Lisa Lewis, President and CEO, University of Minnesota Alumni Association, shares her thoughts on engagement, analytics, technology, staffing, and more. This is the fourth post in our series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement.
- Digital engagement will continue to play an increasing role in alumni relations as return on investment is evaluated.
- Making a case for new resources starts with a clear demonstration of how that investment will move the needle on university priorities. Data is important, but it should be supported by compelling stories of how new technology could impact the depth and breadth of alumni outreach.
- Technology expertise on staff is vital to building a strong digital engagement strategy.
- Personalized content that resonates with the audience and nurtures a sense of belonging will be expected, and great content delivered through multiple channels continues to be the gold standard.
Jon Horowitz: Should universities shift toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations?
Lisa Lewis: Digital engagement will continue to play an increasing role in alumni relations as we evaluate return on investment. Relevant content will remain the gold standard, regardless of how it’s delivered.
JH: Are there engagement activities/efforts still in practice that should be scaled back or eliminated? What types of more traditional engagement are expendable in the face of higher priority digital engagement initiatives?
LL: Alumni professionals should regularly evaluate engagement efforts with a clear focus on outcomes, priorities, and return on investment. At the UMAA, we are focused on engaging alumni in more career- related services based on survey feedback. We are working to empower our geographic networks toward programming that meets the needs of regional alumni. The digital strategy can support our networks’ events.
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? And what metrics will help institutions make a case for a digital-first approach to advancement?
LL: Leaders continually assess how to apply limited resources to expand engagement. Making a case for new resources starts with a clear demonstration of how that investment will move the needle on university priorities. Data is important, but it should be supported by compelling stories of how new technology could impact the depth and breadth of alumni outreach. How will new people will be connected? How does the new approach fundamentally change the level of involvement?
JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy?
LL: At a large, decentralized institution like the University of Minnesota, there are many stakeholders with multiple needs. It can be challenging to get everyone on the same page on what’s most important and then find the resources to implement it. With multiple needs, the technology solution may come from a variety of providers.
JH: Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?
LL: Resource limitations — both time and money — are the primary drivers for keeping current systems.
JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?
LL: Technology expertise on staff is vital to building a strong digital engagement strategy.
JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?
LL: An alumni-centric approach to engagement ensures that we are building mutual, authentic relationships that create a sense of belonging and community. We know from data that alumni engagement is highly correlated with alumni giving. When we engage alumni in ways that are meaningful to them, they will support each other, current students, and institutional goals.
JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?
LL: When we listen – through survey research, focus groups, and volunteers – we start to see patterns emerge. An anecdote illuminates a piece of data. An insight from a volunteer creates clarity from a focus group discussion. When we as staff stay open and use interactions with alumni to hear their stories and understand their interests, we add to our understanding of how we best serve and engage 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?
LL: Alumni relations is a long-term investment. It starts with clearly articulating the role of alumni as valued members of the university community, demonstrating their impact on institutional goals, and finding strategic partners who share an interest in the long-term welfare of the institution.
JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?
LL: There is an increasing focus on relevance and impact in the lives of alumni. Personalized content that resonates with the audience and nurtures a sense of belonging will be expected. Loyalty alone is no longer enough. Great content delivered through multiple channels continues to be the gold standard.
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.