The car is the first to arrive. It pulls up slowly beside a dorm and pauses as the engine goes quiet. A new student steps out and posts a selfie on Twitter. The caption reads, “So proud to be a #Brunonian! #Brown2020.”
Commencement is four years away, and this student hasn’t yet set foot in a classroom—but she already feels like Brown is where she belongs. One of Brown’s social media officers uses the official university account to reply to her tweet: “Welcome home.”
If we want to engage the alumni of tomorrow, social media interactions like these are how we have to start. According to Christine Tempesta, director of information systems and volunteer services at the MIT Alumni Association:
“We have to look at our alumni over a lifetime… before they become alumni, as students, and after, long after, and maybe their families too. We need to think about that long view of their engagement.”
The word “engagement” derives from a Germanic root meaning, “to pledge.” Its etymology is particularly apt when it comes to higher ed. Our engagement with our alumni—our pledge to them—begins the minute they set foot on campus as students, and it continues for the rest of their lives.
Engagement is a pledge, and that pledge is simple: You will always belong here. We will always be here for you. We promise our constituents a shared identity, a sense of belonging, and access to a network of people who share a commitment to one another. A diploma is both a certificate of achievement and a certificate of membership.
We’ve had a lot of practice upholding that pledge. We’ve hosted reunions and chapter events, enlisted volunteers, and published alumni magazines.
Now, we need to use social media to generate a lifetime of alumni engagement. Here’s why.
Social Media and Online Identities
Social media has caused a shift in how we interact with one another and express our identities. As a millennial myself, one thing strikes me most about the younger members of my generation. They communicate with one another in a large, and growing, number of ways: comments, Vines, snaps, likes, re-blogs, re-tweets, re-grams—just to to name a few.
I’m not going to claim that millennials today spend any more time on WhatsApp and Instagram than they did on AIM in the 2000s, at the mall in the 90s, or on the phone in the 80s. I don’t know that they’re “more social” than before, and, frankly, it isn’t important whether they are or aren’t.
What is important is that students and alumni are now socializing on platforms that are accessible to schools. Schools can’t listen in on phone calls or follow people to the mall—probably for the best—but they can share photos, snaps, and GIFs to become part of millennials’ daily routines.
But beyond the obvious point that social media is now where social interaction happens—shocker, I know—social media is now where identity formation happens, too.
Remember that haircut you got after freshman year when you were trying to look more mature? Those expensive leather shoes you bought to look more sophisticated? The band t-shirt you wore to impress your friends? Well, social media adds a whole other layer to your persona, which you can mold to your liking.
With a new profile picture, millennials can keep their favorite haircut forever. They can cultivate an air of sophistication by sharing quotes from 19th-century British poets. They can integrate Spotify with Facebook so that their friends know they’re into the latest jams—but go into private listening mode when they listen to their favorite songs from The Wiggles.
Oh, and what else? They can make sure everyone knows their alma mater(s):
Colleges and universities have played a vital role in shaping alumni identities for centuries. We share our alma maters with the world because we’re proud to belong to these communities. Remember the new student who was proud to be a #Brunonian? Social media is where she shares that pride. The social media officer who started that hashtag gave students and alumni a way to do that.
Regular engagement through social media helps schools remain an important part of their constituents’ identities. What’s more, schools that use social media to engage constituents can extend the same sense of community and belonging that drives alumni to give.
Welcome to the Club—We Get Benefits
Social media offers opportunities to connect with constituents over their love for their alma mater, but that’s only one aspect of engagement. Important as it is to remind them of that connection, it’s also important to go above and beyond to make that connection worthwhile. When you pledge lifelong community membership to your constituents, implicit in that pledge is a guarantee that their community will be there to support them.
A strong, supportive network is a huge asset, especially when it comes to generating recurring engagement. Are folks going to want to regularly visit a social media group full of idle chit chat? Probably not. But a group full of job opportunities? Definitely.
Schools have found a number of ways to give back to their alumni communities: networking opportunities, free tickets to athletic events, discounts on insurance, and so on. Social media makes it easier than ever to offer tokens of gratitude to those who make your community possible.
Students and alumni who receive help from their alma mater community are far more likely to remain engaged. On my company’s platform, Switchboard, we’ve found a dramatic, lasting increase in engagement among alumni who find what they need with the help of their alma mater’s community. Compared to other users, Switchboard users who receive help are three times more likely to comment on other users’ posts and offer help themselves, three times more likely to message other users with advice, and four times more likely to post again. These users turn around and return the favor to their fellow students and alumni over and over again. I can only imagine that the same is true elsewhere.
In the increasingly competitive economy of attention that social media has generated, providing your constituents with something of value helps you stand out from the noise. A spirit of generosity makes your network more valuable and plants the seeds of future giving. An alumna who gets hired by another alumna is not only better able to afford a gift to her alma mater, but also more likely to give back in thanks.
Simple, right? Schools that take care of their students and alumni get taken care of by their students and alumni.
A Lifetime of Engagement
It sounds like a project of monumental proportions, but generating a lifetime of engagement is just a matter of taking the love and generosity already present in your community and making it accessible online.
You already make your students feel welcome. You already give your new grads a hand. And you already ask established alumni to lend a hand in turn. Now you just have to integrate social into those daily routines.
There’s a reason we call our schools our alma maters. The phrase is Latin for “nourishing mother.” Students and alumni first used it to refer to their universities in early 18th-century Britain. In the 300 years since then, the character of that relationship hasn’t changed.
Social media offers us an opportunity to make it stronger.
Learn how Brown University is using social media to foster alumni engagement and giving:
Kieran Hanrahan is Director of Marketing and Communications for Switchboard. Switchboard drives student and alumni engagement by helping them connect with and help one another. He counts Reed College in Portland, OR and Waynflete School in Portland, ME as his alma maters.