James Allan, Director, Alumni and Stakeholder Relations, University of Melbourne, shares his thoughts on engagement, technology, analytics, staffing, and more. This is the ninth post in our series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement.
- As more alumni live far away from our campuses, we need to create programs and opportunities that are available to them where they live. Digital engagement that’s creative, interesting, and useful can help to fill that gap. And, as people get busier and time gets more precious, we’re finding that alumni like the opportunity to participate in the life of the university online rather than in person, even when the campus is just 20 minutes away
- A digital-first approach to engagement creates a huge pool of data that can be harvested to better understand our alumni and what they care about now
- Too many alumni programs are still too reliant on in-person engagement activities, and too few of us are putting that same level of time, energy, and creativity into digital engagement
- Universities and colleges, faced with challenging budgets and declining resources, don’t spend enough on IT, technology, and digital engagement. And it’s not just infrastructure: it’s also having the right people on staff who can help us take a truly digital-first approach
- Data needs to be everyone’s responsibility. Everyone in advancement should have KPIs associated with data and data quality
Jon Horowitz: Should universities shift toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations?
James Allan: As more and more of our alumni live far away from our campuses—often overseas, for Australian universities—we need to create programs and opportunities that are available to them where they live. And digital engagement that’s creative, interesting, and useful can help to fill that gap. But it’s not just our far-flung alumni who could find digital engagement valuable: as people get busier and time gets more precious, we’re finding that alumni like the opportunity to participate in the life of the university online rather than in person, whether it’s through webinars, podcasts, or online mentoring —even when the campus is just 20 minutes away.
At the same time, one of the unsung benefits of a digital-first approach to engagement is that it creates a huge pool of data that can be harvested to better understand our alumni and what they care about now. Attitudinal research is always helpful, but being able to learn from actual alumni behavior —what they click on, what they read, where they stop watching a video lecture—can help us to develop more compelling programming. The only issue is that we need to ensure that our teams have the time and the skills required to actually learn from this data, to turn the data into actionable insights.
Last but not least, as our alumni communities get larger and more diverse, digital engagement can provide one way to achieve scale. The University of Melbourne is fast approaching having 400,000 living alumni and so even some of our largest face-to-face events—which draw a few thousand alumni and require a huge amount of resources to produce—don’t have a massive impact on the community as a whole. Whereas our monthly e-news goes out to 180,000 alumni and is read by 50,000+ alumni each month, at a much lower cost.
None of this means that face-to-face alumni engagement should go away: when we can create and deliver a truly engaging in-person experience, we should. I just think that we need to shift away from the approach where creating an in-person experience should always be the default.
JH: Are there engagement activities/efforts still in practice that should be scaled back or eliminated?
JA: It’s a matter of emphasis. Too many alumni programs are still too reliant on face-to-face, in-person engagement activities, such as alumni events, and too few of us are putting that same level of time, energy, and creativity into digital engagement. So I’d suggest that we need to rebalance our approach. Imagine if we put as much time and energy—and money!—into digital engagement as we did events.
JH: What types of more traditional engagement are expendable in the face of higher priority digital engagement initiatives?
JA: The question of what traditional engagement activities might be expendable in the face of digital engagement will depend on your community and your strategy: there is no cookie-cutter answer here. At the University of Melbourne, we’re putting a lot of our efforts into programs that create meaningful experiences for alumni by putting them directly in touch with our students to enhance the student experience and help our students better navigate life after university. And we’re doing this through both face-to-face, in-person programs and through online, digital programs. Now this does mean that we have less time for traditional alumni-only events. But given that shift, we try to make the events that we do run more effective, by putting a premium on strong, engaging content and then using digital tools—such as webcasting via Facebook Live—to give those events a greater footprint. Maybe the point here is that digital and traditional engagement activities don’t have to be in opposition to each other: they can work together incredibly well.
JH: There’s an irony to making a case for digital engagement. Making that case often 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?
JA: I’ve often found it valuable to take a pilot-project approach to an issue like this. Many universities are looking at some kind of big, overarching “digital transformation” project—we’re considering one at the University of Melbourne at the moment—but those projects tend to be massive and have equally massive budgets. So I like to start by identifying a small project where you can implement a few changes and create a proof-of-concept. This can provide you with the information you need to make the greater case, and also help smoke out some of the implementation issues and barriers that might make the big project more complicated or difficult.
JH: What metrics will help institutions make a case for a digital-first approach to advancement?
