook or any social network are VERY keen to keep a clear line between their own personal accounts, musings, interests, and responsibilities and those of the University at large.
Let's say a student has a question about the school's calendar, for example, and asks the Facebook Group of a particular "department" about a deadline or something. Assuming there is a faculty member or staff memeber in the group in the first place, if said staff member answers erroneously, to whom does the student complain when the deadline is not met? Did the staff member say it while wearing their "work hat" or not?
Could you image what kind of feedback Facebook would get from something like the beverage industry? What would happen if one day Facebook announced it was rolling out a new feature called "Facebook Groups for Cola" that featured poorly cropped images of a Coke logo, a hidden disclaimer that casually mentions non-affiliation with Coke officially, tons of conversations about Coke products, but no real way for Coke to make use of or participate directly in those conversations? Seriously?
The question of control is apt to be a repeated theme. As one of my largest internal clients is the Career Center, I immediately took notice of the "jobs and internships" group and wanted to see what it would take to listen as that center to the group conversation. For starters, I could not join the group using the business account created for the Page.
And there are tons of groups - most of which have existing corresponding Pages in Facebook already.
4. How Many Places Are We Sending Students for Info? One of the biggest challenges any organization faces these days is coming up with and sticking to some clear calls to action. At a university where student attention is constantly pulled in millions of directions, you learn very quickly to simplify. Administrative offices as departments are sensitive to this with good reason. There are Learning Management Systems, Degree Tracking Systems, Financial Aid Systems, Job Posting and Searching Systems, and more that are already in place on campus. We say go here for events and there for jobs and there for advising or classes online, and we do this even in Facebook in an attempt to have the call to action completed, either there or elsewhere, as any brand would.
Will this disrupt those systems to a negative degree by cannibalizing users or fragmenting calls to action in messages to students? It would seem as if Facebook would have it such that any conversation about school affairs is had inside the "walled garden" of "Groups for Schools." Events managed there, documents shared there, jobs sourced there... But who is entering all that data? Students? Staff? Faculty? Facebook?
5. Who serves our students? When it comes to Fan Pages inside Facebook, it is fairly easy to maintain continuity of brand voice in the conversations and feeds that run through it. A few style guidelines and some discussions with page managers or social media interns to know when to take certain conversations offline or how to attain the right tone make all the difference. Messages and replies are posted in the name of the brand and on behalf of it despite the identity of the individual user. But "Groups for Schools" changes that and replaces it with a world whereby who you are on Facebook for work is the same as who you are on Facebook outside of work. Make no mistake - Facebook Pages for Schools would have an uphill battle against Groups.
What good does it do to have a Facebook "fan" page when a student can mosey on over to a particular "group" and have more functionality? Develop a social media strategy, yes. Be intentional, authentic, and listener oriented about your presence, yes. Then they rip control completely out from underneath you and begin creating communities in your name? I don't think so.
I know the argument; it is a "free" service, one can't complain about the details of how a "free" service is supplied. Well I've never been one to shy away from looking a gift horse in the mouth. Like with any other vendor, we at the university have what they want, not the other way around. They want the eyeballs and attention of our students, (but more importantly the data about them that gets collected by way of what they share and how they consume) and what better place to get the most of them than in a place they are all gathered together anyway?
Likewise what better way to dictate the terms whereby our students interact with and are consumed by Facebook than to simply say no? If Facebook cannot respect the brand sensitivities of Higher Ed then Higher Ed does not need nor should support Facebook. Higher Ed does not need Facebook to do its job. As much as I believe social media in general can help Higher Ed be better at what it does, the company Facebook has chosen a path that is more about getting in the way than helping, and that is why I'm recommending that Higher Ed wean itself away from Facebook (not all social media) as soon as possible.