Every year, newly admitted Wharton MBA students or “admits” travel to Philadelphia to spend three days at Spring Welcome Weekend. The weekend helps admits (plus their spouses and partners) decide if Wharton is where they feel the most at home. The weekend is also the first step the new MBA class takes to becoming unified, forming connections that will last for decades.

This year, that all changed. Like the rest of the world, the Wharton School was massively disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. Students were sent home, the remainder of the academic year was moved online, and all in-person events were canceled — including Spring Welcome Weekend.

How could we still provide the same information, benefits, and connections, virtually, in a way that had never been done before? It became clear we needed to build an online community.

Choosing the Right Platform

Wharton’s Marketing Technology team, part of the larger Marketing and Communications group, got to work brainstorming ideas. With limited time, we wouldn’t be able to complete the technological build required for a Salesforce Community. A private Facebook Group was ruled out because it wouldn’t allow for topics to be broken into separate discussion areas or be accessible in all countries. One team member suggested Workplace by Facebook — a ready-made communications platform for teams with many of the familiar features of Facebook itself. With the same User Interface formulas (likes, comments, posts, groups, the News Feed) we knew our admitted students would have a short learning curve after logging on for the first time.

Students Life Fellows Maxine and Frank (left and right) gave live tours of their apartments and took questions from viewers. For the first time, a panel of recent alumni (center) welcomed the admits and answered their questions about life in Philadelphia. All videos are archived for members to replay at any time.

Here are a few other key features and how we used them:

  • Groups: We created 13 official groups around common areas of interest, such as “Housing,” “Life in Philadelphia,” “Financial Aid,” and “MBA Announcements” were organized into their own Groups. Groups can be open to anyone or invite-only.
  • News Feed: A running stream of posts from other members and Groups.
  • Events: Allowed our team to schedule events with the option to RSVP.
  • Resources and Knowledge Library: Links and articles relevant to admitted students.
  • Directory: Admitted students could easily search and find other admits and connect with them.
  • Chat: Admits and staff could chat privately with one another or in small groups.
  • Insights: A dashboard for administrators to see the health of the community and confirm that important content was seen.


Breathing Life into the Community

From a technology perspective, we felt confident about the use of Workplace. But a successful online community is much more than a platform; it’s also about how you ensure that it’s a place where members want to be and contribute to. We added this human element in three ways:

  • The “Introduce Yourself” group was a way for admitted students to get to know each other. Prior to the launch, our team modeled the behavior we wanted to see by sharing photos and personalities.
  • A team of more than 60 student ambassadors called the Student Life Fellows (SLFs) were already prepared to lead the in-person Welcome Weekend. Now on Wharton HQ they were mobilized to support the three-weeks of programming online — jumping in to answer questions, make connections and introductions, and keep conversations going. A few SLFs hosted apartment tours to give admits a look at life in Philadelphia — something we could have never done with an in-person event!
  • We compiled content from our own archives and third-party sources into a spreadsheet for staff and SLFs to easily access when questions from admits popped up.
  • Blair Mannix, Director of Admissions, recorded a selfie video (see above) that was “pinned” to the News Feed as the first post members would see after joining. In this video, Blair pointed out ways to get in touch and encouraged new members to take high-priority actions — introduce yourself, join groups, and connect with each other.

Learning Point: Make sure you have people on standby ready to comment on and like posts from new members. Doing this makes new members feel welcome, and encourages them to comment and like other people’s posts, thereby amplifying the effect.

A sample of the emails sent to admits, their partners, and spouses inviting them to join Wharton HQ. A daily agenda was sent each morning to preview that day’s events, provide tips, and spotlight MBA staff members.

The Game Plan

To stay organized, we worked from one massive, continually updated Google Sheet which outlined Groups, Events, the staff and student teams, ideas to brainstorm, and engagement efforts. The spreadsheet also housed a communications flow and a variety of content calendars. We also created an internal Slack channel to surface questions and keep everyone updated.

Learning Point: It is important to think through and document the who, what, where, why, and when of the various ways that your team will engage with the community and its members. A simple spreadsheet is an excellent way to do this and to get everyone, literally, on the same page.

Launch & Results

Within 30 minutes of sending the first email, we could see accounts being claimed and activity in the “Introduce Yourself” group. By the end of the first day, nearly 60 percent of the invited accounts had been claimed. After one week, 75 percent of the accounts were activated.

The next several weeks were a rush of activity on all fronts. Staff, faculty, and current students held dozens of live video sessions and answered hundreds of questions. Admitted students connected with one another, current students, and staff, and kept coming back to learn more and to welcome new members of the community.

Admits had the opportunity to join discussion groups that matched their interests. They connected with each other on the “Introduce Yourself!” group over places they lived, art, and music.

Over the course of three weeks:

  • More than 250,000 connections were made in a community of about 1,500 people. A connection is any post, like, comment, or private message.
  • The average Wharton HQ member made 178 connections.
  • About 21,000 instant messages were sent on the platform.
  • More than 100 virtual events were hosted by staff, current students, and even alumni for the first time.

This current reality requires us to invent solutions and engage with each other in new, virtual ways. It’s possible — and even rewarding — with the right platform, flexible processes, and full team support.

— Eric Greenberg, Sr. Director of Marketing Strategy and Operations, The Wharton School 

Posted: May 29, 2020

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