Why AMA Week
Beyond Commencement/Reunion Weekend, other focused reunions on campus, or alumni club events in cities around the world, there’s rarely a feel of a concentrated effort of alumni being together for a singular purpose. Having a group of alumni show up full-force to demonstrate the various expressions of an Oberlin education and offer themselves as guides to our grads were underlying drivers of our first Switchboard Ask Me Anything Week.
Last year, we celebrated our first year on the Oberlin Switchboard with an event we called May Day. On April 30, 2015, the Oberlin Switchboard - a virtual space for the Oberlin community to ask for what they need and offer what they have - celebrated its first anniversary by encouraging students (most importantly, graduating seniors) to ask for advice or connections about next steps beyond Oberlin. On May 1, 2015 - May Day, the name taken from a phrase colloquially uttered in a time of need or desperation - alumni from all generations descended on the students’ posts on the Oberlin Switchboard to help.
We had 40 students and more than 100 alumni participate in May Day, which served as the foundation for planning and executing Ask Me Anything week this year. This online event was planned in conjunction with the on-campus week of programming for soon-to-be 2016 grads called Life After Oberlin week between April 11 and 15.
Queen of organization Marissa Evans (our new assistant director of alumni relations and my compatriot in the alumni association for digital strategy and communications) timelined our two months of tasks early in the process. There were a few things we missed doing on time, but on the whole, nearly everything we had on our collective to-do lists occurred within 48 hours of when we planned. Some highlights from our action plan:
- Confirm date of Life After Oberlin. This was done in conjunction with the dean for the class of 2016 and the 2016 class officers.
- Identify a pool of alumni participants. We did this though past Switchboard activity, volunteer mentors in our alumni database, recommendations from alumni volunteers, and the conservatory’s career office. We ended up with a list of 150 possible participants, 40 of which said yes to participating. Special shoutouts to Dana Jessen in the conservatory professional development office for helping identify specific panelists for conservatory students and the alumni leadership council for their great suggestions of their fellow alumni.
- Write and distribute preparation guides as educational support to our event. We decided to add a student preparation document to our list of resources, including a section on developing mentoring relationships with alumni after AMA week. Special shoutout to Dana Hamdan for her assistance with our student preparation materials.
- Assemble panels and provide participants with marketing materials. The panel assembly was a product of an hour long conversation with Marissa where we identified a variety of underlying themes our participants’ work grouped around, which was much harder than we initially thought. While an alum working in education seemed to be the natural pairing for us, without knowing the intricacies of the day-to-day work they were engaged in, they might just as easily fall into non-profit fundraising, marketing, or health sciences (all things we generally knew, but needed to hear first-hand). Once we established our panels, the alums involved did some adjustment to better capture the nature of their jobs for our final communications of AMA week.
- Develop graphics for digital and print marketing. Special shoutout to Ryan Sprowl for being awesome and making this great poster:
- Campus outreach. Most of our marketing was direct: email messaging for seniors that partnered with Life After Oberlin week, postings on our internal news site which were included in the all-campus newsletter, and posters all over campus. I also contacted two of the student publications to give them a heads up about this event, though I didn’t see a mention of it in either publication. One thing we didn’t think about until a few days before AMA week began included contacting individual professors and department heads about AMAs that might be relevant to them and their students, but I managed to pull together some messages on the Friday before it all began.
- Alumni outreach. The monthly Around the Square email newsletter mentioned the planned Ask Me Anything event a little over a week before we launched, we created a Facebook event to share with Oberlin alumni (this garnered more participants, too), we promoted the event on Facebook the week before the AMA occurred, and the alumni association’s homepage also featured AMA week throughout the event.
- Social media marketing. The core of this was creating a running list of alumni panelists for each day to share through social media when needed, including names, class years, title, and employer (this page was also updated with AMA links as each post went live). As the week progressed, we shared individual posts and lists of posts related to each day’s themed panel(s) in individual student and alumni groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.
- Communicate with Switchboard to ensure they know the details of AMA week. All this, and a bag of chips! Switchboard developed an AMA feature for our Switchboard that allowed us to promote AMAs to a randomized rotating set of posts at the top of the feed of posts, and they created a handy explanation guide of the AMAs, too.
