The Academy Awards are behind us, which means we can turn our attention away from all the cool parties that we AREN’T invited to and focus on the alumni events we’re obligated to plan. Advancement offices, after all, are known to throw a party every now and again… and again… and again. We’ve got reunion, homecoming, happy hours, regional club events, and alumni leadership conferences, just to name a few.
In fact, we’re almost as good at throwing parties for alumni as we are at meticulously documenting everyone who attended the event. We analyze event registration lists beforehand so we know which members of which giving level will be present. We know to alert gift officers when their people register for an event. We view attendance as a statement of interest in a particular area of the university. We do all of these things in hopes of engaging alumni, and we do it at great expense.
So what happens when we apply this same mentality to the social media space? Is creating a Facebook post on your alumni page really THAT different from throwing a party? You have a piece of content that you put out there, hoping it will entice alumni to engage with you. Whether it’s a link to an article, a live stream of a professor’s lecture, or a photo of students struggling through the snow, all of these posts are an “event” that you hope will fill seats. In the case of Facebook, the “seats” are likes, comments, shares, and clicks.
Step One: Tracking “Registrations”
You have thousands of community members across your various alumni social channels. Have you analyzed them like you would an event registration list? Do you know how many major gift prospects are following you on each network? Just like you would gather that data and create a strategy for how to engage those people at an event, your social media content should reflect the best way of engaging with some of these high capacity alumni.
Step Two: Analyzing “Attendance”
You know exactly who came to reunion last year. Can you say the same for your Facebook page? Do you know who “showed up” and connected with your institution through your content? Just like we know every event that John Doe, major gift prospect, has attended, we should be able to see every Facebook post John has engaged with—whether by liking, commenting, or sharing it. Giving officers are constantly looking for insight into what might inspire an alum’s philanthropic spirit, and Facebook could provide the bread crumb trail to a large check by telling your office exactly what an alum cares about.
Step Three: Gathering Intelligence at the “Event”
Advancement staff are trained to listen for wealth indicators when conversing with alumni at events. If an attendee says they recently visited a different school because their spouse was the namesake for a new library, that’s important information about their capacity to give. Likewise, if you start a LinkedIn group thread about a popular class on campus and Jane Smith (Class of ’85) comments that she gives credit to that class for her becoming a successful entrepreneur, that’s equally important insight. Insight is insight. It doesn’t matter if it comes while having a drink with someone or from a comment on your Facebook page. There is no difference… other than, right now, you’re probably tracking real-world events and ignoring the virtual sphere.
Why Invest in Social Media? It’s Cost Efficient.
At Cornell, we hold lots of programming in greater New York City because it has the highest concentration of Big Red grads (around 20,000). But if we consider the 52,000 alumni “living” in our LinkedIn alumni group, NYC is a very distant second in terms of concentration of alumni.
Does our office’s investment in LinkedIn parallel that of events in NYC? To say “not even close” would be a historic understatement. Events, especially in Manhattan, are NOT cheap. My jaw has hit the ground on more than one occasion at the price tags for these things. Still, we dedicate so much time and money to holding events because we know they work. We know that if you attend an event, you’re more likely to be donor.
However, we’re also learning that you’re more likely to make a gift if you interact with your alma mater via social media, specifically on Facebook and LinkedIn. If this is true, where is the proportional investment in social media cultivation? I hear all the time that advancement offices don’t have the budget for full-time social media personnel. Folks, it’s 2015! You can afford to cut down on events and stamps, but you CANNOT afford to ignore social media. Advancement needs to stop seeing social media as an added expense and see it for what it is: cost-efficient donor acquisition. Think of how much an event costs, then think about how much it costs to staff one person who can “throw a party” ten times a week without leaving his or her keyboard.
Let’s Get This (Social Media) Party Started.
Alumni events are a proud tradition for most schools, and to that, I say they should remain so. But we need to recognize that the advantages of these events can be duplicated in online communities. We have the content, we have the critical mass… we just need to get better at tracking the data and connecting the dots to advancement objectives at large. Just as you load a spreadsheet into PeopleSoft after every event, so should you with every Facebook post, LinkedIn thread, and even your Instagram and Twitter followers.
In a world (cue movie trailer) where events and travel are becoming increasingly expensive and many advancement budgets are tightening, it’s just not feasible to stick to the status quo. Conversely, “after parties” on Facebook can be both a blast and a bargain… and can happen many times a week. Rarely do people attend an event solely for the venue; they come for the content and the people. You’ve proven that the virtual world can offer that as effectively as the real world—now you just need to track and report it the same way.