In the year 1849, gold was discovered in California’s Sacramento Valley, sparking the famous American Gold Rush. When all was said and done, $2 billion worth of the metal had been extracted from the Golden State’s soil.
In 2003, LinkedIn was founded. Twelve years later, the rush is still on—only this rush is like digging for gold without a pickaxe or shovel. I could spend all day throwing out Gold Rush metaphors, but let’s move on…
For advancement professionals, LinkedIn has created both unprecedented opportunity and agonizing confusion as to how to effectively tap into the platform’s potential. Not as vibrant as Facebook, not as concise as Twitter, LinkedIn frequently stymies even the most creative content producers. The most obvious use of LinkedIn is providing a professional networking space for alumni, but how do you get them to interact? The common approach is to create a LinkedIn group where students and alumni can mingle and discuss a wide range of industry-specific topics. Most institutions have done exactly that, but size, group oversight, and activity levels of these groups differ from school to school.
So what are the best practices for creating and managing an alumni LinkedIn group? I’m so glad you asked. There are a number of variables that come into play when attempting to maintain an active LinkedIn group. We’ll address some key concepts that illustrate the best way to approach LinkedIn groups so that your community can get the most out of your content and you can get the most out of your community.
Why Does LinkedIn Even Matter?
You might be sitting in your office chair shaking your head skeptically at those opening paragraphs, thinking, “Yes, yes, but why does it matter? Why should I care if I have a LinkedIn alumni group, let alone an ACTIVE alumni group on LinkedIn?” To that, I would say: Why does reunion matter? Why do young alumni happy hours matter? Why do faculty speaker events matter? Why do advancement shops spend time and money organizing regional clubs?
It matters because connectivity matters. It matters because your database is out of touch with the changing lives of your alumni, and they’re much more likely to update their LinkedIn profile than they are to send you an email alerting you about their new job. It matters because you have major donor capacity in your LinkedIn group that you don’t even know about, and those people are having/could have discussions that would open the door for a fundraiser to touch base.
For some schools, their largest club just might be their LinkedIn group. We need to stop looking at online communities as simply “nice to haves” and instead view them as a geographical area. Odds are, your total number of alumni on LinkedIn is larger than any single region in the world. Would you ignore your alumni in New York, Boston, or LA? Of course not—and you shouldn’t ignore your alumni on LinkedIn for the same reasons you strive to engage the people in those cities. The online world does not live in a vacuum from the offline world; engagement online frequently translates to relationships offline.
LinkedIn Group Governance
Groups are a great way for alumni of a common institution to connect, reconnect, and share professional insights. The problem is, anyone can make a group and put your school’s name on it. Most institutions have dozens of groups; some have hundreds. That’s a crazy amount of audience segmentation going on.
The good news is, most schools have been able to identify an “official” alumni group where their number of group members is far superior to any of the other groups. For example, in the case of Villanova University, they have three alumni groups, two of which claim to be the “official” group. This is confusing for alumni and keeps advancement shops from observing all the alumni coming through the funnel.
The key is ensuring you have staff involvement in your group. Alumni are great at creating initiatives and facilitating initial connections among people, but they typically lack the time to devote the necessary attention to making the group thrive. Looking back at Villanova, the “official group” that is alum owned has more members, but it is far less active when compared to the staff-run “official group.” In most cases, alumni are willing to add staff as group managers. This is a great way of saying, “Thank you Mr./Mrs. Alum for creating this group—might you make one of our staff members a group admin so that we can help you manage the group?” If you look at alumni groups across LinkedIn, you’ll notice a correlation between groups that are active and groups managed by advancement staff.
In most cases, you cannot stop alumni from creating niche groups on LinkedIn, but you CAN organize them. LinkedIn allows you to add up to 20 subgroups to a parent group. By reaching out to group owners, you can get their permission to add their group as a subgroup of the “official” group that’s staff managed. This option still allows them to have control of their group, while keeping all of your alumni in the same space. You also get to see everyone going into the subgroups, because a person must be a member of the parent group before they can access a subgroup.
Open vs. Private Groups
Something that is typically debated when creating or taking ownership of a group is whether to keep it open or make it private. Most schools choose to make their LinkedIn group private. That is absolutely the right approach. The only advantage of an open group is that you don’t have to use up staff time approving people, but I would argue that it eliminates the number one benefit of a staff member managing your LinkedIn group. While a private group does require moderation, it also offers an incredible development opportunity. During the process of confirming a person’s affiliation with your institution, you can also note their job title, industry, and company. These are three of many wealth indicators that can turn your community manager into a lead-generating machine. Combine that with the fact that these alums are ASKING to connect with their alma mater, and you’ve laid the foundation for a gift officer to break the ice.
Private groups also make alumni feel like they’re in a special club that the majority of the outside world cannot enter. Plus, you won’t have to use up time deleting spam from HR people and marketers posting things that clog up group discussions.
When LinkedIn launched University Pages, they did advancement professionals a huge favor. Not only can you search for a school’s alumni by company or industry, but you can also see a list of your school’s “notable alumni.” These people are typically high-capacity individuals that you can follow and/or connect with. At the very least, you should try to persuade them to join your LinkedIn group and author a discussion topic.
The amount of “notable alumni” LinkedIn provides varies depending on the size of the school, but either way, it’s a list every school should be mining. If you don’t feel comfortable connecting with notable alumni, most times you can “follow” them, so you can see what they’re sharing without being a first-degree connection.
The main takeaway here is that online communities require time and attention. Groups that lack activity usually suffer from institutional neglect. Many schools have large alumni groups, but very few have “very active” groups. This is not the way to thrive in 21st century institutional advancement. LinkedIn groups offer a tremendous opportunity to provide value to alumni, while also educating you as to which alumni have value to your development efforts.
This post might not be the magic pickaxe that will unearth millions in LinkedIn gold, but it could help you discover a few nuggets that start you down the path of being enshrined in the 49er hall of fame. Okay, THAT is the last Gold Rush reference…