Before taking the dive into alumni relations over a year ago, I worked for a direct marketing firm that helped college admissions offices. The work was cyclical in nature; every year you would get a fresh group of high school students and try out different tactics to persuade them to attend University of XYZ. The cadence of work required you to be innovative and nimble.
When I joined the alumni relations team at Longwood University, it became clear that we don’t have the luxury of a fresh, new audience every year (except for a small percentage of recent graduates). Because of this, it’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of repeating the same programming year over year.
I soon realized that if we want to keep our alumni energized, we need to be innovative like so many other alumni offices around the country. Now, we look at every event as an opportunity to break out of the cycle and think creatively about how to deliver value to our constituents.
Make It Bigger and Better
I’ve attended the same fundraising event in my hometown for five years now. The first year I went, the event was invigorating. It was the first time the organization had attempted a large-scale function for its constituents.
Today the event lives on, but every year it’s the exact same routine—same food, same music, and even the same people. Well…mostly the same people, but fewer. Just like with a movie you’ve seen a million times, people have started to tune out.
We don’t want to fall into that trap with our Family Day at Longwood.
This January, we were thrilled to welcome over 500 people to campus for our first-ever Family Day, and overall it was a huge success. But that feeling of elation quickly flipped to, “How do we make this bigger, better, and different next year?”
Every university should have its cornerstone events on and off campus, but make sure that you’re enhancing the look and feel of those events every year. It can be as simple as adding a band, a different theme, or capping off the evening with an unexpected signature moment.
Be a Hipster
Because cornerstone events such as our Family Day generally happen on campus, it’s a little easier to make alumni feel warm and fuzzy. The act of returning to campus is nostalgic in itself.
This becomes a little trickier with regional events.
When it comes to regional engagement, most universities like to hold happy hours or host get-togethers at sports games year after year. While there’s certainly a place for these types of events, they can get stale with annual repetition.
Your greatest assets when it comes to regional engagement are the cities and towns where your alumni live. Connect with your high-affinity alumni and find out what is unique and new in each city. There may be a new restaurant and brewery that could really set off your event. Or maybe there’s a new attraction in town like an escape room, Topgolf, or interesting classes.
Keep an ear to the ground and consider using Yelp or TripAdvisor along the way. You know you’ve hit a home run when your event becomes a destination for alumni.
Skip Convenience and Create Memories
Now, this isn’t to say you should stop holding the regional events you’ve traditionally held in the past. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. The trick is to introduce a new twist to the event.
For instance, we recently held a gathering for Longwood alumni at an MLB game. After the event, I stayed an extra game to visit with a friend and happened to find myself in the middle of a rival university’s alumni function. I found out that although this group was sitting in the same area as us, they were paying a lot more because alumni received food vouchers for the concession stand.
Food vouchers do not create memories; experiences create memories. We had been there and done that with the food voucher route in the past, and this year was an opportunity to mix things up.
Instead, we ended up reserving a cool venue outside of the baseball stadium so that our alumni could enjoy corn hole, food trucks, and live music before the game. It’s safe to say that the memories created and conversations held at the pregame party are going to stay with alumni— and that’s what will bring people back next year.
All of this to say: If you go the extra mile for your alumni, it will pay off. At Longwood, 42 percent of our event registrants gave last fiscal year. That metric is something we will most certainly look to build on this year through innovative and engaging programming.
Most of all, we need to listen to our alumni when they provide feedback on past events or share what’s new in their cities. Every event you put on is another chance to listen.
Are you using social media as part of your alumni event strategy? If not, learn how here.
Parks Smith is the director of alumni relations and a 2008 graduate of Longwood University. You can follow Parks on LinkedIn or on his Twitter @RVAparks.