Social Networks vs. Online Communities

Christina Balotescu

January 29, 2014

Many hands together with a heart painted on them, implying generosity

When creating online communities for higher education, you often hear people asking, “Why do I need an online community if I have a Facebook/LinkedIn group for my university?” The truth is that online communities are not the same as social networks. People engage with each for different reasons, and trying to reach your constituents through channels they are not receptive to may not be the best use of resources.

Social networks are focused on individuals, and often feature “I” instead of “We”. LinkedIn is updated to reflect my accomplishments, and Facebook is updated with what I want/like/saw/did. For this reason, social networks are aimed at connecting those that already know one another. People rarely reach out to those they don't know on Facebook. Even on LinkedIn, a professional networking site, people often wait for introductions before connecting.

Two-thirds of people say that keeping in touch with friends and family is the reason they use social networks. In contrast, only 14% say they use social sites to connect over a shared hobby, and only 9% say making new friends on social networks is important.

If your university is creating a group on Facebook or LinkedIn, what are you hoping to achieve from it? If you're like most colleges, engagement, connections, and donations are the key outcomes. Based on the research above, however, these social sites won't help you meet those objectives.  

Online communities, on the other hand, are meant to cultivate new relationships and connect people over a shared purpose. In the example of a university, members are united through their alma mater. These communities are used by members to network, help one another, and share in school pride. In fact, 80% of participants in private online communities say they do so to help others. Through group discussion, exclusive job boards, integrated fundraising, and an interactive alumni map, an online community can be a powerful way to improve your university’s reputation, and help alumni to secure more fulfilling careers.

By providing your alumni and current students with an online network all their own, your university will benefit from branding as well as fundraising opportunities. Your organization will remain top of mind with your alumni, and they will begin to help one another on your behalf. Bravo, all engagement objectives met.

Be sure to read our post, Who Owns Your Alumni Data for more on social networks vs. private communities.

Interested in learning how your university could benefit from an online community? Schedule a demo today or email connect@360alumni to learn more!

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