Marketing 101 for Alumni Relations

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Marketing 101 for Alumni Relations

Marketing 101: Personalizations & Understanding your Marketing Stack in Higher Education

Every month, Wisr brings together leadership from service-based departments at universities, including student success, career services, and alumni relations, to discuss their most pressing challenges and share strategies for overcoming them. It’s one way we work towards our mission of improving outcomes at every step in the student lifecycle.

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, this remains a major challenge faced by almost every higher ed leaders we meet with.

Why Is Marketing Affecting So Many Job Functions?

There are three main reasons:

  1. Consumers Expect A Highly Personalized Experience
    At the 2018 Eduventures Summit, Kim Reid, Eduventures Principal Analyst at NRCCUA, shared just-released research that reveals a key difference between Millennials and Gen Z(those born between 1995 and 2010): Gen Z young adults are less likely to enroll and persist at a university without personalized messaging. Communication savvy in the form of great web and social presence is an expectation. Implied is the messaging feels genuine and purposeful, with an articulate call-to-action. Poor performance will hurt your university’s brand, but because a strong online presence is an expectation, strong performance doesn’t help much. The opportunity for differentiation lies in personal contact.
  2. Cutting-Edge Marketing Technology Is Readily Available
    In 2011, there were about 150 companies offering marketing technology products and services. In 2018, there are over 4,000, with investment in marketing technology expected to see a compound annual growth rate of 12.4%. Organizations are spending more money on marketing technology than ever before. In fact, Gartner predicted marketing technology budgets would exceed IT budgets by 2017.
  3. Digital Marketing has Grown in its Reach and Ability to Develop New Channels
    In 2017 alone, 22% of new inquiries to admissions offices were generated from digital ad placement. This comes at a time when more than 77% of higher ed institutions fall below what is considered successful use of digital analysis tools.

What’s At Stake?

Basically, everything surrounding and supporting the academic core. Utilization of services provided to students, engagement of alumni, campaign outcomes for admissions and advancement, just to name a few. This means that long gone are the days of “one size fits all” promotional messaging. The new paradigm involves equipping each service-focused department with tooling that allows the scalable delivery of personalized content.

A University Business article argues that the biggest obstacles for institutions looking to create digital marketing processes to help bridge assessment of social media and communications outreach are lack of expertise and time.

This doesn’t mean that you need to become a marketing expert. A foundational understanding of “how marketing for alumni relations works” on your campus will, however, be key to breaking down silos, working more effectively with your dedicated marketing and data teams, and achieving the desired results from your programming and initiatives.

Bringing Your Marketing Capabilities into the Digital Age

To get started on building your foundational understanding of marketing for alumni relations, we’ll dive deep into two areas:

  • Personalizing Content
  • Marketing Technology

Personalizing Content
Going back to the basics of Marketing 101, there are 4 main steps to take to deliver personalized content:

  1. Define your audience
  2. Craft a value proposition
  3. Create a message and call-to-action
  4. Develop segments and test

Define Your Audience
A marketing persona is a composite sketch of a key segment of your audience. For content marketing purposes, you need personas to help you deliver content that will be most relevant and useful to your audience.

Defining your audience is the first step toward being able to speak directly to a student or alumni in a voice that will resonate with them. In our software, we’ve created distinct journeys based on class year and user affinity. That means that a Wisr user will be shown personalized content on the platform depending on their persona.

Eduventures has done an incredible job using thousands of data points to compile personas for first-year students, divided into three key segments: Socially conscious; Career conscious; Academic Conscious.

Action: Create actual names associated with your personas. Tying names to personas help you easily communicate about your persona, their demographics, psychographics, and needs with your team. For example, Pre-Med Molly’s persona will likely vary greatly from Undecided-Uma. Then, conduct some research on your personas’ demographics, psychographics (attitudes, aspirations, interests, hobbies, etc.), and needs.

Craft a Value Proposition
A value proposition articulates what value you are delivering for your constituent and how. Value typically comes from solving a problem they’re facing. A good value proposition contains the following traits:

  • It communicates how your product solves the customer’s problem or improves their situation
  • It delivers specific benefits
  • It tells your ideal customer why they should buy from you and not from the competition

Many alumni organizations declare value props that are too broad. While articulating any value proposition to your key constituents is better than not at all, declaring that your association serves as the single point of contact for alumni to stay connected with university administration is too broad, and it doesn’t reflect the multitude of reasons why an alum might want to engage with you. Value propositions can and should be different for each persona.

Here’s a common example of what happens when your persona’s needs are not aligned with your value proposition:

marketing for alumni relations

Communicating with your alumni can be dangerous if you don’t understand how your value proposition serves them. In the example above, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for an alum to feel annoyed or even insulted by your outreach.

Action: Map a persona’s top needs (which can be captured through surveys and interviews) to your value proposition. The hardest part of this exercise is to dig behind “Wants” and “Fears” to uncover the actual job someone is trying to get done.

Wants and fears surround a need, and can be used to capture attention, but don’t articulate what you will actually provide to an alum.

Here’s an example:

marketing for alumni relations

As a leader in your alumni office, you can’t take any one single action to magically resolve wants and fears surrounding a need.

A job underneath those wants and fears might be introducing the alum to another alum at a company that excites them. Accomplishing this “job” solves the need. The value-driven results in pain relief and/or gain creation. For alumni relations, in particular, it’s important to remember that jobs can be both Functional and Emotional.

The example above was a functional job: tangible value created through an alumni connection that can be served better by the alumni association than any other organization.

What is an emotional job? Here’s an example:

Wisr ran a campaign for Case Western Reserve University to promote alumni volunteer opt-in for student career advising. It was an early pilot, and we ran an A/B test.

