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This post is written by Jon Horowitz, Digital Strategy Consultant at Horowitz Strategy.

This is the second in a series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement. In this installment, Jennifer Cunningham, Assistant Vice President, Alumni Relations at Lehigh University, shares her thoughts on engagement, analytics, technology, staffing, and more.

Key Takeaways

  • If resources aren’t available for digital engagement, cut back on less-than-strategic analog events. Then, spend the time that would have been spent planning those activities on tackling the digital wishlist
  • Weigh the resource cost of engagement per alumnus/a of producing an event against the cost of engagement per alumnus/a of posting on social media. Consider the investment alumni make for each, but also consider the aim of each engagement vehicle
  • Seemingly outdated technology systems may not be such a bad option if leveraged properly
  • We need to get better at figuring out how to translate the university’s priorities into an engagement strategy that energizes and activates alumni
  • The unique selling point of each of our schools is the alumni network

Jon Horowitz: Should universities be shifting toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations?

Jennifer Cunningham: Interesting way to ask the question. Digital is the first way most alumni engage with us – the point of sale if you will. So sometimes digital marketing tactics motivate other types of engagement, and sometimes digital engagement is the engagement itself.

I would say that if you’re having great success with traditional advancement and alumni relations approaches, and/or if your political environment is such that reducing resources for those programs would be problematic, then your immediate digital focus should be on improving your email and social media marketing, opt-out processes, landing pages, registration experience, receipting, etc. to make sure people are coming to those activities.

On the other hand, if your alumni aren’t responding to your traditional programs and you are in an environment that’s friendly to trying new things, take the opportunity to present data to your VPs that supports more investment into digital strategy.

JH: Are there engagement activities/efforts still in practice that should be scaled back or eliminated?

JC: Definitely. I think a lot about the concept of opportunity cost: what are you not doing because you’re doing something else. So if you “don’t have time” to focus on digital, cut back on some less-than-strategic analog events. Then, spend the 500 hours you would have spent planning those activities on tackling your digital wishlist.

JH: What types of more traditional engagement are expendable in the face of higher priority digital engagement initiatives?

JC: I’d have to review the data from all your readers and compare with their university or departmental goals to answer that one!

JH: There’s an irony to making a case for digital engagement. Making that case requires quantifiable information, yet that information comes from the very digital engagement systems and infrastructure being asked for. So how do digital engagement champions successfully pitch to leadership?

JC: I’ve heard a couple of tactics. One, figure out all the hours and costs associated with producing a 3-hour event, divided by the number of alumni who attend. You’ll get your cost of engagement per alum. Then, total the hours and costs associated with posting on Facebook, divided by the number of comments. Granted, commenting on Facebook isn’t as much of an investment for the alums as attending an event, but also consider what you’re trying to do.

JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy?

JC: I wouldn’t say I’ve had big challenges with staff embracing or implementing beneficial technology itself: what’s been challenging is syncing the data we get from those platforms back into our database of record. For example, we use Qualtrics to survey alumni about various things. The challenge isn’t learning Qualtrics or understanding the value of alumni feedback – it’s the business decision and then the process development of how/why/when we should upload survey responses back into our database.

JH: Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?

JC: The devil you know versus the devil you don’t. I think just about every seasoned advancement services leader could share a story about teammates like me begging for new systems that I swear will be 1,000,000 times better than the legacy systems. Then once the salesperson who promised us a shiny new world leaves the building and implementation planning begins, we learn that every technology has its quirks and limitations. Or, it needs a specialized developer to make it work as we want. So while outdated, there may be some things that your current tech has that work pretty well with your other outdated systems!

JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?

JC: Here at Lehigh, it’s becoming a standard skillset listed in all our alumni relations position descriptions. For example, if you manage 10 regional networks, part of your job is working with volunteers on their social media. It’s important to have focused social and digital engagement experts on the team, but it’s also critical that everyone on the team embrace and use these tools, too.

JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?

JC: I think in a lot of ways we are alumni-first, but sometimes not in a good way. We’re often guilty of letting a few volunteers drive how we as staff spend our time and university resources. If anything, we need to get better at figuring out how to translate the university’s priorities into an engagement strategy that energizes and activates alumni.

JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?

JC: I’m a big fan of all-alumni surveys, combined with looking at past data to see actual behavior.

JH: How can schools truly invest in alumni so that alumni genuinely want to invest in the schools? What can schools offer on this front?

JC: This is where segmentation can come in. Some people are hooked by nostalgia and tradition. Some people are turned on by specific solutions faculty and students are applying to the world’s challenges. Some people have more loyalty to their athletic teams or Greek organizations than they do to the school. So meet them where they are, then introduce them to the concept of investing in today’s university.

JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?

JC: Andrew Gossen and his team [from Cornell University] recently hosted a conference on AI – I didn’t get to go, sadly, but it sounds like there was a pretty enthusiastic crowd. But whether that will be the next, or the next, next, next I don’t know. What I’m thinking about right now is how to help our alumni better connect with each other. The unique selling point of each of our schools is the alumni network, and while the tech is out there to help them connect, I’m not sure we’ve totally cracked that nut. And it’s not just about tech – it’s about changing the behaviors of alumni so that when they need to recruit, land a job, hire a Realtor, get a dentist, find a mentor, etc. their natural instinct is to type “Lehigh University alumni” in the search.

Also, I worry about the political climate. We have leaders who claim that a college degree is a waste of money, scientific facts are fake news, and the pursuit of knowledge is elitist. If part of our job is to ensure the value of a diploma from our school stays high, we should care that the entire premise of a college degree is being so brazenly challenged.

Participate in important research

mStoner, Inc. and the Council for Advancement & Support of Education are conducting a survey of how schools, colleges and universities use various digital tools and techniques in alumni relations, communications, fundraising, and marketing. Contribute by filling out the survey by June 15 and supply your email address to receive a complimentary copy of the survey findings, and be entered to win mStoner’s Digital Storytelling on-demand course.

Jon Horowitz is a digital strategy consultant for higher education advancement and alumni relations. Follow Jon on Twitter @hrwtz and check out horowitzstrategy.com for more on Jon and his work.


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