Julie Sina, Associate Vice Chancellor, Alumni Affairs, and Chief Financial Officer, UCLA Foundation, shares her thoughts on engagement, technology, analytics, staffing, and more. This is the seventh post in our series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement.
- Digital engagement has power when it enhances in-person programming or traditional media avenues and it allows us to reach alumni who were previously ‘too far’ from campus to see themselves as active participants
- We need to be sophisticated in our ability to recognize and track individual engagement across digital touchpoints
- New technologies can offer amazing solutions to help streamline and digitize some aspects of our work, but it’s a piece of the overall strategy and not a ‘set it and forget it’ answer
- The success of vendor tools is the result of leveraging an innovative product and dedicating staff who can drive the strategy and modifications along the way
- Employing a strong digital approach means that everyone on the team needs to be well informed and equipped to integrate digital solutions across the enterprise
- Investing in an alumni-centric approach is a long game—but one well worth it
Jon Horowitz: Should universities shift toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations?
Julie Sina: Part of what makes this work so interesting is the uniqueness of the alumni communities we serve. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to effective alumni engagement. As such, digital engagement is an important part of the alumni engagement lifecycle. It has power when it enhances in-person programming or traditional media avenues and it allows us to reach alumni who were previously ‘too far’ from campus to see themselves as active participants. At UCLA, we’re actively releasing new content through digital means and using readership data and feedback from our greater alumni community to fine-tune our strategy. We’ve been learning about the types of articles and content that resonates and are actively exploring ways to target new content to meet the evolving needs of our alumni.
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?
JS: We’re constantly examining our programming to ensure we’re remaining relevant to our alumni and providing new and interesting content and experiences. We know that for many alumni, meeting fellow Bruins face-to-face is an important part of remaining connected to UCLA. We continue to invest in in-person events on campus, across the country, and around the globe to connect Bruins no matter where they are. Every month we’re hosting social and athletic events, speaker series, volunteer activities, and career and networking events near and far, with a focus on connecting Bruins in a wider variety of ways to ensure we’re remaining relevant. We actively utilize event participation data and feedback to drive our strategy moving forward.
We’ve also dedicated resources to developing and expanding digital engagement through virtual events, our online career community (UCLA ONE), newsletters, and digital publications. Over the past three years we’ve had great success offering digital content through our YouTube channel. From career and diversity programs to faculty lectures and informational sessions, we’re actively leveraging the expertise of our greater community and using digital means to share this information. What’s great about leveraging these virtual tools is that not only are we impacting those who tune in live, but our YouTube channel serves as a means for alumni and friends to gain the content and resources they need 24/7.
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? What metrics will help institutions make a case for a digital-first approach to advancement?
JS: Views, impressions, subscribers, and followers can all be used to quantify overall reach. While these mile markers may help measure traction and progress, they do little to measure what it is that we’re trying to capture—individual engagement. Similar to the way we greet a guest at an event and track their attendance in our customer relationship management systems, we need to be as sophisticated in our ability to recognize and track individual engagement across digital touchpoints. As a profession, we need to invest in systems and tools that will allow us to learn more about the individual and the ways in which they are engaged through virtual and digital means and adopt consistent practices across the institution. We have an opportunity to learn from best-in-class companies who have been successful in implementing systems and protocols to do just this, and this is the perfect time to bring their insights into higher education and advancement operations.
JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy?
JS: A primary challenge is a fact of the nature of our work—engagement is multifaceted and our business is relationship-centric. New technologies can offer some amazing solutions to help us streamline and digitize some aspects of our work, but it’s a piece of the overall strategy and not a ‘set it and forget it’ answer. At UCLA, we’ve had success working with a number of vendors to integrate new technologies but the success of those tools is the result of leveraging an innovative product and dedicating staff who can drive the strategy and modifications along the way.
As we seek to find new technology solutions to support our work, we need to focus on tools that will integrate seamlessly with existing products, are easy for our alumni to access (i.e. sit under a single sign-on or leverage social sign-on), fit within our budgets or offer the opportunity for revenue-generation, and are products offered by trusted partners. This is likely what makes it time intensive and complex for institutions to embrace.
JH: Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?
JS: One of the most complicated elements of this is the interconnectedness of systems. Often times multiple products “talk” to one another so making a change to one system may have ripple effects throughout the organization. In other cases, one product needs to serve multiple needs across the institution, increasing the number of stakeholders who need to weigh in on changes and new solutions. Ultimately, making good decisions on new products or software takes time, especially when it impacts multiple units across the institution. Establishing a strong review/implementation team, developing a robust RFP process, and rigorous internal vendor vetting strategies can speed up this process and often generate a more successful result.
JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?
JS: Employing a strong digital approach means that everyone on the team needs to be well informed and equipped to integrate digital solutions across the enterprise. While hiring staff with digital expertise is important, this approach cannot stand alone in one team or with one individual, it must be embraced across the organization to be truly effective. At UCLA, we leverage a cross-functional model where all Alumni Affairs team members are trained and actively support social media outreach, virtual programming, membership, constituent engagement, and stewardship. As digital strategies evolve, I look forward to learning about the best practices in place at different institutions and finding ways to share our findings and experiences with one another.
JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?
JS: An amazing impact, but it’s not just an approach for ‘advancement,’ it needs to be campus-wide. We know that individuals who are engaged and invested in the institution are far more likely to be involved as donors and long-term advocates. Investing in an alumni-centric approach means focusing on adding value to the student experience, enhancing the transition from classroom to career, creating a robust sense of community, providing meaningful interactions and to building a relationship that instills a sense of gratitude, generosity and advocacy towards the institution. It’s a long game but one well worth it.
JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?
JS: Ask. Create a sense of open dialogue between constituents and the institution. Embrace transparency —share monthly reports, annual reports, key findings with your community through your website, publications, or a ‘stakeholders’ gathering. By empowering alumni to be part of the experience, not just a constituency to be ‘served,’ you’ll find out what they’re each looking for and how they can be involved to make it happen.
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?
JS: It ties into the above—it needs to be a campus-wide approach, not just led by one unit. Alumni need to feel that they are invited to be part of the institution and the future of their alumni association. Transparency and open dialogue go a long way to support this. Find unique and innovative ways to acknowledge alumni accomplishments and celebrate key milestones to express gratitude for the work led by alumni, both for the benefit of the institution and the world at large. Empower alumni to be advocates of the university and connectors—we will never be staffed in a way to ‘own’ all alumni engagement. Creating a community of advocates is key in growing and sustaining a vibrant community.
JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?
JS: Consumer insights and market intelligence. As we invest in our systems and as data becomes more sophisticated, we’ll be able to better target outreach to alumni by leveraging the information we have on their interests, email and website clicks,and previous event participation. This will result in a more customized experience for each individual alumnus and better intelligence for alumni leaders as they determine their engagement strategies and programmatic priorities moving forward. A future like this relies on investing now in data management and appropriate systems to allow for better tracking and reporting and strategic long-range planning.