Sue Ballard, Vice President for Alumni Engagement at Syracuse University, shares her thoughts on engagement, analytics, technology, staffing, and more. This is the sixth post in our series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement.
- We need to ensure that our digital strategies emphasize the human element, recognizing the importance of the relationship-building aspect of alumni engagement
- We need to start having honest conversations with our teams, colleagues, and internal and external partners about the use of resources toward in-person programs vs. digital initiatives
- By allowing digital engagement staff to run with ideas and show results after, those results often make the case, by themselves, to forge ahead with such programs
- We should be data-driven, while never losing sight of the human element of our work and interactions.
- A student-first approach — which ultimately leads to an alumni-first approach — is the absolute foundation and guiding principle of our work
- Creating a long-term surveying plan for your general alumni audience is key, and it must include questions related to their engagement preferences, ideas, and needs
Jon Horowitz: Should universities shift toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations?
Sue Ballard: Should we be shifting towards a digital-first approach while forgetting the true essence of our work — building relationships? No. But, without a doubt, a digital-first mindset offers an opportunity to build genuine and lasting relationships with all alumni, even those who may not ever have the chance to connect with us in person. We need to ensure that our digital strategies emphasize the human element, recognizing the importance of the relationship-building aspect of alumni engagement. To do that, our voice on digital platforms should be reflective of the voice of the university and/or college, while embracing organic and transparent communication messages, videos, etc. In short — digital is and should be a part of our strategies and engagement initiatives, but the approach must be massaged to fit individual audiences.
JH: Are there engagement activities/efforts still in practice that should be scaled back or eliminated?
SB: This is a difficult question to answer, as all alumni engagement programs are unique, yet all programs are also very similar. Certainly, we have common engagement practices, common volunteer roles, and common team structures, but we represent different audiences and different universities/colleges. To that end, each alumni engagement team should implement annual, if not bi-annual, reviews to examine practices that should be scaled back and/or tweaked. We have created such metrics at Syracuse University (utilizing Net Promoter Score surveys and other tools), and in doing so, we are in the process of tweaking some of our academic-focused programs, scaling back on programs that did not showcase a tremendous ROI last year, and working to implement a social media ambassador program to help broaden the reach of our work. Additionally, we are constantly reviewing additional technologies to help us share the Syracuse Story as often — as far-reaching — as possible.
JH: What types of more traditional engagement are expendable in the face of higher priority digital engagement initiatives?
SB: In the perfect world, with a magic wand, we wouldn’t look to expend anything; instead, we’d enhance all we do with digital. However, that is not always realistic. So, yes, traditional communication styles might be reviewed to lean into digital — ensuring we are implementing segmented communication pieces and striving to share news/events/happenings as soon as possible — via digital techniques and with less of a reliance on print.
Please note, I still advocate and believe in some print depending on the audience. Segmentation and knowing the communication preferences of your alumni are key.
And, if I dare say, we need to start having honest conversations with our teams, colleagues, and internal and external partners about the use of resources toward in-person programs vs. digital initiatives. We are living in a time when news and information are everywhere. Social calendars are exhausted, and the thought of attending another cocktail reception might not be the first choice for an average alum on a Thursday evening. Life happens! So, from a digital perspective, might we look to utilize technology to share the program via a two-minute video from a prominent faculty member about his/her groundbreaking research? Do we implement a podcast series from the university highlighting various topics, campus updates, news, etc.? Or highlight the student experience in action via a podcast or ongoing video clips? These are all questions we, as a team, are currently discussing. We will still implement a number of alumni engagement programs in the coming months, but you might also see some tweaks, some enhancements, and a greater digital component than ever before.
You might note a trend in my comments — marriage and synergy between traditional engagement activities and digital. That, to me, is key.
JH: There’s an irony to making a case for digital engagement. Making that case often requires quantifiable information, yet that information comes from the very digital engagement systems and infrastructure being asked for. So how do digital engagement champions successfully pitch to leadership?
SB: Metrics. Metrics. Metrics. Which leads to the next question and answer. Is it always easy? No. Is it worth it? Yes. I’ve also found that if I allow my digital experts to run with ideas and show me the results after, those results often make the case by themselves. Trust your team.
It’s also about sharing and discussing the honest metrics behind other alumni engagement practices in place and reviewing efficiencies and/or lack thereof. This speaks to the earlier section about expendable initiatives.
JH: What metrics will help institutions make a case for a digital-first approach to advancement?
SB: The alumni engagement team needs to be able to show more than social media channel growth, (followers and likes). Yes, we do track this information, but we also go deeper. We look at unique video views and the time spent watching. We look at comments on various posts and who they came from. We look at who is sharing our content on social media. We look at email open rates and test subject lines constantly. We look at the dollars spent on in-person programming versus digital engagement strategies and how many alumni we were able to reach via the two avenues. As my colleagues know, there are a number of services at one’s disposal to assist with measuring digital engagement, and we are constantly assessing those services to enhance our in-house capabilities.
JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy?
SB: I don’t believe it is a challenge, as much as it is a matter of prioritizing. Every day is different; to take time to stop, evaluate, listen/learn/research new technology might not make the priority list. That does not mean it should not be a priority. That’s just reality! I think the challenge is more about ensuring this concept remains at the top of the “to do” list and taking the time to fully understand what technology is needed, why it is needed, and what benefit it will bring to the program’s efficiency and the development of relationships with alumni. Of course, in large, complex university environments, there will always be competing interests and the need to devote resources to those interests. It’s possible there simply won’t be enough resources to fund each new technology that a particular group is pushing for.
JH: Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?
SB: There is a comfort level associated with “previous” data and engagement programs. They’re easy. They’re the way we’ve always done things. They’re what everyone else is using. But, as alumni engagement practitioners, we need to highlight the return on investment for new/improved engagement initiatives, while utilizing updated data. We should be data-driven, while never losing sight of the human element of our work and interactions.
And, we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t mention the risk involved. We all want our programs to flourish, to engage, to produce, to help the business model that is higher education. With any change, with any unknown, you have to take into consideration the risk factor. Many, many times, it is worth the leap. When it isn’t, that’s when we evaluate, we discuss, we tweak, and we keep on doing the best we can for all the audiences we serve.
JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?
SB: When I was awarded the opportunity to join the team at Syracuse University, the first organizational enhancement I made was to the Communications & Digital Engagement Team. We were a lean staff. To increase productivity and our engagement practices, I knew we needed to ramp up our communications efforts — including digital engagement. So, we created a coordinator position to assist the current director, significantly enhancing communication with our alumni. Today, we have three talented and dedicated communications and digital alumni engagement practitioners leading the efforts for our team. Their work, led by Kim Infanti, has resulted in tremendous digital engagement growth, with much more to come. In short, we serve 241,000 alumni, but we are a team of 19 professionals. We cannot be with our alumni 24/7, but with the use of technology, we can and will continue to engage them through digital platforms.
And, our volunteers are our ambassadors. We couldn’t do what we do without our talented alumni volunteering countless hours dedicated to boards, programs, speaking roles, club leadership, young alumni engagement, student work, etc. To that end, we must be equipped to help train and provide our volunteers with the appropriate resources to be successful digital ambassadors, just as much as they are in-person ambassadors.
JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?
SB: I believe a student-first approach — which ultimately leads to an alumni-first approach — is the absolute foundation and guiding principle of our work. This is the philosophy we embrace at Syracuse University. We should embrace the lifecycle alumni engagement model, so our community members (starting with our students) understand that his/her journey is neverending with his/her university. Ultimately, this leads to an alumni-first approach in all we do. When alumni feel supported, when we put them first and remember that the value of their degree lasts long after graduation, we will undoubtedly see enhanced engagement and commitment — philanthropically and otherwise.
JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?
SB: We are about to organize our first comprehensive alumni survey for 241,000 alumni. I think if we want to know alumni needs and interests, it starts with asking them. Creating a long-term surveying plan for your general audience is key and must include questions related to their engagement preferences, ideas, needs, etc. Our survey will also include specific questions about their communications preferences. Such questions will position programs to segment communications efforts better, eventually utilizing artificial intelligence strategies, and enable us to share what alumni want to know when they want to know about it.
JH: How can schools truly invest in alumni so that alumni genuinely want to invest in the schools? What can schools offer on this front?
SB: I hinted at this earlier, but the concept of artificial intelligence, and really honing in on specific alumni needs/interests/wants is key to this equation. Have we figured out this answer yet? No. We are just dipping our toes in this water and discussing ways we can be much more segmented and specific in our communications styles and information-sharing.
I’d also offer that the alumni career services/professional development opportunities are certainly a need for alumni — at one point or another. We are in the early stages of building this functional unit within our team, as we welcome our first Associate Director, Alumni Professional Development position this July. Prior to this, we worked closely with our colleagues in Career Services to help provide these types of services. The response was so powerful that we knew we needed to move in this direction for the Orange community. I’m excited about what the future holds in this arena, as there is much to be said about providing these services so that alumni appreciate and understand that we, their alma mater, are always there for them — no matter the need.
JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?
SB: I think it’s very difficult to hone in on “the next big trend” for a number of reasons. Our alumni, just like our students, are all different, which includes different needs, different levels of engagement, and different voices. This is what makes our work exciting and forever changing. And, as the world and economy change, our alumni and their needs shift. So, for me, the next big trend is this: remaining flexible and nimble, listening and learning, and staying dedicated to our students and our alumni. Our programs are never finished — the engagement opportunities are truly endless — and with that, the trends are forever evolving in ways that are unique to one’s university/college.