When Alma Mater is Missing: The Problem with Alumni Network Platforms

 empty restaurant

Last week, in “The Problem with Alumni Network Platforms,” Ryan Catherwood shared a long overdue critique of alumni networking platforms. He questioned their efficacy and impact, and made public the private thoughts that many in higher education share.

As one of the vendors (Switchboard) listed in passing, I’m responding not to refute or defend Ryan’s assertions, but to agree with and validate his sentiments. I’d argue Ryan’s take was charitable, and that the broader situation is more dire and disorganized than presented. Digital tools that overpromise and underdeliver have failed leaders like Ryan; your institutions; and, most importantly, your community of students and alumni who deserve, were promised, and have paid for far better. Switchboard is not immune. In the last year we have worked tirelessly to understand and avoid these pitfalls and do better. We’ve come to learn that platforms are like restaurants: they “don’t work” when there’s nothing on the menu and no one to serve the food.

LET'S STOP BUILDING EMPTY RESTAURANTS

This metaphor of “platform as restaurant” isn’t a stretch; the definition of alma mater means, after all, “nurturing mother.” You have dreams of community members gathering around delicious fare. You imagine them connecting over shared interests, passions, and professional opportunities. You fantasize that they’ll tell their friends about the restaurant and tip handsomely for the experience when the annual fund comes calling. Inspired by these visions, you assemble a committee of a dozen people to spend a year and over a hundred man hours assessing a dozen vendors. “Can you build this restaurant?,” you ask the enthusiastic young company. “Yes,” they all say. You compare bells and whistles, authentication and features. You hire a software vendor to build your restaurant.

The vendor helps you upload thousands of email addresses and invites your community into what’s been built. Your community shows up. “Um,” they say. “This is an empty restaurant.” They leave, confused, annoyed, and irreparably disappointed that a restaurant (one they paid potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition to visit) didn’t even offer a glass of water. Instead, there are a bunch of random profile photos on the walls or an abandoned phone in the corner with a sign that reads, “Schedule a mentoring call with a stranger.”

According to Gartner, 70 per cent of online communities will fail. So what does it take to create a hospitable and successful space? As with opening a restaurant, you need coordination and collaboration between departments to successfully launch a platform. How are guests invited to the space (marketing and social media)? Who is on point to welcome them (community manager)? Who is there to serve their needs and give them the best possible experience (staff, student workers, and volunteers)? Who is the chef preparing the actual meal, substance, and content (alumni affairs and career services)? How do you ensure it is nourishing, memorable, satisfying and, most of all, what your community wants? How do guests celebrate the incredible experience they had by sharing their success (communications), deepening their relationship (leadership opportunities and advancement), and providing feedback (institutional research)? The focus must be on building a purpose-driven experience where the customer receives value.

Just as bricks and mortar do not make a restaurant, software does not create community or deliver institutional outcomes. 

As the famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer said, “Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions—for and to—express it all.”

FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT TO BUILD

So how do we, as vendors, know when you, as customers, are ready to show up for your community and not to subject them to a platform? You tell us with the questions you ask, and there are generally two. If we are asked, “How much work does this take and what data do we get?” you see a platform as a hands-off tool. The institution wants to build a restaurant, but lacks the desire to feed people or the strategy to do so. The focus is on outputs without understanding that outputs are born from investing in successful community outcomes. We’ve learned our lesson the hard way: we utterly fail these clients.

We answer, “How much work does this take?” honestly: How much work does planning a reunion or chapter event take? It’s roughly equivalent, because you’re designing for the same depth of experience but at scale to deliver exponential outcomes. That means building the infrastructure to do so. The goal, which is often overlooked, is to create a virtual space that communicates the same warmth, culture, and hospitality you would with any event. Just as you wouldn’t serve McDonald’s at reunions, you probably shouldn’t put “fast, cheap, easy, and hands-off” at the top of the qualities you’re looking for when you’re dumping literally the largest, most valuable, and only permanent audience you have into an online experience. As the Japanese proverb goes, “Trust: the reputation of a thousand years may be undermined by the conduct of one hour.”

