All of us in alumni engagement are charged with generating school spirit by helping alumni grow personally and professionally under the university flag. Although the eventual goal is to create goodwill resulting in gifts of time and dollars, most of us are trying to promote programs and initiatives for our alumni over the short term that will cause a connective spark.

Many institutions rely on reporting alumni news as a central tenant to their alumni constituency engagement strategy. Our communicators publish unbiased, journalistically sound, news articles that showcase professional achievements or unique philanthropic efforts. But this reporting doesn’t really drive alums to do anything.

For example: perhaps fictional alumnus, Steve Studly ’81 has been named to the Georgia State Lawyers “Best Lawyers of 2012” list, or alumnae Mary Matters ’07 recently traveled to the Sudan and volunteered for the Red Cross. These are both excellent professional achievements, but neither will likely help sell your alumni engagement initiatives.

What do you want your alumni to do? We work under the Advancement Office umbrella and want our alumni to do specific things like:

1) Volunteer to help as a member of regional club or reunion class committee;
2) Update contact information in the alumni database, or utilize that database to make a connection;
3) Attend an event on-campus like a reunion, lifetime learning lecture, or pre-game tailgate;
4) Attend a regional club event or register for an alumni travel program trip;
5) Mentor a student or young alum by contributing content to digital group like Facebook or Linkedin.

Now, let me backtrack for just a second and give alumni news a “pat on the back” for its overall marketing potential…

The story about Steve could be used to provide clout to an institution’s law school, and a spotlight video on Mary’s experience would likely yield strong web traffic after it’s shared on social media. There are uses for this sort of content. It does help out the institution.

From an alumni engagement standpoint, an argument can be made that adding the Steve piece might foster a stronger relationship between the alum and the university. Perhaps posting the story will bring Steve into the folds or function as a stewardship exercise for a recent contribution. Maybe the story about Mary Matters will provoke a student to volunteer with an NGO somewhere. That’s all good stuff. A case could also be made that just by having a member of the alumni constituency read the content that equals engagement on some tiny level. It is after all an interaction between the alum and the university.

In an honest assessment however, I believe most higher education communicators would agree that alumni news content is the easiest to write and that’s why it prevails. We write it because we must feed the content beast, and he’s always hungry. I get releases sent to my inbox all the time from agencies representing big law firms or corporations hoping for a little press. Setting up “Google Alerts” or something similar will provide a plethora of alumni news content potential.

It’s much more time consuming to seek out, write and post original content that functions persuasively to sell your alumni engagement initiatives and the alumni network itself. Stories that will both entertain and sell your initiatives are relationship stories. What two alums developed the framework of a business partnership while on an Alumni Travel trip to Argentina? Who successfully utilized your alumni Linkedin Group to find a job? Who met their spouse at a class reunion? What happened at the Philadelphia Club event resulting in three new volunteers stepping up? These stories will compel future actions, and that’s what we want.

Make no mistake, relationship stories are much harder to find and tell. It’s almost like detective work; the challenge of uncovering a great relationship story. Social media is an excellent place to look for clues and ask for narratives. We’ve worked hard to tell a few of these stories at Washington and Lee University. They’re meant to showcase the value of our specific alumni network initiatives. We add plenty of Alumni News to our homepage as well, make no mistake.

If you just need to freshly curate your homepage, then an alumni news story might be a useful tool during a busy time. Maybe a local paper will pick it up and run a story. But ultimately, you are being measured by the success of your initiatives, right?


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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  • Chris P.

     As a director of advancement communications, this is something I think about – a lot. What do our alumni want to read about? What engages them? These are not easy questions, and there’s a lot below the surface here.

    Stories of alumni success are good examples of “show not tell.” They can be good examples of how alumni did something as a result of further engagement with the institution. Or they might be more of a one-off, a story of success that’s not directly connected to their alma mater. (I get a lot of requests from development officers and others to “do PR” on their prospects.)

    Whereas, direct messaging that instructs alumni on how they can volunteer for an event, sign up for the online community, etc., is an example of the “tell” type of message. It’s helpful, but usually pretty dry.

    The key, as Ryan writes above, is to achieve both the “showing” and “telling” in the same story. How can we follow up with alumni who have gone on a travel program, or participated in a networking event? Not only is this time-consuming — the writer must truly put on his/her “reporting hat” — but there are political sensitivities involved, especially if the alumnus is a donor or high-level volunteer.

    Thanks for a really thought-provoking post!

    Chris Pollock
    Division of Institutional Advancement
    Ithaca College

  • Meg Bernier

    This is spot on. I think the biggest issue I deal with are those alumni who think their news warrants coverage on our news site or a big spotlight in our magazine. Some of it, as Chris says, is politics – we want to keep alumni happy and feeling important (because they absolutely are!). We try to push most of those announcements to Class Notes, but some people don’t think that’s enough. I think changing the perception of what we consider “alumni news” would help. 

