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5 Reasons Why Salesforce Communities Should Be Your University’s Student Engagement Platform

By July 1, 2014

Cross-posted on By: Rebecca Joffrey

Communities for UniversityLast June, I moved from Hanover, New Hampshire, to Ithaca, New York. I had to get my kids enrolled in summer camp so I could start my new job. Armed with a list of links, I immersed myself in what I can only characterize as a period of low productivity. Two kids, 12 weeks, 25 camp possibilities—each with a different website, calendar, enrollment form, and payment process. I created an Excel document to organize it all, but when programs overlapped, I had to make some tough decisions: Nature Appreciation or the Arts? In the end, my kids had competing camp commitments one week and another week with no camp at all. Now it’s June again, and I’m tempted to save time by just enrolling them in the same camps as last year.

My summer camp episode has an unlikely parallel: the college student experience. These always-on, already-overscheduled young adults have to spend hours navigating our webmazes: one to pay their bills, another to figure out the meal plan, another for course enrollment, not to mention 20 different sites for career planning and campus events. Each landing page looks different. Salient information is buried within a haystack of links and unnecessary introductory text. And every moment students spend navigating this maze is less time spent studying, sleeping, relationship-building, goal-achieving, career-visioning, globally immersing, and skill-building. Enter Salesforce Communities: a collaboration platform that makes it easier for students to navigate university resources.

Universities across the country are using Salesforce to monitor student progress, create transition programs, facilitate course placement, and provide better access to coaching, advising, and service—all with an eye toward improving student engagement and success. These efforts will only work if we also simplify the student experience—and that is the greatest promise of Salesforce Communities. Think of Communities as the front end for student engagement. You can share information through feeds and knowledge hubs. Students can follow documents and conversations, find people and resources, and join and form groups. They can search and track any topic to find information and identify experts. Communities is, in short, a critical addition to any CRM strategy and the solution to our students’ most basic need for information.

Here are five reasons to embrace this front-end, chaos-busting approach to student engagement.

1. Email is broken.

Many universities inundate students with broadcast emails, expecting them to do the annoying work of determining whether a message is relevant. Chatter, one of the key features of Communities, allows students to opt in and out of groups and delivers a personalized feed of relevant communication. Students can also search and track any topic to find information when they need it (definitely more productive than a search through deleted emails). Based on their activities and interests, the system suggests other people, files, and conversations for them to follow. Because students self-organize, administrators no longer have to figure out which students are interested in a topic and manage email lists. You post it. Students find it. Bliss. When I was Director of the Career Development Office at Tuck, we launched Chatter for student organizations. Our email volume went down an estimated 40%. This video shows how Chatter streamlined student communication at Tuck.

2.  Websites are for marketing, not service.

When it comes to giving prospective students a glimpse of campus life or publicizing important news and events, you can’t beat a good website. But there’s a difference between marketing to someone and providing service. Services are co-created with the customer. Exceptional service at a university requires giving employees the real-time interface needed to engage with students across a variety of channels—social media, online and offline events, video, email, the web, and mobile devices. In a website world, you “build it” and wait for a student or alum to come and get information when they need it. In a CRM world, you walk the student or alum through various stages of your relationship by prompting them to do certain things when needed, by sending them information specific to their needs at a given time, and by looking at key metrics of their activity and creating actions to get them to the next step. It is easy to segment audiences and direct different processes and communications to different groups. This Bluewolf presentation describes how Communities brings together the tools for personalized interaction that are lacking in traditional web portals.

3. Service should live in the feed.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram: students live in feeds. If we want them to pay attention, we need to put our services in the feed as well—which is exactly what Salesforce Communities lets you do. Event signups, tuition payments, course registration, meal plan selection, job listings, training videos—all can be funneled into in a personalized feed defined by a student’s backgrounds, interests, and activities. This technology is important because it’s about how students consume content and how we need to deliver it. Here’s an infographic from Leverage that compares social media outlets.

4. The feed alone isn’t enough.

Communities rises above other organization-centric collaboration tools because of the robust Salesforce CRM platform behind it. It’s one thing to let students collaborate. It’s another to measure their engagement, monitor the touchpoints of service, anticipate needs, serve up information based on those needs, and report on activity and outcomes. These are the activities that enable predictive analytics and, ultimately, allow us to improve student success. With Communities, you can build an organizational experience with what I like to call “a social front-end and a big data back-end.” One important caveat is that these capabilities are not out-of-the-box. But Salesforce Communities provides the building blocks for this kind of persistent digital engagement. Here’s a solution sheet (pdf) that provides some more information about Salesforce Communities. 

5. CRM alone isn’t enough, either.

Many schools are approaching CRM from the back end, with tools to track and monitor student progress. While important, this administrative, siloed view of workflow automation is not a good starting point for creating the highly interactive user experience that students demand. Communities flips the script—from a focus on process to a focus on student engagement. You can monitor and observe real-time behavior: Are students taking leadership roles? Are they participating in programs and events? What groups are they joining? Are they connected and engaged? These metrics yield important insights into student success. And by putting student needs first, we may even eliminate some of the processes we think are important. This presentation from the June 2014 Higher Education Summit shows how Western Governor’s University and Cornell University are using Communities to improve the student experience.

Watch the Presentation


About the author:

Joffrey2010_3081Rebecca Joffrey is Director of Interactive Services at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and is responsible for re-defining the way that students engage with alumni, faculty, staff, and peers in both physical and online spaces. Prior to this role, she was Director of the Career Development Office at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth where she led one of the first university implementations of Chatter for students. She spent her early career in marketing at Nestle. Rebecca is also chair of’s Higher Ed Advisory Council. You can follow her on Twitter, “Living in the Feed” @RebeccaJoffrey.