In my previous post, I discussed the changing landscape of university engagement. Whether you are a university president, a junior level alumni engagement staff member or somewhere in between, here are a few thought starters to help spark a dialogue about what can be done to refocus university engagement:
1) Think of a university as a media company – I tell university and foundation leaders that I view colleges as holding companies. You have several businesses that the university “owns” – the education business, the business incubator business (R&D), the real estate business, the financial service business (ex – your investment strategy) and the one you don’t think of – the media business. Universities produce vast amounts of “content” every day. Amazing guest lecturers and performers are on campus, the dozens of magazines and online content and in many cases triple digit numbers of social media channels. Yet, in nearly every instance, there is no Chief Content Officer at a school to organize, package and deliver the content to its intended audience in an efficient way.
2) Your correspondence is assumed to be an ask for money – We’ve actually polled hundreds of alumni from all types of universities. It’s incredible to believe, but 100% of the alums we’ve asked view an email, phone call or direct mail piece from their alma mater as an ask for money BEFORE they even open it. Talk about alumni engagement! This dynamic needs to change. Yes, the ROI of outreach is a statistical reality, you will get some return each time you put the throttle down with an outreach, but, as I told my alma mater (Northwestern), I received 18 pieces of correspondence in one month and I acted on only one of them – it was an invitation to host current students for dinner.
3) Ask for advice – This is a solution to the above. The old adage “if you want money, ask for advice and if you want advice ask for money” holds true moreso in this space than any other I’ve encountered. Through our work with so many universities we’ve had a unique entry point to many high profile and wealthy alumni. These “top of the development pyramid” folks are well aware that development officers fret about contacting them and how to engage them. Nearly every single high net worth individual we speak with would welcome more conversations with the university IF the schools would ask them to share their advice with current students. Which leads me to….
4) Alums want to be “back on campus” – I know, you’re thinking “duh!”, we know that! However, I’m asking you to rethink what getting back on campus means. When I recently asked the head of annual giving of a Top 20 university for the most surprising success story she has had, she told me that she created a panel discussion from a specific topic as part of career night. One of those who returned gave a $5 million gift and she didn’t even make an ask. It’s unrealistic to get every alum back on campus, but if you create an online platform (and don’t you dare think it should be at your transactional “giving.edu” site) that offers value to your readers they will come. This platform, which I’d recommend produces content DAILY (very achievable despite what you might think), also becomes a platform for you to reach out to alumni and make a specific ask for them to a)share their advice and b)be put in a positive light among a peer set they hold in the highest regard. With this type of approach, every alumni is now open to communicate within a way that can either begin, repair or strengthen a relationship.
5) You can’t have a one size fits all message – I’m fascinated by generational studies with a particular bent on media consumption. A Millenial doesn’t understand why anyone would want their name on a brick on campus. A Baby Boomer can’t understand why a Millenial would give money to a Kickstarter project. Yet, universities continue to distribute content that has one message and hope that it will resonate based on the connective tissue of the affiliation of the school. Millenials are driven by peer impact. Baby Boomers are driven by legacy. Yes, this is an admittedly large oversimplification in the interest of brevity, but you see the point. The emotional engagement button is different between (and often within) generations and if you don’t parse your message accordingly you’ll miss the mark on triggering a response.
I invite you to share your feedback. The communication landscape has changed so dramatically in the past decade that alumni engagement has never been more challenging, yet it has never offered so much opportunity.