Going for the Gold:
An Application for a CASE Award

By Ma'ayan Plaut, Manager of Social Strategy & Projects, OBERLIN

Originally posted to the Oberlin Webteam Blog.

I don’t entirely know why I came to work after a red-eye flight in which I didn’t sleep and while my body was still in a time zone six hours behind, but by 11:30am, I had a reason. Two minutes into a kitchen-based catchup conversation with our alumni magazine editor, our Director of Print & Publications Kelly piped out of her office to say that the Switchboard May Day Celebration was a recipient of a CASE Gold award for student alumni initiatives, our first such award for a digital project.

Cue the next ten minutes of repeating “HOLY CRAP” as I sent a celebratory email to our campus partners in the career center and alumni association and another to Team Switchboard and posted similarly on Twitter.

In writing the celebratory tweet, I realized the project writeup had never left the closed-door of conversations and email exchanges (I know, I’m not following my own rules) between our internal partners and Team Switchboard. Since I learned all I know about writing good CASE applications by reading the applications written by Kelly (specifically, last year’s CASE Grand Gold winning student recruitment publications), I figured now is as good a time as ever to share the background on last spring’s May Day Celebration in full and in the format of the submitted CASE application.

Provide a concise description of this entry

On April 30, 2015, the Oberlin Switchboard - a virtual space for the Oberlin community to ask for what they need and offer what they have - celebrated its first anniversary by encouraging students (most importantly, graduating seniors) to ask for advice or connections about next steps beyond Oberlin.

On May 1, 2015 - May Day, a phrase colloquially uttered in a time of need or desperation - alumni from all generations descended on the students’ posts on the Oberlin Switchboard to help.

State objectives and how they support your institution’s mission

At a macro level: starting in September 2014, Oberlin began the strategic planning process. One of the emerging discussions and ultimately, a cornerstone of the final plan, is the Oberlin 4+4 program. Oberlin 4+4 connects current Oberlin students and recent Oberlin graduates with alumni who can provide mentorship and advising as our newest Obies start down meaningful and fulfilling career and life paths.

Taking place before the new strategic plan’s formal adoption, the Oberlin Switchboard May Day Celebration served as a proof of concept for the plan’s emphasis on student/alumni relationships and demonstrated early the ways in which the new plan could help meet students’ existing needs. The lessons learned from this programming were foundational to the initial partnerships between the career center and the alumni association that are integral to the Oberlin 4+4 program’s success.

At a micro level: the mission of Oberlin Alumni Association is to foster communication between the College and its alumni and among alumni. The Oberlin Switchboard fulfills the last part of that mission - fostering communication among alumni - by allowing members of the Oberlin community to aid each other with the various steps along their post-Oberlin paths. The connections between the May Day campaign and our advancement goals are manifold. By giving alumni other ways to contribute, we offer them non-financial avenues to advance Oberlin as an institution and a community. Furthermore, these alumni are more likely to remain engaged and continue to give back. Finally, the students that connect with alumni mentors will be in a better position to give back to the college in the future, both financially and otherwise.

Describe what is innovative about your entry

Starting when we launched the Oberlin Switchboard in late April 2014 and through the rest of the first year of our Switchboard, we found that the most valuable interactions were between students and alumni on posts that fall under the category of advice. These are the posts that are easiest for Obies to connect with, since they draw upon the networks and knowledge of our community to strengthen all parties involved.

With the Oberlin Switchboard May Day Celebration, our aim was to have every single post have at least one meaningful connection. We promised the students who participated that if they made a post, we would guarantee that at least one alum would help them the following day. That served as a good motivation for the students to make their posts on the designated date of April 30, and the sheer mass of new posts gave alumni an opportunity to engage with a post most meaningful to them. 

What makes these interactions special is that the college takes a back seat in this communication medium and allows the common thread of our community - we’re here together because of Oberlin - to drive the conversation instead. Two posts during the Switchboard May Day Celebration highlighted this:

The post that garnered the widest range of responses from the largest span of alumni from different decades was a post from a current student, Jacob, seeking advice about dropping out in order to pursue radical grassroots activism

Jacob appeared at a tabling session, initially for chocolate kisses, but agreed to hear the campaign pitch while munching on a treat. After hearing the premise of Switchboard and the assurance that alumni will be answering every single post the next day, Jacob started hyperventilating “Oh my god oh my god this is great oh my god,” ran off mid-conversation for about 15 minutes, and returned a few times to talk to the tablers about the best way to approach writing this post. 

