Engaging Alumni Online
In 2001, administrators at Plymouth State University began pondering the notion of giving alumni access to their own web portal, just as undergraduates at the New Hampshire institution had since 2000. The idea was for the portal to provide alumni with a simple way to connect with the university and with each other.
Then, in 2003, a little thing called Facebook arrived on the college scene.
"We had gone through our entire design process, and then Facebook and MySpace explode," says Joe Long, director of alumni relations for Plymouth State. "It didn't change what we were building," says Long, referring to the popularity of social networking sites, "but it made us change our expectations for the product. It gave us a good chance to narrow who we wanted to be engaged with and how we would provide it for them. What is our competition out there? How has it changed?"
Good questions-and ones that are being asked by alumni affairs administrators everywhere. How can alumni offices stay on top of technology offerings without getting too trendy? How can administrators know what online tools next year's students (and therefore soon-to-be alumni) will want?
These questions are popping up fast with the rise of Web 2.0, the second burst of innovation and adoption in the online world. Knowing how to answer them will place administrators in greater positions of power.
"This is really the second big online wave for schools, the first being putting up online alumni directories," says Fred Waugh, director of marketing for Convio, the internet software and services company that serves institutions of higher education and nonprofits. It's time for IHEs "to revisit their strategy and decide what they need to be over the next five years," says Waugh.
Seamless web portals, targeted e-marketing, and partnerships with professional networking sites are just some of the options available to alumni relations offices looking to connect with graduates. Here's how a few institutions, as well as technology vendors knee-deep in product development, are utilizing today's online tools.
Facebook and MySpace, as well as other online networking communities such as LinkedIn, are the 800-pound gorillas in alumni relations offices these days. How to handle them-some people see them as competition, others as complementary sources of information-is a question still being answered.
"What we're seeing now as part of Web 2.0 is alumni out there creating their own communities," says Waugh. "Those things are really out of the control of the alumni relations group, and there's some fear and uncertainty about how to deal with them."
For Convio and its client schools, Facebook, MySpace, Classmates.com, and other sites are being treated as sources of opportunity, not obstacles. "Schools have to embrace those communities wherever they exist," notes Waugh. "How can we tap into the independent communities that are out there and get them to support us?"
Convio, for one, is working to introduce tools that will make it easier for schools to connect with social networking sites. Options under consideration include:
Giving institutions the ability to post banner ads on social networking sites.
Establishing relationships so that institutions can gather alumni data from networking sites.
Exploring sponsorship possibilities.
These types of strategies can help college and university leaders acknowledge and take advantage of popular online tools, as opposed to ignoring them out of fear or close-mindedness. If alumni want networking sites to be a part of their lives, why shouldn't alumni offices help make that happen?
One institution, the California Institute of Technology, is taking a particularly aggressive approach to online networking as a benefit for alumni. The Caltech Alumni Association works directly with the business networking site LinkedIn to boost connections and build awareness.
Andrew Shaindlin, executive director of the alumni association, thought to formalize a relationship between Caltech and LinkedIn, which has more than 7.5 million users, after seeing how much he used and trusted LinkedIn himself. Facebook and MySpace appeal to young alumni who have gone through college with e-mail, Instant Messenger, and social networking sites, but LinkedIn focuses more on professional networking (and therefore appeals to a broader audience, agewise).
Shaindlin says he launched the Caltech Alumni group in LinkedIn for two reasons. "We didn't want someone who was not officially a representative of the institution to create an alumni group that, even with good intentions, we might be responsible for," he says. "So in a way it was kind of preemptive to make sure that we had first dibs on the Caltech Alumni Association group within LinkedIn."
"But more than that," he adds, "I thought it was a good direction to move in anyway. The indicators that we saw were the growth of online networking in general, and the relevance of online business networking in particular, to our goals for the alumni organization."
The Caltech alumni group is one of many on LinkedIn overseen by institutions of higher education. Here's how it has worked for Caltech: The alumni association pushed the launch by featuring it in the quarterly alumni publication, Caltech News; noting it on the association home page; and mentioning it in a bimonthly e-mail newsletter to alumni. The group was free for the alumni association (although since that time, LinkedIn has begun offering more advanced group options that cost either $5,000 or $25,000 a year).
Staffers from Caltech were given the ability to verify a user's status as a Caltech alum before the user could join the LinkedIn group. "If LinkedIn wanted, they could let anyone join the group, but we don't want that," says Shaindlin. "This is a privilege you earn by attending Caltech."
Once the group got off the ground, alumni association leaders decided to step up to premium level, which costs $5,000 a year and provides greater back-end administrative functions, according to Wen-Wen Lam, marketing manager for LinkedIn. Rather than have someone approve each user, now the alumni association can provide a link to alumni; if individuals register through the link, they are automatically confirmed as group members.
