Thursday, April 16, 2009

Case Study: Private School Learns To Embrace Social Media

I originally wrote the following article for this site:

Upper Canada College (UCC) is a private boys school founded in 1829 and located in Toronto, Canada. It is widely regarded as one of the premier schools of its kind in North America, with a student population of around 1,040 day boys and 90 boarders.

I worked there on a contract from June 2007 until May 2008 as the College's Acting Communications Manager. It was my job to write and produce the monthly e-newsletter, Connection, and to write and edit the monthly alumni publication, Old Times. I also wrote news for the College's website, press releases, helped the Advancement department with brochures and its fundraising efforts and also liaised with the press as required. It was an excellent experience.

There was one communications strategy missing that I thought UCC definitely had to pursue: social media. After 178 years(!) it was time for the College to embrace Web 2.0. More of UCC's advocates were online, including parents, students and donors, and the Communications and Advancement team thought it was very important to engage with them in this way, alongside the traditional direct mailings and brochures.

The UCC community is made up of many facets, not least the graduates. They are known as "Old Boys" by the College. The Communications and Advancement team has a very comprehensive database to keep in touch with Old Boys, and holds regular reunion events in Canada and around the world.

I am a very big LinkedIn fan -- been using it since it launched -- and knew that creating an Upper Canada College Alumni Group was the first step. It took minutes to set up, a few days for approval from the LinkedIn administrators and the best part? Zero dollars.

We promoted the new group in Connection, Old Times and various other school brochures. That got the membership off to a brisk start, but online word of mouth soon spread too between the alumni, and to date, there are 328 members of this group. It's also been a boon in helping graduates connect with current students using the UCC Common Ties Mentorship Program; the career-focused nature of LinkedIn was a natural fit for this initiative.

The Group has an "invite only" policy, and new members have to be approved by an admin that is familiar with dealing with the Old Boy community.

The next phase was to set up the Upper Canada College Group on Facebook. Again, it took minutes to set up with no cost involved. We promoted it in all the usual channels as mentioned above, but because of the "fun" nature of Facebook and the amount of students that use it, this approach was extremely successful -- there are now 909 members.

The Communications and Advancement team has used this group to great effect, sending out reunion and social event invites, helping Old Boys to reconnect with each other and announcing current news about the College.

As with all Web 2.0 concepts, there were some detractors, and some "unsavoury" Facebook groups had also been set up that mentioned UCC. With social media tracking tools, it was easy to find these and engage with the creators to request that they be toned down, if not closed. Some admins agreed -- some did not ... but at least we knew who was saying what about the College.

For example, when the College announced that it was contemplating ending the boarding program, a tradition that had stretched back to the school's founding, a groundswell of differing opinions erupted on Facebook. We monitored those conversations, directed people to send their opinions to the College's Boarding Task Force via a dedicated e-mail, and collected these as part of the official outreach. In June 2008, the Board of Governors announced that the boarding program would be retained and revitalized; I like to think that the decision was based not wholly on Facebook feedback, but at least in part.

We also created the Upper Canada College video channel on YouTube, and to date, the 11 videos -- ranging from recruitment drives, to student music to fun sketches -- have achieved nearly 15,000 views. Not bad for zero investment; just a passion and commitment to using Web 2.0 as an added strategy to reach the community.

The comments are monitored, and have to be approved by an admin before being published. We didn't see this as censorship, but the simple fact that strangers posing under false names and slurring the College was detrimental to the community feel that we’d worked hard to build.

These initiatives were recognized by our peers, and in 2008 UCC was awarded The Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education’s 2008 PRIX D'EXCELLENCE Bronze Award for Best E-Innovation in University Advancement and also the Council for Advancement and Support of Education 2008 Circle of Excellence Bronze Award.

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