Online communities help bring back university days

Although print is still the favourite format for University of Western Ontario (UWO) alumni to receive news, the London-Ont.-based institution is hoping more than 180,000 alumni will turn to the Web for extra communication.

The Alumni Gazette magazine has traditionally been a quick resource for UWO graduates who want to find out how others are doing. Now, along with their regular Web site, one alumnus has used his expertise to give grads a place to post notes and ideas, and use real-time chat.

Alfred Jay, founder and CEO of Ottawa-based Ramius Corp., found out that a large number of Western Alumni in the Ottawa region were using his hosted service platform to keep in touch.

Jay said when the university found out that more than 180 people were using his portal add-on, CommunityZero, they became interested in seeing if they could get all of their alumni online.

“The school is interested in finding ways to keep in touch with their alumni,” Jay said. “Portal strategies are getting to the point where it is a good time to implement true communities on top of them. Western was keen to try this.”

He added that their appetite to test new waters was great.

Gary Blazak, director of alumni services for UWO, said the opportunity that CommunityZero offered them was pretty exciting.

“Alfred Jay is an alumni and basically sponsored this for us as a donation. It gives us access for two years. They host us on their software,” Blazak said.

CommunityZero is managing all the intranet data for the alumni’s new site Alumni are invited to join the community and start some new ones of their own. The site was launched in mid-January and already has more than 1,000 members.

“At the broadest level, here’s an [alumni] who has provided the university with a service that is great for alumnus, but has spun off to encompass everyone. We’re connecting current students who will one day be alumni.

“Alumni tend to reconnect after they’ve been away for a while and are starting to miss their university days. And if you move away, you can still connect online. You can always remain part of that purple circle. With these sites, people are in touch all the time.”

Blazak said they are also promoting the site for researchers. They have had a lot of positive feedback already. “We’re happy with the uptake. It’s pretty impressive that we have 60 communities already. I’m flabbergasted.”

Victoria Redman, alumni relations assistant and Web administrator for UWO, said they haven’t done a whole lot of marketing yet.

She added that she is hoping to see some interaction between the alumni site at UWO and the purplecircles site, but they are fairly separate.

“Our site is meant for all alumni, whereas purplecircles is for alumni to start as they are interested. We will not be guiding these connections the way we do on our site. It will be very alumni controlled.”

UWO alumni have started communities based on geographic location, faculty and broader interests.

CommunityZero has three levels of service. There is a free service that allows people to start up communities under the CommunityZero URL. These sites can store up to 5MB for graphics and unlimited data for notes and information posting.

There is CommunityZero advantage which allows organizations to purchase a hosted private label version of a specific offering. If a company wants to personalize the site, then they will purchase this type of service and the CommunityZero branding will be removed. There is also added security, as much storage as a corporation wants to purchase and more personalization, according to Jay.

“Then we have CommunityZero server which basically allows other companies to co-brand our entire site, so that when people go to their site, they can build communities on the fly and those communities will be branded under the corporate name. It’s this server product that we are using with the University of Western to power their alumni communities,” Jay said.

He added that this server version is Java-based. Ramius has been working for 18 months to move all of its users to Java.

Jonathan Arthur, a founder for an alumni site on CommunityZero, said he would like to see Java installed for the people using the free service as well. Jay noted the company is working to that goal.

Arthur, a business systems analyst for Ayr, Ont.-based Bend All Automotive (BAA), said the communities are very easy to build and maintain, although the real-time chat often falters.

He said this type of portal add-on could be the best way to keep conversation and documentation in one place.

Other features Jay would like to add are mail list capabilities, multi-language capabilities and e-commerce capabilities.