Why Switchboard?

My friend Erika emailed me a great set of questions surrounding the thinking behind the launch of the Oberlin Switchboard, and I was so excited by the whole writing process I decided to share the responses here, too. Happy to answer any other pressing questions via email (though it might turn into a blog post!) or in the comments!

What made Oberlin decide to launch a Switchboard?

Like most social media managers out there, I get a lot of pitches for so many different flavors of social products. There are some that really don’t make sense, like places that work with brands that have budgets like higher ed can’t even imagine. Then there are some products that could work with and have found a higher ed niche, but appear to solve problems that manifest at larger, more social media active schools. On the whole, these tools tend to solve tech and not human problems, and at least here at Oberlin, social problem solving has a lot more to do with people needs than technological needs.

So few of the products I look into have a very immediate use for the Oberlin community. When I saw Switchboard in action for the Reed College community (a wacky west coast sister to Oberlin, or at least that’s how I like to think of it), I knew the platform would fit our Oberlin audience well.

But really: how did I know? The Oberlin community has a strange relationship to social media. Empty engagement isn’t something our audiences do. We do with purpose, we talk about the things we care about, we think long-form, we ask a lot of questions, and yes, we really really want to change the world but realize that we will probably need some help to do it. Talking about engagement for the Oberlin community means that we have to provide something of value before it would even be considered by our audience. This is ultimately a human conundrum, and it’s rare to find a grounded tech tool that can aid in solving the problems we deal with as people.

What offices were involved? Was it a long process to get everyone on board?

This was actually quite speedy. Here’s the timeline:

  • I talked to one of the founders of Switchboard on Friday, April 11th. I spent the whole weekend brainstorming with an Oberlin friend all the ways it could be used and supported within the Oberlin community and reading EVERYTHING that existed about Switchboard’s creation and introduction to the Reed community. I decided by the time I went to bed on Sunday that if we couldn’t find the money to fund the initial demo, I would given a second donation to Oberlin this fiscal year specifically earmarked to pilot it and had already hatched a plan to figure out who in the young alumni sphere I could persuade to earmark funds for piloting the program. I wanted this so badly as a user that I was not only willing to put my own money toward it, but convince others to do so as well.

  • I started gushing about Switchboard during our webteam meeting on Monday, April 14th. We were all curious and intrigued. I took it as an internal cue to figure out the key humans I needed to talk to about launching this, starting with my boss, Ben Jones.

  • During my meeting with Ben on Thursday, April 17th, I explained the whole site (it really only takes five minutes, fifteen if you cover every single detail). Ben got it, immediately. It answered questions we’ve been struggling with within the Oberlin community for a while, and it fit into the overall direction we’ve been working toward with the Oberlin community in the last few years. I email introduced him to the cofounder I chatted with the previous week, and we set up a time to talk the following Wednesday. Ben and I also set up a super speedy meeting with the directors of the alumni association and the career center (plus their right hand humans who would be most involved when implementing the site) for the following Monday. We wanted to get this Switchboard live as quickly as possible so we could help as many graduating seniors as we could.

  • On Monday, April 21st, I demoed Switchboard to the aforementioned group. They got it and started seeing immediate connections to their key audiences and needs. With those thumbs-up from the right connections on campus, Ben and I split, Ben into official business mode (money, contracts, etc.) and I into coordinating humans mode. Our Wednesday chat with the founder was mainly details about getting our Switchboard set up, interspersed with stories and good humor. (The Switchboard humans are, unsurprisingly, amazing individuals.)

  • On Monday, April 28th, I talked with one of the cofounders and the community manager of Switchboard to hear their suggested tiered rollout plan, which included soft rollouts and hard rollouts and keys to (and measurement of) success they’d seen in action at Reed, the first of which was having some community managers (both staff and student) to support our community during the first few months. I immediately reached out to the attendees of that first on-campus meeting to see what students they had working in their offices that could support Switchboard as we started to roll out. I asked our recommended students if they would be interested in helping us with our launch, and all but two (both graduating seniors) said yes. We schedule a meeting for April 30th to introduce our advocates to our Switchboard.

  • A little after midnight our time on April 29th (9pm Pacific time on April 28th), our Switchboard went live.

  • On Wednesday, April 30th, three of our four student ambassadors, plus our community manager from the alumni association and I walked through Oberlin’s Switchboard, posted our first Asks and Offers, helped each other out with each of our posts, and sent out our first invite emails to our friends. We also scheduled a handful of times to table in the library to introduce as many students as we could to Switchboard before summer was upon us.

So, from introduction to “Let’s do it!” was around 10 days. From “We’re in! Let’s be partners!” to launch was around a week. April/May is a truly ridiculous time to try and launch a new project, but we needed one initial push to introduce it to campus then, specifically to assist our graduating seniors. We spent June allowing things to putter along steadily and do more internal planning for bigger rollouts, and had our first big push to our alumni in early July.

