Facebook app digitizes ‘nostalgic content’ for college alumni

Colleges are tapping into alumni information posted on Facebook profiles.

A single class picture can connect hundreds of alums with each other and their alma maters. U For Life, a Facebook application launched in December and used at 10 colleges and universities, lets schools digitize sentimental material not often accessible online, including yearbooks, sports guides, and newsletters.

Alumni relations officials said the viral effect of tagging old class photos on Facebook alerts former classmates that they’ve been identified on the social media site and draws them to the university’s Facebook page.

From there, if they’re willing to let their alma mater access information listed on Facebook—such as eMail and home addresses, phone numbers, and places of employment—the alum can access the U For Life application and connect with friends from back in the dormitory and student union.

King Logan, information systems specialist for Tulane University’s Office of Alumni Affairs, said before Facebook use spread beyond current college students, the school had to rely on alums to update their addresses and contact information through Tulane’s alumni website.

That meant only the “most involved” alums would have up-to-date information that alumni affairs officials need when organizing an alumni event or targeting former students during fundraising campaigns, he said.

And even some alums who stayed in contact with Tulane would only update their eMail address, leaving gaps in the university’s database.

“This is definitely a more proactive way to update that information,” Logan said. “This is definitely something [alums] might not otherwise do themselves. … I see the data collection that we get from this as invaluable.”

From December to February, Tulane has seen more than 500 alums join its U For Life page, with about 200 former students sending requests to the university for more yearbooks to be posted on Facebook.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s U For Life Facebook page attracted more than 300 alumni in February, and the “numbers are growing exponentially … as members tag friends and classmates, encouraging them to view and share memories,” said Jodi Briggs, WPI’s senior associate director of alumni relations.

Rob White, founder and president of U For Life, said using Facebook to keep former students updated on their school’s latest projects and news items should be a key part of an alumni Facebook page, but providing content that triggers conversations and sparks connections will keep alums coming back to the page.

“You need to seed it with nostalgic content, information they can smile about,” said White, whose company is based in Massachusetts. “A person’s Facebook news feed is their … social dashboard, and connecting with them through Facebook is very important.”

Colleges and universities have traditionally used social media—especially Facebook and Twitter—to connect students on a centralized platform. U For Life provides that platform, White said, and reaps mass amounts of alumni data not accessible anywhere else on the web.

“Facebook is where people are,” he said. “The value is not only in commentary and engagement, but also the continuous data flow” that college officials can use to stay in touch with alums.

Before alumni enter their alma mater’s U For Life Facebook site, the application makes the visitor aware that personal information listed on their Facebook profile page might be inserted into the school’s directory records.

“We want them to know what’s happening with their information,” White said.

U For Life is the latest technology developed specifically for alumni relations.

Oregon State University in February unveiled its Building Community Initiative, a computer program designed to “assesses the affinity and connection” between alumni donors and their college or university.

The fundraising tool examines four factors to determine a potential donor’s feelings toward their college and assigns a score that could help campus decision makers decide who to target during fundraising campaigns.

Charitable giving to colleges dipped to never-before-seen lows in 2009, according to a report from the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), an organization that tracks educational donations nationwide.

Contributions to colleges and universities fell by 11.9 percent in 2009, according to CAE, with alumni giving dropping sharply.

Alumni fundraising participation dipped from 10 percent in 2009 to 9.8 percent in 2010, according to the report. Alumni giving fell by 0.4 percent during 2010.

The 2010 CAE report said that while “the findings are more sanguine than those of last year,” a full recovery is yet to materialize.