Alumni engagement: a case study

As part of the Ambix team, I recently surveyed a group of Alumni Relations Managers at higher education establishments and qualification awarding bodies across the UK and beyond.  We received almost 60 comprehensive responses, and followed up with further questions to a quarter of the sample.  Our findings have reinforced the view that effective alumni engagement is the key to achieving an institution’s goals, and have revealed the potential to do this effectively online.

Key findings

Desire to engageAlumni contact

We asked “Does your organisation maintain contact with qualified learners (alumni)? The overarching response was that contact was maintained, with 12% of the respondents indicating that where there is no contact, there is a desire to initiate it. All respondents without exception indicated there was a benefit to maintaining contact, whether they had taken action or not. This reflects the generally accepted wisdom, but we were surprised that some organisations had yet to act.

Method of engagement

Engagement methodsThere was a good spread of communication methods. Predictably the overarching method of contact is through email and face to face events, with equally strong emphasis on social media following and groups, and online newsletters. Other methods identified were website, evite and volunteering opportunities.
The use of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for engagement was evenly spread, with each channel used by 75% of respondents. Although this shows a good spread of cross-platform communication, there is natural fragmentation of the community. A quarter of the sample used some form of intranet, whether created for them as a ‘member area’ or supplied as part of their fundraising software suite. In response to our follow-up questions, Alumni Relations Managers indicated that 10-15% of the alumni database engaged in the online community: this is in line with normal expectations. Benefits to alumni included contact with other past learners, career advancement, news of campus and community activities, and volunteer opportunities.

Goals of engagement

Engagement goalsGoals differed between institutions, with higher education showing a mix of strategy and altruism in play, while qualification awarding bodies were heavily course orientated, citing provision of Continuing Professional Development, circulation of best practice, registration for further qualifications, and course referrals as key targets. The main goal for higher education was identified as fundraising, but this was closely followed by helping alumni to find jobs.  Slightly less emphasis was placed on Continuing Professional Development and follow-on events. Other areas identified in comments included: Engagement in general, alumni stories for promotion, promotion of giving and volunteering, increasing interaction, and facilitating involvement to achieve the institution’s wider aims and objectives. Understanding the range of goals that alumni relations managers wish to fulfil gives us an insight into the potential of communities to deliver those targets.

Achieving business goals through alumni communities

“Communities matter because they help to achieve many business goals more efficiently than transactional approaches.” (The Community Roundtable, 2015). Both our survey results and wider research show that there are very clear business goals to be met through alumni relations, and the fact that there are purposes of engagement which serves both the institution and the alumnus makes this scenario ideal for community engagement, rather than one-way communication. In his critical article “Alumni news is not really alumni engagement“, Ryan Catherwood argues that while one-way dissemination of content is satisfying to the producer, and content is a good driver of interest, it is not in itself a good driver of engagement. There is more work to be done to build on interest before goals are delivered.
Alumni purposeA successful community relies on finding a shared purpose, and our results indicate that there is plenty of scope to define that shared purpose. Alumni will be motivated to engage through that strongest of levers, pure self-interest. If engaging in a community can generate career opportunities, CPD, and the human interest of contact with former friends, then you have enough clear purpose to bring people on board. On the institution’s side, the prospect of generating support (both financial and voluntary) and creating a ‘buzz’ around the history of the community and the current courses should be enough for alumni relations managers to devote resources to to development and growth of an alumni community.
Communities also require leadership. Alumni engagement should form a full part of institutional strategies, and the investment in the community needs buy-in at an executive level. With top level engagement comes authentic content, real drive to deliver against the shared purpose, and recognition of the behavioural shift from straight-line ROI and centralised communication, to delayed but magnified ROI and lower-maintenance networked structures.
Research such as that conducted by the US-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), independent experts Hanover Research, and others, comes back to the same findings each time: successful alumni engagement requires managers to Respect, Inform and Involve their target audience. The leap to involvement, the creation of a community, is the ultimate goal.

Conclusions

  • There is universal agreement that engaging alumni delivers benefit to the institution.
  • Where a private (intranet-based) community has formed and is mature, around 10-15% of the whole alumni cohort will engage.
  • Social solutions are increasingly important, as communication patterns move from ‘telling’ to ‘sharing’.
  • Although the benefits are known, more than 10% of those surveyed had not acted to develop formal engagement strategies.
  • There is a good balance between institutional goals and personal goals, which indicates potential for a strong community delivering a return on resources invested.

The potential of communities to achieve business goals is an important factor in developing a holistic strategy for the benefit of the whole institution, and both its past, its present, and its future learners.

Kate Baucherel