The week itself
Starting bright and early on Monday morning through Friday evening, around a dozen new posts a day appeared on the Oberlin Switchboard. We themed each day loosely around the participants we’d lined up ahead of time but regardless of when the posts went up and what theme they were tied to, we promoted each post to AMA status and added them to the ever-growing list of participants on the alumni association page.
- Monday: Health, Human Services, and Medicine
- Tuesday: Tech & Non-profit
- Wednesday: Music, Art, Performing Arts, and Design
- Thursday: Marketing, Communications, and Strategy & Government/Public Sector
- Friday: Education
Marissa made sure a selection of posts were featured on the @OberlinAlumni Twitter account using the #AskObies hashtag and on the Oberlin Alumni Association’s Facebook page, and I blitzed through 8-12 closed Facebook groups for alumni and students (oh! And parents! I realized on Monday morning that this was a perfect opportunity to introduce the unofficial family group on Facebook to the mighty and excellent Oberlin Switchboard) each day rounding up the posts connected to the daily theme.
And then things happened. Much of what occurred happened behind the scenes, with lots of reading from lots of visitors to the Oberlin Switchboard and lots of private exchanges between students. (More on this later in the results section.)
I kept the real-time analytics up during the day, and especially when we did our social media posts or sent out large emails, it was fun to see people arriving (and from where they came to us) and what they were doing when they arrived. I captured a bit of this as it was occurring, but know that this is a fascinating way to see the spread of information and how people choose to engage with different parts of the site, and every so often I sent an amazed “There are 23 people on the Oberlin Switchboard right now, and three of them writing comments and sending messages!” email to some of our behind the scenes supporters.
The biggest fear I have with any concentrated effort here at Oberlin is that we lose our momentum as soon as we pour all our energy into something. We built in a set of followup actions into our event, including:
- Send out thank you emails for those who participated in the Switchboard AMA. These messages included a follow-up survey that asked about private communications during AMA week (this question was added after we received an email from one of our participants noting that she’d received a private message and set up an upcoming phone call with someone as a result of her post), how many connections were made, if they had any stories to share, if they would participate again, if they could see themselves using Switchboard again in the future, and if we can reach back out to them in the next few months to see where their post has gone since it went up.
- Evaluate how the project can be improved for next year and save notes for future reference. Marissa and I were a part of three conversations, one that was just the two of us, one with the added inquiries from Tim, the SwitchboardHQ community manager, and one with the members of the career center team. In each, we talked about results and next steps. Speaking of…
Results: What did we see during AMA week?
- Excitement! Especially on the first day of AMA week proper, since we added nearly a dozen new participants to our roster simply through the announcements of the event. Posts made on Monday and Tuesday were also the most publicly engaged-with posts.
- Curiosity? Marissa and I have been living and breathing Switchboard for a while now, so it’s easy to forget that not everyone is in the mindset of (or even knowledgeable about) Switchboard, how it works, and what it can do. Once our audience’s interest was piqued, we received lots of questions about the site, why we use it, and how to get started. The most notable requests include one of our bloggers, who asked how to best use the site to connect with someone of interest to them; a question an alum who had never heard of the site and asked for some details about the site, and went on to make their own AMA post later in the week; and several of our AMA additions from the next week came from alums who found the announcement in our alumni LinkedIn group (and Q&As that resulted) and felt compelled to make their own posts after learning more.
- Fatigue… This is more inferred based on data surrounding engagement on the site and my own experience with the event (I planned poorly for my own daily participation in AMA week amidst my other work responsibilities), but we saw far more activity early in the week than we did later in the week. As a few alumni pointed out in the follow-up survey, we might have overdone it with AMA week. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and the balance of activity between the beginning and end of the week didn’t necessarily feel right to us or our participants. This is something to work on for next time!
I spent over a day sifting through data from Google Analytics, the Switchboard dashboard, and some specific data pulls provided from the Switchboard HQ team. Note: While AMA week was officially 5 days of programming, the data we looked at started with the first broad marketing messages on Friday, April 8 and ended with the wrap-up thank you posts on social media on Monday, April 18.
While Switchboard falls under the large umbrella of a social network, there’s something special about it. We know who is there, both in terms of the scope of the audience and the names of the people who have signed up. Even before the content that appears during an event like AMA week is underway, there’s useful information that we’ve gained simply by encouraging our community to use Switchboard. Oberlin people are a part of meaningful and beneficial interactions with other Oberlin people, and that’s what it’s all about.