To boost membership, LinkedIn and the alumni association partnered to send a joint marketing e-mail to LinkedIn members who were Caltech grads but had not joined the group. Within a week, the strategy swelled the ranks of the group from 630 members to 1,000 (more than 5 percent of the alumni association's addressable base). The open rate for the marketing e-mail was 49 percent, with an estimated conversion rate of 81 percent.
Today, the Caltech Alumni LinkedIn group has approximately 1,300 members out of 20,000 total institutional alumni. The alumni association has found Caltech graduates who were on LinkedIn but, for whatever reason, did not have an e-mail address registered with the association.
"The value to alumni is creating a way to bridge the gap between that private, internal, authentic alumni community and all of the external connections that many alumni have based on career, etc.," says Shaindlin. "If you stick with the old model-this is a private club and no one else is allowed to interact with my people-you miss the opportunity that you get with LinkedIn, where you get the best of both worlds."
Shaindlin hopes to organize alumni administrators from various colleges to work together with sites such as LinkedIn. Doing so, he notes, could help drive the content and format of networking sites while giving higher ed a strengthened presence.
Networking websites undoubtedly have their upsides, but they can also be volatile (some people feel the popularity of the sites echoes the first internet boom of the 1990s, when dot-coms became popular but did not show profits). A higher ed institution's site, on the other hand, can be a reliable and consistent source for alumni.
That tenet underlies a key strategy for Plymouth State, a school of 6,500 students that implemented its alumni web portal in February 2005. "You hear how quickly something goes from hot to not," says Joe Long, director of alumni relations. "So you really want to look at capturing those long-term avenues, not necessarily spending money keeping up with the hottest item. There's always going to be something newer and better coming up. We want to make sure that we are a constant for (alumni)."
Plymouth State's portal is an extension of the one used for the university's undergraduates, providing a seamless experience for students as they graduate and go out into the professional world. The portal, called myPlymouth, is built on the Luminis Platform and Banner administrative system from SunGard Higher Education. Since data from Banner is integrated into the portal, the university is able to keep track of an individual even as his or her status changes from student to alum.
A web portal for alumni can help streamline the crucial turning point between college and the working world.
The Plymouth State portal also changes with users' enrollment status; alumni see such things as "Alumni News" and have the ability to print out unofficial transcripts. Graduates receive lifetime e-mail accounts through the portal (and so far, 25,000 alumni have signed up).
Administrators hope to smooth the student-to-alumni transition even further by creating a portal for students in their senior year, to be rolled out in fall 2007. Users will be presented with such senior-specific content as tips about graduation, careers, and activities.
These strategies do not require deep pockets. Since Plymouth State already had an undergraduate portal in place, adding the alumni portal and the senior portal to myPlymouth only cost the university in-house personnel hours for development. Plymouth State's Alumni Relations office pushes use of the portal through an online magazine and an e-mail newsletter. After each mention, a 20 to 25 percent surge of activity on the portal is common, Long says.
The benefits of the portal are already clear. "It has increased our level of volunteers," notes Long. With the alumni portal in place, the number of online gifts has also increased fourfold since the university launched online giving in late 2004. The portal helps Plymouth State capture that crucial turning point between college and the working world. "This is our way of making sure that alumni think of themselves as alumni at 21," says Kenneth Kochien, director of management information systems and instructional technology. "They probably want to graduate and get on with their lives, and so this is our one chance beyond a post-graduation letter or e-mail to say, 'Think of yourselves as alumni. There are benefits for you to be engaged.' "
Alumni portals are not new. But rather than separate sites where alumni can go to update their listings in an online directory, alumni relations officers now seek more online services for their constituents and the ability to host it all within the institution's official .edu site, notes Karli Grant, a product manager at Datatel, which offers the ActiveAlumni solution.
While alumni may want to be engaged, they are also inundated by cell phone messages and e-mails from countless sources. Administrators should tread carefully in how, and how often, they use online tools to connect with graduates. Targeted e-mails-such as to members of the Class of 2000 who support athletic programs-help prevent e-mail inboxes from overflowing with news and donation requests.
RSS feeds, podcasts, and rich media presentations can also provide high-impact means of attracting attention in an overstimulated world. For example, the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles has used Sonic Foundry's Mediasite to offer online access to alumni-only events. The business school invited former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden to campus, then made his speech available to alumni via a rich media presentation on Mediasite.
RSS is another promising area. When alumni relations first went electronic, many schools put their class notes online. Now, says Waugh of Convio, many alumni want class notes supplied to them through webfeeds. "Ultimately," says Waugh, "they'll be able to go in and say 'I want you to push notes to me for this year, or this major for this year.'"
That's the type of user preference that administrators will want to follow into the future. Doing so may not be easy, but will pay back in strengthened alumni involvement and even giving levels. "You have to realize that it's very early days here," Waugh observes, "so everybody's trying to figure out how this works."