The longest part of this process is the now part: continuing to roll out and introduce Switchboard to as many Oberlin people as possible, and maintaining and building connections through the platform.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about time spent on the platform and if it’s worth it, and the answer is a whole-hearted YES! As an Oberlin community manager, I’m doing this sort of networking and dot-connecting in a number of isolated places, most of it in one-on-one conversations and in social networks that are bad at both archiving things and making casual chats accessible to larger conversations within communities. Switchboard is the same dot-connecting and question-answering as before, but a. accessible to others within the community, b. equally useful to visitors and participants both regardless to their relationships to other social media spaces, c. bringing together the knowledge of many resources and experiences of many people in one place, and d. outwardly demonstrating the innate value of our super excellent Oberlin network.

It sounds like it’s already a huge hit…how did you get the word out to the students/alums?

The super awesome tiered distribution plan that was suggested by the Switchboard team was our starting point; we just aligned their working model to our schedule and audience, and it’s been quite simple from there. There’s some background prep work to getting things to run smoothly, but with such a slimmed down social space as this, there’s not a lot you have to do to explain in order to get new users started.

We’ve had a gradual build since May, and that was very intentional. We wanted to make sure we could easily assist every ask and offer than came in, and we didn’t want to completely overwhelm ourselves during the busiest four weeks of our academic year. We wanted sign ups and a trickle of activity from the beginning, but we also needed a balance of asks and offers, different alumni cross sections, etc.

Some things we did to get the word out in our soft rollout phase:

  • We did some tabling in the library. We might continue doing this because it’s a low key opt-in intro to the platform.

  • We passed out Switchboard cards at two of our career center events focused on our graduating seniors.

  • A few of us did a number of individual and small group emails to individuals we thought could benefit from the Oberlin network as a whole. I did a simple ask on Facebook to Oberlin people about what they needed help with (people who answered with things that were attainable through connecting with the Oberlin community I privately reached out to them to introduce and encourage the use of the Oberlin Switchboard).

  • Some of our first converts became our biggest advocates during our commencement/reunion weekend — key players included my dad (he told a number of his acquaintances in a cluster reunion group close to his graduation year about Switchboard), our community manager in the alumni association (he talked about Switchboard during a panel on the future of alumni engagement), and some of our students who saw early success with the platform.

Summer’s our time to refocus ourselves, and we took some time to plan our first big alumni rollout via our email newsletter in July. I wrote up the introductory walk-through blog post to accompany our email announcement, which has served as a helpful entry point of conversation when individual alumni start talking about Switchboard and want to know how it works.

I’m plotting some really excellent engagement activities during orientation, too, because first-years will be able to start utilizing the Oberlin network for little and big things, and parents (a sect of the Oberlin family we have built into the Switchboard community but haven’t started a rollout to yet) can spread their parent smarts and goodness to more than just their Oberlin kid. AND there are plans in the works surrounding our super-alums who are a part of the alumni council during their annual meeting in September.

Is this replacing any old technology or is it a supplement to other alumni communities Oberlin has?

The way I initially introduced Switchboard to our key partners on campus, I described its nature as liquid: it complements what we already do/support and it nicely fills in some gaps that we haven’t been able to cover with other products thus far. We have subdivided alumni and student spaces on social media, we have one- (and sometimes two-) way communication through our alumni database, but with each of these spaces, its value to users is based on there being enough useful and accurate information voluntarily updated by individuals and the ability to know what you’re looking for in the first place. We don’t have an ideal space for exploration and discovery, immediacy, or serendipitous connections.

Switchboard does not speak to any of our other technology, but ultimately, the core group we worked with here on campus agreed that there will always be one more space, whether we’re starting it ourselves or joining it because our community is, and we could see the value of this space in particular to our Obies immediately. It takes the ownership of abilities and experiences and freed it from field-constricted and personal network-constricted spaces and gave it a specific outlet where it’s useful to others as needed, but open-ended enough that it’s also useful to us as we change and develop.

Where do you see this going long-term?

A really good question. Right now, we’re in the testing the waters stage of the game. I know from personal experience (on both ends of the spectrum) that Oberlin people are willing to talk to Oberlin people simply because of this shared common thread. To quote one of our alumni: “Having spent four years surrounded by cornfields, no matter when four years took place, it binds us.” Considering that Switchboard is a digital extension of that idea: Oberlin people will help Oberlin people because there’s a connection already there. All we have to do is provide a space where the connections can begin finding each other.

As humans, our needs shift constantly, and sometimes the easiest way to begin tackling next steps is to be brave and ask an initial question. Ideally, you get an answer that gets you to a next step. And the next. So, I think it’s a little early to see exactly what our long-term looks like, because the gradual first steps that we’re taking together right now will lead us to whatever the next step will be.

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