Jacob wasn’t sure if he should post the question on his mind and he was urged to do so, mainly because both tablers knew people who had dropped out (and some who had returned) and knew that Oberlin folks have the chops to talk about this from many angles. The post was bold, brave, and a good thing to ask of other Obies for brutally honest and ultimately useful responses. (Everyone asks if Jacob is still around - he is - but the point is more that Switchboard was there in this specific time of need, and the community came in to help in exactly the right way.)

The second story was highlighted briefly on the Switchboard success stories blog and comes from a now recent grad named Miryam. Several people contacted Miryam as a result of her post on freelance writing and performing - three publicly on her Switchboard post plus unknown others via private message - another came from a mutual connection rather than an immediate Switchboard interaction. An alum who visited campus while Miryam was studying abroad saw her post on the Oberlin Switchboard and reach out directly to her advisor to facilitate an introduction. She thought she’d never again have the chance to connect with this ideal alum since she’d missed the golden opportunity to meet them the first time around, and through her Switchboard post, this alum was able to find her instead.

Jacob and Miryam’s experiences were not an exception but the norm regarding connections made during the Switchboard May Day Celebration. The Celebration initiated life-changing connections during this blitz of posts in May 2015 and they still continue to this day.

List your target audience(s) and how you addressed their needs

Oberlin students:

  • We emailed the senior class (nearly 700 individuals) on April 29. While the Switchboard celebration was for all Oberlin students, the senior class was the group who could stand to benefit the most. We included an example post from Taiyo, one of the senior class officers, to encourage similar posts from peers.
  • We advertised the May Day Switchboard celebration on our internal news site and included it on our weekly email newsletter received by students, faculty, and staff (readership of around 3500). 
  • We reached 45 students in person through printed handouts explaining the day’s activities handed out during tabling sessions.

Oberlin alumni:

  • Our monthly alumni email newsletter was scheduled for distribution on May 1 already, so we added a dedicated section about our Switchboard celebration with a call to action to go help students TODAY. This message went out early in the morning on May 1.
  • The regional alumni mailing lists also sprung into action around lunchtime on May 1 with an encouragement to visit Switchboard and help with regionally relevant questions.

Total number of participants, if applicable

During the span of April 29 to May 3, we had 221 engaged participants and 612 actively informed Switchboard members.

The Oberlin Switchboard gained 150 new users during the course of the celebration.

1539 people accessed the site during the span of the Switchboard May Day Celebration, and these people spent an average of 4:03 on the site while visiting an average of five pages. 38% of the people visiting the site during the celebration had visited before; 62% were introduced to Switchboard because of the celebration.

Number of addressable alumni contacted as part of program/project

Alumni contacted (45,000 possible):

  • 18,616 alumni were contacted directly via email newsletter with a 27% open rate. This is slightly lower than usual open rates for our email newsletter, however, the general theme and subject line for the email was about information regarding commencement/reunion weekend, not strictly about Switchboard engagement.
  • Regional email newsletters sent on the same day called out Switchboard engagement in the subject line and contained only one link directing recipients to head to Switchboard. Our solicitable base for regional alumni newsletters is over 11,000 alumni, with a 40% open rate for this message and 17.3% engagement rate for recipients clicking on the internal link.
  • Via social media, we had the potential to reach 5,500 alumni, but we don’t know the overlap between messaging touches between the email newsletters and direct emails from Switchboard.

Students contacted (2900 possible):

Every student should have received at least one touch via the career center newsletter, the general campus email newsletter, social media from the career center or through individual class Facebook groups, emails from Switchboard, via a PSA on the college radio station, or in person with a call-to-action handout from a tabling session.

Briefly explain the involvement of all persons involved, including students, volunteers and/or others and how they worked together to get the job done

