The alma mater of a college alum is no joke. Graduates everywhere are fiercely dedicated to where they went to college. They won’t hesitate to identify themselves by their university’s mascot years after they walked the stage at commencement. In fact, the seminal Gallup Alumni Index continues to find that more than half of all alumni feel a strong emotional bond with their alma mater.
But of course, a strong emotional attachment doesn’t necessarily translate into action or engagement that is mutually beneficial for both the college alum and the university. According to CASE’s Alumni Engagement Metrics study, less than a quarter of graduated students feel that their former school engages effectively with them and makes them feel recognized.
Therefore, alumni outreach is crucial. With the right strategy, you can turn a simple association with your school into more engagement, donations, and event attendance. This guide covers the steps you can use to build an effective alumni network. Through this, you can turn graduated students into networking hubs, mentors, and references for future students. Here’s how you can get started with college alum outreach.
1. Cultivate a formal alumni network
In colleges, students bond with your institution because of the networks they create and the communities they form on campus, in residence halls, and in study groups. Engaging alumni means ensuring this feeling doesn’t get lost just because they graduate. That’s where alumni networks can enter the equation.
An alumni network is a type of formalized community that any college alum can join. They typically revolve around networking and mentorship opportunities. For example, individual academic departments might have an alumni network that can help newly graduated students find internships or jobs and enter the field.
Start by creating the outlines of what a formal alumni network at your institution might look like. Define:
- Who will be the institutional and alumni leads
- How graduated students can join
- How the network will interact on a regular basis
In other words, create a two- to three-page “business plan” that defines how the network will function.
If your college or university doesn’t already have an alumni network, start with a pilot. Once you create one network, you’ll learn how your alumni react to and engage with it. You can use those insights to build more and better networks over time. It also helps to start small with the network, like the departmental example mentioned above.
2. Email alumni relevant information
Email continues to be a core channel of alumni communication. In fact, according to one study, 52% of associations actively use it to grow and engage their membership. As such, email can act as the core channel through which you communicate new happenings at the college, send event invitations, and ask for donations.
Of course, you have to write the right email, as well. A few email best practices for reaching out to alumni that can help are:
- Supplement comprehensive alumni newsletters with simple, straightforward emails focusing on a single topic.
- Personalize your emails by including the college alum’s name, graduation year, and major.
- Focus on benefits to the alumni or reasons they should engage with you.
- Create a simple opt-out form as an easy out for any college alum who doesn’t want to be part of the network.
It also pays to survey your audience occasionally. Ask your alumni how they want to receive information, how frequently they want to receive it, and what information they want to learn more about. This information can help you build more segmented, personalized email streams for more effective outreach.
3. Include personalized texts as part of your outreach strategy
Texting has become a crucial part of almost any communications strategy across demographics ranging from prospective students to long-term alumni. According to one recent study, 37% of audiences preferred receiving program information via text. Similarly, 32% preferred text messages to any other type of communication.
Texting is especially effective when you don’t use it in a broadcast fashion similar to your email strategy. Instead, use it to take a more personalized approach to your outreach. Send specific messages to specific alumni or create event reminders and other more specific topic-based messages.
You can also use texting in more nuanced ways. For example, if you have a student-alumni networking group, students can use SMS messages to opt into the program. Meanwhile, peer-to-peer texting (in which audiences can respond to your promotional messages and start a conversation) can build deeper relationships between your alumni office and its core audience.
4. Reach out on LinkedIn and other professional social media
Email and texting both have one thing in common: they’re largely promotional channels with relatively formal, straightforward messages generated from your office. However, they’re far from the only channels your alumni use to engage, both with each other and with their alma mater. Social media plays a core role in the process, as well.
In fact, one alumni relations study found that 80% of alumni organizations find social media to have the most impact on engaging their alumni. Networks like LinkedIn, which are specifically designed to be used in a professional context, can be effective in building relationships with your alumni.
Some of your social media strategy can be similar to email, sharing important university updates with your alumni groups. But it also has the potential for much more. Send personal invites to students, or simply ask questions designed to get your alumni to engage with you. Open yourself up for conversations, and many former students will join in.
5. Create incentives for event attendance with free school swag
Digital channels have risen immensely in importance for getting alumni attention and engagement over the past decade. But ultimately, any alumni relations professional knows that events are still the core mechanism for graduated students to engage, be around each other, mentor former students, and more.
Of course, getting a college alum to attend your events has become increasingly difficult. This is due to both divided attention and the COVID-19 pandemic. Building up that attendance has to include at least some incentive for your audience to join those events.
That process, in turn, begins and ends with free college merchandise. A nice quarter-zip, t-shirt, hat, or mug may do the trick for younger alumni. For more experienced professionals, consider building custom merchandise that shows off their commitment to the alumni network and dedication to helping others succeed, like a challenge coin.
6. Show your alumni that they matter
Although this final key to alumni engagement may seem obvious, it can be deceptively difficult to achieve. To truly engage with you, they need to feel like they’re not just a number among thousands of former students. They need to feel that they matter to you and that you care as much about them as they do about their alma mater.
Personalized messaging, as mentioned above, can go a long way towards achieving that goal. But it’s not the only opportunity, either. Other options include:
- Public recognition of donors, including dedicated spots or pieces of art on campus and/or in giving societies mentioned in your institution’s annual report.
- Events specific to an individual alumni group or network, like free attendance at a local sporting event for alumni who volunteer on your institution’s behalf.
- Public displays of institutional commitment, like attendance by the college president at alumni events or meet and greets with college leadership.
Of course, these are just some of the many options you have. The more you can help your alumni feel like you truly care about them and their success, the more likely they’ll engage in the present and future.
7. Build a comprehensive strategy to engage your alumni network
Alumni are a core part of your institution. Why? Because they…
- Carry on the knowledge and traditions well beyond their generation.
- Contribute to your revenue through donations.
- Act as a recruitment pipeline for incoming classes in future years.
Most institutions recognize that fact and have made alumni a core audience of focus. But it’s important not to take the attention of a college alum for granted. For example, they might have graduated from multiple schools with different degrees. They will receive countless other communications from other nonprofit and charitable organizations that take their eyes away from their alma mater.
In other words, it’s crucial to communicate with them effectively and on the level they expect and deserve. Their strong emotional bond to your school means they want to be involved in events, mentorship opportunities, and other engagement possibilities. They just need to know how they can do that.
A communications strategy that touches on multiple channels can help you get there. It ensures that no member of this core audience falls through the cracks or endlessly waits for that trigger message that would cause them to engage.
Of course, your virtual tours and interactive maps can have a role to play as well. Virtual tours can engage your alumni audience and help to drive alumni donations. Interactive maps, in turn, can make the visit a breeze even for audiences who haven’t been to campus in a few years or even decades. Ready to learn more about our technology and how it can help you succeed in building those alumni networks? Contact us today.