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Young college alumni: From engagement to giving

The inner workings of successful virtual social networks in higher ed
University Business, February 2017
  • IMPACT IN AN INSTANT—During Alumni Weekend in September 2016, Boston University alums were encouraged to engage others virtually via a selfie at the college cafe and headquarters tent.
  • DONOR PRIDE—Boston U recently thanked its higher ed donors via a video with stats highlighting the impact of gifts on current students. Besides sharing the global coverage of donors, the video covered how 1,402 causes had been aided by donations.
  • Higher ed source: “Paying to Play: Social Media in Advancement in 2016” (7th annual survey of social media in advancement, conducted by CASE, Huron and mStoner).

To keep Stanford front and center in the minds and hearts of its graduates, the university’s alumni association—like other institutions—is investing time on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The big attraction: instant, interactive, daily engagement—especially with young alumni.

“Social media is the digital water cooler,” says Adam Miller, Stanford University Alumni Association’s director of digital and data services. “Many young alumni are at work when they engage. They need a few minutes to check in and have some fun with their Stanford people.”

Graduates become more social media savvy with every class, and it won’t be long before all alumni are literate in these platforms, says Dana Peterson, vice president of product development at Alumni Monitor, a division of Corporate Insight, which tracks the alumni online user experience.

“Social media offers an effective way to keep the party going and explode your reach,” he adds.

The Pew Research Center Social Media Update 2016 confirms that Facebook is still the giant on the social media block, attracting 68 percent of all U.S. adults and an impressive 79 percent of online Americans—more than double the number of visitors to other platforms.

Three-quarters of Facebook users visit daily. Alumni organizations are taking note that eight in 10 users are college-plus educated and nearly nine in 10 are 18- to 29-year-olds.

As private and public universities experience a decline in state and federal resources, “college presidents are under increasing pressure by their boards of trustees to cultivate donations from a larger base—and social media is perfect for that,” Peterson says.

In the past few years, he’s seen small and large schools take a programmatic approach to using social media, with behind-the-scenes planning, goal setting and sophisticated content development.

Social media platforms now offer richer functionality to target messages to specific alumni segments, build alumni communities, engage young alumni and up the ante from engagement to giving.

Building the network

Ten years ago, Texas A&M’s alumni organization considered using a proprietary social media platform, but decided to meet people where they were. Today, its Facebook group has 75,000 Facebook followers, and there are another 45,000 on Twitter, with participation growing 15 percent to 20 percent annually.

A Young Alumni Advisory Council helps attract recent graduates to the online communities. These 30 volunteers add a millennial perspective to activity on the young alumni-focused Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“The goals—humanizing our brand and driving people to our website—are the same for all alumni, but for young alumni the messaging is a little more trendy,” says Kathryn Greenwade, vice president of Texas A&M’s Association of Former Students.

For example, a post may call for “mannequin challenge” video shares (which, for those who don’t know, involve staying frozen as a song plays).

“It makes sense to have other young alumni help monitor and post messages, often at night when people their age are on social media,” she adds.

Interactive contact drives engagement while putting a face on the alumni association. Aggies are encouraged to post pictures of their travels and their children and offer advice to new students.

Feel-good, heartwarming posts evoke pride in the institution, bring dedicated followers into the community and encourage interaction between alumni, says Greenwade.

The engagement efforts paid off in November on the alumni organization’s “Pay It Back Day,” which had a goal of raising $100,000 via emails and social media posts.

Social media ambassadors (alumni volunteers who promote posts) messaged their friends, and as each donation rolled in, they posted a picture of a student thanking the donor. “The shared messages went viral, and we raised more than $240,000 from 1,800 donors,” Greenwade says.

What the social ROI is:

Alumni who donated to their school after being contacted through social media were almost twice as likely as other alumni to:

  • feel very close toward their alma mater
  • have donated more than $250

Source: “2015 Alumni Survey: Social Media Findings” (Alumni Monitor analysis of social media engagement and how it affected donations at 168 institutions)

Taking a customized approach

The Ohio State University launched its new online networking and mentoring community via Alumnifire. Alumni and students can network, volunteer and exchange career advice and industry knowledge.

It’s a direct response to alumni requests for more career advising, says Marilyn Rice, director of OSU’s alumni career management office.

The platform supports the alumni office’s early engagement strategy. “This powerful tool fosters regular online interaction between those looking for the best way to break into their chosen field and alumni who can help them,” says Josh Harraman, senior director of alumni and constituent engagement.

Alumni get the chance to “raise their hands in the moment,” he adds. Members can volunteer to provide career advice, offer job opportunities, conduct mock interviews and review résumés—and with the offers appearing on their profile. The alum or student who wants support just clicks on the offer.

About 2,300 alumni signed up in the first four months. Notices in the alumni newsletter and tweets from young alumni ambassadors promoted the program.

As people join, services are offered and matches are made, the number of connections are updated in real time on the front page—allowing the site to promote itself. “It’s a methodical and sustainable way to engage with young alums,” Harraman says.

Staying alive

Positive content helps Boston University grab its social media communities’ attention and make appeals for volunteers and donations stronger.

