Deeper connections and stronger relationships with your institution can translate into higher donor support. Data now confirms this. Organizational structures, programs and services are in the midst of change as institutions seek to harness the opportunities and benefits of engaging their constituents. There’s a drive to connect the dots between engagement and donations, and increased pressure to implement objective measures of progress and success. But how can we accomplish this?
Forward thinking Alumni Relations professionals are adopting methods that provide engagement data to help them better understand evolving alumni needs and interests. Alumni Communities have come to the forefront as one of the most efficient and cost effective ways to engage alumni and engender greater affinity, loyalty and philanthropy.
Lessons Learned as Alumni Communities Progress
In the early 90’s, companies like PCI, Harris Connect, IAC, and eventually iModules developed the first alumni communities. Their platforms were the first generation of communities to provide basic engagement tools and proof that even a scaled down community provided great benefit. Early adopters of these platforms were the well-resourced schools that could commit dedicated personnel and budget, with initial measurable goals such as:
- Number of alumni registered
- Number of alumni reachable via email
- Increased attendance at events
These institutions collectively set a new standard for how to engage alumni online. They soon discovered that engagement and relationships grew as a result of these platforms, and the “community concept” - now more financially accessible to all - developed along with them. Today, the role of communities has evolved significantly from simply offering information. Companies like 360Alumni and others enable institutions to create social relationships and to foster peer-to-peer relations that drive engagement.
Making the Case for Change
In this next generation of online communities, how do we set metrics and quantify success? You are told you will need numbers to justify the expense but where do you begin? First consider what you would have today if you had launched an alumni community two years ago:
- A proper and sustainable home for your data
- Online engagement
- A powerful enrollment marketing tool
- A new, growing donor base
- A sustainable alumni retention solution
It is likely you feel that all of these benefits would be desirable. Would any of the above not be worth doing because you could not attach hard numbers to them at the onset?
“We tend to overvalue the things we can measure and undervalue the things we cannot." ― John Hayes (Author)
Online communities can deliver some impressive benefits, but they require a vision for the future (with goals) as well as time to gain a following and build momentum. That doesn’t mean there are not ways to measure your success during your launch year and beyond, it simply means the ROI - and ROR (Return on Relationships) grows over time.
Leading social media strategist Ted Rubin defines ROR as “the value that is accrued by a person or brand due to nurturing a relationship. ROI is simple $’s and cents. ROR is the value (both perceived and real) that will accrue over time through connection, trust, loyalty, recommendations and sharing.”
To break through and reach your market in this social media age, the marketing focus needs to be on building relationships, and metrics need to expand beyond ROI.
Metrics for Every Stage
Let’s consider the metrics you might use to measure these benefits both at launch, and into the future when your community has matured. According to a study done by Demand Metric on online communities, most metrics fit into these 3 buckets:
Basic: Traffic, posts, measures of activity
Intermediate: Measures of alumni engagement, advocacy or loyalty
Advanced: Measures that include revenue generated and ROI from engagement activities
Metrics are important for several reasons:
- They provide information about how well the community is performing
- They provide insights into how to best manage the community
- They can enable the determination of revenue contribution and ROI
To accomplish all three of the above, you need at least intermediate-level metrics. You will need to invest some time to go beyond basic and invest in building your relationships with alumni. The foundation of your alumni program must be built on the understanding that a relationship is an investment - value must be delivered in exchange for continued support. Value is not just the static experience either - cultivation is key. It is a long tail effort, and you will need a vision for how to turn alumni data into money.
The Rewards of an Engagement Community
Not long ago, US News and World Report published rankings of the top Universities where alumni donate the most. Of these top performers, an average of 53% of alumni gave back. In order to achieve these levels of giving, the seeds must be sown. There is a famous Chinese proverb that says “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.” Each year that you delay in forming this vision is another year without the proper foundation to achieve these levels of success - whether measurable or immeasurable.
As leaders in alumni relations, advancement or fundraising, administrators are charged with establishing and cultivating relationships that benefit the school or nonprofit financially down the road - either directly or indirectly. Those who have built upon traditional practices such as face to face events by implementing online engagement strategies are seeing the rewards of alumni loyalty and philanthropic success.
Setting the Stage for Success
As Alumni Relations redefines its function as a more data-driven, results oriented and “digital” department, their value increases for both alumni and their institutions. Cross-functional stakeholders (i.e. leadership, admissions, development, career services) will stand behind efforts that can measurably move alumni across the spectrum of connection and involvement, eventually translating into philanthropic support.
Most schools talk about the power of their alumni network, but few fully deliver on their promise. In our information age, the shelf life of a degree is continually diminishing. But the power of the network endures, and can be cultivated over a lifetime. With an online community you can invite prospective students in to see firsthand how much you care about your alumni, and the ongoing support and value you are providing them. Institutions adopting this type of engagement strategy are seeing this support measurably returned, and will be best positioned for long term success.
Learn more about Christina and what we do at 360Alumni by clicking here.
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