Activating online alumni

Building and benefiting from alumni social networks

If you build it, they will come.

Your alumni are already Facebooking, tweeting and linking in, in ever-increasing numbers. Colleges and universities are taking advantage of this activity to launch and grow robust social networks of graduates that strengthen alumni engagement, boost volunteerism and stimulate giving.

“Over the years we’ve spent so much time and money engaging alumni regional clubs and affinity groups across the country with individual calls, phone-a-thons, visits and emails,” says Keith Hannon, Cornell University’s associate director of social media. “Online virtual communities offer a faster, cheaper opportunity to be more nimble and evolve in a way never possible before.”

One unique aspect of social networks is that alumni choose to opt in. This offers the opportunity to build a foundation and database of supporters, or “ambassadors,” who often have strong online networks of their own. Ambassadors can share news provided by their alma mater and promote opportunities to support the school.

Social networks offer colleges and universities cost-effective marketing opportunities. For example, Cornell administrators decided to capitalize on reunion month to drive more young alumni to its university Facebook page.

“We paid $1,000 to promote the page to the 21- to 31-year-old demographic with a Facebook ad that ran for one month and generated 900 new followers,” says Hannon. “At 90 cents per acquisition, no other advertising cost can compare.”

Along with these benefits come challenges. “One piece of the puzzle for anybody trying to manage social media for an alumni audience is what network to jump on,” says Michael Stoner, president of the higher ed marketing agency mStoner.

5 challenges colleges face in operating alumni social networks

  1. Competition from within. “At one time, only the alumni association had the resources and reach to communicate to all alumni, but now our content and messaging competes with posts from countless campus sources and alumni themselves. This means we have to work harder to remain the university’s premiere resource for the Mizzou family.” —David Roloff, director of marketing and strategic communications, University of Missouri
  2. Constant change. “Certainly the challenge of social media is keeping up with the constantly changing online network environment and having the resources to help you keep up.” —Tara Curtis, director of communications, West Virginia University Alumni Association
  3. Competition from other social networks. “The biggest challenge we have on our alumni Facebook page is getting people to use it outside of alumni events to connect with each other. We have many active Facebook groups and pages used by individual classes, organizations and majors created prior to our page, and it can be a challenge to get people to bring their conversations to the broader alumni page. ” —Catherine Gardner, assistant director of alumni relations, Carleton College (Minn.)
  4. Fear of public failure. “We are really putting ourselves out there—how will we look if we don’t raise enough money? We decided to have a two-week, early-giving opportunity for some major donors, giving access to our site by invitation only.” —CloEve Demmer, executive director of development programs, Columbia University
  5. Gaining consensus. “One big challenge is getting everyone to agree on what features you need and want on a social network. You have to figure out exactly what your goals are and nail down the specific features you must have—and anything else is an added bonus.” —Trammie Anderson, marketing manager, The University of Texas at Austin

To reach alumni, he especially recommends using LinkedIn (in part because of the new university page options) and Facebook (already a key institutional channel). Stoner also believes other social media networks, such as Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, can be effective for schools.

Another challenge is finding the resources to manage social media properly. “It is very important to dedicate somebody who is knowledgeable about the engagement norms of the channel used, is plugged into the organization and keeps your business objectives in mind,” Stoner says.

Here’s how five institutions are using social media networks to reach alumni and support business objectives.

The University of Texas at Austin: A private social network

When administrators at The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering surveyed applicants to its nontraditional graduate programs for working professionals, they learned that nearly one-third of them were referred by graduates of those programs.

That’s why “it made sense to invest in our alumni,” says Trammie Anderson, marketing manager at UT Austin’s Center for Lifelong Engineering Education. “We decided to do that by providing them the benefit of a private social network.”

She selected a private social network that uses a cloud-based web application by 360Alumni. “It was cost-effective to go with a developed platform created by experts in alumni network building,” she says.

Her team’s goals include: helping alumni of the engineering school’s professional master’s degree programs connect easily and privately, providing an alumni directory and interactive map of alumni locations, and allowing jobs to be posted.

Anderson announced the free network in email blasts to current students and alumni. “We push out fresh, current content about what’s happening at the university and in the engineering profession,” she says. “And we make a point to post information that’s different from what’s on our website.”

The first eight months saw an “excellent” 40 percent registration rate (about 200 individuals), she reports. “We are building on the good impression our students gain while they’re here, so they’ll stay engaged when they leave, and in turn they will market the program for us.”

Oberlin College: Advice network

In May 2014, Oberlin College began piloting a social network tool called Switchboard. The online platform enables alumni, students, faculty and staff of the Ohio school to create a free account and then ask for what they need—advice, living or office space, goods or jobs—and offer what they have to help someone else.

“Think of it as a private network version of craigslist,” says Ma’ayan Plaut, manager of social strategy and projects. “Our goal is to provide a network that helps Oberlin people feel connected to each other and to the college. It’s also a great asset to help organize and recruit volunteers for alumni events.”

The platform, used by other higher ed institutions for their alumni networks as well, allows account holders to post messages, conduct targeted searches and ask for personalized mail alerts. For example, someone can be notified if other Oberlin alumni are working in San Francisco or if the word “bicycle” appears in a post.

