How COVID-19 pushed alumni engagement into the future

Expert Insight

How COVID-19 pushed alumni engagement into the future

The alumni relations playbook hadn’t changed much in decades.

Up until earlier this year, engagement has meant tailgates, alumni happy hours, professional development workshops, and other in-person events. Digital programs were a rarity, an afterthought, a side-of-desk activity for busy event planners.

All of that got turned on its head in March of this year. COVID-19 forced an abrupt pivot and, as a result, pushed alumni engagement strategy years into the future.

Suddenly, in-person events became impossible. The traditional playbook was rendered obsolete. Digital engagement offerings, which alumni relations leaders had long procrastinated on developing, became life-or-death necessities for advancement.

To their endless credit, advancement leaders have met the moment with the most innovative and entrepreneurial of mindsets. They have swiftly transitioned to building compelling digital programming for alumni.

Now that we’ve had time to adjust to our new normal, it’s time to take stock of how the shift online has altered the very fabric of engagement programming—and how the transformation of alumni relations’ business model will better serve our constituents and our institutions in the future.

Shift #1: From time-intensive to quick and accessible

“We’re seeing people participate who haven’t engaged with us in years. One event had over 700 attendees. We’ll certainly continue taking advantage of our new digital capabilities long after the pandemic is over.”

Keith Hinkle, Senior Vice President for Advancement, Pepperdine University

Historically, donors and alumni needed to block an entire evening and drive across town, or even hop on a plane, to attend an event. These limitations barred constituents with strained time or resources from doing the very thing advancement offices aim for: meaningful experiences for all constituents to engage with the institution.

The new, digital normal has led to interactions with donors and alumni that are quicker and more accessible. A busy parent can tune in to a motivational speaker as they prepare dinner for their family. The 20-something alumna working irregular hours can watch the recording of last night’s personal branding seminar. In short, this new convenience gives us the opportunity to reach more people than ever before.

Shift #2: From high to low cost

In-person events carried the expectation of decorations, catering, paper programs—the list goes on and on. Across the last few months, we’ve discovered that those elements were nice-to-haves, not need-to-haves, for a meaningful program.

The expense associated with putting the right systems in place for effective digital events is dwarfed by the savings from the variable-cost items expected at in-person events. Our new ability to focus exclusively on the need-to-haves, such as impactful content and an effective format that heightens loyalty to the institution, strengthens our events and allows us to serve alumni at scale in a way that was not financially feasible before. 

Shift #3: From broad themes to niche programming

Not only are events more accessible and less expensive in our new digital world. Their scalability also allows us to make them more interesting to our constituents. The relatively low cost of producing virtual events grants us the ability to focus on more niche topics that may appeal more strongly to a smaller segment of alumni. We’re seeing institutions host multiple programs per week, with engagement skyrocketing as a result.

These more narrowly scoped events provide greater insight into what our constituents care about and can help us foster a deeper sense of community among likeminded individuals.

What might the future bring for alumni engagement?

Looking to the future, past when in-person events return to our calendars, the alumni engagement playbook will likely continue to evolve towards greater digital integration.

Livestreaming events for remote donors and alumni who cannot attend in person will no longer be an afterthought, but rather an equally important and expected compliment to in-person events. Smaller, more frequent events, rather than a few high-cost marquee programs, will draw in audiences that have historically been unwilling or unable to engage with the institution.

And when these constituents do engage, advancement offices that have spent time building up their digital tracking capabilities will reap the benefit of learning what their constituents personally care about. If Jane Doe always shows up for academics-related events or spends a long time watching an interview with a certain faculty member, we will be better positioned to capture and learn from that information. That will give us a better sense of who she is, what kinds of initiatives she may be interested in financially supporting, and how we can engage her in the future. 

Advancement offices are adding new tools to the engagement toolbox for the post-COVID-19 world. Nearly every advancement leader we spoke with for our research expressed a desire to transition back to hosting in-person events. Of course, events contain a valuable social component and foster institutional affinity.

Yet might our constituents be more likely to engage with us in-person—to block off an evening to drive across town or get on a plane to show up at an event—if we use our digital tools to meet them where they are first? Absolutely.

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