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A Strategic Approach to Alumni Engagement that Maximizes Impact

June 18, 2020

Meaningful relationships are the lifeblood of higher education. These relationships are universal, whether between a student and professor, coach and athlete, or donor and major gift officer. Fostering life-long relationships is especially important when it comes to development within institutions, since the majority of the fundraising dollars comes from only a minority of alumni. Typically, many of these relationships are fostered through face-to-face interactions that uncover deep insights about the prospect donor’s interests and goals. The question is, as face-to-face meetings are paused and the timeline for when they resume is uncertain, how can your institution still uncover the deep insights that are necessary for major gift cultivation? The answer: meaningful digital alumni engagement.

A recent study published by BWF shows that digital alumni engagement is being increasingly used for cultivating major gifts, and it has proven extremely effective in encouraging donor participation and providing a return on invested resources. At the same time, many development professionals believe that much more could be done to digitally engage with leadership, major and principal gift donors. Unfortunately, current digital alumni engagement platforms are not designed to provide Development Officers with actionable insights for cultivation of individual major gift prospects.

For your major donors, a hyper-personalized alumni engagement experience with relevant and meaningful content will garner the best insights. By uncovering what was most meaningful to each alum from their college experience, frontline fundraisers can effectively do discovery before a Zoom call—or as the world returns to the new normal, a face-to-face interaction. Was it a program or club that the alum was involved in? Was it a specific professor who had an impact on their professional and personal life? Was it a study abroad experience that taught them how to adjust to a new environment and advanced their career? Each alum has something that made their college experience particularly meaningful, and Development Officers must uncover those factors in order to achieve fundraising success.

In choosing your university’s digital alumni engagement approach, it is important to consider that an alumni engagement strategy has multiple Purposes. These can include providing alumni with university updates, career advice, and entertainment, as well as advancing the university’s fundraising. The relative weighting of each of these Purposes varies by institution and changes over time for a particular institution. In addition, the tactics employed and the metrics used to measure success will differ for each Purpose—for example, university updates are often mass-broadcasted and designed to reach the largest audience possible, while digital fundraisers are most effective through targeted asks to a specific group of alumni.

Furthermore, each Purpose has an ideal target audience of People. That is, there is a certain segment of your alumni base that needs to be reached in order to achieve the particular Purpose. Once the alumni segment(s) have been determined, the next consideration is which platform is optimized to reach that segment in a way that best achieves the Purpose.

The 3P/3S Framework™:

For instance, if the Purpose is major gift fundraising, then the next question is:

  • “Which alumni (People) can best help me achieve that Purpose?” 

And based on the answer to that question, one needs to ask:

  • “Which Platform is optimal for engaging with the alumni I have identified in the previous question?”

CueBack’s 3P/3S Framework™ is a useful tool for choosing the optimal platforms used by a multi-channel strategy.

Your alumni are unique and have different needs and values as they move through the professional and personal stages of their life. A 22-year-old single Business alum who is just embarking on her career is different from a 42-year-old VP of Engineering who has two children. That VP, in turn, is different from a 62-year-old retired empty-nester Liberal Arts alum. An effective alumni engagement application needs to understand which stage an alum is in their professional and personal life. If cultivating a lifelong relationship with an alum is the objective, then the alumni engagement application needs to continuously adapt to each alum as their life circumstances change in order to remain relevant.

This kind of adaptable personalization is already expected in a world where Netflix and YouTube have set a standard of increasingly accurate content suggestions. These companies ensure that as their users’ interests change, so does the content each person sees. An alumni engagement application that does not automatically adapt over time would be equivalent to Netflix suggesting movies to a 22-year-old based on the interests of their 12-year-old self. Your alumni change over time, and your alumni engagement approach should change with them.

To consistently provide relevant content to alumni, it is first important to understand that alumni value different types of approval at different points in their lives. A new grad places greater value on SOCIAL approval, which is why social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are so popular among younger people. Users enjoy the instant dopamine hit that these platforms are designed to provide, and they count friends, “Likes,” and followers as proxies for social "success."

At the same time, a mid-thirties alum who is a VP of a company will place greater value on SOCIETAL approval. That’s why professional platforms such as LinkedIn are especially popular among this age group—they can help that alum get a better-paid job with a fancier title at a more famous company. More than that, they allow the alum to show the world that they have achieved that level of success.

On the other hand, a retired CEO who is an empty-nester will place low value on platforms like LinkedIn because they have no need to network to find a better job. Nor do they need career advice or mentoring. Unlike younger alumni, most baby boomers would laugh at the notion that having “10,000 Followers” on Instagram has any real meaning.

Instead, your older alumni are interested in SELF approval. (If you’re interested in learning why, The Happiness Curve by Jonathan Rauch highlights this point in great detail). Older alumni want to know they have led a meaningful life and they enjoy helping others. To them, achieving self-actualization is a particularly important goal.

For major gift officers, the focus is on this last stage. Your older alumni have intangible needs. They’re not looking for jobs or career advice. But research shows they do enjoy reminiscing and giving back—not just financially, but also by sharing their knowledge and experiences to benefit others.

Knowing that your high-value prospects skew older also means you can use proven strategies to influence this group’s willingness to give. Neuroscience has proven that people often make spending decisions based on emotion and justify their decision with logic. In the context of higher education development, a gift is a spending decision by your alumni. Many of the features on CueBack's alumni engagement platform are therefore designed to strengthen an alum’s emotional connection to their alma mater.

One method we use to rebuild alumni’s emotional connection to their university is nostalgia. Advertising is a half-trillion-dollar industry whose sole purpose is to get people to part with their money. They are the experts, and they use nostalgia all the time. Nostalgia induces positive emotion, fosters an optimistic worldview, and is extremely valuable to older people. Most of all, it works.

CueBack’s alumni engagement platform is pre-loaded with thousands of cues and prompts in order to trigger memories of the people and experiences in an alum’s life. Why? Because older alumni enjoy reminiscing, and we want to remind them of how important their alma mater was to their life. For older people, each memory that they have of their time at university is valuable, and we help them recover, share, and preserve those memories.

As the world moves online, all channels of communication are more crucial than ever. Furthermore, this is the ideal time to determine which platform can maximize your purpose as you engage with alumni for development purposes. Facebook and Instagram work for generalized, one-size-fits-all messages, but what insights does that kind of alumni engagement provide for your gift officer? Everyone appreciates a personal touch, and that is exactly what CueBack provides, and much more.

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