May 22 2007

B-School Bloggers

School officials can learn a few things from their students when it comes to crafting Web sites that educate and recruit potential students.

Take OwenBloggers, a Web log founded by three first-year students at the Business School of Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management, last September. Despite the lack of marketing or advertising, the founders say the site has received more than 60,000 unique visitors from 94 countries, and school officials say it is already effectively recruiting students. The purpose of is to reveal the experiences of typical Owen master of business administration students.

The founders hand-pick the site’s bloggers. Prospective students make up the largest percentage of visitors, followed by current students, alumni, recruiters, MBA students attending schools elsewhere and faculty. “We represent nine different nationalities and have bloggers publishing in four languages — Spanish, Polish, Chinese and English,” says Sharran Srivatsaa, who started the site with partners Isaac Rogers and Sam Kale.

While the blog is independent of Vanderbilt University, the Dean’s Office embraces it as a recruiting tool. “OwenBloggers is able to articulate the true Owen experience in a much more vibrant, complete and credible way than we could ever do,” says Jon Lehman, associate dean of students at Owen. “I think it has helped prospective students assess their fit with Owen.” Lehman says many applicants have said OwenBloggers was influential in their decision to apply. OwenBloggers’ team members also attend recruiting weekends and have closed-door student-only sessions with prospective students.

Here’s something else campus information technology professionals can learn from the OwenBloggers -- blogs require little technology investment. It basically comes down to hosting and blogging sosftware. Rogers has experience developing software, but all the blog requires is simple knowledge of HyperText Markup Language. Rogers, Srivatsaa, and Kale considered hosting the site but decided to outsource and pay less than $200 per year to keep the site up and running.

“If we were to do it ourselves, it would cost several thousand dollars,” says Rogers, the team’s chief executive officer and chief tech technology officer.

Finding a system that was sustainable and easy to manage was crucial to keeping the site going into the future, says Rogers. “When my responsibilities grow, I’ll need to pass it on to someone else,” he explains. “With this solution, even if you don’t have any experience, you can be trained and taught to do it. As our group grows — and it’s grown pretty rapidly — the founders are going to have to start doing other things and will have to pass the torch.”

The team uses a publishing system and blogging software. Work on the blog is strictly voluntary, and Srivatsaa, Rogers and Kale each put in five to 10 hours per week. Rogers says his part includes “a lot of 2 a.m. fixing things, adding new features, then another five or so hours of administrative duties.” Editor in Chief Kale manages the content, making sure all posts abide by “the rule.”

The first rule for OwenBloggers is, well, there is only one rule: Don’t insult anyone. “Post whatever you want, but make sure it’s something you would feel comfortable taking to a job interview and saying you stand behind this statement,” explains Rogers.

Apparently, the professionally motivated students at the Nashville, Tenn.-based[TM4] <#_msocom_4> business school take this rule seriously. Even though the posts are uncensored and unedited, the site’s founders report virtually no problems.

The founders are so confident in their bloggers that they permit instantaneous posts. “As soon as they hit ‘enter’ it goes live,” says Rogers. “Then we get notification and Sam reads them right away.” In the rare instance of a blatant violation, Kale would pull a post, consult the other two founders and then ask the student to change it. “With the thousands of posts, I think it’s happened once,” says Rogers.

Still, Rogers admits this poses “a fantastic risk for our university. It’s very dangerous to put out an uncontrolled message. But for every comment you wouldn’t want people to hear, there are 10 that you do want people to hear, so the positive far outweighs the negative.”

Associate dean Lehman considers the site’s independence a major asset. “When we were approached to support the idea, we felt it was critically important to the authenticity of the blog that it be totally controlled by the students,” he says. “My instinct was that they would be harder on themselves than we would be.”

When selecting bloggers, the goal is to create a microcosm of incoming Owen students. “We look for people who represent a cross section of the people viewing the blogs,” says Srivatsaa. “For instance, it’s very important for us to have a Chinese student talk about her experiences because a large portion of our incoming students are Chinese. In fact, about 30 to 40 percent of incoming Owen students are from outside the United States.”

One of the keys to a successful blog is to keep it fresh. Srivatsaa says the blog’s authors contribute “on a very regular basis, so the blogs aren’t stale. The average blogger writes twice per week, and this keeps readers coming back for more.”

“We don’t advertise or market the blog; it’s been growing virally,” says Srivatsaa. And it’s grown in scope, as well. Rogers adds, “Considering there are a few hundred to 1,000 students looking into the program, 60,000 views means we’re reaching all the market we’re going after and much, much larger.”

Though OwenBloggers has the full support of the school administration, it remains completely independent and student driven. “We don’t answer to anyone at Owen officially, so it comes across as much more real and much more believable,” says Rogers.

With all this success, could a reality show be far behind? It already has. “OwenBloggers: The Movie,” which offers an uncensored look at the life of Owen B-School students, is running on the site after making its debut in April.