New company, new controversy. Same familiar faces.
Just over a year after College Prowler got outed as the force behind a marketing campaign on Facebook designed to steer first-year students to its Web site, a roommate matching start-up called URoomSurf last month began trying to penetrate the market using similar tactics.
It might come as little surprise, then, that the new campaign was co-led one of the main perpetrators of the College Prowler effort, Justin Gaither, and brought to light by Brad Ward, now the CEO of the higher-ed marketing firm BlueFuego, who exposed the College Prowler campaign in late 2008.
Unlike College Prowler, which created general “Class of” groups without revealing their commercial underpinnings, the groups created by URoomSurf explicitly advertised the company’s services — using its own (relatively ambiguous) logo as each group’s thumbnail image and occasionally naming URoomSurf in the group title.
But some college admissions officials have been rubbed the wrong way by the company’s marketing strategy, which they say has involved no consultation with campus housing officials. Instead, the company has been marketing directly to students through Facebook, creating hundreds of Facebook groups with names such as “Students of University of Iowa Class of 2014 - Looking For Roommates!” Most of the groups have attracted several dozen students, some of whom might be unaware that the colleges themselves did not create the groups.
Dan Thibodeau, who co-founded URoomSurf with Gaither, said this was a perfectly legitimate approach. “Our Web site is a meeting place where students can find future classmates and be matched to potential roommates,” Thibodeau wrote in a response to Ward’s blog post, which framed the company as a scam. “…We are trying to make students aware of our Web site and are doing so transparently and with no ill intent, contrary to what this blog seems to imply." The company offers the matching service for free, and says it plans to monetize the business through display advertisements. It said it also may add paid features.
But some college officials view the company's Facebook-based marketing strategy as inappropriate. J.D. Ross, director of new media at Hamilton College, said the URoomSurf-sponsored Facebook groups are likely to confuse incoming students and create unrealistic expectations about the college’s ability to match them with the classmates they had found on URoomSurf. Some colleges also prefer to avoid having incoming students select their own roommates because it could discourage them from branching out.
“We think we can create ways to help colleges handle volume of roommate requests if they are willing to work with us in the future,” a URoomSurf spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed. “But for now, our focus is to deliver value to our student users who have been asking for this type of service for years.”
Ross also said URoomSurf had posted advertisements on the wall and discussion forum of the official Facebook group the college had set up for the incoming first-year class, even after he had requested that they not do so. Another commenter on Ward’s blog reported similar behavior, and others echoed Ross’s concern that having a third party inserting itself into the housing process without coordinating with campus officials could mislead students and create confusion.
“They’re coming into a place where they haven’t had a dialogue with us, they just posted in our groups where we don’t want them,” Ross told Inside Higher Ed.
“I’m not saying bad business model or bad idea,” he added. “Just the way they’ve chosen to market themselves -- they’re not doing it in a professional manner; not in a way that establishes trust on behalf of the institutions.”
The founders of URoomSurf have been rebutting charges in the lengthy comment thread, which has accumulated more than 50 posts over several weeks. Another commenter, named “Steven Moseley,” who claims to be a business associate of Gaither and Thibodeau, defended the young entrepreneurs. He said that while the pair might have been somewhat tactless in their dealings with college officials, it was unfair to call them fraudulent.
“I think many of you are prejudging[sic] the company without basis, and as a result LOOKING for a scam,” Moseley wrote.
“Maybe it’s not welcomed by university housing professionals because it does your job for you?” he wrote. “I can certainly understand that one could become defensive if he feels his job is at risk… But stop being closed minded and think of how such tools could HELP your job. Think of how it would improve the dynamic of college housing in general. You won’t have as many transfers. You won’t have people requesting placement with other roommates as often.”