We all want complex problems to have simple solutions.
When alumni relations and career services offices go shopping for digital platforms—or try to implement other new initiatives—they tend to try just that.
Alumni engagement, alumni networking, helping new grads find the right career—these are all complex issues that platforms can help solve but can't solve on their own.
Software can be a part of your strategy, but it will never be a strategy.
A vendor who sells you software without strategy is like someone selling you a car without an engine—it won't get you anywhere. Or like buying carpentry tools to build a house, but no blueprint. When you purchase software, you need a strategy to implement it and make the most of it, and your vendor needs strategies to help.
Here are five things you need to plan for when your office is launching a new platform or initiative.
Launching something new is deceptively difficult. However much we wish it were, "If you build it, they will come" just isn't true. Overcoming the human aversion to the unfamiliar is hard, and you'll need to answer several questions to figure out how to do that with your constituents:
- Who will we launch to?
- When will we launch to each population?
- How will we convince them this is useful to them?
Launching requires a combination of hands-on, one-on-one interaction; networking with existing groups; and crafting mass communications for larger populations. It requires just as much care as promoting a Day of Giving or a reunion.
After you plant the seed, you'll need to water and nurture it to help it grow. This means repeating the launch process on a smaller scale for additional constituent groups and continuously tweaking your communications strategy to recruit more users.
The growth stage is just as important as your launch because it's what guarantees that your users will keep coming back. No one wants to return to an empty, inactive community—it won't be useful.
Like any living thing, your platform requires constant care and feeding to stay healthy.
Integrating your new tool into your annual routine should be easy, but many of us simply forget to do it. Here are some tactics to use to ensure your platform is a part of everything you do:
- Advertise your platform prominently in your newsletter, on your website, and in your social media channels
- Give your platform a physical 'presence' at every event you hold (e.g. business cards, staff tabling to sign up new users, etc.)
- Mention your platform in every conversation with your constituents
- Ask "How can our platform fit into this?" at every project planning meeting
- Make your platform a part of annual campus events like orientation, commencement, and reunions
Getting buy-in from other offices is hard, especially when they feel like their toes are being stepped on. That's why it's vital that you form relationships with them early—before or during the purchasing process, if possible.
This is where your vendor partner really has a chance to shine. They likely work with all sorts of offices and can see their product from different perspectives. It can also be helpful to have a third-party to negotiate campus politics on your behalf. Tensions flare when people feel threatened, but you can usually avoid that by assigning diplomatic duties to your vendor's customer success staff rather than by taking it on yourself.
If you don't have a working relationship with other offices, expect to run into trouble down the road. They might simply refuse to cooperate, stymieing your efforts, or even purchase a platform of their own that competes with yours for attention from your constituents. (It happens more often than you might think.)
An object in motion stays in motion... with a little help.
Every platform requires regular attention and occasional minor course corrections. Digital communities are complex, so it's important to model good behavior and stay in touch with your users' needs. There's no such thing as a program that runs itself, even a digital one.
Even if you have campus-wide buy-in and high user adoption, you'll need to know how you're going to secure those victories. Stakeholders drift apart, office priorities shift, and students' and alumni's lives change over time.
Your vendor can help you navigate these changes as they occur. They've seen it all before. Just make sure your vendor has someone on their team with a map and compass.
Every good vendor is half-software-developer, half-implementation-consultant. When you evaluate one, be sure to ask what their strategies they use to help you get the most out of their product—and be ready to develop some of your own.