Subject Line A: “Join the Alumni Career Network”

It’s almost embarrassing now to report the open rate (10%) and click-through rate (0.3%). Why was it so bad? Well, what specific need is being addressed by “Join the Alumni Career Network”? The answer, unfortunately, is none. In fact, it’s creating a situation where the alum is now tasked with work — yet one more thing to do in their busy lives.

So, we tried something different.

Subject Line B: “Jim, We Need Your Expertise”

Boom. 10x. The open rate jumped from 10% to 30.9%, and the click-through rate soared to 3.24%.

Subject Line B was pitching a value proposition that accomplished an emotional job: the desire to feel like an expert and needed by your alma mater. Speaking to those emotions in a personalized manner (did you notice the first name personalization token in the subject line?) resulted in much higher levels of engagement. In the end, you helped meet your needs by meeting your constituents’ needs first.

marketing for alumni relationsmarketing for alumni relations


Create a Message and Calls-to-Action
Long emails, unclear next steps? Open. Delete.

It’s helpful to think of messaging in the context of a funnel.

  • Are you creating awareness about a problem your target audience may be (or may not yet realize they’re) facing? Top of the funnel
  • Are you providing considerations that address the problem in detail? Middle of the funnel
  • Are you supplying solutions contextual to the person? Bottom of funnel

The two-part surveys that are core to the Wisr member onboarding experience capture an initial response connected to the key priority or messaging that will resonate most with the associated persona. Once the member clicks on their greatest need, we ask for more specific information to understand what value propositions will resonate most.

Here is an example:

marketing for alumni relations

We are then able to map the top value propositions and calls-to-action by alumni persona. This allows universities to deliver messaging that is extremely personalized and directly relevant to the problem (or job to be done) your student or alum is facing.

The Grand Example:

Recent Grad, 0-5 Years, College of Arts & Sciences

Finance & Economics majors

Value Proposition: Receive career support from alumni in the finance industry


Top Interested in networking with alumni in your industry? Subscribe to the alumni newsletter Awareness (they have a heartbeat)
Middle Can we connect you with other alumni working in finance? Join the alumni finance community Engagement (you’ve captured their interest)
Bottom Live webinar with CFO of Google and Dr. Morgan, Chair of Finance Committee; Donate $25 to the student finance committee to join Win (you’ve driven value)

Dispelling with the “Module,” Welcoming the “Stack”

Warning: This is a gross oversimplification of how marketing technology on a campus has evolved. I am assuming you are not the VP of Marketing or CIO of the university.

In the old world, there was one monolithic Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, such as PeopleSoft or Colleague, and it had modules that extended features/functionality.

The Pro: They solve real needs, have low implementation barriers, and are much less expensive. They also produce an abundance of useful data that functional teams can use to improve their processes. Also, the systems reduced complexity, particularly with data consistency and integration.

Major Con: Functional teams didn’t have tremendous agility or flexibility in their choice of tools.
In the new world, we have hundreds of great standalone SaaS solutions that can be procured by functional teams. Integration and data consistency become big challenges. Interconnecting these apps can be messy, especially if there isn’t a strategic approach to the stack.

Definition: SaaS = Software as a Service; software that is owned, delivered and managed remotely; In layman’s terms, software hosted in the cloud that you access from a web browser

Building a Stack

The goal of a marketing stack is to enable the flexible use of interchangeable products and create a personalized experience for your customers (i.e., students & alumni).

Let’s start with an example using a trend we see among liberal arts institutions that perfectly describes a shift from module thinking to stack thinking.

iModules is a very popular SaaS application that offers a suite of “modules” for alumni relations teams. It’s typically connected directly to the Advancement CRM.

marketing for alumni relations

Many institutions we talk to want to use better individual tools, such as Emma for email marketing, GiveCampus for annual fund campaigns, and Wisr for advising communities and alumni networking.

marketing for alumni relations

In our conversations with higher ed leaders, this is where most non-technical administrators get tripped up. It can be confusing to understand how all these technologies will connect. The goal of procuring modules is to make your life easier. Moreover, data flow between modules should be seamless, so you have everything you need, when and where you need it.

Here’s how those same institutions making heads and tails of this.

First, define the goal:

The goal of all of this should be to deliver a modern, seamless, and personalized experience to your constituents (prospects, students, alumni).

To do this, we’ll insert a new concept: The Marketing Layer

marketing for alumni relations

The marketing layer is simply where you send communications out to your constituents. Typical features include:

  • Subscription and list management
  • Email campaigns
  • Landing pages
  • Social posting and listening
  • For the more advanced, journey or workflow creation

The marketing layer, in modern days, pulls data from the CRM, which is the system of record, or “source of truth.” Your marketing layer stores management information, like views, clicks, and subscriptions. It should not be where you rely on storing key contact information.

The tight integration of the marketing layer and CRM is mission critical.

This is why universities with deeper pockets opt for systems like Salesforce, which is a company who provides a robust CRM as well as their own marketing layer, which they refer to as the Marketing Cloud.

Most universities we interact with are on Advance or Raiser’s Edge for their advancement CRM. This means they’ll have to pick an external set of tools for their marketing stack.

Here is an example of Oberlin College’s stack:

marketing for alumni relations

Emma pulls data from Raiser’s Edge. Wisr captures alumni interests, updates Raiser’s Edge, making campaigns in Emma much more effective. There’s a constant exchange of data between each layer in the stack as data is collected.

This is a new concept, and one that is very much still being perfected as universities experiment with building their stack. The good news is that you don’t have to be a marketing or technology pro to introduce this strategy on your campus.

Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

See how Wisr can create meaningful connections on your campus