Frenemies on Facebook

December 22, 2008

Send off the application.

Buy the T-shirt.

Join the Facebook group.

Such is the process -- not necessarily in that order -- for many college-bound high school seniors. So it’s perhaps no surprise that admissions officials and students alike felt betrayed when they learned dozens of Facebook groups devoted to the “Class of 2013” at various colleges appeared to have been created by non-students who were more interested in marketing than getting chummy with future classmates.

The viral marketing ploy was first exposed by Brad Ward, coordinator for electronic communication in Butler University’s admissions office, who wrote about some Facebook peculiarities on his blog, squaredpeg.com.

After a tip from another admissions official, Ward found that many of the “Class of 2013” groups were created by the same people, none of whom seemed to have a connection to the colleges for which they were creating groups. They did have connections to each other, however. Several of the creators were affiliated with College Prowler, a Pittsburgh-based company that publishes college guidebooks.

Calling the group creators “an inside ring with a common purpose,” Ward speculated on their intentions: “Think of the data collection,” he wrote. “The opportunities down the road to push affiliate links. The opportunity to appear to be an ‘Admin’ of Your School Class of 2013. The chance to message alumni down the road. The list of possibilities goes on and on and on.”

By mid-morning Friday, something of a disorganized revolution began, with admissions officials and students from all of the country outing the creators online and warning Facebook users about the deception. Before long, a Google Docs spreadsheet was posted on the blog, naming the names of all the creators.

Soon enough, there was action on Twitter, where interested parties were “tweeting” like crazy about apparent efforts by the creators to cover their tracks. In what was likely a move to avoid copyright infringement, official logos from colleges, including Pennsylvania State University, were removed from the 2013 pages, one person wrote on Twitter. Others noted that administrators were leaving the groups altogether.

And finally, in an act of online truth and reconciliation, a confession came. A person identifying himself as Luke Skurman, chief executive office of College Prowler, wrote on Ward’s blog that his company had “crossed the line” in its viral marketing efforts.

“Yes, College Prowler has been directly or indirectly involved with the creation of multiple Class of 2013 groups,” Skurman wrote.

“… From a big picture perspective, having a marketing strategy using social networking sites (like Facebook) is something that is necessary to be effective in our business. We do pride ourselves on being forward thinking and aggressive. In this instance, in its current form, we have crossed the line and to reiterate, we will be removing our administrator privileges from all of these 2013 groups immediately.”

The post gave a rationale for creating the groups, saying the purpose was to steer students toward Skurman’s Web site where they could find “a free guide about their new college.” Skurman did claim some ignorance, however, about the extent of the marketing project, saying he was unaware until Friday that College Prowler had teamed up with another company that used fake aliases to create groups.

In an e-mail to I nside Higher Ed, Skurman confirmed Monday that he had written the post on squaredpeg.com, and identified the other company that partnered with College Prowler as Match U.

“We no longer have any administrative access whatsoever and we have no involvement with any of those Class of 2013 groups any longer," Skurman said in a voicemail.

Friday's flap wasn't the first time College Prowler has taken heat for a marketing strategy. Higher education officials raised objections in 2006, when the guidebook publisher pressed colleges to advertise in the book, or risk being criticized inside of it.

Colleges May Change Approach to Facebook

The controversy over the 2013 groups highlights a relatively new and emerging tension for college admissions officials. Several who talked to Inside Higher Ed said their standard practice has been to let student groups emerge organically, fearing that creating an “official” group -- as many of the College Prowler groups were dubbed -- makes students feel that they’re being monitored by university officials. On the other hand, college leaders are concerned about Facebook pages that appear to be “official,” but are actually designed for the marketing purposes of a third party.

Jeannine Lalonde, assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, said the College Prowler story prompted her to start an official group Friday morning, reversing her previous hands-off approach.

“Last night when I read the post, I completely changed my mind,” she said Friday. “I think we need to protect our brand and we need to protect our students.”

Despite concerns, some admissions officials couldn’t help but marvel at College Prowler’s strategy.

“There is brilliance in it, and quite frankly if they had taken it one step more they never would have been caught,” said Michelle Lynch Clevenger, director of recruitment at Winthrop University.

Clevenger, who was the first to alert Ward to something odd about the Facebook groups, said the marketers never would have been identified if they had waited to join as members instead of creating the groups as administrators. On the other hand, becoming administrators empowered the marketers to send out mass messages or delete postings, such as, ahem, “this site is a scam,” or something like that.

Anne Petersen, a former administrator in Penn State’s undergraduate admissions office, said she worried about how covert Facebook groups might influence prospective students. By posing as prospective students, a company could promote or besmirch a college, she said.

“When it comes to yield, that could be really important,” said Peterson, who directed electronic communications at Penn State. “That could sway some decisions about where students go.”

Petersen, who has taken a position at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the potential for companies or individuals to manipulate social networking sites presents a lot of scary possibilities.

“It’s really kind of black helicopter [stuff],” she said. “You start to think about all of the conspiracy theories that can come out of this.”

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