What lessons have alumni groups learned during the pandemic and what strategies will they be taking with them into 2022 and beyond? In short, change can be a good thing.
By Colleen Ringer
With so many aspects of alumni engagement revolving around physical spaces — campuses, athletic stadiums, classrooms — there was an understandable fear among alumni marketers in the first year of the pandemic that the relationships they’d built with their core audience would suffer. But in fact, that wasn’t the case for many institutions. Ohio University, for example, saw its CASE Engagement Score go from 5.1% in 2019 to 12.4% in 2020. At Yale University’s Office of Career Strategy, the pandemic brought an increase in the number of alumni volunteering to mentor students and offer career advice.
And at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Edmund Odartey, executive director of alumni engagement, says he’s seen a similar pattern play out. “Our alumni have been very understanding and appreciative that we continue to keep in touch with them through these difficult times,” he says. “We anticipate that our engagement has grown statistically as a result of providing more virtual events.”
An Appreciation for In-Person Events
As vaccine availability became a reality in 2021, alumni marketers around the country felt a pent-up demand for in-person events. “We saw strong appetite among alumni and friends for gathering and cheering the Wildcats on at tailgates and games — and a willingness in our community to follow public heath recommendations,” says Liz Warren-Pederson, associate vice president of marketing and communications at the University of Arizona Alumni and Development Program. “At the same time, we continue to hear from people who are still exercising a lot of caution, especially with the omicron variant surging. While we continue to plan a mix of in-person and virtual events, we’re also prepared to pivot as needed to best serve our community.”
Disruptions Are Part of the Engagement Equation
Pivoting, evolving, reevaluating — all have become second nature to alumni marketers and will continue to be part of the equation in 2022 and beyond. As new variants and surges occur, plans continue to shift accordingly, with in-person events moving online or being postponed.
The upside: innovation. Much like Netflix upended the entertainment industry and Uber transformed transportation, disruption has led to renewed relevance. Alumni organizations have been forced to re-evaluate what their members care about and, ultimately, why they choose to invest their time and money in their alma maters. For many alumni associations, that’s meant demonstrating real value to members, such as serving as an ongoing career resource with coaching, mentorship and training services.
The Much-Needed Digital Revolution
There’s no denying the digital acceleration the past two years has brought — and in fact, a McKinsey and Company analysis found that the pandemic sped up America’s digital transformation by three years. With this shift happening on such a broad scale, it’s made it possible for alumni scattered across the globe to feel connected to their alma matter. At Embry-Riddle, which has 145,000 alums located throughout the world, virtual events keep them engaged despite their geography. At other associations, it’s allowed alumni to sample programming from groups outside of their area (think: a virtual wine tasting hosted by an alumni chapter in San Francisco drawing participants from Boston and Washington, D.C.).
And virtual alumni engagement events aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The organizations that had already been moving in that direction had a distinct advantage at the start of the pandemic. The Office of Engagement at the University of Virginia, which had already established virtual programming and the internal relationships needed to make it happen, hosted 600 virtual events in 2020, with about 80% of the participants being donors. Now, alumni groups can’t survive (let alone thrive) without a strong digital strategy.
Taking a Diversified Approach
A broader focus to inclusivity is something many marketers say they will be taking with them into the future — something many alumni groups were wrestling with pre-pandemic as demographics and alumni behaviors began shifting in the past decade.
“Alumni engagement isn’t one size fits all,” Warren-Pederson says. “We have a large, diverse community who shares a deep love of the University of Arizona, but the way they express and experience that love looks different on a person-to-person level.”