  • Ma’ayan Plaut, Manager, Social Strategy and Projects, Communications: co-brainchild of the Switchboard May Day Celebration, instigator of preparatory internal collaboration meetings, writer of initial marketing templates and educational pieces, scheduling of tabling sessions, coordination of student and alumni communication via social media, tabling assistance, making connections between students and alumni on May 1
  • Mike McComb, Assistant Director, Alumni Relations: marketing messaging, coordination of alumni communication via social media and general alumni newsletter, tabling assistance, making connections between students and alumni on May 1
  • Brant Fairchild, Associate Director, Alumni Relations: coordination of alumni communication via regional club emails
  • Gayle Boyer, Operations Manager, Career Center: coordination of student peer advisors, integration with existing career center initiatives, marketing support, tabling assistance
  • Donna Russell, Assistant Director, Career Center: co-brainchild of the Switchboard May Day Celebration, outreach to senior class leadership, tabling assistance
  • Dana Hamdan, Assistant Director, Student Engagement, Career Center: tabling assistance
  • Jimmy Taylor, Student Engagement Fellow, Career Center: marketing messaging and outreach, tabling assistance
  • Amy Immel, Associate Director of Parent and Family Giving, Development: marketing messaging and communication to Oberlin parents
  • Polly Washburn, Chair, Alumni Career Support Committee: marketing messaging for alumni, motivation of alumni leadership to participate
  • Taiyo Scanlon-Kimura, Senior Class Officer: organic marketing messaging, tabling assistance
  • Seven student peer advisors: tabling in high-traffic areas of campus throughout the day and evening on April 30

Describe your results and how you met your goals and objectives; if this is a recently launched program, describe your plans to evaluate it

Our initial plans for the Oberlin Switchboard May Day Celebration aspired to have 100 posts from students offered their skills and expertise to open the door to conversations with other Oberlin students and alumni. Philosophically, Switchboard asks and offers are fundamentally the same thing, but the positioning of the post is what differentiates the two. An ask seeking connections could just as easily be an offer to BE a connection to others - it’s a matter of perspective and empowerment.

As clearly as we communicated our goal to the Oberlin community, Switchboard and its possibilities are rather self-explanatory. While we were encouraging offers on April 30 (it takes a certain amount of confidence to say “I am what I am and I know what I know” - a certain amount of confidence that most people, in particular, Oberlin people, sorely lack), explaining Switchboard as a space that fulfills many needs for many people meant that people used it in the way that made the most sense to them in that moment. On the whole, all but a few posts made by students were asks; nearly all the posts asked for advice or connections.

The window of time for student to posts for this campaign spanned from April 29 (the day the message was sent to seniors) to May 1 (the day alumni started to engage with the posts). The window of time for alumni engagement spanned from May 1 (the namesake day that also garnered the most interaction) to May 3 (knowing the busy life/work schedules of our alumni, we wanted to buffer engagement time with a weekend). While we did not reach our ambitious goal of 100 posts on April 30, students made 40 posts between April 29 and May 1, with each post made by students receiving an average of four comments from Oberlin alumni. A total of 136 public comments were shared and 84 private messages were exchanged between 221 Switchboard users during the span of the campaign. Participants spanned from the class of 1955 to the class of 2019; the most active student class participating was the class of 2015 and the most active alumni class participating was the class of 2007.

Since this was a pilot project, it’s hard to assess in detail the long-term success of a campaign such as this, but we now have questions we’d like to answer in the future. For the next major Switchboard campaign we run, some things we’d like to explore:

  • Follow up with non-senior students who engage during the campaign and how they’ve engaged with (the same or new) alumni since their interactions on Switchboard.
  • Keep track of users who continue to engage through a post, comment, or message a month, three months, and six months after their engagement with a Switchboard campaign.
  • If there is a correlation between engaged users and users who give (for the first time or who increase their gift to) the Oberlin Annual Fund. Switchboard campaigns emphasize the time and abundant talent of the Oberlin community, and engagement in this nature will hopefully translate into a substantial and meaningful financial contribution in the future.
  • 25% of traffic to the Oberlin Switchboard during this celebration came via mobile, which was well before Switchboard had released their mobile app (the site is responsive, however, the app allows for deeper and more persistent engagement). Future iterations of Switchboard campaigns will incorporate the mobile app into marketing, since app users access and engage with Switchboard posts and users 2 to 14 times more often than with just the site.

Editor’s note: I wrote this application as we were developing Switchboard Ask Me Anything (AMA) week and used these questions as a model for our metrics.*

There are some concrete wins we’ve noted: the Switchboard May Day campaign had the second largest number of signups since the launch of the Oberlin Switchboard - 150 over the course of the marketing and engagement surrounding May Day (the largest number of Switchboard signups coincided with our email newsletter that introduced the Oberlin Switchboard to the broader alumni community - 350 new users in a three-day span) - and several students noted through success stories that they managed to connect with interesting alumni who helped them in some way.