Engaging Alumni in Social Media

by Anya Woods on 25 August 2009

Posted in: Higher ed

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ExcitementMashable wrote a piece last week that is getting a lot of attention in the higher ed space. The writer focused on ten ways universities are engaging alumni in social media, a topic that we’ve discussed around here before. The post discussed both the successes and failures universities are experiencing in attempting to connect with alumni on social media.

It also discussed two separate tracks: those that are engaging with alums on social media for the purposes of fundraising, and those who are focused more on connecting alums with the school and with each other after graduation, maintaining a better and more up-to-date database of where alumni are and what they are doing.

We work with universities to help them get more out of their alumni networks, and so I have a couple thoughts on the article I’d like to share.

First, building your own social network is really hard, takes a lot of resources, and is rarely successful.

I don’t want to be a downer here, so let’s think about it this way: For every hugely successful social network that has been built in the last ten years, commercially speaking, there are probably at least 20 or more that failed. It’s really hard to build the right system, harder to keep it up-to-date and constantly evolving, and even harder to get people to use it. Even for companies that are dedicated to only that product. You shouldn’t feel like you HAVE to build your own network, there are other, better options to consider.

Universities should think about ways to leverage existing social networks to their benefit. For example, huge populations of current seniors and recent grads are on Facebook. Meet them on their turf, don’t make them come to you. You’ll spend a fraction of the resources you’d need to build an internal network, you won’t take on nearly the upkeep cost, and you’ll have a ready-built audience. That doesn’t mean your Facebook efforts can’t direct people back to you site, or provide content exclusively to your alums, you CAN do that, but doing it through and already-successful platform will bring you much greater success.

And you don’t have to just focus on Facebook either. The Mashable article notes universities that are using Flickr, Google Maps, LinkedIn, etc. The point here is to go where your audience is.

Second, make sure you have a specific goal in mind when you begin working on these social media projects.

I can’t stress this enough, especially when you’re devoting a lot of time and resources to building a network and creating an infrastructure. If your goal in connecting with alumni is raise money, then you need to focus on the ways you are going to encourage them to do that. So for example, the Mashable article calls out the success of a University of Texas Austin program that encourages alums to post pictures of themselves giving the hand signal of the school, and fill out a profile when they do.

That’s a creative plan, and one that has been fairly successful for them so far in terms of the number of people who have participated. But their goal going into it was to get people more connected with the school and see what alums are up to. It’s NOT meant to make money. Yes you’ll now have their contact information, but this social media effort is not going to have any direct relationship with donations. If your school is asking you to support and increase donations using social media, you are going to have to think differently about how you engage with the audience.

Take Emory for example, and their giving campaign efforts that they managed and updated through Facebook, Twitter and other media, or Colgate, where donors could make a donation and then share that information with their networks through Facebook. All these are examples of how schools are beginning (and I say beginning because in each of the examples I just gave, a lot more could have been done) to think about how social media can have a major impact on fundraising efforts.

The point is, read the Mashable article. But don’t get so excited about what one school or another is doing that you just try to apply it to yours. Each group of alumni is unique, each school has different goals, and each social media program should tie back to your institution’s communications and fundraising goals. There is so much untapped opportunity in connecting with alumni on social media, you just have to find the program that is best for you.

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