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9/16/2011
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How Hillel Went Social, Mobile

The Jewish campus life group customized SugarCRM and created Facebook apps to better connect with university students.

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Hillel exists to help university students explore their Jewish identity, and these days the organization does that partly by exploring the students' Facebook identities.

Hillel, the Jewish campus outreach organization, is entering the second school year in which its recruiting and event management activities are managed through SugarCRM. Hillel has invested in extensions for mobile access and social connections for employees and interns who do a lot of their relationship building through Facebook.

SugarCRM is an open source customer relationship management system, and the company behind it has been investing in social media integration, including a social media monitoring application. But what Hillel has delivered to its students goes beyond that built-in functionality to allow authorized users to do much of their actual work through Facebook, while also delivering a customized SugarCRM user interface that includes features like the ability to easily post to a contact's Facebook wall.

[Can you track how your company's social media presence is affecting the bottom line? See 10 Cool Social Media Monitoring Tools.]

Hillel's campus outreach applications are not traditional CRM in the sense that they're not about selling. The organization is funded by donations and is not so much seeking students' money as their attention. "We're there to grow as humans, grow as Jews, and get through college successfully," Hillel CIO Matt Braman said.

The ability to log interactions through Facebook is important because most of the people doing Hillel's work on campus are either college interns or recent college graduates, Braman said. "We figure they're in Facebook all day long already, and we're trying to make it pain-free for them."

Hillel operates largely through one-on-one interactions between its campus representatives and individual students, most of which happen in an informal setting like a coffee shop. By offering mobile access, Hillel lets its agents save time and log their contact notes on the go. "The mobile app has proven to be a good companion," Braman said.

Hillel realized several years ago that it needed to do a better job of using technology to track contacts and each student's educational and career goals, as well as other information about them such as whether they were interested in travel to Israel, Braman said. The first attempt at automating the process, created by Braman's predecessor, was based on Microsoft SharePoint, which proved to be a poor match. He determined that a CRM system would provide a better foundation, even though it would require some customization to meet the organization's needs.

The Facebook integration proved to be the trickiest part. "The Facebook rules are very frustrating--and, more than that, the fact that they change the rules all the time. So it wasn't pain-free, and we didn't like doing it, but we think it has paid off."

The custom application work was done by the consulting firm ATCORE Systems, where co-founder and CTO Steve "Kaz" Kasinetz is a former SugarCRM VP of sales engineering. He agrees that for an enterprise developer, working in the Facebook development environment is challenging because it's such a moving target.

"Things sometimes just stop working, and there is no reason--other than that Facebook made a change," Kasinetz said. From an enterprise perspective, it would be better if Facebook charged for API access but provided better support.

Regardless, the developers who worked on Hillel's application found a way to make it work. The idea is that authorized users who visit each university's Hillel Facebook page can access some extra tabs where they can create events and log connections they have made with students. The Facebook APIs and privacy rules limit the amount of data that can be extracted from personal profiles, but the application is still able to associate a student record in SugarCRM with that person's Facebook ID.

Hillel representatives can also create a Facebook event through a user interface that simultaneously creates an event in SugarCRM, including additional fields beyond what Facebook tracks. As students RSVP through Facebook, Hillel representatives can see which of those attendees have already been identified in the CRM system and which ones need to be added--and add them on the spot.

Both within Facebook and in the separate custom screens designed for Hillel, ATCORE put particular emphasis on creating a clean, contemporary user interface. "We figured out that people were spending 90% of their time on one screen, so we worked with an artist to redesign that screen," he said.

Emphasizing simplicity, these screens let users browse records three to five at a time in a summary view that prominently includes Facebook profile information. If the user is Facebook friends with someone and sees that part is blank, he or she can easily make that connection through Facebook integration.

To avoid users logging duplicate records, the system also tries to identify matches by email address and sound-alike matching on names, Kasinetz said. ATCORE also did some light customization of SugarCRM's mobile user interface, making sure to deliver a compact user interface for the most commonly used features and functions, he said.

All this was necessary to create a system Hillel users would actually use, Braman said. "We have 1,600 licensed users, most of them interns, or if they aren't college students themselves, they are just out of college. They really don't want to use an old website. They want a mobile app, they want to do their work via Facebook, they want to be able to interact in lots of different ways with the system."

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