When designing an alumni engagement survey, it’s difficult to avoid the temptation to ask your alumni everything under the sun — especially if it’s been awhile since your office last conducted an alumni survey. But even your most engaged alumni will probably not want to spend 15-20 minutes answering a lengthy list of questions.
Instead, prioritize your survey with the following topic areas, and keep these tips in mind:
1. LIMIT AND PRIORITIZE YOUR KEY RESEARCH OBJECTIVES
- Don’t ask the same question in different ways. You may want to get your alumni’s feedback on those 10 communications pieces you sent them. Are they aware of them? Have they read them? Did they enjoy the content? Would they prefer something else? Resist the urge to ask them five different questions and think about what you really want to know. And if you need to know about both their readership and satisfaction, design the question in a way that combines both, and save yourself valuable survey “real estate.”
- Resist the urge to ask too many highly-correlated questions. When the time comes to get your alumni’s satisfaction and engagement ratings, you probably want to know the likelihood that they would recommend their alma mater. Maybe you’re curious if they have children who are considering your institution, and maybe we can even ask how often they wear their alumni sweatshirt! You can ask all these questions, if they are a priority for you to know, but keep in mind that you’ll likely find less variation in their responses than you think you will — a highly satisfied alum is likely to rate most (or all) of these questions highly/positively. Decide which ones you really need to know now and which ones you will want to measure and track over time. Skip the rest.
- Don’t wait three more years to find out what you need to know now. A large survey of your entire alumni population is a great tool for your team and a preferred communications tool for your board and other stakeholders. But don’t wait another two to three years to get alumni feedback about what your team is working on now. Consider dividing your alumni base into a handful of randomized groups and send them short surveys on specific topics. Consider other ways to get feedback immediately after alumni events and other points of contact.
2. DEFINE “ALUMNI ENGAGEMENT” AND STICK TO IT
For every alumni survey out there, there are just as many definitions of “alumni engagement.” Determining exactly what alumni engagement means to your institution doesn’t need to hold you up from understanding your constituents! Identify and define the key metrics that you want to measure now and can easily replicate in future surveys. It’s perfectly fine to adjust and refine your definitions to match your current and future alumni relations goals.
3. GET SOME QUALITATIVE FEEDBACK FROM YOUR ALUMNI FIRST
You and your team communicate with your alumni all day. You track all of these interactions carefully. You know what emails they’ll open, and which networking events they prefer. So, you have enough information to write that survey, right?
You might. But don’t rule out talking to some of your alumni first and test whether your assumptions are valid. Oftentimes, alumni teams get feedback and identify alumni perceptions and preferences they had never heard before. Qualitative research can go a long way in testing your assumptions and can well provide all sorts of insight you hadn’t even considered.
Surveys are often the priority because qualitative research can add both time and cost to an alumni research project. However, there are several low-effort, low-cost ways to get some very high-impact information before designing that alumni study. (Join the Constituent Research’s email list to receive Higher Ed Qualitative Research Best Practices.)
4. CLOSE THE FEEDBACK LOOP
Allow alumni to provide feedback at the end of your survey. Consider adding a checkbox asking whether they’d like a personal response from your team. While this should be carefully considered based on your staff size relative to your alumni population, the extra effort can go a long way in strengthening alumni’s current connection with the institution, and re-engaging the previously disengaged.
5. LEVERAGE YOUR SURVEY RESULTS WITH THE INFORMATION YOU ALREADY HAVE
Use alumni data you already have and append them to your survey results in order to segment your alumni population by geographic region, donation history, graduation year, school/program, and other subgroups. If you can’t do this easily in-house, find an analyst or IT person who can. Most importantly, don’t ask your alumni for information you already have.
Watch the Advancement Live episode featuring Constituent Research to learn ways your team can leverage survey and qualitative information with the metrics and data you’re already collecting.
Mike Hanus is the Founder of Constituent Research LLC, a boutique research and consulting firm for the higher education sector. For more information, visit www.constituentresearch.com.