    As Chris points out, a writer must truly put on his or her reporting hat to dig out these stories – but those are the best ones! And I’d add to that and say if alumni start reading and noticing that those are the kinds of stories we’re promoting and featuring in various places, those stories might start trickling back to writers like me and then everyone is happy.

    Great points to think about, Ryan. Thanks – I circulated the article around my office!

    Meg Bernier
    Writer/Social Media Coordinator
    St. Lawrence University

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  • Andy Shaindlin

    Thanks for posting the article. There are valid points here about generating stories that advance the institution’s interests. However, I don’t agree with this statement:
    A case could also be made that just by having a member of the alumni constituency read the content that equals engagement on some tiny level. It is after all an interaction between the alum and the university.

    Specifically, I don’t agree that content consumers are engaged “on some tiny level.” It could be a significant level – to the alum. Your description assumes that the institution defines “engagement.” But alumni define engagement their own way. So if an alumnus feels connected by reading alumni news (or your big cover story) but doesn’t “volunteer…update…attend….mentor” because of it, did you fail? Yes – by your standard. But not by the alum’s standards. I think we need to account for the way our content and our outreach makes alumni feel – and not adhere too rigidly to a definition of engagement that includes only active behavior. Yes, the ultimate goal is more people donating, attending, volunteering. But engagement is a continuum with an infinite number of landing spots along the way. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. We treat it like an all or nothing proposition because that makes it easy for us to measure and report it, but that’s just a convenience. We should seek a nuanced appreciation of what engagement looks like from both sides of the fence.

  • Eric Horner

    I’m not exactly sure where this article is intending to go. Seems like it is luke warm on Alumni News and would prefer more stories written by staff that can deliver a marketing hook for the return on investment of time and treasure in the alumni association. I guess I see things differently.

    The Alumni News section of our magazine is always the most read and I want to expand on that. I feel a sense of pride when my fellow alumni accomplish something – even if I never met them – because they are one of us. I would have wanted to post congratulations. Relationships between alumni and their alma mater are familial, and our role as advancement professionals is to be caretakers of those relationships helping them grow closer. Yes, there will be times when you are closer or drift away, but in the end we are together and share something important. Over the course of our lives, it is most likely with our classmates that we want to share those important milestones (both personal or professional).

    There are so many social media channels and technology available, and yet creating the right message tone and making it inviting for interaction is as much art as science. We know that aggregating content to make it more relevant for our alumni is possible, and yet so seldom do we see it curated really well. If we can accomplish this task more often, it will enrich the relationships of our alumni to each other and the institution; and that in turn will provide the most fertile environment for programming engagement and fundraising.

    There are volunteers out there who donate time to collecting and editing Alumni News as class correspondents and they are as good as gold to our office. I wish we could do more of it and make it easier for our volunteers.

    • Nick Zeckets

      Eric – spot on. I’m not sure that you and the author of this article (? – am I missing that on this page) are saying totally different things, though, either. I think that all content is good content. The trick is getting the right things to the right folks. Curation’s not easy, but it’s doable, for sure. On the science part of writing, the epiphany we had is that somewhere in every school, especially one as big as NU, there is a recent piece of news (or 12) that talk to ME (my wife’s a Kellogg grad, by the by, and I love her alumni mag). And when that content connects to the goals (again, hard, but doable) great things happen. I love this thread. Hope more get involved.

      • Ryan Catherwood

        Hey guys! Thanks for taking the time to write Nick and Eric. Yes, I believe that it’s the responsibility of alumni relations professionals working for advancement or alumni associations to get people to volunteer their time, attend an event, donate, or engage in some other capacity. And I believe as an industry, our work creating web content that accomplishes these goals has been lacking because we’re unwilling to connect news with our specific measurable needs.

        I understand that often content is being created by a central university communications unit which is sometimes underneath advancement, but many different reporting lines exist. The goals of a central communications unit might involve measurables more oriented towards admissions or earned reach, and not aligned with advancement/engagement goals.

        I believe news, which is good and has a purpose, including stewardship, must be mixed in with content that’s created by alumni and students as well as administrators working another angle…yes, the marketing angle. As pressure to show ROI on engagement activities continues to mount, our resources must be deployed to further connect web content with university philanthropic needs. Just by two cents, of course.

  • Gary W. Toyn

    Colandra, I agree with you whole heartedly! Alumni are reading alumni news because it’s likely the only relevant content they get. Unfortunately, much of what they get as alumni is general purpose information that is designed to build the institution’s brand, not generate alumni engagement.

    What alumni are looking for is pertinent information that is relevant and beneficial. They want to know about networking opportunities, how to enhance their career, or how to take advantage of other alumni benefits. They really don’t care that much if the school’s debate team took second place in nationals.

    My full response to your article is listed here:

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