So what does it take to build trust online? It takes intentionally designing a valuable experience for users, and not settling for a done is better than perfect mentality. The secret we’ve learned is if a team invests at least five hours a week the first year, the effort required to sustain their community decreases dramatically over time. This foundation of a healthy, sustainable, network effect multiplies your impact. This is the inherent power and competitive advantage of high trust online communities when built properly.

The other question we get is, “Can we make it easier to feed the community by offering these items they are asking for on the menu?” These institutions embody a culture of service, care, and leadership. They’re already planning a thoughtful, valuable, quality experience. Even with a scrappy, two-person team of a host on double duty as a server and a creative chef in the back, these communities “get it” in a way that is akin to finding a spiritual calling.

In over a decade working in this space, I have never encountered a single campus where there is seamless communication and strategy between all of the offices. While we understand this is realistic, there’s a tremendous opportunity to create comprehensive alignment, which we now offer as part of our strategy services. Still, we have seen tenacious, visionary small teams with limited resources feed their their communities, improve and iterate their menus, and celebrate and increase their number of satisfied guests.

Our forward-thinking partners are not investing in a piece of software but in a holistic service experience. That is what we at Switchboard are honored and delighted to provide. We didn’t start this business to lay bricks. We’re here because we love to nourish communities and support the administrators and leaders called to serve constituents as students and beyond graduation.

A METRIC THAT UNDERMINES YOUR MISSION

I cannot overstate how wildly different these approaches are, and how critical it is for institutions to understand the distinction and question a vendor’s motivations and business model. (Here is a brief primer we created.)

Over two dozen vendors in this crowded space are are sprinting to close as many bargain basement-priced multi-year contracts as possible, many funded by venture capital that demands high growth. The main metric platforms often tout in their pitches are profiles created and user adoption, which are akin to the old and problematic metric of, “How many people showed up at our event?” In this instance, we take a pattern that is broken in real life (counting attendance) and simply replicate it online.

The tragedy that keeps me up at night is that a focus on quantity and adoption does not work for or align with the mission of our most valuable institutions like higher education. In fact, this metric undermines the industry. Even if a platform had 100% of its users create an account and walk into an empty restaurant, how does that advance an institution’s goals? Counting user adoption works only if your business model benefits from these metrics. That might be relevant to Facebook, which sells ads, but it does not apply to education where community members expect and deserve value, purpose, quality, relationships, service, experiential learning, personal and professional growth, and economic mobility. The question for institutions is instead, “How do our efforts deliver on these promises and how do we leverage this exceptional service delivery to advance the institution?”

For that reason, what we measure at Switchboard is focused on quality: What does our community need and are we meeting those needs? How can we save costs and increase efficiency by scaling service delivery? How does meeting needs help identify future donors and volunteers?

There has to be an industry reckoning. We must authentically feed and serve our communities with meaningful and strategic investment. This is not unprecedented: six-figure systems like Salesforce and Blackbaud have become indispensable to advancement and student services. Similarly, institutions have invested hundreds of millions over decades in career services and alumni affairs. Yet investment in software, training, and service delivery is largely non-existent when it comes to advancing alumni success, increasing professional opportunities, and ensuring their needs are met throughout their lifetime. Is it fair to expect $10K products built by contract bricklayers to create lasting impact in three years? Counting how many people wandered in to a bunch of empty restaurants is not a solution. In fact, this short-term thinking is precisely what will sink higher education.

So where do we go from here? At Switchboard, we partner with visionary institutions ready to lead; serve; do the work; and create effective, 21st-century engagement. It isn’t easy. It takes effort; patience; and collaborative, honest relationships between partners and vendors. But the writing is on the wall: Those who reach this higher ground will survive, thrive, and redefine the future of the field.

Interested in learning more? Join the June cohort of our Higher Education Innovation Fellows program. We have a few spots left, and an apron with your name on it.


We are inspired by many fields outside of higher education. Here is some further reading that informed this post:

“Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done,” Harvard Business Review

How the Hospitality Mindset Revolutionized My Business,” Fizzle Podcast

The Proven Path: The most successful and reliable approach in the history of building online communities,” Feverbee

Why Most Online Communities Are Destined to Fail—And 5 Ways To Save Yours,” Influitive