Here’s Why University Teams Need to Update the Ways They’re Communicating With College Alumni
College alumni are entering uncharted territory in the new world of work. Beginning with the Great Recession in 2008, there was a confluence of economic and technological changes that upended the traditional role of alumni relations as social connectors. As a result, the role alumni relations professionals play in supporting college graduates has fundamentally shifted.
The Great Recession was profoundly impactful on perceptions of the value and purpose of higher education. As college tuition costs began to rise at steeper rates and the job market became more competitive, a sizeable portion of millennial graduates found themselves unemployed and disenfranchised with higher education. Needless to say, this was also a highly turbulent time for advancement teams.
At the same time, social platforms, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, became more ubiquitous on college campuses. Now, instead of turning to the Career Center or Alumni Office for advice about life after college, students could tap into their social networks to answer their questions. The relevance of alumni relations as a connector and knowledge provider was greatly reduced.
These disruptors prompted a much-needed perspective shift on the role of alumni relations. Alumni relations is quickly becoming more data-centric and a significant revenue center for the institution when organizationally aligned with advancement. Perhaps most significantly, alumni relations is becoming a strategic hub on campuses to power enrollment, student success, and career initiatives. As a result, alumni relations professionals are collaborating across departments to achieve shared goals more than ever before.
In our Wisr Summit Series, as many as one-third of participating career services teams are structured under advancement. Nearly all are looking to improve at breaking down silos with their alumni relations peers. Where do they find common ground? Recent graduates (0-10 years out).
Recent graduates can serve in critical volunteering roles – boosting critical alumni engagement scores – while simultaneously being at the greatest point of need for career support. In fact, most young alumni want to engage with their alma maters after graduating, but they may not feel quite stable enough to want to contribute financially. Universities need to provide alumni with opportunities to engage in meaningful, non-financial ways. The money will come after you’ve fostered goodwill and demonstrated that you value them as people and not just donors. Plus, let’s face it: often, young alumni are better positioned than your Career Center’s advisors to provide career advice, especially when it comes to sharing what it’s like to interview, intern, and work with specific companies. Career counselors certainly play a vital role in supporting career exploration, but it’s unrealistic to expect that they’ll have insider knowledge about the day-to-day life at each student’s dream company. In this way, engaging your young alumni to serve as an extension of the career services team helps to lighten their caseloads, give students a “concierge” career advising experience, and allows young alumni to develop coaching and mentorship skills that will prove valuable to them as their careers progress.
The strategic collaboration between career services, alumni relations, and advancement has helped to drive value for recent graduates before asking for a donation. And, as a bonus, it can help you avoid awkward moments like this:
By now, you may have noticed that this approach calls for another shift: from a culture of asking to a culture of value-added offers to your customer, the students, and alumni. For resource-strapped alumni relations teams, offering “concierge”-style services at scale simply does not seem feasible. In our experience working with both large and small institutions across the country, we’ve identified three main strategies that have enabled alumni relations teams to successfully modernize and scale their operations:
- Prioritize your value proposition(s) for the right alumni segments
- Effectively scale personalized messaging to a broad alumni base
- Measure the return on investment (ROI) of these programs
Prioritize Your Value Propositions for the Right Alumni Segments
In a pre-summit survey of 200+ university administrators, over 80% of attendees indicated that their top improvement goal is “better engagement of my constituents.” Believe it or not, this is an open text field – respondents are not prompted with a drop-down of popular responses. Unsolicited, engaging constituents remains a major challenge faced by almost every higher ed leaders we meet with.
Digital marketing is a large part of the solution. There are three major reasons why digital marketing has become a critical competency for a modern alumni relations team:
- Consumers Expect a Highly Personalized Experience
- Cutting-Edge Marketing Technology is Readily Available
- Digital Marketing has Grown in its Reach and Ability to Develop New Channels
The day of “one size fits all” email blasts is over. To move the needle, messaging needs to be personalized, and content needs to be relevant. While this doesn’t mean you need to become an instant expert in marketing, understanding foundational marketing strategies and skills will be highly beneficial.
The start of any value proposition is to uncover a need, whether it be functional or emotional. To personalize asks and effectively create engagement touchpoints, you must tap the strongest area of affinity for the alum, and leverage that as the connection point to the institution. Affinity-based communities are critical to growing your university’s network and providing distinctive volunteer opportunities. First-generation students, international students, and women in STEM are all powerful examples. For example, if your alumnus strongly identifies with his first-generation status, give him a chance to mentor a first-gen student looking for an internship. Wisr’s matching algorithm is designed to help automate the growth and connection within these communities. Or, if an alum was part of a close-knit academic program, the request to come back to campus and sit on an industry panel should come from that academic program, not from the university’s Career Center or alumni relations team. Alumni relations can certainly support efforts across campus, and it continues to serve a critical role as the data hub, but when it comes to engaging students, allow those who have existing relationships or share similar affinities with alumni to extend the invitation.
