When people think about higher education website design, they often think about websites aimed at attracting prospective students. Think about the last time you visited a college or university website. The cover image on the homepage likely captured a couple of bright, optimistic teenagers wearing school-branded clothing and traipsing through the quad with beautiful class buildings in the background.
But there is another crucial audience to whom most higher education marketing teams hope to cater their site’s experience: alumni. Communicating and marketing to your school’s alumni is crucial to the institution’s success. A loyal and large base of alumni cannot only provide monetary value in the form of donations, but they also act as advocates, recruiters, and proof of the school’s educational prestige.
Creating a marketing strategy that engages and invigorates your institution’s alumni is no easy feat, and the struggle can be stressful. AlumniAccess’s VAESE 2016 survey found that 68% of alumni professionals feel that a lack of engagement is their number one concern.
While each institution is unique—and Boston Digital aims to develop higher education digital strategies depending on each school’s unique personas and missions—we want to share with you three strategies we find useful for increasing alumni engagement.
1. Segment Your Alumni Database
If you’ve ever strolled through a shopping mall, you’ve likely been accosted by an overbearing kiosk salesperson pushing sunglasses or eye-watering cologne. You can usually hear the salesperson even before you see them because they’re bellowing the same, boring pitch to every passerby. And unless the salesperson literally sprays you in the face, there’s no way you’re stopping to try their product.
The reason is obvious: Because they’re pushing a product using the same, generic pitch on every shopper who passes by.
That cringe-inducing reaction we all have to the kiosk pitch is exactly what we feel when we read emails trying to coax a donation and invite us to an alumni homecoming party. One-dimensional messaging strategies will not achieve the results you’re looking for.
To rise above the kiosk kerfuffle, we must segment our alumni databases into meaningful groupings that take into account demographics, geography, psychographics, and behavior. Not only will this enable you to create compelling messages, but it will also help you better define who should receive the message and who shouldn’t.
Some common segmentation ideas to get you started:
- New graduates
- Degree types
- Women leaders
- Minority leaders
- Geographical locations
- Generations (Millennials vs. Baby Boomers)
- Donors (by frequency, recency, amount, etc.)
- Event attendees (by frequency, event type, etc.)
If you’re just beginning with advanced segmentation, the best advice I can give you is this: Crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Don’t overwhelm yourself by doing too much too fast, which may hurt your results worse than if you hadn’t segmented at all.
2. Offer Continuing Education
One of the major complaints alumni have against donating to their alma mater is the idea that they’ve already paid all this money (and maybe, if they have loans, they’re still paying), so why should they keep giving money? I’m sure you’ve heard this familiar rebuff.
One way to counter this—and there are admittedly many other ways—is by offering continuing education exclusively for your alumni.
A recommendation we often give our clients when we develop content marketing strategies is to repurpose content whenever possible. In fact, we’ve written a blog that gives 29 examples of repurposing and reusing content. Higher education institutions can take advantage of that same idea by repurposing the educational content provided to current students.
Some schools allow alumni to audit classes as discounted rates, which is great. But you can go further by offering some of yours classes online—allowing alumni who received their degree in one field to study subjects in a different one.
You can also provide ongoing education to recent graduates through videos, webinars, blogs, etc. on topics around networking, resume writing, or how to ace an interview.
Some other ideas include using social media professionally, extra training programs, and even online book clubs.
Boston University is a great example of a school offering continuing education. The institution provides weekly and semi-weekly webinars—not just for new graduates. Topics target older alumni too, including “Creating a Successful Retirement,” “Career Transition Advice from a Recruiter,” and “Social Security Tips for Retirement Planning.”
3. Treat Alumni as Vital Stakeholders
Our last strategy idea for improving your alumni engagement is the most crucial: Treating your alumni as stakeholders. No one wants to feel like they’re significance is only equated to how much they’re willing to give financially. We can’t treat our alumni like that, or we risk more posts like these:
Alumni should feel and be vital stakeholders of the institution. They’re opinions, time, and resources must be integral to the school’s success, and we, as marketers, should make sure we validate and extol their contributions.
Here are some ways to engage alumni that have nothing to do with donations:
- Solicit opinions and feedback on new updates and changes to the school
- Ask for ideas on upcoming events or projects
- Reach out to influencers or thought leaders to contribute to your newsletter, blog, or publication
- Develop a new graduate mentoring program that allows alumni to give their time and advice to students
- Provide a variety of volunteer opportunities that appeal to all types of alumni (remember: segmentation!)
When you can pull your alumni back into your school as a stakeholder first, you’ll reinforce their sense of loyalty to the institution. If you nurture and provide pathways to strengthen this loyalty, you won’t have to ask for donations—your alumni will want to donate.
You’ll find many ways to appeal to and engage alumni, but I hope these three will add a little lubricant to get your wheels spinning with new ideas. But with all your future programming (and even with your current), it’s crucial that you segment your alumni audience for more personalized messaging, provide ongoing educational services that position your institution as a place for life-long learning, and communicate to your alumni that they are vital stakeholders of the institution.