Why Engaging Alumni is Harder Than Ever Before
I was honored to be invited to speak at the Global Leaders Summit on Alumni Relations this week at UCLA, focused on the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the alumni relations world in 2016. Unfortunately, I had to bow out due to last-minute illness, so I wanted to share some thoughts with you here.
Alumni relations offices spend a lot of time on events and newsletters and awards and many very valuable initiatives, but in the end, our work boils down to one thing: connecting with our alumni. To do this effectively, we need to understand the people we serve. And we need to think beyond our relationship with them… to their relationships with the rest of the world. How do they interact with other organizations? Where do we fit into their lives? What is happening externally that could impact the way they perceive us and engage with us?
Below are three realities I’ve observed about engaging alumni in 2016. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments section.
REALITY #1: Alumni have greater access to networks other than their alma mater than in the past. They don’t need you in the way they once did.
When someone graduates from Cornell, for example, he doesn’t just belong to the Cornell Alumni Association and remain reliant on that network to open doors for the rest of his life. Maybe he takes a coding class at General Assembly and joins GA’s rich alumni community of techies and digital marketers. Perhaps he starts a company and goes through the TechStars accelerator program, becoming part of a network of fellow entrepreneurs and mentors. Maybe he goes to work at McKinsey and gains membership to its elite community of well-placed consultants and executives. All of these companies (and many more just like them) offer robust knowledge-sharing and connection-building opportunities for their alumni. More and more organizations outside of higher ed are creating alumni communities every day—just look at the flurry of job postings for corporate alumni program managers, if you need proof.
Alumni offices need to be aware that their alumni have more access to specialized networks than ever before, so the programs and events that schools offer need to be sophisticated and full of value. Of course everyone loves to root for their alma mater’s sports teams at a tailgate (Go Orange!)—or occasionally get together for a happy hour reunion—but what else is there? What would compel busy, well-networked alumni to spare their time? What’s in it for them? What does your alumni network offer that they can’t get anywhere else?
REALITY #2: Alumni have come to expect bespoke experiences; “one size fits all” programs just don’t cut it.
Airbnb. Birchbox. Warby Parker. ZocDoc. These are the companies your alumni interact with every day, and they’ve raised the expectation for bespoke, personalized experiences all around. When your alumni see something generic—something that doesn’t cater to their location, demographics, or personal interests—they tune out. As alumni relations professionals, it’s tempting to architect global strategies to implement uniformly everywhere—for instance, deploying an identical event in 10 or 12 different cities. While this makes life easier for the alumni office, it ignores the unique assets, needs, and interests of each local alumni market.
Having worked in a regional alumni operation (Syracuse University’s NYC office) as well as a central alumni operation (Nielsen’s global HQ), I’ve seen this dynamic play out from both sides. Last week, I spoke with a Nielsen alum in Austria who hosts a massively successful, well-attended alumni gathering at his vineyard along the hills of Vienna each fall. It’s magical, it’s beautiful, it works extremely well. He has struck gold. The natural reaction from an alumni director might be: How can we replicate this event in other cities? Instead, I think the most important questions to ask are: What can we learn from his success? Why does this event work so well? What is it about the alumni community in Austria that makes them so excited to reconnect with each other in this format? What insight can we take away that can be applied elsewhere?
I think it’s more effective to to create an overarching alumni strategy that is customizable based on local needs and interests—a system of integrated, cohesive experiences for alumni across the world—than to worry so much about scaleability and replicability of programs. Alumni relations is more art than science, and sometimes art is not meant to scale.
REALITY #3: Alumni are completely inundated with content. Breaking through the clutter is crucial.
Check Twitter. Scroll through Instagram photos. Scan 20 or 30 email messages. See if there are any new matches on Bumble, Hinge, or Tinder. Check stock portfolio. Review suggested jobs on LinkedIn. Check out new Snapchat stories.
This is the reality of many people’s routine with their phones… before they even get out of bed in the morning! As the day unfolds, they face a deluge of push notifications, reminders, and streams of information—sometimes on multiple devices—that they simply don’t have the headspace to sift through.
Once upon a time, alumni paid attention to most of the messages they received, especially those from their beloved alma mater. Now, it’s up to alumni offices to break through the deafening level of digital noise and get their most important messages heard. Alumni relations pros need to be much more than competent communicators. We need to be immersed in digital culture and able to pick the perfect gif to celebrate a special moment. We need to be fluent in emerging apps and comfortable experimenting with new features on existing ones. We need to be analytics junkies who can slice and dice data to segment audiences for the perfect email campaign. It’s a tall order!
Every alumni population is different, but hopefully these three general observations can spark a dialogue about opportunities for organizations to better engage their alumni today. What else should alumni relations teams keep in mind when trying to connect with their alumni? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
This post represents my personal perspective on alumni relations; it is not necessarily representative of the views of my past or present employers.
Contact John Assunto for all of your Education Recruiting needs! Johna@worldbridgepartners.com or 860-387-0503