Oklahoma Baptist University's Class of 2013 arrived on Bison Hill in late August with the excitement of nearly 100 OBU freshman classes before them. However, many of these freshmen were missing a common element -- social "butterflies" -- that has plagued people throughout history who endure transitions.
The new students had a secret weapon: A large percentage of them had previously connected with their future classmates using OBU Admissions' Ning.com online social media network.
"I chose to participate in the Ning Web site because I thought it would be a good way of getting in touch with people I would be spending the next four years with, and a way to get past the awkward stage of first meeting," said Shelby Hartgrove, a freshman from Yukon, Okla. "It allows you to talk about something you have in common during that first meeting."
New Oklahoma Baptist University students, who met through an OBU Admissions social media network, serve at Good Shepherd Chapel in June. The group included (from left) -- Alice Putnam, Kirk Tinsley, Chloe Kuhlmann, Michael Chadwick and Chris Lam.
Students who are accepted to OBU become part of an exclusive group called "I'm a Bison," named for the university mascot. So when OBU Admissions decided to venture into the realm of online social media sites, they chose to name the group the "I'm a Bison" Network, hosted on Ning.com. Members can join only by invitation of the OBU Admissions staff. When the summer came to a close, 260 members -- more than 70 percent -- of the nearly 370 enrolled freshmen were members of the site.
Listening to their audience and recognizing the opportunity, the OBU Admissions staff chose - among a myriad of social media options - to establish their network on Ning.com, an online platform for groups with common interests. While the initial site was free, OBU Admissions staff chose to pay a minimal fee to remove advertising and banners. The resulting site allows members of the incoming class to participate in interactive communication such as posting on blogs, reading a news feed of the group's activity, joining groups with common interests and sharing photos and videos.
"I have met almost everyone that I met through Ning as well as Facebook," said Arturo Diaz, a freshman from Garland, Texas. "It was interesting to actually meet everyone in person for the first time and yet still know so much about them already before meeting face to face. It was great to see how easily we could strike up a conversation amongst ourselves."
With the majority of the incoming class participating on the site, OBU Admissions saw the new students take the opportunity to connect and expand on it. Several students participated in a contest hosted by OBU Admissions, photographing themselves wearing their exclusive "I'm a Bison" T-shirts in creative settings. Other students connected with fellow freshmen from their regional areas.
One group even planned a missions trip, inviting new friends - future Bison - from both Ning and Facebook groups to meet in Shawnee June 20-29. They camped at Cargo Ranch and served through Good Shepherd Chapel, where they fed, played with and led devotions for children.
"It was their own brain-child," said Konnor Martin, an OBU admissions counselor who monitors the online network. "That's really what we're looking for: for them to take the initiative. With the little amount of encouragement we've given them, we've been pleased."
Other students found the Ning.com site to be a useful resource for campus life.
"I was able to know a little bit more about on-campus activities before I made it here to OBU, and that allowed me to familiarize myself with what I can get involved with on campus," Hartgrove said.
OBU Admissions' social media activity reflects a growing national trend. Research indicates that university admissions offices far outpace the use of social media, in some ways, by even Fortune 500 companies. Nora Barnes and Eric Mattson, researchers at the Center for Marketing Research at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, canvassed 453 admissions departments from a variety of organizations of all sizes. They determined admissions departments are equally or significantly more familiar with social media technologies - including social networking, blogging, message boards, podcasts and online video - than some top corporations. Sixty-one percent of the admissions offices surveyed use some form of social media.
Martin said many university admissions counselors post to Twitter.com. However, OBU Admissions learned high school students are younger than the demographic of people, ages roughly 25-50, who most use Twitter.com. As a result, the department also has foregone the use of the popular social mediums My Space, LinkedIn and Photobucket.
While many universities host a Facebook page for their incoming classes - which often are open for any Facebook user to join - OBU Admissions wanted to find some means of social networking which would be more exclusive. Ning.com fit the need. And while technically OBU Admissions could police any unfavorable content posted by students, Martin said such a need has not risen.
As the freshmen become fully vested in Bison Hill life, and their need for the Ning.com site has run its course, OBU Admissions prepares to phase out current members in early fall. Martin said use of the Ning.com site dropped significantly when classes started, confirming to OBU Admissions that students used the site just as it was intended: as a resource leading up to their transition to college.
Soon, hundreds of high school seniors admitted to OBU will receive an exclusive invitation to join the online "I'm a Bison" Network for the Class of 2014. Martin said OBU Admissions plans to monitor traffic on the site and update the content with videos, slide shows, student blogs, highlights of campus organizations and more on a weekly basis.
"Hopefully as we refine the content and strategically spark an interest for posting photos or other content, it will grow even more on its own," Martin said. "We don't want it to become stagnant, either. We don't just want it to be an extension of the OBU Web site, to be somewhere they come for information. We want it to be somewhere they come to connect with their peers."