So, when I say all of these numbers here in this section, know with each one, we know who each one of these people are, what they do, and how active they are as alumni volunteers. We had between 1-5 personal contacts with every single one of them at some point before, during, and after AMA week.
- We had 121 new signups during Switchboard AMA week. There are a few repeats here, past visitors who returned and forgot they’d signed up before, and 23 of these new signups were from people posting AMAs (that’s a third of our participants, and most of these came from unsolicited alums who saw the activity and joined in after seeing the AMA posts modeled by their fellow alumni). The immediate sign up + active participation on the site is the single best way to assure that someone is prepared to be an active member of the Switchboard in the future. So, in short: this is great. To note: this is the third highest concentration of signups for the Oberlin Switchboard we’ve ever had. The highest was when we announced Switchboard to the Oberlin alumni community in July 2014 (300 signups in three days) and the second highest was during our Switchboard May Day celebration in May 2015 (150 new signups in three days).
- We had 178 people involved over the course of AMA week. 61 of these people were alumni making posts, and then all sorts of messages and comments from the community. The most active classes:
- Total recent grads (classes of 2005-2015): 130 We sent out a targeted email to this group to bring them into AMA week.
- 23 members of the class of 2015
- 11 members of the class of 2014
- 12 members of the class of 2013
- 4 members of the class of 2012
- 10 members of the class of 2011 (over half of the 2011 grads made AMA posts)
- 5 members of the class of 2010
- 9 members of the class of 2009 (2/3 of this group made AMA posts)
- 4 members of the class of 2008 (3/4 of this group made AMA posts)
- 9 members of the class of 2007
- 4 members of the class of 2006
- 3 members of the class of 2005
- Total number of current students (classes of 2016-2019): 30 We reached this group through posters around campus, mentions in the weekly email newsletter, on the internal news site, and in each class group on Facebook.
- 13 members of the class of 2016 Several targeted communications to the class of 2016 were distributed via email and in person.
- 9 members of the class of 2017
- 5 members of the class of 2018
- 3 members of the class of 2019
- Total recent grads (classes of 2005-2015): 130 We sent out a targeted email to this group to bring them into AMA week.
Posting an AMA post averaged about 5:45 minutes, and time spent commenting and sending messages accounted for similar time per action. For our most visited and engaged with posts during the Switchboard AMA, the initial estimate we gave to alumni participants was mostly accurate - around an hour of active time the day of posting.
- 119 people revisited the site for the first time in 1-12 months. 213 people revisited the site from the past month.
Activity is defined by someone doing something on the Oberlin Switchboard that benefits themselves. At its essence: activity translates to you read something, informed yourself, and made yourself better. Gold star!
- 42% of visits to Switchboard were from new visitors. That’s nearly double what we’ve seen from usual Switchboard activity. What it means to us: yes, this was a good way to introduce Switchboard to new Obies.
- A total of 1235 minutes (aka 20.6 hours) was spent reading and/or engaging with posts.
- In terms of sustained activity, this week was the busiest we’ve seen. We saw 894 sessions on the site that went deeper than 5 pages (the average) which accounted for 12,130 pageviews from these sessions. There were 138 sessions on the site that visited more than 20 pages, accounting for 4611 pageviews (considering that at least a dozen of these sessions were Marissa and me, that’s still pretty rocking).
- We saw 5094 pageviews affiliated with specific AMA posts accrue (that’s 27% of the activity on Switchboard for this 10-day span of time). Of those page views, 5190 were unique to the specific AMA posts (37% of the total unique page views of the 10-day span).
- We saw a huge uptick in people visiting specific pages (37% of visitors to Switchboard during AMA week entered through a specific page), which makes sense given our social media distribution as a part of this campaign.
- The total time spent on Switchboard during AMA week averaged 1:10, but on the week’s specially designated posts, it was higher - an average of 1:55 on Switchboard AMA posts.
- In terms of where our users appeared from: 68% (more than 1000) of our new visitors came via desktop, visiting five pages per visit and spending nearly five minutes on the site. The remaining 32% arrived via mobile and visited three pages per visit, spending nearly two minutes on the site. The vast exception to this data is that many mobile users who arrive via Facebook spent a huge amount of time reading/writing on Switchboard.
