I’ve been in the higher-education space for the majority of my career, but I spent over five of those years in the private sector as a higher-ed consultant. Now that I’ve transitioned to the public sector as an alumni relations professional, people often ask me how it’s different working at a university than at a company.
The short answer is: I love it, but I’m often surprised by higher-ed advancement’s lack of quantitative goals. Our industry doesn’t seem to embrace data and metrics quite like the private sector, where quantitative goals bring pressure and can even put people’s jobs on the line.
Is that sense of pressure keeping the advancement industry away from embracing data—or is it something else? Are we afraid of transparent goals?
On the alumni relations side of the house, we have no excuse not to embrace metrics. Technology has made it easier than ever to track alumni engagement: we can see who’s coming to events, volunteering, interacting with us on social media, and much more.
We should be using those metrics to set meaningful quantitative goals. Goals are so important to the success of an alumni relations office. Not only can they create an “all-in” mentality, but they can also challenge your team intellectually and push them to get better every day.
Here’s a rundown of the metrics you should be tracking, how to set engagement goals, and how to use data to measure success.
What alumni engagement metrics should you be tracking?
Imagine your alumni base as a participation index. Each and every year you want to get more and more alumni involved to help you move the needle.
With that in mind, you should track metrics for any opportunity you give an alumnus/a to participate. These might include:
- Event registration
- Volunteer opportunities
- Social media participation
- Participation in your digital community
- Alumni career services recipients
Think outside the box when it comes to tracking engagement, as well. We run an alumni podcast and employ alumni bloggers at Longwood University, so we also make sure to track the affinity of alumni who have participated in those opportunities.
How do you set goals for alumni engagement?
At the end of the day, our goal in alumni relations is to build a bigger, stronger network of alumni. We do that by creating meaningful opportunities for our constituents—opportunities that move the participation index in a positive direction.
Work with your colleagues and talk to your counterparts at other institutions to understand your data and how you should be thinking about it. Be meaningful when it comes to goal setting, and think about how you can move the needle on anything you’re measuring.
Setting goals at Longwood hasn’t been easy. When we initiated this process two years ago, we had no historical data for the types of projects we were launching. But now, a year later, it’s been exciting to be able to compare events or initiatives year over year. We’re always setting aggressive goals and learning from the behaviors of our alumni base.
I’ll give you an example. Over the last few months we’ve been planning Longwood’s first-ever Mega Reunion Weekend, which invites everyone (not just specific class years) back to campus for a five-year milestone reunion. We had a sliver of historical data for reunion programming, so we used that to establish an attendance goal for the Mega Reunion.
Essentially, we took our historical reunion data and applied those participation rates to the Mega Reunion. Then, when appropriate, we adjusted for the demographics where we’ve seen more participation in the two years and for diminishing returns as class sizes grow through the decades.
The result? We’re aiming to have about 900 alumni back on campus this summer for the Mega Reunion.
How do you use data to measure success and achieve your goals?
Make metrics and goal dashboards a part of your daily work life. This will ensure you always know where you stand relative to your goals. Data allows you to be nimble and to pivot where you need pivot; you’ll be able to figure out what is and isn’t working as you try to move the needle with different events and opportunities; .
For instance, you might use data to compare the success of marketing pushes for an event year over year. You might also use it to benchmark against your registration goal for a single event. We did this recently when we were promoting an alumni event that would be a great fit for any age range. Thanks to the data, we noticed that we weren’t on track to hit our registration goal for young alumni—so we were able to switch our marketing approach in order to better appeal to that generation and create more balance at the event.
In short, don’t be scared of data and don’t be afraid of failing to hit your goals. You can gain just as much experience and knowledge in failing as you can in succeeding.
At the very least, setting goals allows your team to collaborate, talk about why you didn’t hit certain goals, and set more accurate goals for the next cycle. Data allows you to be learning and adapting—and that’s something alumni relations professionals should embrace.
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