Alex Brown

Title: Discussion Boards, Chat Rooms, Diaries (Blogs), the Power of Transparency

The internet has made a dramatic impact on how colleges can communicate with applicants, how applicants expect us to communicate, and how applicants are communicating with each other and sharing each others' experiences during the admissions process. This session explores in detail how you can move your website to a new level of effectiveness by implementing discussion boards, chat rooms and diaries (blogs) as part of your "web strategy." The result: a new opportunity to be more closely attuned with your applicants' needs and therefore develop more effective communications that achieve higher yield rates. Discussion boards can be used for customer service, building community (pre- and post-admissions) and traditional marketing. Diaries allow students to show the reality of their experiences at the school.

We will look at some "rules" for effective use of discussion boards, and some of the lessons learned through the experience of the Wharton MBA Program's implementation of this strategy.

  1. Context; Goals and Rules

    Context: Why Discussion boards, what role do they support?

    Cluetrain Manifesto

    We are now in an environment, thanks to the internet, where:

    • Candidates are talking to each other (Networks)

    • Companies (and hence universities) lack of complete control over their messages and brand

    • Honesty and transparency become critical to the conversation (interactions the customer, students and applicants)

    • You rely on your customers (students), understand they are a medium, prepared to deliver messages applicants (respond to discussion board, post a diary entry

    • You should embrace new media, don't hide

    Role of the Wharton MBA Admissions Website:

    • Transactions (register for events, receive decisions etc.)

    • Community (Student 2 Student (S2S) and Student Diaries)

    • PR (general web site content, S2S content, diary content)

    • Customer Service (general web site content, S2S content)

    How do discussion boards (S2S) fit the above?

    While the discussion boards (S2S) are the primary tool for community building, they also serve a role in online decisions (as soon as someone gets their decision they can gather and meet people with similar decisions to begin building community if admitted, or express frustrations if not), marketing / PR (having current students addressing questions about the program and giving real insight) and customer service (answer applicant related questions, questions related to completing the online application etc., answers from administration, current students and fellow applicants). Discussion boards also help in marketing research, as you can really understand the issues relevant to your markets as these issues are discussed (gain a real pulse to the market).

    Context of web site with other schools' web based services.

    Also important to note are the experiences of candidates across all schools, and how does the school fit that landscape (media tapestry)? Benchmark other schools, copy what works, innovate where it is important to do so. Benchmarking allows you to better understand your candidates' expectations when they come to your web site.

    While looking at peer school sites, also consider external sites such as Business Week for MBA applicants.

    Goals: Transparency and why?

    Important to allow candidates to really understand:

    • Your program

    • Your application process

    This increases the size of the relevant pool of applicants versus total pool, and insures the application is a strong proxy for the applicant. This mindset is important for adopting discussion boards, and it expected from our applicant pools. By forming a closer relationship with the applicant pool, we can increase yields of those we admit (those we admit already know the school / program well, and have a positive affinity with the experience with the school).


    Discussion board system requirements

    • Visibility
      Integration with other media, including voicemail, e-mail, catalogs, the web and your web-site

    • Usability:
      Design usability is of increased importance since the value of the discussion board is dependent on the community adding content, thus it is not simply an issue of good navigation to read, but also to add information.

    • Systems View.
      The discussion board system includes the techology and its design usability and functionality, the administrator and "response team", the prospective students who may interact as customers and other current students who may decide to contribute. The interactions of each of these elements needs to be understood.

    4 Cs of use (rules for posting to discussion boards), be:

    1. Consistent
      There are no secrets, what you tell one candidate must be appropriate for all candidates. Assume all communications you write belong in the public domain. While some communications may be private legally, be prepared for them to appear everywhere.

    2. Concise
      Responses should be short and to the point (almost terse) while adding enough context to make sure there are no misinterpretations. Those asking questions are not interested in hearing how wonderful everything is and how grateful you are of their interest, they are interested in the answer to their question.

    3. Candid
      The best means of being consistent (above) is to be candid. Once you start "stretching" reality it is hard to be consistent, and remember, people can search all responses and can see your consistency. Also, candidates will discover reality before they enroll, better they discover it early in the process so if reality is not good for the candidate, then you won't waste an admit on someone who ultimately would be better somewhere else.

