This is the first in a series of Q+As with higher education advancement leaders on topics related to digital alumni engagement. In this installment, Matt Manfra, Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations at the George Washington University, shares his thoughts on engagement, analytics, technology, staffing, and more.
- Universities should shift to a digital-first model as a more efficient and effective way to reach constituents
- Expecting alumni to only be engaged through in-person events is not an effective strategy
- Advancement professionals should pilot digital engagement opportunities at a small scale to evaluate their effectiveness
- When creating or modifying an alumni relations team, digital engagement should be at the center of the organization
Jon Horowitz: Should universities be shifting toward a digital-first approach to advancement and alumni relations?
Matt Manfra: Universities should be shifting to a digital-first model. It’s an efficient way to reach constituents in a timely and creative fashion and allows us to compete more effectively with other organizations that have already adopted the digital-first strategy.
JH: Are there engagement activities/efforts still in practice that should be scaled back or eliminated?
MM: Organizations should evaluate the return on investment associated with in-person only events. These types of events can be effective, especially when there’s a strong tie back to the institution hosting the event, the attendees are receiving some kind of training or new information, and the events are fun and engaging. A productive way to increase ROI on in-person events is to live stream the activity if that’s possible (e.g. a faculty speaker) or capture video that can be shared at a later time.
JH: What types of more traditional engagement are expendable in the face of higher priority digital engagement initiatives?
MM: We are more time strapped than ever, so expecting our alumni to only be engaged through in-person events is not an effective strategy. Digital engagement allows our alumni the opportunity to be engaged at a time that’s convenient to them and allows alumni organizations to reach a larger, broader audience than what we’d get at a specific space at a specific time.
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?
MM: This is an opportunity for entrepreneurial professionals to pilot digital engagement opportunities at a small scale to evaluate their effectiveness. For organizations that are cash-strapped, I’d encourage them to forego some in-person events in order to cover the cost of a limited scope digital engagement endeavor. Many types of digital engagement are inexpensive compared to the costs associated with in-person events (think food and beverage costs) so budget shouldn’t be a significant hurdle.
JH: What metrics will help institutions make a case for a digital-first approach to advancement?
MM: Digital engagement ROI is generally higher than in-person engagement activities, so I’d start by measuring effectiveness through that critical metric. I’d also look at the type of reach you’d get from digital engagement compared to traditional engagement — your reach is likely higher, engaging more people.
JH: Why is it often a challenge for schools to embrace or implement beneficial new technology into their arsenal and strategy?
MM: Higher education tends to be traditional in our approach to many things and institutions can see new technology as risky. With leaner budgets, we have to be very careful about where we spend money and time, and there can be real nervousness about adopting one technology over another. What if we choose the wrong platform? What if we end up choosing the next Friendster over the next Facebook?
I remember when Facebook first became popular and there was a concern that older alumni would never embrace that technology, so my institution was slower to embrace a presence on Facebook. Obviously, we ended up being wrong about this assessment and had to switch gears to embrace that technology late in game, which made us have to play catch-up.
There is still some hesitation left over from the “online community” bubble that burst in the 2000s. Many institutions paid big money to build closed and exclusive alumni-only communities that never caught on and became virtual ghost towns.
JH: Why is it often difficult to transition away from outdated data or engagement systems?
MM: See above. I love the traditions of higher education — some of which are still steeped in medieval history (think the garb worn during commencement and other celebratory occasions). Our industry is built on these rich traditions to this day, so any time I think that we are moving too slowly, I remember it’s in our nature to do so and that’s OK!
JH: What changes can institutions make organizationally to better accommodate a strong digital approach to advancement and alumni relations?
MM: When creating or modifying an alumni team, put digital engagement at the center of your organization. Create a digital strategy plan. Talk about digital engagement often in order to recalibrate your team. Make digital be as natural a part of your organization as how you staff your front desk, how you manage your volunteers, and how you create events.
JH: What impact might an alumni-first approach to advancement have?
MM: I think we need to move to an approach where we are treating prospective students as future alumni and embracing a philosophy where we see these students as lifelong shareholders in our institutions. We need to prepare our students not only for their first job out of college, but their fifth job as well. The alumni office can help make sure this happens.
JH: How might advancement shops go about determining alumni needs and interests?
MM: We need to do a better job of asking! I’m astounded with the type of data we get when we survey our alumni. Many times we are spot on with their needs and other times we’re getting data that can significantly shift our strategies.
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?
MM: We need to continue to provide value to the value of our alumni’s degrees. We do this through impeccable service, access to students, faculty, and staff, and lifelong learning offerings that can’t be created from other organizations.
JH: What’s the next big trend in alumni relations and advancement?
MM: Micro-volunteerism is something we need to embrace. Many of our busy alumni aren’t interested in long-term, formal board commitments that require day-long commitments. Volunteers want to be able to help their alma mater from the comfort of their own home during times convenient to them. We need to change our business models to ensure we can do this. I’m not saying we will abandon all of our boards and board meetings, but that those models will eventually be the exception to the rule.
Additionally, alumni relations offices will be engaging alumni where they currently are, not where they were when they graduated. This means less reliance on closed programming by individual schools and units within the University (think alumni events hosted by the school of business for only business school graduates) and more programs that include all graduates.
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.