Facebook applications try to fulfill their users' every need or desire, from the potential usefulness of a picture slideshow to the addictiveness of an online version of Scrabble -- or the frivolity of throwing virtual animals at their friends. More recently, students gained the ability to keep track of course updates and collaborate with classmates. For the most part, though, colleges have struggled with how, or whether, to join the fray: Should they expand alumni development efforts into the social networking world? Embrace the potential marketing and communicative benefits of a space that most students -- and many graduates -- call home for at least part of their day?
One college recently decided to give it a try. The State University of New York College at Plattsburgh hired an outside public relations firm, Media Logic, and settled on a Facebook campaign, driven by a custom-built application, as the primary means of marketing itself to potential students outside its traditional reach. The institution's goal is to augment its upstate profile with a new stream of applicants from New York City and Long Island, but officials felt that students would resist overt advertising -- especially on social networking sites, where trust and authenticity are ostensibly valued. Instead, they're looking to tap into grassroots appeal and word of mouth.
"It is a nice, sort of low-risk, reasonably low-cost ... way to reach out to those audiences," said Jim Sciancalepore, Media Logic's senior creative director.
Of course, winning over students on their own turf is always a tricky business, especially with an application whose design (and copy) comes from a public relations firm. For that reason, the company and the college worked with currently enrolled students to develop the application and devise ways to attract potential applicants. They were the "ultimate litmus test," Sciancalepore said: " 'Would you use something like this?' "
The solution they came up with essentially offers a series of "challenges" to students interested in SUNY Plattsburgh. Each challenge requires them to upload video or photographic evidence that they fulfilled their mission, so to speak -- anything from attending a sporting event on campus, visiting Lake Champlain or wearing Plattsburgh gear in nearby Burlington, Vt. The idea is to get prospective students excited about Plattsburgh traditions long before they even think about applying -- say, ages 14 or 15 -- and to pass on the application to friends who also might be interested.
It "isn't a direct response ad campaign," Sciancalepore explained, so he didn't expect immediate results. "We have to recognize this as a viral [phenomenon], let it live and see where it grows, let the students help shape it and make it meaningful to those audiences."
Students who install the application are greeted with this introduction: "Hey students of Plattsburgh State (and those who wannabe)! Take the Ultimate Challenge. Get involved. Get around. Get your friends into it, too. Do the challenges to rack up points. And make the most of your Plattsburgh experience."
Whether that kind of appeal -- or the long-distance tasks required of students in the target area of the metropolitan New York area -- will immediately work is unclear, since the application has only been out of beta for a few weeks. According to the application itself, there are 0 active users at the moment -- and most who have installed it seem to be current students -- but the college expects the number to pick up after summer break.
"Only 60 students have installed the app so far," said Brendan C. Kinney, an associate vice president at the college, in an e-mail. "We launched it late in the semester but we are planning a roll-out campaign for the fall when students return."
At the same time, Media Logic plans to keep consulting with students on what works and what doesn't as the campaign continues. For example, Sciancalepore said, the application would probably be expanded with "challenges" tailored to users' more immediate locales, "so that you can play along from home, if you will." The app might ask a prospective applicant to go to Times Square with a SUNY Plattsburgh hat and upload a photo, for example.
The ultimate goal is to "create a living viewbook where it's all about the sights, the sounds, the things that are really indicative of the culture at Plattsburgh State that maybe aren't even featured in the viewbook," Sciancalepore said.