Faculty relationships with alumni are one of the best-kept secrets. Faculty develop deep and meaningful bonds with students that continue post-graduation. There is a frustratingly thick wall between faculty and staff, but it’s worth investing time and energy into breaking down those silos. Department chairs can be key partners in creating programming, hosting webinars, generating content, and helping alumni relations understand the levers to make a more targeted ask. At the Philadelphia Research Institution Summit in June 2018, John Holcomb, the Associate Dean of Sciences and Health Professions at Cleveland State University, shared that until recently, many faculty members on campus didn’t realize that their alumni relations team had access to a treasure trove of data on their alumni’ locations, jobs, and more. Now that they’ve broken down barriers to collaborating across departments, faculty members can connect directly with alumni via Wisr, making it much easier to source and invite alumni to support classroom-based career development programming.
Employer connections generated through alumni relations can also help to broaden career exploration opportunities for students, including through job shadowing/externships, internships, informational interviews, and more. At the Wisr Denver Urban Research Institution Summit in February 2018, Dan Gould, Executive Director of Alumni Engagement at the University of Colorado Denver, presented their partnership scorecard, a method for evaluating and prioritizing the campus partnerships that will resonate most with constituents.
Since our mission at Wisr is to improve student outcomes at every step of their higher ed journey, our vision is to enable institutions to have one cohesive advising and volunteer platform. We are leveraging technology and engagement best practices to remove alumni relations staff as “human routers,” allowing these offices to play a more strategic, data-driven role that positions them as resource hubs.
Effectively Scale Personalized Messaging to a Broad College Alumni Base
It doesn’t come as a surprise that many alumni want to give back to their alma maters. That being said, they want their volunteerism to be meaningful, recognized, and convenient.
To create meaningful engagements, the “asks” have to be specific. The challenge is that alumni relations team members can easily become human routers, attempting to connect thousands of alumni raising their hand to help with on-campus opportunities. This approach is becoming increasingly challenging in a world where alumni change jobs every few years and move further away from campus.
To address this challenge, the Wisr technology developed a way to help toggle the “ask,” meaning that when a school sends an email campaign to an alum, a variety of “ways to help” buttons are embedded in the email for the recipient to easily select how they’d like to volunteer. This allows the school to easily route alumni to students for career advising, to faculty requesting classroom speakers, or even to other alumni.
From an advancement lens, this is early funnel development. Rule #1 of any successful prospect conversion is the discipline of systematic communication and follow up. That goes for volunteers as well.
There are many easily implementable tactics for personalizing your messaging. At the Philadelphia Research Institution Summit, Lisen Tammeus explained how the University of Missouri-Kansas City is coding volunteer opportunities in their CRM, tracking hours donated, and assigning a dollar value to those hours. This allows them to put a financial value on the contributions of volunteer hours. They then regularly generate thank you cards, which include that data point, and send them to participating alumni. While a thank you card may seem like a basic personalization tactic, failing to acknowledge an alum’s gift of time may decrease their likelihood of volunteering in the future. After rolling out engagement campaigns at nearly 30 higher ed institutions, Wisr has learned from these design patterns and created an automatic thank you email follow-up for participating alumni.
Measure the ROI of These Programs
Of the 100+ institutions attending our summits, virtually every campus is in or preparing for a capital campaign. Surveys indicated that over 40% of those institutions are actively leveraging alumni scoring and those who aren’t are making plans to. Alumni engagement scoring is trendy, but it’s not going anywhere soon.
Under the leadership of Dennis Cross (VP Institutional Advancement), in 2015 Washington & Lee University completed a $542 million capital campaign, the second largest of any liberal arts institution. As the University prepares for its next campaign, they are already laying the foundation for comprehensive alumni engagement scoring to broaden their base of donors and continue building momentum. At the Philadelphia Liberal Arts Leadership Summit in June 2018, Dennis acknowledged the donor readiness was a critical component of their success. “Connection with the institution begins with a positive student experience,” Dennis explained, and needs to both be cultivated based on interests and “create continuous connection and a stake in the institution.”
Similarly, Ohio Wesleyan University is halfway into its $200 million capital campaign, and alumni engagement is at the heart of their strategic mission. Katie Webster, Director of Alumni Relations, circulated their new CASE engagement scoring model at the Cleveland Liberal Arts Leadership Summit in April 2018. The model contains four major quadrants of alumni engagement, which correspond with their coded values. CASE is a clever acronym for Career Development, Admissions, Social Events, Engagement & Participation in Giving.
It’s clear that while engagement scoring may be in its nascent stage, it is quickly becoming a standard practice. With all of the data aggregated through these scoring models, it’s key to ensure that data is shared effectively across campus to reinforce partnerships and used to rapidly de-prioritize value propositions that are not resonating with your constituents.
This future state might feel intimidating, but it can be accomplished incrementally with and through your on-campus partners. Start by testing value propositions, delivering email campaigns with personalized calls-to-action in emails, and strategizing to measure the results of your efforts. As you advance your digital efforts, you can continue to iterate on the messaging and opportunities you provide to your alumni.