Use the Force (of Facebook Ads)

Disclaimer: I am not a Star Wars fanboy and I don’t speak Wookie, but with Star Wars Day just behind us (“May the Fourth Be With You”), I was inspired.

Be a Light Saber, Not a Death Star

A light saber in the hands of a Jedi is like a brush grasped by Da Vinci: a beautiful, precise instrument. The death star, on the other hand, destroys whole worlds with a single blast.

Valuing precision over the scorched-earth approach, Ithaca College has used Facebook ads and promoted posts to reach out to highly targeted audiences with solid results.

For example, the school dedicated $2,000 for Facebook ads, helping drive a 58% year-over-year increase in registrations for the college’s summer course offerings. Paired with traditional outreach, the ads helped generate up to $500,000 in additional revenue. The school also helped smash giving records (2,300+ gifts in 24 hours) on its first-ever giving day by reaching out directly to alumni on Facebook. (Go here for more information on the one-day campaign.)

How did they reach these targeted audiences? By uploading email addresses from their database into Facebook’s ad manager to create custom audiences. Facebook’s system matches those email addresses to its users, then presents your ads directly to this hyper-targeted group.

You already have the information you need to get your message directly onto the screens of alumni, parents, and prospective students. Use that data and soon a Facebook Jedi you will be.

Do… or Do Not. There is No Try.

So, um, I hate to call him out, but Yoda was wrong. Try absolutely exists when it comes to Facebook.

“The advantage of Facebook is real-time data. You can see what works and what doesn’t, and can tweak it in the middle of the campaign,” says Michael O’Neill, Ithaca’s social media strategist.

Let’s say it’s the end of your giving year and you’re looking to boost young alum participation. Why not grab 3-4 photos of beloved faculty members or campus landmarks, add a call to give, and test them out on Facebook? Within a day or two of building a campaign, you’ll start seeing which version outperforms the others, then you can put more money behind that ad and tweak the others to test what you’ve learned. Facebook, which allows you to spend as little as $5 on a promoted post or ad, gives you a ton of opportunity to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.

At the University of New Hampshire, members of the advancement social team—Jason Boucher and Tyler Wentworth—have tested out different ad versions to hone their approach. As they find ways to tug at alumni heartstrings (and purse strings), they’ve found that images of campus and smiling students have beaten the infographic that went with the annual giving campaign.

“We’re reaching a different demographic than we usually do [by traditional methods],” says Wentworth. “I’m 28 years old; I don’t check my mail more than twice a week…. Facebook ads are a better investment of your time and energy in reaching that demographic.”

Feel The Force (Of Your Alumni Body’s Collective Knowledge)

Here’s a new-school twist on an old-school problem: acquiring nominations for annual alumni association award programs. 

In recognition of their sesquicentennial, St Mark’s School of Southborough, MA is planning both a 150th celebration and a TEDx event. The school used Facebook ads to drive speaker nominations for the conference, acquiring 25 submissions for just over $300. Whether you’re recruiting volunteers for an alumni panel or reaching out for submissions for award nominees, you can reach a broader audience with your request by adding Facebook ads or key promoted posts to your strategy. 


St. Mark’s is also using an alumni volunteer who acts as a consultant to manage its ad program. If you feel like you need a little guidance venturing into the Facebook ad world, no doubt there’s someone passionate about the topic among your alumni. Tap into those resources!

Recruit More Rebel Fighters

With participation rates declining and more time constraints on the lives of our volunteers, it can sometimes feel like we’re fighting with Luke and Leia alongside the rebel faction, am I right?

To help drive engagement at Exeter, we’ve run a couple Facebook ad campaigns for our EverTrue Community app. Email invitations to download the app have been our most effective outreach method, but these ads have been a strong second.

For example, earlier this year, we spent just $30 on a four-week ad buy. (One learning: The effectiveness of the ads dipped after two weeks; either change up your messaging or shorten the length of your campaign.) The buy resulted in 113 downloads with nearly one-third of those new users giving us updated contact or job information. We spent only $0.12 per click on the ad—less than the cost of a stamp.

The Breakdown

Facebook ads let you target an audience you already know, take new ideas out for a test drive, tap into your alumni community for help, and deepen alumni engagement. What’s not to love?

Put that way, going without incorporating Facebook ads into your outreach strategy seems just as ludicrous as giving Jar Jar Binks a starring role in a prequel. Don’t make the same mistake George Lucas did.

Watch a 2-minute tutorial on how to boost a Facebook post here!


Mike Nagel is the Associate Director for Advancement Communications at Phillips Exeter Academy. He spends his time managing and creating stories for PEA’s social media, alumni website, email marketing campaigns, and other mostly-digital play spaces. Say hi on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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