How to Increase Alumni Engagement
Part two of a three-part series on why alumni are important to higher ed institutions and how institutions can create meaningful relationships with graduates.
In our last blog, we explored the host of benefits that alumni bring to higher ed institutions. Some of these include recruiting prospects and providing mentoring, internships, and career opportunities to enrolled students. Further, alumni can serve as donors and returning lifelong learners.
To reap these benefits, higher ed institutions should know how to increase alumni engagement. They must create data- and strategy-driven plans for reaching out and engaging alumni. Effective outreach takes much time and effort to plan and implement. To provide the right services, colleges need to know exactly who their alumni are and what they need. Offices of alumni engagement need to continue to evaluate which services, events, and messaging work and which do not in order to refine their outreach over time.
What true engagement looks like
An important note is that true engagement is based on two-way, give-and-take relationships. Of course, donations are a benefit of the relationship. However, it’s the relationship itself that is most valuable. A relationship can turn one-time givers into donors who continue to give. Further, it can drive alumni to serve many other useful roles. Just like people are more likely to share time with and help their friends, they are also more likely to give to a cause if they feel they are conversing with an organization that will provide something of value in return. This is known as the “norm of reciprocity”:
A behavior that occurs when someone does something for you, and you feel obligated to do something for them in return.
This norm has yielded good results in selling products and gaining donations by for-profit and non-profit companies alike. As applied to alumni relations, this occurs when institutions interact with alumni in other ways beyond asking for donations. For example, higher ed institutions might provide information, guidance, and services to its grads.
How to increase alumni engagement
Not only should alumni receive benefits in return for their time and contributions, but those perks must be both relevant and valuable to grads. Gary Toyn explains three factors that determine the value of services to alumni. Services...
- must help solve a problem or meet a need;
- should be easy to access; and
- must be something unique or niche that can’t be found somewhere else.
In analyzing results from the 2016 VAESE Alumni Benchmarking Study, a global survey of alumni relations and advancement pros in higher ed, Toyn found that the highest-rated benefits are the following:
1. Face-to-face networking events
This includes reunions and chapter meetings, which serve three purposes. First, these events help alumni feel they are part of a community. In addition, they fulfill basic social needs for friendships. Finally, they can grow feelings of affiliation. Most importantly, reunions help to grow an alumnus’s career network. Around 65% of alumni organizations state that mixers are their most popular benefit. This is a direct result of the networking opportunities that are often present at these events.
2. Career services
Helping alumni improve their resume, increase their skills, or connect with fellow grads who are hiring all have a very strong appeal. This is especially true for younger alumni who are just starting out. Often, alumni rate career services as the most valued service.
3. Digital outreach
Around 80% of alumni professionals report that digital content, such as blogs, social media, and e-newsletters have “significant impact” or “some impact” on alumni engagement. Only 2% report they have “no impact.” In fact, recent research shows that digital outreach to alumni via e-newsletters and social media can have the same level of impact on engagement as face-to-face events do. This is supported by research that shows that grads who open and read alumni publications are more likely to donate.
In order to provide the right content, colleges need to know exactly what alumni need. However, 58% of alumni organizations report that they have not surveyed their members, and 38% do not collect data on alumni engagement. In order to build an effective outreach program, it’s crucial to ask alumni what benefits they feel are most valuable, how often they want to be contacted, and in what format they want to interact. It’s also crucial to evaluate what aspects of an alumni engagement plan work well and which ones do not in order to improve services and events. Seeking input also has an added perk in that it shows alumni their alma mater cares about their unique needs.
In addition to knowing what information grads are looking for, it’s important to know who they are. All grads are not the same. People define themselves by constructs like ethnicity, personality traits, hobbies and interests, and social roles like family role (i.e., mother), job role (i.e., teacher), etc. All of these traits combined make up what psychologists call the “self-concept” or “identity.” While some offices treat older alumni by past profiles from their student days (softball player, physics major, etc.), adults change over their lifespan. A more useful approach is to learn about alumni’s current self-concepts in order to tailor outreach to topics of interest or to help similar alumni connect. Aspects such as career field, job role, parent/nonparent, hobbies and interests, etc., are often more meaningful than categories like class year and distance from campus, which are much less relevant in the digital space.