In July, Oberlin did the first rollout to alumni, informing them of Switchboard via email, and the number of users jumped from about 100 to nearly 500, 75 percent of whom are alums. “We’ve had 170 Asks and Offers posted, and the success stories are already coming in,” Plaut says.

Plaut and a communications manager serve as network monitors, verifying connections to the college and answering posted questions about Oberlin. “One big advantage to this platform is the ease of evaluating effectiveness based on the number of accounts, posts and documented success stories,” she says.

While Oberlin maintains college and alumni pages on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr, Plaut says Switchboard is more specialized, offering engagement opportunities for the size and scope of the Oberlin community. Reed College, Portland State University and Willamette University, all in Oregon, are also using Switchboard.

Cornell University: High-prospect donors

When alumni join Cornell’s LinkedIn community, their profiles list employers, professional titles and work experience. Hannon, associate director of social media, realized the information provided by 50,000 alumni and graduating seniors offered a golden opportunity to identify prospective donors.

“I worked with our prospect research team to devise keywords that imply wealth based on the information in an online profile,” he says. In the most recent fiscal year, 96 percent of the people he identified qualified as potential prospects, and 43 percent could make gifts of $100,000 or more. “The old assumption that alumni with high giving capacity do not use online social networks, or that they age out of them, has been completely debunked,” he says.

Social networks can break the ice between gift officers and donors. “By following online conversations, you gain a crystal clear indication of what interests and engages potential donors, ” says Hannon.

He encourages online dialogs. For example, three years ago he posted Cornell’s announcement about barring hyrdofracking on university-owned land. “More than 1,600 responses poured in, and the thread of comments continues to this day.”

Social networks also create connections with people who were previously unresponsive. One recent success story was the direct result of a tweet Hannon read from one alumnus commenting on another Cornell grad’s promotion.

“I followed up with a tweet congratulating the person promoted. Minutes later she favored my tweet—after two years of silence to emails and phone calls from a gift officer,” he says. Within two years of that first online interaction, the alumna agreed to be a keynote speaker at several Cornell conferences and followed up with a $75,000 gift.

Columbia University: Giving Day

Imagine raising $7.8 million from nearly 10,000 donors—primarily via Facebook—in a 24-hour period; and 20 percent of these donors are first-time givers. Columbia University accomplished this feat during its second Giving Day in October 2013. The 2012 Giving Day raised $6.8 million.

CloEve Demmer, executive director of development programs, masterminded the fundraising initiative aimed primarily at alumni and parents. “Project management is key. Planning begins a full year in advance, and the last six months are intense,” she says.

First, she had to sell the initiative to Columbia’s 16 schools and athletics programs. “We dangled the carrot by creating a friendly competition to earn challenge matches from a pot of money donated by trustees and university leaders,” she says. Schools receive prize money based on the amount they raise and the percent of alumni participating.

Columbia begins promoting Giving Day one month in advance, building excitement through video feeds on Facebook and Twitter, an advertorial spread in the Columbia magazine and emails sent to alumni. Demmer worked with marketing firm Story Worldwide to create a Giving Day hub on the alumni Facebook page, which had about 6,000 followers before October 2012. She also posted short films on Columbia’s alumni YouTube channel.

Fundraising technology developer Kimbia provided the e-commerce capability so alumni could donate directly from the Facebook page. Demmer also hired SocialToaster to provide messages for alumni social ambassadors to share with their networks.

She compares the cost of Giving Day to a direct marketing campaign—“although with direct marketing, this kind of donor acquisition and reactivation success is unprecedented,” she says. Demmer, now preparing for her third Giving Day, says that a lot can be accomplished when the Columbia community works together.

“We gained new donors and reengaged lapsed donors, received more major gifts than expected, and secured donations from 50 states and 53 countries,” she says. “Forty-four percent of first-year donors gave the second year, and 42 percent gave more.”

In addition, social network engagement has intensified, with the number of Facebook alumni page followers surpassing 40,000.

Texas Christian University: Young alumni connections

When TCU’s baseball team competed in the College World Series, the university’s social media community followed every play—from the opening pitch to the final run. “As we posted game events in real time, we watched the growth of our social media community—and most of that came from young alumni,” says Kalyn Baldwin, assistant director of new media.

Real-time communication is one of the strategies Baldwin uses to engage these graduates.

“Young alumni like to comment on something as it is happening,” Baldwin says. Since round-the-clock posts and hashtags pose a monitoring challenge, she uses the program Tagboard, which aggregates hashtags from all the social networks and pushes notifications to her smartphone and computer. “I know when a quick response is required, and I can send it,” she says.

Competition is another strategy that increases young alumni engagement. When TCU plays football against Baylor University, the two schools also compete in a four-week fundraising competition on Facebook. They increase engagement with milestone challenges, such as a contest to see which school is first to receive gifts from 10 percent of young alumni. In the latest competition, TCU received gifts from 687 young alumni totaling over $32,000 for students and programs at TCU.

Vibrant graphics and catchy hashtags attract this audience. “If we put creative material in front of them via the social channels, they are more likely to latch on and spread the messages to their peers,” says Baldwin. Staying concise and direct also helps stimulate volunteers and donations.

“You need to hand them the information on a silver platter and make it as easy as possible for them to attend, engage or donate,” she says. “Brief content, a picture, a call to action and a link—sounds simple, but it works.”

Harriet Meyers is a Columbia, Md.-based writer and editor.


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