The Immediate Need: Strategy and Tactics in Alumni Communities

Christina Balotescu

May 23, 2020

Many hands together with a heart painted on them, implying generosity

It’s hard to think of any organization that does not need an online hub to bring their people together. For higher education it is critical - not only to make good on their promise of “the network”, but because alumni satisfaction and engagement affects their rankings. An alumni community online builds your brand, allows you to easily measure engagement, gives you a powerful marketing platform, and reduces the long term revenue loss from losing touch with your alumni. And that doesn't even address the benefits to your alumni.

Schools have been slow to transition from static online directories and higher education in general isn't famous for being 'early adopters'. But one positive aspect of the unprecedented financial pressures they face is that it accelerates innovation:

  • Culture changes are driven by new hires who understand young alumni and the ways they want to connect.
  • Staff consolidation reduces bureaucracy.
  • Technology challenges are reduced by solutions that require little or no support from the IT department.

Barriers to innovation are falling down all over the place. Schools are shifting strategy from "communications" to "marketing", recognizing the value of diverse channels (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc) but also learning how to make their own asset - the alumni database - more valuable and useful to their constituents. While social networks build their own brands and provide extremely limited insight into the activities of those who follow their groups or like their pages, an alumni community provides a permanent, direct connection to the alum.

Email addresses are the single most important piece of data for long term engagement, and a like or a group membership does equal engagement. Here's how to use a community to stay connected to alumni:

  1. Get all their personal email addresses before they leave campus.
  2. Send them regular communications that are more about helping them than how they can help the school or 'stay connected'. (Ask not what your alumni can do for you...)
  3. Make it easy for them to update their email address.
  4. If you follow step 2 religiously and facilitate alumni-to-alumni connections, they will willingly keep their email addresses up to date.
  5. When you lose touch with an alum (as determined by bounced or several unopened emails), have an admin contact them on Twitter or LinkedIn.

If it requires unsustainable ongoing effort to identify disconnected alumni and you don’t have several other ways to contact them, outsourcing becomes an attractive option. But the data quality is questionable, the phone calls are not well received by alumni, and the opportunity cost of catching up with your alumni and seeing how your institution can become relevant in their lives again is significant.

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