Engagement is defined by someone doing something on the Oberlin Switchboard that benefits more than one person like creating a post, making a comment, or sending a message.
- 61 alumni made posts during AMA week. As of the date of this post’s publishing, we’re still seeing AMA posts pop up, and I fully expect to see one or two a week from now on. Of these 61 alums, we directly asked 43 of them to participate, which means that a third of our participants joined in when they saw the event in action. This was a great indicator to us that we were on the right track with this project.
- There were 162 private messages sent by 88 people in 74 unique conversations.
- These private conversations accounted for 403 minutes (aka 6.7 hours) of concentrated exchanges.
- The various email prompts that happen automatically from Switchboard (specifically, comment and message notification emails and “this post may be of interest to you” and digest notification emails) drive the highest time spent on the page. The most accurate engagement number we have based on these specific prompt emails totals 542 minutes (aka 9 hours) of the total message/reading/writing time we saw on Switchboard during AMA week.
- There were 990 sessions between 3 minutes and 30 minutes for a total of 11,460 pageviews during these session. This is a great indicator that people are reading and/or writing extensively on the site.
Adjustments for next time
The most important part of this project was participation of the right people in the event. One part of it was alumni participation (we had some target demographic goals regarding industry, location, and years of experience, and we managed to hit nearly all of them) and student participation (the event was focused on graduating students, but was open to all, and we definitely didn’t get there this time). The alumni who responded to our follow-up survey expressed concerns that were similar to our team’s initial worries, too:
Throughout March, as an undercurrent of every conversation Marissa and I had: “If we’re doing this for students, how do we reach them?”
Throughout April, as heard from alumni participants: “We’re doing this for the students! Where are they?”
Granted, if we could crack student communication, engagement, and participation, we’d be golden on practically every front, with this project and everything else we do here in communications. Even so: some considerations we’re contemplating for a future activity:
- When during the school year would students be most likely to participate?
- Who helps connect students and alumni together?
- Since direct communication isn’t necessarily the best course of action, how do we indirectly reach students (through their peers, their advisors, and their on-campus mentors) who would gain value from activities such as AMA week?
As a happy accident, I ran into the class dean we worked with to integrate AMA week into Life After Oberlin week, and we discussed who is currently aware of the Oberlin Switchboard and similar online resources, and noticed a huge gap: deans and advisors don’t necessarily know these tools for direct connection between members of the Oberlin community even exist. After commencement/reunion season is over, Marissa and I are going to tackle this one. It’s really important, especially given the increased emphasis on advising and Oberlin 4+4 in the newest strategic plan.
The overwhelming response from participating alumni was that yes, they would love to see something like AMA week happen again, and they’d love to be involved in the future. We also received unanimous responses from alumni that they would like to check in with us again in 3-6 months regarding their post, since we know from experience that the usefulness of Switchboard content extends far beyond the day or week in which the post was made.
All of this is well and good, and in the spirit of connecting the dots between our challenges and hopes for future opportunities for student-alumni connections, one thing Marissa and I discussed is a monthly AMA day, developed in conjunction with others on campus to best suit our students’ interests. Much like our early meeting with Dana Jessen to discuss the needs of conservatory students, similar brainstorming sessions of possible alumni participants could occur with department chairs, the career center, and relevant student groups.
At this point in time, I would deem AMA week a success. The outpouring of stories from our alums far exceeded our expectations, and their contributions will be valuable far into the future. Marissa and I forged connections with alums spanning five decades, which I always love, and in the case of Marissa, this was a fabulous introduction to a whole bunch of cool people she’d never met before! This isn’t the first project I’ve been a part of that creatively connects new staff people with members of the Oberlin community and the things they hold dear. This kind of mutually beneficial activity for the community and the people who work here is what I strive for with our engagement projects, and AMA week nestled nicely into that.
In closing, and always worth remembering when it comes to determining the outcomes of a campaign such as AMA week: whether the connections were made in April or sometime in the future, these are life-changing connections. We can’t see what was discussed, or even necessarily what was most valuable for our community, but that’s okay. Developing and encouraging a flexible space for discussion is what we do, and when our community shapes it according to their needs, everyone can gain something good from the experience.