Digital vs. In-Person Alumni Engagement: Making the Case for DigitalBy: Jon Horowitz
Part 1: The Choice
If you could only choose to have one of the following, would you prefer:
- An alumnus who attends one big alumni association event annually while otherwise never connecting with your institution, or
- An alumna who regularly follows your alumni association on its social media channels, frequently reacts and comments on posts throughout the year, but never attends an event
Choose A and you likely value in-person interaction, attendance, commitment, shared experiences, milestone or marquee events, celebrations, and community.
Choose B and you likely value alumni interaction, sustained connection, loyalty, shared experiences, the power of digital connectivity, and community.
At first glance, the difference between the two types of engagement appears stark. One is in-person, the other is virtual. One is a major celebration, the other is a sustained connection. One is traditional alumni engagement, the other is digital alumni engagement.
But then, looking at the potential justification for choosing one over the other, the distinction between the two types of engagement becomes blurred. Both empower interaction. Both require commitment. Both provide shared experiences. Both foster community.
So if they aren’t that different, why do advancement teams consistently prioritize in-person, event-driven alumni engagement over sustained digital connection?
Change of Heart
Let’s try the exercise again. Only this time, take off your staff hat and put on your alumni cap.
As an alum, if you could only choose one of the following, would you prefer to:
- Attend one big alumni association event annually while otherwise never connecting with your institution, or
- Regularly follow your alumni association on its social media channels, frequently react and comment on posts throughout the year, but never attend an event
If you chose the same response as you did as a staff member, did your reasoning vary? If you chose differently, why did you switch?
All or Nothin’
The reality is that alumni don’t face such a choice. Alumni who attend a single, major event are connecting on social media. And alumni connecting on social are attending big alumni events.
But while alumni may never consider this either/or dynamic, alumni relations leaders seem to be facing this very choice when it comes to budgets and resource allocation.
Despite the appeal of digital, in this context—and with the weight of history, familiarity, business-as-usual, and perception—traditional engagement often reigns while digital engagement continues to be vastly under-resourced.
Just look at alumni relations and advancement organization structures to see this disparity. Teams are stacked with roles focused largely on in-person interaction—dedicated to running major events, coordinating regional and affinity group programming, and managing volunteers. All the while, these same offices have skeleton crews for communications or a lone jill-of-all-trades handling a swath of digital needs ranging from communications to tech support.
Handle with Care
What is the justification for this? Why do alumni relations offices continue to prioritize traditional engagement methods? Should digital engagement efforts be elevated alongside traditional engagement? Or (dare we even ask) above them?
We’ll explore these questions and more in this series.
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Jon Horowitz’s 14 years of experience at the intersection of higher ed communications, technology, and engagement propelled him into his current role as an independent strategic consultant for higher education institutions. Prior to becoming a consultant, Jon drove digital engagement strategy at Princeton University and Rutgers University. Follow Jon on Twitter @hrwtz and check out horowitzstrategy.com for more on Jon and his work.