Nostalgia is not the (only) Future of Alumni Engagement Strategy

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I just celebrated my 10-year reunion at the University of Richmond a few months ago. I had an incredible time in no small part because we were allowed to stay in the dorms. It was amazing to wake up and walk (*stumble) to the dining hall for brunch the morning after. Now that was a real college-like feeling and the synapses collected in the corner of my brain labeled “UR” were happily firing away. I felt the nostalgia.

But then on Sunday, I got in my car and drove home to Charlottesville, back to my amazing wife, son and awesome job at the University of Virginia. A few Instagram photos, 3-5 tweets using an event hashtag, maybe a Facebook post about the Reunion and then normal life resumed. The reunion was over. It was time to move forward again and get busy with Monday.

An engagement strategy built entirely on nostalgia works particularly well for people with more time and money to spare. There’s a reason why reunion year attendance increases in tandem with the celebrated milestone years. I only live an hour from Richmond and it wasn’t particularly expensive, but I still had to negotiate a little bit with my wife in order to allocate resources. My reunion was a special experience, but just carving out the time to decide if I could attend, and then actually registering, required that I take a break from my work and other commitments.

Some of the people who offer time and treasure to their alma mater simply bleed school colors. I love UR, but I’m not sure I bleed Spider blue and red. Many of the amazing alumni and parents who do ooze school spirit would do anything to help – assuming the commitment of time and resources is manageable. These folks are your club leaders and regional admissions volunteers who are the backbone of any engagement strategy.

But then there are the thousands of constituents who aren’t paying attention to any of the nostalgia-based initiatives because it requires them to stop, look back, reminisce and sometimes even travel back to campus. This alum is busy trying not to think about all the billable hours his law firm demands of him during the week while coaching his kid’s youth soccer team on Saturdays. He wonders how to be a better dad, coach, professional and member of the local community.

We try so hard to get our alumni to take a break from real life in order to engage, and that’s just not going to cut it to grow participation. I believe nostalgia-based initiatives will cause attendance numbers to plateau over time no matter how many e-blasts and tweets are released into the internets. It’s not about more e-blasts, tweets, Facebook posts or LinkedIn Group best practices although they are important tools.

I believe the challenge is meeting alumni as they move forward in life. How can I convince the alum I described above to share an Instagram photo of his kid playing soccer on Saturday, recommend a website as a resource for other local lawyers on Monday and author a review of a new local restaurant that he and his wife visited on date night? I need him to do all of this underneath the flag of the University and convince others to do the same.

I feel strongly that this approach is the future, and at UVA we’re working to develop a web presence capable of handling a really large crowdsourced component. For us, this means building a website for our UVA Global Network that includes the UVaClubs program and all our regional and international programming. It also includes our initiatives that are purposed specifically to enhance school spirit like Student Send-offs and our Student Ambassadors program.

But soon we’ll have to convince all our alumni and parents around the world that there is great value for them in creating and sharing images, stories, Top 10 Lists or stuff like local advice on a new restaurant. The club leaders could use content to sell their events, but the web presence itself could be a hub for thought leadership and help establish local professional communities and social networks around the flag of the University of Virginia.

 

 

Ryan Catherwood is the Director of Engagement Strategy at the University of Virginia. Follow him on twitter @RyanCatherwood and connect with him on Linkedin.

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