A Beginner’s Guide to Communities for Higher Ed

By Rebecca Joffrey | August 24, 2015 | | Higher Education

Download Ebook: Community ReimaginedSalesforce Communities represents an entirely new way of engaging students and alumni. What makes Communities different from other enterprise social networks is that it sits atop a suite of powerful CRM tools for process management, workflow, social listening, customer service, and marketing automation. The need for CRM in the higher education space should not be in question. There isn’t a company in the world that would have 20,000 high paying customers without a CRM system to track and engage them. And most universities have reached a point where the pressure to do more has collided head on with the mandate to do it with less.

Those of us who are using Salesforce (and there are many) know that the “We need CRM” argument doesn’t give our leaders and colleagues enough evidence to move forward. It is difficult to explain the impact of a product that, out of the box, looks like the cockpit of an airplane. You know it will get you somewhere but you have no idea how you’re going to fly it. I’ve taken a stab at three lessons to explain the difference between the technology we have today in higher ed and the technology we need.

Today’s lesson provides a comparison of two approaches for student and alumni engagement – portals and communities – and gives you talking points for articulating a community strategy.

Lesson 1. The Difference between a Portal and a Community

The distinction is an easy one. A Community is connected to people and business processes while a portal, by itself, is not. What does this mean for students and alumni? Here are a chart and an image to show the specific differences:

Portal Community
Students and alumni go there to get information Students and alumni go there to exchange ideas and find others who can help them achieve their goals
Relationship is between the “institution” and its members—school officials write and publish content via links, documents and articles Relationship is between community members—students and alumni generate content and provide assistance to each other via discussions
Messages are formal (“Whether you are a parent, an undergraduate student, a graduate student, or an alum, this site is a resource for you.”) Messages are spontaneous, interactive, authentic, and personalized (“This class is great for student athletes @Stephanie Davis @Jim Greer”)
Administrators write and revise content once a year Administrators (and everyone else) can say what they want when they need to
Users share content and connect externally via social networks like Facebook or Twitter Users share content and connect internally with other community members
Design focused: lots of time spent on the user interface Engagement focused: more time spent on the user experience, including but also beyond the website
Organized by department (admissions, financial aid, etc…) Organized by student or alumni needs and goals (struggling student, entrepreneurship, medical school; alumni in California)
Content is general – burden is on the student or alum to figure out what is relevant Content is personalized because a CRM system knows who you are when you enter
If someone has a question, they have to figure out who to ask and find an email address or pick up a phone Students and alumni can ask a question and get an answer – often more than one – and the answer is available to others as well
There is no connection between the site and the business processes required to get things done Workflow automation tools enable the school to move beyond communication and provide service (e.g., an alum signs up to speak on campus and gets an SMS push with parking directions upon arrival; a student clicks on an interview prep document, triggering a follow up email to see if he / she would like to set up a mock interview)

Portal vs Community

Image provided by 7Summits. As a Silver Salesforce Partner, 7Summits helps businesses leverage communities to drive measurable results across customer support, sales enablement, social marketing, social intranets and enterprise-wide communication, collaboration and innovation. Learn more.

Rebecca Joffrey
About the author
Rebecca Joffrey is Director of Interactive Services at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University 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. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter, “Living in the Feed” @RebeccaJoffrey.


Download the Communities Reimagined e-book to learn more about how Communities can help you!


This post is the first in a three part series on Communities for Higher Ed. In the subsequent posts, explore 10 examples of engagement in higher ed and prepare for the future of service in higher ed.