    4. Continuous
      Instant gratification is a driver, if people see quick responses they are more likely to use the medium to ask more questions, so respond frequently. This is not a once a week medium. Better to interact with it in regular short bursts.

    for fifth C: Community

    Like all communities you need a formal Code of Conduct. Once the community reaches a certain scale, the Culture of the community is established, such that the official code of conduct becomes less relevant and the community behavior is developed by the community itself.

    Discussion boards (asynchronous communication) versus chat rooms (synchronous communication: events)

    Use chat rooms with discussion boards, announce chats to bring people to your website for a purpose. Create a chat schedule that is well publicized and be very consistent when chats are offered. Note, candidates may want to schedule their own chats, with each other, no problem with that!

  2. Examples: a list of examples that highlight the use of discussion boards.

  3. Outcomes of using Discussion Boards.

    The following was posted by an applicant, summarizing the advantages and disadvantages of discussion boards:


    1. Builds wharton applicant community. Large upfront effort, (relatively) minimial ongoing maintenance

    2. Demonstration of wharton's student driven culture to applicants (vs. brochure/visit)

    3. Applicant loyalty - increases yield rates upon acceptance due to maintained "touch" and developed relationships between accepted applicants

    4. Helps applicants self-select resulting in more qualified applicants

    5. Help Wharton remain responsive to applicant issues

    6. Forum establishes trust with applicants

    7. Helps connect students and applicants (Taniah, FF, etc.)

    8. Provides a community for internationals to connect with during application process

    9. Access to info ensures more informed visits, applications, etc.

    10. Keeps adcom in touch with applicant pulse

    1. Cost associated with maintaining consistent communication (and quality). Quality and crap must always be met with a smile.

    2. Access can make you too connected (difficult to unplug - see bullet 1)

    3. The more transparent you make the process, the more Wharton opens the door for ludicrious and ridiculous questions (see bullet 1 & 2)

    4. Potential downside of too much communication, if managed wrong, could backfire affecting PR (team of individuals, not department make discussion forums sucessful)

    5. Applicants still don't know what you guys look like!

    6. These strings are cyclical.... it would be nice if there was a better search and retrieve tool to pull up previously discussed "how the process works," "what's the timing" type threads.

    By the numbers

    Number of posts, over last three years, increases due to changes in technology, and higher profile integration
    yr 1 = eshare for etalk (admitted students)
    yr 2 = eshare for etalk (1,000 posts) and s2s (2,000 posts)
    yr 3 = prospero for etalk (10,000 posts) and s2s (10,000 posts): change in technology and therefore design usabilty.
    yr 4 = prospero for etalk and s2s (20,000 posts S2S: 12,000 for e-talk) higher level of integration within the admissions site, e-talk increase will be attributed to learning how to use S2S and increased use of S2S.
    yr 5 = same technologies with greater integration (and integration of diary site), s2s = 22,000, e-talk = ? diary entries, upwards of 1,000 page views.

    Chat Party for R1 deadline
    I must say that by creating a "community of applicants" with their message board

    quick look: MBA Admissions Site
    explain integration, how does the site pull the diary and discussion entries ?

    access the discussion board and answer a question

    view latest diary entries

    MBA Applicant / Student Blogs
    Deciding to come to Wharton: But I'm excited about Wharton. 1)I feel a connection with the Whartonites that I didn't feel anywhere else

  4. Future

    Discussion boards can also be useful for:

    • Current students: implementations for career management, and general class and out-of-class discussions. The advantage of this model versus separate "portals" for each class, or club, is the cross-promotional effects that will occur as people can see discussions evolving that they may not be directly involved (as long as the design does not overwhelm with too much content, and the information in classes and clubs is not proprietary). There will also be issues that can be discussed that may not fit neatly into only a class discussion and / or a club discussion.

    • Alumni: similar to applicants, alumni are scattered accross the world but have similar reasons to connect to Wharton and to each other. Leveraging the community will make the community more valuable for each member, classic Knowledge @ Wharton), graduating class etc.

    • Lifelong Learning: students are on our campus for a short period of their time, we now have the ability to keep them connected for life, and provide learning resources for life.

    Having the applicants familiar with the technology through the application process removes the need to learn a new user interface as students evolve into the different communities (applicant, current student and alumni). This increases the likihood these new communities will work.
Discussion Boards w/ Chat Rooms: Prospero
Diaries: Pedrera

Further reading
Wharton Journal Article
Knowledge @ Wharton Article
Zehno Whitepaper