“Do You Got Any, Ahhh, Leads?”: Enticing Donors with Relevant, Authentic Content

The Dude abides. But he also struggles in The Big Lebowski to find the location of his missing briefcase, which just so happens to be full of $20,000…or so he thinks. The Dude’s hunt for his briefcase brings him face-to-face with many a perilous situation, none of which bring him any closer to finding the riches tucked away in his sought-after Samsonite.

When it comes to higher ed social media, we’re all looking for our proverbial briefcase—that elusive bundle of cash that can justify all our digital efforts. This is a topic I tackle routinely: everything from prospecting on social to proving ROI to your senior leaders.

However, after spending a few illness-filled days at a social media conference in the picturesque Chicago Medical District, I realize I have not talked enough about strategy and lead generation.

When you ask higher ed people what they want out of social, you’ll typically hear them say “engagement.” This word has become the rallying cry for community managers everywhere. There certainly are enough metrics to prove engagement: likes, comments, shares, followers, retweets, replies, reach, impressions, clicks, virality, engagement %, and so on. There are companies built solely on offering you this data. The question is, does it matter to you?

Don’t let your online communities become a one-man play with no audience.

When your goal is “engagement,” your ability to measure success is both easy and tremendously difficult. Reporting big aggregate numbers up the chain of command might have a really good sound to it: “We increased our page likes by 10% this month!” “We saw a 15% increase in retweets!” “Our number of post comments went up 20%!”

This is all good stuff and an indication of a healthy community, but are you measuring what REALLY matters?

Your division undoubtedly has an annual strategy that includes a list of goals for the fiscal year. How are the above social media insights helping your division accomplish its goals?

I think when you’re digging for data it’s easy to lose sight of the most important metric of all: people. We (advancement professionals) are in the “people business,” and social media analytics offer us an opportunity to connect more than what a metrics dashboard spits out.

By now, you should know you can’t fish with an empty hook. You have to define your goals clearly, even if it’s just one or two per year, and then you need a content strategy that’s going to “engage” the audience that will allow you to meet those goals.

“It’s almost the end of the tax year—time to support the annual fund” is NOT a content strategy. You have to EARN the right to post something like that (and even when you have earned it, it still probably won’t work).

Your content strategy should reflect what your audience cares about, not what your communications office cares about. You’ll get your chance to post calls to action once you have honored the room by leading with content that’s relevant to them.

Once you have hooked your audience, you have to learn more about them. Instead of solely looking at a post and recording the “engagement” as 500 likes, open the post and record the 500 PEOPLE that you engaged.

What’s their class year? What’s their involvement with the university? What’s their donor history? Are they a lapsed donor? Are they a tracked major gift prospect? Are they a prospect who just indicated what type of content they enjoy? Are they not tracked but should be? Are they a domestic or international alum?

Large, aggregate data can give you the illusion of being on top of the world.

I think it’s very hard to know the effectiveness of your social media strategy if you’re not looking at the actual individuals you’re engaging. You wouldn’t host a university-sponsored event and not record the names of attendees, would you? Of course not! That event attendance is stamped on the alums’ records for all of time. Alien archeologists will comb through our ruins and say, “You know, these people weren’t much for sustainability, but DAMN did they keep detailed records of their alumni!”

When our VPs ask, “Who was at the event this past weekend?,” we don’t reply, “500.” We submit a report breaking people down by class year, college, donor society, major gift prospect, etc. To simply report the number of engaged individuals on social media is self-defeating to our cause of increasing investments in social media and adding new donors to our pipeline.

Much like leading the largest supernatural invasion in history, access to social data puts you in a unique position of power.

If you manage your school’s social media communities, you are a gatekeeper. You are the Dana Barrett of your office, and, while I hope you are never turned into a dog or consumed by your sofa, you’re in a position to open the door to a flood of essential information about your constituency.

The question is, what is your Louis Tully? What is the key to unlocking this river of data? Good content. You need to experiment and determine which types of content will bring alumni flocking to your community until eventually you have blown the roof off a Manhattan high rise…okay, the Ghostbusters metaphor is officially over.

You can’t data mine an empty room. You can’t solicit someone you don’t know exists. Content brings the people. Then, it’s on you to deliver them. Don’t report just the likes; report the PEOPLE. Every Facebook post, tweet, LinkedIn post, YouTube video, and Instagram photo is its own “event.” You need to take the time to figure out who showed up and how their “attendance” is a step towards accomplishing your goals.

The Dude was knocked unconscious, attacked by a ferret in the bathtub, had his car stolen and burned, was drugged at a party, was hit in the forehead by a coffee mug, saw his best friend die, and was taken advantage of by a pretend millionaire. He endured all of these things because he had no strategy; he just knew he wanted the payday that came with the missing briefcase. He was so focused on the dollar signs that he didn’t realize, until after his life was turned upside down, there never was any money.

If only The Dude loved strategy like he does White Russians.

Our obsession for the end goal cannot be greater than our desire to be of value to our constituency. If you spend all your time on the money, you won’t find any. Spend time providing for your audience and understanding who they are, and you’ll find the leads that will make your team a major player in your division’s annual goals.

Now, who’s ready to roll?


For more on the utility of your organization’s social presence, read Justin Ware’s recent post about why your major gift program needs social media.


Keith is the typical story of a Hollywood drop-out who enters higher ed advancement. Keith manages the Cornell alumni social network communities, produces video for the web, and streams events live to the Cornell website. Before Cornell, Keith was Sr. Producer for Six Degrees Games in Los Angeles, CA, where he developed creative content strategies and served as community manager. Tweet him via @KeithHannon.

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