JA: It would be wonderful if we could guarantee some kind of fixed ROI for an investment in digital-first advancement—if we invest $X, we’ll generate $3X additional revenue and alumni engagement—but I’m not sure that’s possible, without relying too much on all sorts of assumptions. The key for me is to scope out the scale of the opportunity and then see if that opportunity is worth the investment. At Melbourne, more and more of our students are coming from overseas and from interstate, and we know that the majority of those students don’t stay in Melbourne after they graduate. And so the trend will be for a larger and larger proportion of our alumni to live outside the range of our traditional, face-to-face programs, and this is a major driver for us. At the same time, our largest alumni age-group is the 30- to 39-year-olds, and market research tells us that those alumni tend to be the most busy and difficult to engage with traditional, face-to-face programming—so that is another driver for us. The big question, then, is once we’ve started to implement some new digital engagement programs, do they get traction with those opportunity audiences? We recently launched a new, digital-first mentoring program called “Ask Alumni” which is the first large-scale program at Melbourne that’s got a digital approach and that’s open to alumni mentors who live overseas. And in the first month, we’ve had over 1,000 alumni sign up to be mentors, and we’ve been thrilled to see that 30% of that group are based outside of Australia. So that’s how we know it’s working.
JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy?
JA: I think that, too often, it all comes down to resources. Universities and colleges, faced with challenging budgets and declining resources, just don’t spend enough on IT, technology, and digital engagement. And it’s not just infrastructure: it’s also having the right people on staff who can help us take a truly digital-first approach, which often requires a significant rethink of how we undertake all of our activities. The problem is that we think that just because many of our students are physically coming to our campuses that we don’t need to engage them digitally and so we don’t invest the resources to do so. At the same time, however, we can see our students engaging digitally with each constantly and we hear from them that our digital assets don’t always meet their expectations. And given the experiences that they’re having more and more sophisticated digital and blended experiences with other organizations all the time, I think that digital engagement has the potential to become a real point of differentiation among schools.
JH: Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?
JA: One of the big issues here is the way that systems and data sets become embedded in our business practices and operations: they are foundational to the work. We rely on them to support our work and so the prospect of changing them—particularly if we’re talking about radical change—requires a reconsideration of the way we work. Of course, you can move from an outdated engagement system to a brand new one and change nothing about the way you work: but that would seem to be a waste of a major opportunity. The real value is in changing the way you work. But if that’s the actual task—not just a technology change but a change to the way we work—the size of the transition task can often seem incredibly daunting.
JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?
JA: A strong approach to digital advancement and alumni relations both requires and generates all sorts of data. And so I think we need to invest more in our advancement services teams, to create new roles that are designed to generate actionable insights, and beyond that, to see our Advancement data as our most important asset. Data needs to be everyone’s responsibility: and maybe that means that everyone in advancement, from frontline fundraisers to alumni relations officers to communications and event team members, should have KPIs associated with data and data quality. I also think we need to move beyond thinking about “digital engagement” as something that lives specifically within an advancement services or a Communications portfolio: we all need to be thinking about how we could engage digitally in relation to all of our programs.
JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?
JA: Universities can be rather self-centered organizations: not selfish, but inwardly focused. And so even when we engage with our external audiences, we often think about the world through our own particular lens, and certainly through our own structures. So the idea of taking an alumni-first approach to advancement—where we actually put the wants and needs of alumni at the center of our work—can be truly transformative. It can help us better shape our programs, determine what kinds of activities to offer or discontinue, and should ultimately foster greater affinity. At the same time, we do need to think about the university and the needs of our students. So really it’s about striking a balance, and finding the opportunities that meet both alumni needs and university needs at the same time: and focusing on students can be the best way to do that, since students will, of course, one day become alumni!
JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?
JA: I’m in a big believer in a multipronged approach here. I believe that there’s great value in attitudinal research, particularly in the long term. We ran a major attitudinal survey of the Melbourne alumni community back in 2015 and we will do that again in 2019 to see how those attitudes might be changing. And we’ll run it again in 2023. Alongside those big overarching surveys, we’ve run various smaller attitudinal research programs exploring attitudes towards certain specific programs or activities, such as our alumni magazine, or donor programs, etc. But we all know that attitudinal research doesn’t necessarily reflect actual behavior, and so I think we need to invest in behavioral tracking as well. At its most basic level, this can be things like tracking event attendance and webinar sign-ups. But in a digital-first approach, there are many, many more behaviors that can be tracked online via cookies, and all of these can help us refine our programs and provide a much more valuable, relevant experience for our alumni.
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?
JA: I actually think the key here is to invest in alumni before they’re alumni—to do that while they’re students. How do we go above and beyond our students’ expectations while they’re studying to provide them with truly outstanding support? Because if we invest in them and support them when they need it the most—and that’s often during their student years and in those first years after graduation—they will remember that. After that, it’s about providing programs and services that offer real value. And while that will be different for different communities, we can figure out what that means for our own specific community through the attitudinal and behavioural research we’ve already talked about.
JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?
JA: This isn’t really a future trend, but I see more and more schools investing significantly in career resources and programs for their alumni. And not just for their recent graduates, but those who might be making or considering career changes a decade or two after graduation. This means that we as advancement professionals need to be working more actively with our colleagues in our various career centers, but also with colleagues in our Schools of Continuing Education and the like. Many universities are starting to explore micro-credentialing and various new models for lifelong learning, and we need to ensure that they are thinking about alumni as they do that.