The Best Alumni Engagement Campaign You’re Likely Not Doing

Writing letters to alumni

We first put the “Alumni Letters” campaign together for the Big Ten Experience, a museum of sorts at the conference’s Illinois headquarters. As a part of the space, we wanted to showcase a selection that encompassed the 14 universities’ most prominent alumni and what it meant to them to be a part of the Big Ten. The responses – from the likes of Tom Brokaw to the president of SpaceX – blew us away.

The powerful memories the letters recalled showed how much of an impact the universities had on these alums’ lives. From meeting their spouses for the first time on campus, to the professors that forever changed their lives, the pure emotion that poured from those letters was profound.

Here’s how the initiative works:

  1. Identify the campaign audience: Your target audience will drive your alumni outreach. Is your target audience all undergraduate prospects and their parents? Perhaps it is a specific college or program within your university. Your target may even be athletic recruits. Step one is clearly defining your target audience and the key differentiating messages you want them to absorb through this campaign.
  2. Determine where the Alumni Letters campaign will live: It could be a university visitor center, the alumni center or a lobby of your athletics complex. The key is to find a space that will be accessible to everyone – from prospects and their parents to alumni returning at any point during the year. The area needs to be big enough to house a large, interactive screen with enough room to accommodate the people you’d take through the area. Trust us, they’ll linger.
  3. Strategically select your alumni targets based on the audience goal: From recent grads to Baby Boomers, you need to slice and dice your audience data by generation, career type, gender and ethnicity to accurately represent the makeup of your institution. Regardless of whether the target is for the entire prospect set, athletic recruits or one program; be mindful that you’re appealing to what we call “parent pride and kid cool.” Prospects reading it should be inspired to think “that’s pretty cool,” while parents will be telling their friends about the brand names and star power of the respondents.
  4. Consult your A/V integration and IT team: Here is where you rely on the experts for user experience, software programming and audio/visual integration. It’s never too early to bring in what should be some of your biggest advocates, but you need to do so before you purchase any equipment or finalize where the campaign will physically live. If you don’t have these resources in house, ask us and we’ll happily help you.
  5. Create an outreach program: Start with a manageable number that meet the above criteria. Hand pick your first, say 50, and reach out by email and phone. . Beware, though. You’ve conditioned your alums to think ANY correspondence is a request for money. In 2013, we surveyed alumni from more than 50 schools, and every single response except for one (ONE!) said when they see an e-mail with your .edu in the address on their screen, they immediately think, “They want my money.” Ask participants to write on their organizational letterhead as well and sign it in pen. It adds the intangible authenticity mark.
  6. Celebrate the campaign: Once it’s up and running in the space you’ve chosen, you can share these stories on other platforms (website, social media, etc.) and create an ongoing call for stories. You should also have a plan in place to let participants know the project is up and running and invite them to visit!

    Alumni Letters in action at the B1G Experience

    An example of Alumni Letters in action at the B1G Experience at the Big Ten Conference’s headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois.

How your marketing and admissions departments benefit:

  1. When prospects experience the personal first-hand accounts of your alumni’s most treasured collegiate memories, it will be a lot more meaningful coming directly from them. These will be stories your prospects and their parents remember. Show don’t tell.
  2. The content you collect here can be used in various stages of the prospect journey – from website integration to digital advertising.
  3. Watch and learn. Just observing prospects and their parents interfacing with Alumni Letters will offer some “ah-has.” Solicit feedback, tactfully, and it can help guide your outreach to fill in gaps.
    Working at Computers

How advancement executives benefit:

  1. It’s an authentic touchpoint with no strings attached. (DON’T YOU DARE…I know what you’re thinking — proceed to the 3 commandments).
  2. You can collaborate with marketing and admissions on potential targets.
  3. You can track giving of respondents. I can just about guarantee it will make a difference if you do the campaign right.

The Three Commandments

Repeat after me. Thou shall not…

  1. Ask Alumni Letters participants for money as part of this campaign.
  2. Ask Alumni Letters participants for money as part of this campaign.
  3. Ask Alumni Letters participants for money as part of this campaign.

We’ve had so much demand from university executives who have seen this in action, we created a turn-key service offering to do all of the above for you. If you’d like to learn about how the Alumni Letter campaign works, send me a note and I’d be happy to share best practices.

About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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