Though happy hours have long been a tradition of the alumni relations world — and they do sometimes serve to ignite school spirit and spark connections — these and other “come one, come all” social gatherings are not the future of advancement.
Alumni are busy people. If they live in major cities like New York or San Francisco, they probably have their pick of three or four different events to attend on any given evening. At the same time, alumni offices are faced with tight budgets and a heightened expectation to show return on investment.
Here are some thoughts on building events that add value by fostering communities of engaged alumni (who are subsequently much more likely to give):
Get to know your alumni as people in the present day
Before you can develop high-value events, you need to know what your alumni actually value. What are their interests? What are their needs? Who do they want to meet? Often, this data is more accessible via social media profiles and through personal conversations than it is in your alumni database. Platforms such as EverTrue’s exist to help schools mine all of the public data available on the social web.
Your database may say that John Smith ’02 was a marketing major who played on the college lacrosse team. By digging deeper, you’ll learn that present-day John is a fledgling new business owner with an interest in international travel. The latter data is helpful in creating targeted, relevant event opportunities for John that add value to his life and turn him into an actively engaged alum.
Develop laser-focused events
“Helping alumni meet one another” is a nice-sounding goal, but it’s not particularly strategic or compelling. A more specific goal might be “helping new grads connect with alumni mentors in their career fields” or “educating budding entrepreneurs on best practices in starting a company” or “exposing technology enthusiasts to a 3D printing lab being built on campus that needs funding.”
Once you clearly articulate an event’s goals, marketing the event to alumni is a breeze! With a precise and well-communicated purpose, alumni won’t wonder whether an event will be relevant and worth their while (as they often do with general networking mixers and happy hours). They’ll know if the topic aligns with their interests, and they’ll decide accordingly whether to attend.
Identify your target audience
Not all events will appeal to all alumni — that’s a good thing! If you’re able to identify the demographics and characteristics of the alumni who will comprise the core audience of an event, you can develop stronger invitational messaging and build event content that actually matters to that group. Drill down as deep as possible: look at location, graduation years, interests, affinities, and occupations.
Even common segments of your population can probably be narrowed. For example, the term “young alumni” is often used to describe graduates of the last 10 years. A 22-year-old college grad on the job hunt is at a different life stage than a 31-year-old corporate VP and new father. Though these two people may live in the same city, chances are they’re looking for vastly different things from their alma mater.
The reality is that alumni happy hours will probably be around for a while; after all, they’re easy to organize and people seem to love gathering for a few beers in the name of their college. But as schools aim to build communities of highly engaged alumni (ultimately prospective donors), using data to develop more strategic events has the potential to unlock great value and win over new supporters.
Learn how to apply this constituent-centric approach to your social media efforts to similarly increase your ROI in this post from Cornell’s Keith Hannon.
Dan Klamm is a monthly contributor to the EverTrue blog. He serves as Director of Young Alumni Engagement for the NYC office of his alma mater, Syracuse University. He has six years of experience across higher education career services, alumni relations, and marketing. Feel free to connect with Dan on Twitter and LinkedIn.