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This post is written by Jon Horowitz, Digital Strategy Consultant at Horowitz Strategy.

Brian Perillo, Associate Vice President, Alumni Relations and Annual Giving at New York University, shares his thoughts on engagement, analytics, technology, staffing, and more. This is the third post in our series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement.

Key Takeaways

  • Expensive tools are not needed to pilot basic digital engagement initiatives. Use the metrics derived from those basic initiatives to make the case for more resources that will improve digital engagement and allow for better tracking of digital successes
  • Most schools are happy to benchmark; it’s a strong way to make a case for new technology
  • Digital engagement requires a place on the alumni relations team alongside event planners and volunteer managers in order to elevate it to a place of importance
  • Staff need to ask more alumni more questions – in surveys and conversations – and get better about tracking what alumni are doing and how they are engaging with the institution
  • Universities need to make alumni feel like interested stakeholders again, like they are part of the family or community – through better access, experiences, conveying value, and treating them like they still belong

    Jon Horowitz: Should universities shift toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations?

    Brian Perillo: Universities need to be as flexible as possible and be able to engage donors and alumni in whatever spaces they are most comfortable in. The advantage to the digital space is that it can be done inexpensively and you can get great reach. The technology is also growing in leaps and bounds every year, creating more opportunities. Universities need to keep up and take advantage of these opportunities, but can’t lose sight of being “donor-centric” in terms of methods, either.

    JH: Are there engagement activities/efforts still in practice that should be scaled back or eliminated?

    BP: Absolutely. I think more sophisticated shops are spending a lot more time looking at metrics and ROI of traditional alumni events like happy hours. Getting alumni to attend is no longer the end-all be-all. We have to look at what the institution is getting in return and what behaviors we are encouraging. Something we try to do is hit multiple engagement points. For example, if we can get an alumnus or alumna to host an alumni program at their venue, we are cultivating that alum while engaging many others. Then we can create a post-event video highlight piece featuring the alum speaker to utilize on social media.

    JH: What types of more traditional engagement are expendable in the face of higher priority digital engagement initiatives?

    BP: Activities like blasting out event invitations over email to the same groups over and over and mass-producing print pieces to promote events are expendable. Not to say there can’t be a place for these things, but given the resources you need to invest and the negative impact they can have, they have to be used strategically.

    JH: There’s an irony to making a case for digital engagement. Making that case 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?

    BP: You don’t need expensive tools to pilot some basic digital engagement initiatives. If you are seeing strong, positive response or large numbers of alumni engaging with the basic digital content you are producing, you can utilize those metrics to make the case for better tools that will allow you to improve your digital presence and better track your online successes. There are so many different tools and programs out there, so I do think you have to have a plan and do your homework without going out and blindly investing in the hot new thing.

    JH: What metrics will help institutions make a case for a digital-first approach to advancement?

    BP: Metrics are the ONLY way you can make a case for any new approach. The good news is the risk is relatively low in rolling out digital initiatives, and gathering metrics from many programs is easy. Most third-party programs have sophisticated metrics programs built in, and most vendors are more than happy to let you know what schools they are already working in. Most schools are happy to benchmark and that’s a strong way to make a case for new technology.

    JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy?

    BP: I think technology moves so fast, and especially at the large schools I’ve worked at, there are many checks and balances in place. First you have to get all the stakeholders on the same page. Then systems need to be researched, evaluated, tested, budgeted for, and approved all before they can even be implemented. Then implementation itself can take time. So sometimes by the time technology is implemented, the industry has already moved on to the next new thing.

    JH: Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?

    BP: Similar to the reasons I stated above. Whether they are effective or not, universities figure out ways to work with the systems they have in place. To change those systems, you have to get many different departments on the same page – advancement, IT, budgeting – and changing what is already in place can bring about anxiety. Even if a new system can do 90 percent of what the old one does better, can it still do that one little unique thing I’ve been relying on this current technology to do? And you have to answer that question for just about everyone involved in the process.

    JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?

    BP: Like anything else, to be successful at something you will have to dedicate some resources to it. Giving digital engagement a place on your team alongside event planners and volunteer managers will help elevate it to a place of importance. For us, digital engagement crosses over into almost every other aspect of alumni relations, so we’ve created a team of communications professionals that serve the rest of our staff and make sure we are keeping digital engagement in the conversation when we plan.

    JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?

    BP: If we are doing our job right, asking for the gift is the easy part. If we can identify an alum’s interests and capacity, communicate and engage that alum, educate them about the university’s priorities and needs, make them feel like a stakeholder who has the ability to make a difference, and know them well enough to show them how to further what’s important to them. If we can do all that, then getting that person to give back – financially or otherwise – becomes easy.

    JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?

    BP: Listen and watch. Know what they were involved in as a student, and know what’s important to them as alumni. We need to ask more – in surveys and conversations – and get better about tracking what alumni are doing and how they are engaging with us. Today, just like Amazon knows how to send you an ad for that product you actually want, alumni expect us to offer them individual programs and opportunities to connect with the institution that they actually want to do.

    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?

    BP: This is the changing value proposition of higher education. It used to be an alumnus/a attended school, graduated, got a good job in their field and felt grateful to the institution that prepared them for their career. More and more we are seeing alumni who don’t feel as much a sense of gratitude, but more like their experience was transactional. I got an education, but I paid a hefty fee and worked hard to get it. We are now square. Universities need to change the mindset and make alumni feel like interested stakeholders again, like they are part of the family. This can be helped by providing more access, experiences, and value for what they put in, but it’s more about treating them like they still belong, even long after they’ve earned that degree and left campus.

    JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?

    BP: I try not to get too caught up in trends that come and go. The heart of our business is still building strong relationships. I guess along those lines, I do think alumni expectations will force a trend more toward individualization. We will have to engage each alumnus or alumna on their own terms, with a focus on their own individual interests and situations. The idea of one school or department “owning” an alumni prospect just because they graduated will not work any longer. We will have to be more alumni-centric than ever before.

    Participate in important research

    mStoner, Inc. and the Council for Advancement & Support of Education are conducting a survey of how schools, colleges and universities use various digital tools and techniques in alumni relations, communications, fundraising, and marketing. Contribute by filling out the survey by June 15 and supply your email address to receive a complimentary copy of the survey findings, and be entered to win mStoner’s Digital Storytelling on-demand course.

    Jon Horowitz is a digital strategy consultant for higher education advancement and alumni relations. Follow Jon on Twitter @hrwtz and check out horowitzstrategy.com for more on Jon and his work.


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