Why An Advocate Community Will Help You Achieve Your Alumni Relations Goals

David Axler

Your alumni aren’t answering your emails.

Your alumni aren’t motivated to participate in events after your dial campaign.

Your alumni are looking to connect with each other—but they use private social networks to broker those relationships, not your institution.

Sound familiar?

Many Alumni Relations and Advancement leaders are struggling to harness the affinity that alumni once had towards their schools. The affection alumni felt after four of their most formative years just isn’t translating into engagement, participation or donations today.

This is because alumni need a place where they can continue to draw value from their affiliation to their schools—on their own time (not through email blasts or phone calls!)—and get recognized for their valued activities. They need their own alumni advocate community—a place where they can engage with other alumni and their former school, and be motivated to become vocal, passionate advocates for their alma mater again.

By focusing on an alumni experience that is ‘advocate first’, schools can then harness their alumni ambassadors to create immense value, both for the alumni community and for the school.

In this article, I’ll first explain why higher education institutions need a strategy for turning alumni into active advocates. Then, I’ll share how they can start building a community of alumni advocates that will help them achieve (and exceed) their goals.

Watch this video to learn more:

Why alumni relations needs to turn former students into vocal advocates

1. Engaged alumni increase overall alumni participation

Your alumni may have loved their four-year stay in college. But if the only time they hear from you is when they are being solicited for a donation or campaign, can you really expect that affinity to last?

Alumni are really seeking genuine connections with fellow classmates for personal and professional reasons.

However, when it comes to their formal relationship with their alum organization, it often comes in the form of impersonal emails flooding their already crowded inbox—which can erode the positive sentiment they hold for your school when they feel like just a number on a list.

Alumni are exponentially more likely to give back to the school in the forms of time, feedback or donations when they are engaged by a fellow alumni advocate.

I follow both of my higher ed institutions (Go Western Mustangs!, Go University of Toronto Blues!), so I know how hard they work on creating leading-edge research and useful content. Oddly enough, the only time I read their content is when it has been shared with me by someone in my personal network. When one of my friends or colleagues shares a piece of content, it carries social proof. The fact that they objectively endorse it means I’m instantly intrigued. When my schools share reports or posts in their social feeds, it feels like an ad. Of course they want me to read it—THEY WROTE IT!

When schools can engage their students and alumni to act as ambassadors to create, share and comment on relevant school content or campaigns, they stand to significantly extend their reach and brand affinity.

2. Alumni are the most powerful force you have for driving new student recruitment

Student and alumni advocates are higher ed institutions’ most important assets when it comes to student recruiting.

Think back to when you made your decision on where to go to school. Was it an ad on the subway that got you thinking about enrolling? Did you get an email campaign after writing your SAT’s, GMAT or LSAT’s to consider another? Would either of those really tip the scale?

Most likely, you knew and spoke to a current or former student for the real take on what life at your future school would be like. You wanted to get the truth from someone who had lived it—and a glossy ad in the school ranking magazine couldn’t give you that.

And these conversations are happening right out in the open! 67 percent of students indicate social media conversations as an influential factor in their ultimate enrolment decisions.

Alumni relations must find ways to actively uncover and tell alumni stories, and connect former students with potential ones if they hope to get an edge in recruitment.

3.  Alumni will be more likely to recruit from your institution

Every school touts their alumni network. “Come to our school and join an esteemed community of professionals who will look out for you and likely give you your first job, catapulting you to success and respect!”

There’s just one problem–disengaged alumni aren’t thinking of their former schools first when it comes to recruiting. In fact, they’re more likely to scour a ‘usual suspects’ list of popular schools for their industries.

Schools must maintain an ongoing relationship with their alumni if they want them to think of their alma maters as the place to go to find up-and-coming talent.

How to turn alumni into raving advocates

Your alumni advocates are out there. They’re already talking about your school, making informal connections with other alumni, and hiring grads from your institution. But to understand the true impact of their activities (and to increase your alumni’s willingness to do more) you need systems and processes in place to track and encourage acts of alumni advocacy.

One of the easiest ways to do this is through an advocate community. This is a place where your student and alumni advocates can:

  • Connect with each other on their own terms and seek out new connections
  • Find relevant content they need about their industry or school
  • Enjoy fun and engaging interactions with your alumni relations team
  • Be asked to complete valuable activities—which they are then recognized for

By mixing in helpful information, exclusive access, and fun activities, alumni managers can engage their alumni on an ongoing basis so that when it comes time to ask for participation or donation, that connection is strong and the ask is not out of the blue.

Here are six ways to get started on your alumni advocate community:

  • Create a special community to give value to your alumni. An advocate community enables alumni make connections with each other independent of your organization. Encourage them to engage one another both online and in person. This can be through discussions, Twitter chats, or live meetups.
  • Listen first. Provide a forum for alumni to let you know what they value and how they want to interact with the school. A private discussion forum allows alumni to feel they have personal access to you—and prevents them from sharing their thoughts on social networks for all to see. Take their feedback seriously and apply it to your program so they feel listened to.
  • Offer opportunities to share their stories. Once you’ve identified your most active and happy alumni advocates, give them a voice. Provide an avenue for alumni to share their stories with the public through blogs, social media, newsletter features, etc. Then, ask other alumni in your community to share the stories to increase distribution.
  • Sincerely thank your alumni. Extend your arms around your alumni who are great school brand ambassadors by giving them special thank yous and public kudos when they help you out (alumni love to build their social capital and be in the spotlight amongst their peers).
  • Show them your fun side. Another way to incentivize participation is with contests. Challenge alumni to help you hit a goal and offer a special prize to the top participants. You can also award points and create a leaderboard for the most active alumni. Gamification is a fantastic motivator!
  • Track alumni activity and tie it back to your goals. At the very least, have a spreadsheet with your alumni advocate information to keep tabs on what they’ve done for you, and tie the numbers back to your campaign success. (Advocate community software can automate these processes.)

Before you start planning your next dial-an-alumni campaign, think about the alumni experience first. Focus on providing real value and engagement—not just contact—if you really want to move the needle.

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