Our colleges and universities have lots of alumni that want to be more engaged. Figuring out how to reach these alumni in a way that works for them is a huge priority because we want to grow our participation numbers. For the most part when we talk about participation under engagement we’re referencing event attendance. But as our regional club or chapter programs and reunions start to mature it’s getting harder and harder to move the needle with respect to year over year attendance data. So how do you get alumni engaged that aren’t interested in sharing cocktails at regional chapter events or don’t want to come back for reunions? What are the alternatives?

A digital alumni engagement strategy can function as an inbound marketing approach for an existing event-based strategy, but it could also serve as a completely new measurable. But what precisely could be measured? How might resources be deployed?

Below are eight constructs I’ve identified that have helped me sort out a plan of attack, so to speak, to develop and execute a measurable digital alumni engagement strategy.

#1) The strategy must involve applying a metric to the record (or entity) of a constituent in the central fundraising database. We must be able to track this new engagement technique with individuals in the same way we do event attendance. But there’s a difference between attending a digital event, like a Google+ Hangout, and measuring an ongoing digital engagement strategy. And that’s the problem, right? In order to do this we have to move away from requiring place and time because digital interactions are ongoing. All considerations must return to metrics that can be applied to the primary database as “attributes” like a volunteer status or an event registration on a record of a constituent.

#2) Retweets, Facebook “Likes” or comments on Instagram aren’t going to provide the necessary data to prove an individual’s digital engagement level has increased. Adding a reference to an individual Facebook “Like” on someone’s official database record is not realistic, nor is attempting to synthesize the engagement activity of an alum across multiple social platforms feasible. None of us have the administrative resources for that and obviously we’d all have hollered “Eureka!” years ago if that were the answer. One possibility is to frame a digital engagement strategy around content acquisition for our primary alumni sites.

#3) Generating content and attending a physical event must be given the same engagement value. Since the prevailing methodology for measuring alumni engagement is event attendance, showing up to an event and providing an editorial or ten Instagram photos must be weighted equally. The reality is that the donation of time and the commitment is roughly the same. It might be possible to use the same attendance metrics to keep data integrity. Let’s say an event is advertised as “Jacksonville Club: August Digital Contributors” and registrations were then collected for the event. Alumni (and parents) “attend” the event if they spend a collective hour of time creating content over the course of the month and registrations are rolled over to the next month. The goal is to increase the attendance list for September and make sure that people “attend.” With a grass roots effort to showcase the multilevel value of supplying content, we might be able to preregister content creators and measure individual digital engagement with event attendance. Ultimately, all this content is cross-functional as part of an inbound marketing strategy and will drive attendance to Happy Hours and other regional events.

4) There must be a tangible and attractive “carrot” of perceived value for alumni to provide content and therefore participate in a measurable digital engagement program.

I went to college with Tracey...looks like we need to reconnect!
I went to college with Tracey…looks like we need to reconnect!

Two primary reasons to attend a club or chapter event is visibility and networking. Supplying content can provide that same real world benefit. What if the content received was linked to the personal website of an alumnus? Or maybe the content can have this Linkedin graphic on it for those that want it in order to provide a strong incentive.

If we can guarantee that more people would look at the Linkedin profile of a potential contributor would that entice a busy alum to spend one hour a month providing content for their alma mater?

#5) Crowdsourcing content will require an institution to be more “open” than ever before. A scenario whereby constituents are asked to interact with a web site by recommending URLs, uploading photos, micro blogging, adding personal web cam videos and posting advice-based editorials, for example, requires being lenient and allowing self-promotion. Content from alumni will not in and of itself reflect your institutional goals. It’s about the interaction underneath the brand that provides engagement metrics the same as event attendance. We need to provide the digital space for thought leaders to emerge from all corners, on all topics, and a platform for creative expression.

#6) Initiatives functioning on implied nostalgia aren’t going to bring in new participants. Our smartest, busiest, most impressive alumni are too busy looking forward with their jobs, their families, hobbies and local interests. We must find a way to interact as they move forward locally and not always require alumni to return to campus (or Grounds as we say at UVA) both literally and figuratively, in order to participate. There are lots of alumni that make time to stop and look back. These folks are often critical volunteers functioning as proxy admissions representatives. But by the time a regional alumni group matures in a major market, most of these individuals are already engaged as volunteers. We want new participants.

#7) Your website must be built to both acquire content and curate it. Take a look at EDUniverse.org or one of the content heavy and regularly curated sites like Mashable.com or the Huffington Post. A web presence will probably need to look and function like those sites with server power to support it. In particular, the web presences administered for regional clubs must be developed to be “localized” with great alumni-supplied content.

#8) This will require huge amounts of leadership and change management. Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model might be a great guide for moving down this path. The most crucial element is developing a guiding coalition of people who love content and getting alumni that love to write or take photos on-board first. Another benefit of all this content is that regional clubs that have their own Facebook platforms will have copious amounts of content to share rather than functioning almost entirely for event promotion and recaps.

Read the follow-up post, “8 Ways to Collect Data & Measure Individual Digital Engagement.

Ryan Catherwood is the Director of Engagement Strategy at the University of Virginia. He can be reached via twitter @RyanCatherwood or by email.


Article Author

Ryan Catherwood

Ryan Catherwood

Higher Ed Live blogger and Former Host of Advancement Live
Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services, Longwood University

Ryan Catherwood is the Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University. Prior to joining Longwood, he was the Director of Digital Strategy in the University Advancement office at the University of Virginia. His work is dedicated to strategies that utilize events, crowdsourcing, inbound and content marketing, email marketing and social media community management in order to drive alumni and student engagement, participation, connections, networking, volunteerism and giving at Longwood University.


Ryan Catherwood

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