“We’ve tested how well our content resonates, and for young alumni the No. 1 appeal is video and great images,” says Kristy Kime, associate director of alumni online engagement. “Our alumni miss campus, so when we promote an event by folding in a message with video and pictures, it drives registration.”

Video is a good fundraising tool, Kime adds. “We post impact videos of students conducting research or projects made possible by alumni funding to put a human touch on fundraising and educate our alumni about why this is important.” Over three annual giving days, the effort raised a total of over $1 million.

Social Toasters, also known as social ambassadors, give a huge boost to calls for help and engagement. “We ask people who are active on social media to take our messages and tweets and create their own voice to share why they give to BU or volunteer.”

Photos and video also add an important human touch. During the university’s annual service month, alumni volunteer at a location of their choice. At each site, a dedicated “social media ninja” takes pictures to share online.

“This type of positivity and fun really resonates, so people respond when we ask them to volunteer or to give,” Kime says.

What the social ROI is:

  • 60% feel very connected to fellow alumni

(versus 34% of all alumni surveyed)

  • 64% strongly agree that their alma mater values their opinions

(versus 31% of all alumni)

  • 62% planned to increase their donation in the next five years

(versus 34% of all alumni)

  • 62% were currently donating

(versus only 22% of all alumni)

Source: “2015 Alumni Survey: Social Media Findings” (Alumni Monitor analysis of social media engagement and how it affected donations at 168 institutions)

Mining the data

Stanford University uses software to track online engagement and identify alumni interests, which in turn informs all alumni programming. The social media-tracking tool, from advancement software company EverTrue, helps determine the best way to keep alumni attention.

“The software allows us to match our followers and top commenters with our alumni database, so we can tell who is interacting with us,” Miller says.

A survey posted on social media asks questions about alumni affiliation and reactions to posts, plus allows administrators to observe who is most engaged via comments, likes and shares.

The data gathered has revealed, for instance, that young alumni tend to check social media during their work day and respond best to light, humorous news and requests to share memories about college experiences.

Asking them for money too early in the relationship risks that they’ll never pay attention again. “This interest data should help us fulfill our mission to reach, serve and engage all alumni and bring goodwill to other parts of the university, development included.”

Engaging and giving

Social media tools have evolved to allow institutions to target subsets of their audiences with promoted posts or ads—which require budget dollars. Andrew Gossen, Cornell University’s senior director of digital innovation, believes these costs offer a big ROI.

“Paid promotions allow you to designate a particular audience, define what you’re trying to accomplish and set a range of objectives: getting someone to like a page, install an app or click on a link. It’s remarkably efficient because you only pay when the people you are after do what you ask them to do.”

Social media makes it possible to engage with people who don’t respond to any other types of communications—and grow the amount they give. It can also increase numbers of first-time donors.

“We reach a global network at a reasonable price in real time, but it’s up to us to identify what we want to do with these people.

“We’re convinced that if we look at a person’s digital behavior and what we have in our engagement/fundraising toolkit, we can give them an opportunity that resonates with what they currently care about,” says Gossen.

The idea is to think about fundraising from that alumni perspective. Millennials like to give online. They want to feel connected to people who benefit from their giving and have a sense that their gift matters, Gossen adds.

At Cornell, young alumni give four times as much to crowdfunding than to other solicitation programs, and about one-quarter are first-time donors.

“Our long-term ROI depends on cultivating these people to be the lead donors of a capital campaign 30 years down the road,” he says. “If we don’t reach our young alumni now, we risk losing them to other nonprofits.”

Industry leaders on #HowNotToEngageYoungAlumni

Online Exclusive Content

What's the biggest misstep college and university administrators tend to make regarding contact with and engagement of young alumni?

“Younger alumni have different values, goals and relationships with their schools, compared to older alumni. Schools must focus on reaching them where they are, i.e. the Internet and mobile devices, rather than attempt to retrofit old school tactics—such as direct mail and calling campaigns—with trendy things like hashtags.”

—Tanzim Milkey, outreach manager, 360Alumni

“Alums consistently report that they're asked for something before they're offered something. Young grads, in particular, need more support in the real world.

“The good news is that off-campus support can be found within their own alumni network, and helping young grads (and old ones) navigate their networks is easy and pays huge dividends. Few of us like being asked for money, but almost all of us are willing to share our expertise with others.”

—Andrew Margie, cofounder and CEO, Alumnifire

“Millennials tend to support causes and projects they believe in, and they are often results-driven. They expect transparency—they want to see how their support has progressed a specific cause.

“University administrators should seek to involve young alumni and give them reasons to proudly share with their broader communities through social engagement.”

—Nancye Milam, advancement expert, Ellucian

“Institutions can stumble by thinking only in terms of a proactive, one-sided communication strategy—pushing information out to young alumni that administrators think is important.

“Another misstep institutions make is creating a compelling and independent online presence to differentiate themselves, but straying too far from immediately recognizable patterns in a world where social networking already has its norms.

“Working within those norms … allows alumni to [feel] like the institution is personalizing the social media experience for them specifically.”

—Mark Armstrong, chief strategy officer, Campus Management Corp

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