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Alumni Relations: Social Media Case Studies

Whether you are operating under a classic alumni relations model or pushing the envelope with digital communications and social media, alumni involvement is a do or die proposition. Everyone is after some sort of action – Share your updated information! Sponsor a student! Send your kids here! Give! Give! Give!

But you don’t want to beg…

And you don’t want to bombard your alumni…

We have to hand it to our friends that work in this field – it’s a tough line to walk!

In general, when it comes to getting people outside arms-distance to take action: instructions must be clear, the ask must be inspired and there must be some sense of accountability.

On Monday, Micah went over how alumni relations groups are using the big 3 of social media to connect with alumni. Today, I’m going to take a look at some creative and inspired tactics that schools across the country are currently employing to not only inform their alumni base… but also, to spur them into action.

1. Train

According to a recent survey we conducted with a major SEC College of Business, alumni young and old are receptive to social media communication. So what’s holding the sceptics and late-career alumni back?

It’s not technology – just think of how many 50+ year olds have an iPad, smart phone or e-reader. Heck, my 80 year-old grandmother out-techs me from time-to-time!

The gap, it seems, is a product of information (or a lack thereof).

Obviously, make sure your alumni relations staff members understand and embrace social media; then, take the less-obvious next step and help your alumni understand social media. If they understand the capabilities of your institution’s digital communication platforms, they are more likely to seek them out and use them.

Case study: Michigan State University

Recently, MSU has been in the higher ed headlines for shuttering full-service email accounts for alumni (they are expensive to maintain and alumni rarely check school addresses beyond graduation). But, MSU is also widely hailed for being one of the first universities to institute a social media training program as an offshoot of their alumni association. In addition to a Spartans Helping Spartans blog, the MSU Knowledge Network and a mobile e-reader / app platform called “My Crib Sheet”, the alumni association offers its current and former students 1-on-1 social media training and advice.

In these cases, the other element to consider is that alumni relations officers need to relinquish control and change the way they perceive the flow of information. Andrew Gossen heads up social media strategy at Cornell University, and he explains: “… alumni have the tools to organize themselves and engage each other in the name of and about their alma mater without assistance or permission from anyone. Alumni relations offices are struggling to adjust to a reality in which they’ve lost their monopoly on information, communication and control. The only way to adjust in a productive and strategic way is to completely surrender any illusion of control as a starting point.”

Which leads us to our next consideration…

2. Equip

If you don’t give your alumni tools to use when they engage in a discussion about your institution, you’re conceding that element – the how – to them. In some cases, that’s perfectly okay. But we also understand there may be times when you want to control the message.

So, don’t simply focus on engagement – think about what you can straight-up give your alumni to help them spread the word.

  • Compelling blog content
  • Podcasts
  • Open courses
  • Mobile apps
  • Computer / smart-phone wallpapers
  • Buttons, badges and embeds for personal blogs and social profiles

Case study: MIT

MIT is pioneering the concept of open courses and MOOCs – shredding notions of “proprietary” information. The MOOC impact ripples far and wide, including alumni relations. Think about it. MIT’s Open Courseware initiative keeps the school front-of-mind, fosters a sense of pride and fidelity, and creates urgency. According to MIT, each course costs about $10,000 to publish. Alumni understand – without being told, tweeted or emailed — that their support means that MIT continues to be on the frontline of innovation and education. Non-alumni are biting too! And on top of general feel-good sentiments, participants have excellent content to share and scatter to all corners of the globe: downloads, videos, podcasts, assignments, syllabus, etc.

3. Deploy

Stanford University, Stanford Challenge

Think grassroots organization, as opposed to a tightly controlled top-down model. Your alumni organization will be far more nimble and far more competitive if tens of thousands of people are capable of action, not just a core group of personnel located on campus.

Alumni relations officers don’t need to completely abdicate authority – it’s just that your role is shifting from quarterback to coach. Give your alumni incentives and instructions on what to share, when, where and how… and then get out of their way. You need to be there for inspiration and with a new strategy in-hand when energy starts to flag.

Case Study: Stanford University

Stanford University had a crazy year, raising 6.23 billion dollars. They do a lot of things very, very right and they have an exceptionally strong alumni network to call upon. Not everyone has Stanford’s resources, but the tactics — many of which are easy to execute — still apply. An effective way to get your alumni mobilized, is to get them in touch with each other. Stanford provides a nifty “Where I Live” web-based app that lets alums find other people, events and organizations associated with the University in their area. The service also includes regional alumni relations contacts.

4. Lead

Higher education is a big, slow-moving animal – but your alumni are moving at a completely different pace (much, much faster). If you work in alumni relations, you simply must be prepared for a constant uphill battle.

Organize breakout teams that are focused on throwing away convention, anticipating challenges and facing uncertainty head-on. Andy Shaindlin’s Alumni Futures blog recently featured an excellent guest article from, once again, Cornell’s Andrew Gossen. Gossen talked about Cornell’s internal strategy sessions – here is an excerpt:

Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Charlie Phlegar convened the Skunkworks in Spring 2011. The group included 14 staff from across the Advancement Office – from Major Gifts to Advancement Services; veterans mixed with newcomers. Our charge? Take a broad look at the challenges, opportunities, and trends that will influence institutional advancement in higher education over the next twenty years. We were given complete freedom to explore in whatever manner we chose.
The group met regularly for a full year. Members took turns leading discussions on many topics, such as:

  • The Digital Life of Alumni
  • Rethinking the Endowment
  • Storytelling and the Institutional Website
  • Crowdfunding and Microfinance
  • Young Alumni Giving
  • The Psychology of Happiness in Fundraising, and
  • Women and Philanthropy

Of course, it’s much easier to follow – just continue to protest a lack of time, budget and staff. But understand that your quotas aren’t going anywhere and the competition is only going to get tougher. Institutions of higher education are competing against an onslaught of free and readily available online information – each day, as individuals, we are faced with another cause in need of support, another (likely cheaper) option for advancing our education and all sorts of entertaining distractions.

So take the holidays to recharge and get ready for next year’s challenges. We’re always here to help.
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Author: is Head of Ops & Co-Creative at Verge Pipe Media. Verge Pipe Media assists public institutions, enterprises and the non-profit sector with Imaginative Inbound Marketing strategies + campaigns. We also have a development team chock full of Marvelous Mobile Migrators, poised to help transition our clients into a mobile + social world with custom software, iOS and Android mobile apps.

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