There’s nothing “usual” about 2021, so those usual strategies aren’t going to cut it. From hosting virtual events to nurturing crucial conversations, here’s how university and college alumni associations can better engage and attract members in this COVID era.
By Kyle Crafton
Engage, connect, support. These three missions have long been the focus of university alumni associations, and in this moment — when everything else has changed — it’s clear that they still are. What is different, though, is how these associations are engaging their members, connecting their alumni and supporting their parent institutions.
The challenges universities experienced in 2020 (and continue to manage in 2021) have accelerated an evolution in alumni outreach and communications, fast-tracking digital and virtual efforts that might have otherwise remained nascent. With graduation nonexistent, in-person reunions kiboshed, and athletic seasons and a new academic year teetering — not to mention immense lifestyle shifts and social unrest — alumni associations have recognized the need to experiment, to adapt and to encourage. After examining the strategies savvy alumni associations are putting into motion, we’ve rounded up 13 takeaways associations can carry into their own efforts.
1. Create a hub for your virtual experiences. Overall internet usage surged 47 percent in the first quarter of 2020, OpenVault’s Broadband Insights Report. Needless to say, we’re all spending a lot more time on our devices — and that’s where alumni associations need to be directing their efforts. Many associations have created landing pages chockfull of their online offerings — Columbia University’s range from a virtual book club to “Columbia at Home” meetups, Northwestern offers wellness chats and kid-friendly resources.
2. Be a part of the conversation. Universities play an immensely important thought leadership role in our communities — and their alumni associations should as well. Many associations are going beyond simply sharing a statement, choosing instead to create online destinations for social justice resources, like Texas Exes’ robust roundup.
3. Spotlight alumni research and contributions. Your university and its network of alumni are likely doing big things to fight COVID-19. Share that information front and center with your members by creating a content home for pandemic-related research efforts, like the one University of Minnesota has compiled.
4. Spotlight alumni on the frontlines. Take a break from your usual alum features and focus instead on those whose work is impacting communities in this critical time. NYU — headquartered in what was the U.S. pandemic epicenter — is sharing photos and brief bios of those on the frontlines, while Georgia Tech is sharing inspirational stories from Yellow Jackets who’ve been donating PPE, designing novel equipment or creating online tools to help in the fight against the virus.
5. Focus on the value-add of membership. Does your association provide career guidance? Maybe it’s time to create a career-focused content hub to pull all of those resources together, like University of Arizona’s Career Lab. Need a way to streamline your benefits messaging? Consider a microsite like University of Virginia’s, which puts membership appeals and FAQs front and center.
6. Serve as a resource for recent grads. The 2020/1 graduates are entering the workforce at one of the bleakest economic times in American history. Associations like Binghampton are mining their member networks to offer career support to these grads care of tools like an online job fest and access to LinkedIn Learning.
7. Embrace the power of print. More time at home means more time to flip through magazines and sort through the mail. Digital efforts are indeed a key part of any marketing strategy in 2021, but if there were ever a time to invest in print collateral — whether that’s your alumni magazine or a direct mail piece — now might just be the time.
8. Gather and share COVID impact stories. During this pandemic, knowing that we’re in this together makes it easier to cope. Alumni associations can help foster this connection by sharing how members have been impacted — and how they’re dealing. Boston University’s School of Medicine is asking alumni to pen their reflections on their site, and the Alumni Association of St. Mary’s is also encouraging alum to share their stories — which they will then share with their members at large.
9. Expand your events — virtually. Cornell saw great success with its first-ever virtual reunion (it was viewed by some 10,500 Cornell households!), and University of Michigan is taking its popular Camp Michigania experience online this summer. Some universities are even offering ways for their alums to engage with athletics virtually: Oklahoma State moved its popular “Friday with the Family” events online, offering weekly chats with coaches, student athletes and college admin.
10. Encourage alumni to update their profiles and join social channels. By now you understand that you need to reach your members and prospects online — but how do you do so if you don’t know exactly where they are? Cleveland State University has encouraged members to complete a “technology preferences” survey to learn more — that way, it knows where to direct its efforts. It’s also been encouraging participation in social channels by incorporating fun photo scavenger hunts, school trivia and archival sports footage. Spelman College has been using its “True Blue” Instagram account to encourage members to attend weekly alum-led Zoom chats covering wellness topics such as parenting during the pandemic and helping teens cope with stress.
11. Leverage your member-based social platforms and mentoring programs. If your school has invested in a platform like Graduway or Handshake — like University of Arizona or Texas Christian University — now is the time to redouble your efforts. In a climate where we’re all thirsty for connection, and where many are in need of networking and career support, encourage members to take advantage of the platform — the more you use it, the more they will. Likewise, now is a prime time to spotlight your mentorship programs, like Howard University is doing — and if you don’t have one, consider it a to-do.
12. Emphasize the importance of giving back. Encouraging alumni to give back to their alma mater has always been important, but now, it’s critical. Many associations — like University of Missouri and Georgetown — are creating multi-dimensional fundraising and volunteer campaigns aimed at bettering life on campus and beyond. Anticipate that your members are wondering how they can get involved in COVID-19 relief efforts and provide a place for them to access that information.
13. Support local and alumni-owned businesses. One of the benefits of joining an alumni association is access to a sweeping network of committed, passionate people with a shared background. Combine that pride and that networking power to help your members during this difficult economic time by rounding up small businesses owned by alumni — like North Carolina State’s list — and encouraging members to show their support. Johns Hopkins University goes a step further, offering a searchable database that allows users to identify BIPOC-, LGBTQ+-, women- and veteran-owned business owned by alums. At Harvard Business School, the African American Alumni Association has launched a webinar series aimed at helping Black-owned businesses navigate the COVID-19 crisis.