What happens when colleges live in walled gardens? Social network plagues get loose outside the castle walls among the villagers, alumni, and students.

There are a lot of reasons a university could come up with for not participating in existing social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn.  You can't really authenticate people or control the messaging.  You might be exposed to illegal activities of the students. 

For a few years now, those of us who build communities online for a living have touted all the benefits of participation--how they could engage their constituencies better, increase their reach, etc.  It's largely fallen on deaf ears.

Well, today, we now have a reason why universities absolutely must participate fully on existing social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook--to protect their communities.

Brad Ward, who is the Electronic Communication Coordinator (does your school even have this position??) in Butler University's Office of Admission, uncovered a marketing scheme that should be the turning point of schools' aversion to participation on FacebookCollege Prowler, a college guide publishing company, created hundreds of "Class of 2013" Facebook groups geared to individual colleges in order to "catch" incoming students after gaining admission--in order to be able to market to them later.

You see, when students decide on a college, one of the first things they're likely to do is to join the Facebook networks and groups of their new school.  They search for groups on Facebook, and without paying much attention to who is running the group, they join up.  Once the numbers start climbing, these groups seem more and more legitimate, furthering momentum of signups.  In the end, 250+ groups were created by the company, giving them the ability to reach hundreds of thousands of students. 

The point here is that by not participating on these networks in any kind of coordinated, official manner, these schools created a vacuum that was taken up by marketers looking to co-opt these communities for business purposes.

If your school does not have official groups that you or an affiliate manages (and promotes!!) then groups will pop up.  Who will create them?  Anyone and everyone, if you're not present. 

Some schools, by tiptoeing into the social networking waters through closed, white label social networks, have made the problem even worse.  By consentrating all their efforts in one place, they've exposed themselves to the business risk of dealing with exclusive providers.  For example, it is rumored (and confirmed if you spend enough time on LinkedIn) that Affinity Circles is cutting staff. 

Hundreds of schools and associations, often instead of participating (and diversifying) across networks that already exist, depend on this venture backed startup as their main networking tool for alumni.  Hundreds of hours of integration, thousands of dollars spent on marketing--where does it all go if the company goes under?  Trust me, as an entrepreneur currently experiencing this venture capital market, if your school isn't asking Affinity Circles "How much staff did you cut?  Why?  How much money is left in the company?  What is your burn rate?" then you could very well be sitting on a time bomb.

For a school that participates everywhere their alumni do--on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, on their own official school blog, etc--this wouldn't be as much of an issue.  When alumni have multiple potential touchpoints to connect with their school, if one of them doesn't work out, you're not completely cut off. 

Butler is really lucky to have a guy like Brad working for them--someone who understands social networks and helps you create an innovative strategy for active and positive participation on them in a way that is engaging, but also covers all the bases that schools need covered.  If your school doesn't have that in house, perhaps it's time to invest in a good consultant who understands how schools work and who actively participates in all these networks.

Hmm... too bad I have a fulltime gig.  As an adjunct professor, active blogger, Facebooker, Twitterer, LinkedIn guy, and organizer of alumni, after stories like these, there's a huge opportunity here to help schools out with their social media strategy.