Last night, The New York Times’ higher education blog “The Choice” posted about the latest Facebook antics perpetrated by RoomSurf.com (update: here is the coverage from today’s newspaper), a purported roommate matching service that has gotten flak before for creating Facebook groups for prospective students of specific schools (more than 150, to be exact). The groups do not appear to be affiliated with a commercial service, using imagery and language that makes them appear — on the surface — to be an official school creation.
A devoted cadre of higher ed web professionals has been working hard behind the scenes to expose these groups as fraudulent. But why? Why so much effort for a couple of Facebook groups? It’s the web – people will talk about what they want, where they want, right? Who cares if it’s on our official groups or some random group?
Here’s why it matters.
Any brand – whether it’s a university or a chocolatier or a hair salon – has assets. Name, wordmark, logo, mascot, tagline — you name it. On the web, these assets are readily available. You may try to protect access to hi-res versions or what have you, but in truth, the assets to create a reasonable facsimile of your brand are floating around the web, and in all likelihood, you put them there.
In most cases, people have no interest in trying to deceive an audience to believe they are affiliated with a particular organization; they just say their piece. People create groups and pages and accounts and blogs about different aspects of our brands and reference our names and maybe even our imagery, but they also make obvious their affiliations, agendas and ownership. The dilemma that cropped up with RoomSurf is the exception to the rule.
So why is it concerning that a prospective student might join this inauthentic Facebook group? Because initiating a relationship is a tentative display of trust. If someone is joining a specific group, they are seeking community and information, which flow most freely in a trusting (and trusted) environment. If what the students end up with is a lack of value and a sales pitch, who do they blame? Not RoomSurf — us. They will lose trust in the institution with which they associate those brand assets. We will have let them down, and we won’t even know it. So even though we’ve created and cultivated our welcoming spaces for community and information, those students may never make it there, due to some profit-motivated misdirection.
But it’s not about protecting our brand. It’s about protecting the trust. Our brand assets are out there; we know it, and there’s not a lot that can be done about it. The priority is to make sure that those assets aren’t misrepresented to prospective students, thus steering them away from the resources that are available to them. It’s about doing our best to make sure that the trust is kept and maintained over time and that the relationships that are initiated are valuable and fruitful.
What the RoomSurfs of the world do is dilute the brand, but they also dilute the trust. Our community deserves the value it seeks. In addition to efforts such as the one that led to the NY Times coverage, it is imperative that we continue making the communities we create — online or otherwise — places of real value that serve our audiences’ needs. That’s the best offense you can field in a matchup like this.
- J.D. Ross summarizes the issue and tells schools how to respond
- Tim Nekritz explains how college staffers came together to expose this fraud
- Michael Fienen of .eduGuru explains why this issue is worth paying attention to
- Andrew Careaga recaps the history of this issue
- Lori Packer outlines what schools need to do in the wake of this brouhaha