Although the University of Virginia has approximately 200,000 living alumni, until recently, the university was only communicating electronically with a fraction of them; 43,000 had email addresses on record. Because the university consists of so many campus organizations—11 schools and 30 foundations—creating and managing a central alumni database for online communications proved difficult. Each school and foundation managed its own list of email recipients. The information “was very siloed,” explains Deke Shrum, assistant director of interactive media at U.Va.
Some schools overcame the challenge of communicating via email by hiring freelance web designers to create standalone websites. Others bought off-the-shelf products that would also enable HTML messages, which U.Va.’s email system would not. The university as a whole lacked a mechanism by which it could email alums and community members in a coordinated manner.
In 2005, administrators in the Office of Development and Public Affairs sought to provide a centralized email solution, and they ultimately purchased an online engagement platform (OEP). The OEP provides high-volume email service, online event registrations, and online donations—all of which were previously unavailable.
A team of five U.Va. employees were first tasked with providing training and assistance to schools and departments within the university, as well as the Alumni Association. Usage of the OEP has increased significantly and today, more than 150 staff members have been trained and regularly use the system for email communication, online registrations, and donation forms.
Today, targeted alumni emails can be sent through the university’s database, and reports of recipient activity are available only a few hours later. “Alumni, parents, and friends of the university enjoy the convenience and speed of making gifts and registering for events online at any time of the day or night,” says Shrum. “This is a huge benefit to users.”
Those events are mainly free activities, such as Cavaliers Care: A Day of Service (a large volunteer event in the community), and guest speakers at campus centers. In total, 33,004 registrations have been processed for free events and 17,018 registrations for paid events, which generated $870,793 in 2011 alone. In addition to deepening alumni engagement with the university—the primary purpose of such events—providing online registration capabilities enhances the quality of information about such alumni. Registration data, along with other details regarding alumni activities, are housed in the platform’s Constituent Relations Management (CRM) system and synchronized daily with the university database of record, to ensure up-to-date information system-wide.
Since implementation, the percentage of alumni email addresses on record has risen from 25 percent to 62 percent. More than 16 million email messages have been sent and 3.6 million opened, for an open rate of 22.5 percent. Total money raised online has increased more than 400 percent since 2005, with $5.2 million collected through 11,453 transactions in 2011.
Not only is this new communication system more efficient, says Shrum, it’s more effective.