One social role that is very relevant to alumni relations pros is “alumni identity.” This is the degree to which a person sees their alma mater as a part of their self-concept. For example, alumni who note their alma mater when describing themselves have a strong alumni identity. People who have stronger alumni identities are more likely to donate to their alma mater, both in terms of frequency (number of donations) and total lifetime amount. Often, alumni have feelings of pride and strong emotional ties to their alma mater because of its prestige or because their college experience helped to shape who they are.
Not only do self-concepts change over time, but they are also subject to influence. Alumni identities can be shaped by their alma maters. Research shows that volunteering for the institution, being a member of a social media group, attending a campus event, and reading e-newsletters all strengthen feelings of alumni identity. This means that strategy-driven events and outreach can increase engagement and financial giving.
Once as much alumni data has been collected as possible, it is crucial to segment that data into different categories in order to communicate with alumni in a personal and meaningful way. Some alumni are highly interested in news about sports programs. On the other hand, some are more interested in the arts. Also, some alumni, especially recent grads, are interested in news and tips that can help them grow their careers. Others want to know what their classmates and instructors are doing now.
How Signal Vine can help improve alumni outreach
The Signal Vine platform has a number of built-in features that support how to increase alumni engagement. For instance, Signal Vine is a firm believer in the power of personalization. The platform includes a limitless number of profile fields that users can customize as they please. For example, if alumni note that they want news about local job fairs, profile fields can capture this preference. As a result, staff can send messages about local job fairs to those who note that this is the type of outreach they prefer. This is just one example of how Signal Vine helps institutions remain targeted and personal in their outreach.
In addition, Signal Vine integrates with many CRM platforms, such as Salesforce. For example, Signal Vine Sync ensures that student data remains up-to-date between both the platform and Salesforce. This keeps data up-to-date by refreshing between systems every 10 minutes. As noted earlier, it is crucial to keep alumni data up-to-date. In turn, this helps alumni offices send outreach that is timely and tailored to the alumni who will receive the message. This makes planning the outreach that alumni prefer even easier.
Keeping up with alumni trends
As student bodies become more diverse, so too will alumni. As a result, more refined methods may be needed to address cultural and other differences. For instance, students of color and those who are first in their family to attend college now make up a large portion of current enrollments. The students of today will quickly become the alumni of tomorrow. These alumni may be more interested in stories that highlight campus diversity and inclusion or service to the outside community that surrounds campus.
Some alumni segments may lack the social capital that higher-income students can use when looking for a first job. They might need greater career networking support or they might need professional development advice. Certain segments might also lack the financial support to contribute just after graduation, so a donation drive might need to be tailored to smaller amounts or changed to a simple ask for volunteer support.
Learn more about how to increase alumni engagement
In our next blog in this series, we will explore the direct impact that volunteer events can have on alumni engagement and fundraising, especially among recent alumni. To learn more, including strategies, helpful case studies, and best practices for alumni engagement, download our ebook below.
* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.
 (1) Toyn (2017)
 (2) Toyn (2017)
 (3) Toyn, G.W. (2016, August 11). The Three Highest Rated (Not Lame) Alumni Benefits. Access Development.
 (4) Toyn (2017)
 (5) Toyn (2017)
 Dillon, J. L. (2017). Factors and Characteristics of Alumni Role Identity: Implications for Practice in Higher Education Fundraising and Alumni Relations. University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA.
 Martin, J.C. (1993). Characteristics of alumni donors and non-donors at a research I, public university. University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.
 (1) Toyn (2017)
 (2) Toyn (2017)
 (1) Dillon (2017)
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 Drezner, N. D. (2018). Alumni Engagement in Higher Education: A Matter of Marketing and Leveraging Social Identities. In Papadimitrou A. (Ed.) Competition in Higher Education Branding and Marketing: National and Global Perspectives, pp. 181-195. Palgrave Macmillan.
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