Why Alumni Engagement Drops

6 Reasons Alumni Participation Drops

I have a college client whose alumni participation has dropped almost 70% in the last 7 years.
 
Cringe-inducing. Hope that doesn’t sound familiar.
 
You bet we’re turning it around. But I want to share some of the reasons they were on such nose-dive. Perhaps you can identify and solve similar issues at your school.
 

1. Poor systems in place

They had a crappy database. They decided to move to a new donor relations system.
 
The salespeople at Acme CRM did a fantastic job. Too good of a job. My client purchased something that didn’t do everything they needed. For a steep price.

But colleges and universities have plenty of money to throw around, right? Riiiiiiight.

 

2. Zero segments

When was the last time you bought something one size fits all? That only works with rain ponchos and socks.
 
Your alumni are not one size fits all. You know that a one-to-one communication is more effective. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade.
 
Want to know what using a one size fits all approach to alumni engagement equals? Declining alumni participation.
 
Here’s the wrinkle: targeting segmented audiences is impossible without data that is… well, segmented.
 
How did I know my client had data problems?
  1. They couldn’t say when the last data cleanse happened
  2. High email bounce rate, low open rate are also side effects of their unhealthy list
  3. They said “uhhhmm…” when I asked what their segments are
The only way to keep a list profitable is to keep it clean and segmented. This means the people who want to hear from you actually do.
 
I wish my client and I had connected before biting off on a CRM. Sadly, the CRM’s sales dude closed them on a cumbersome, expensive system. He was good. Too good. It doesn’t meet their needs, and the interface looks like it was designed in 1994.
 
Not Yay.
 
My advice? Smaller schools should look at Salesforce for Advancement. You can’t beat a free subscription if you need less than 10 users. That’s only a fit for small departments. Even paying for SF for advancement is super cost-effective. Especially when you look at the fully loaded costs.
 
You’re still going to need someone to do your migration. But don’t worry. There are plenty of SF experts out there to handle that. Check out our old pal, Tal, with Cloud For Good for one option.

3. No content strategy

My new client was throwing everyone the same stuff. That means they were pissing people off, pure and simple.
 
Look at the backlash from this (not my client) example you can see on Twitter! {Insert pics – some already in the media library. If not, search twitter for “stop asking money alumni” and take screenshots}
 
Grads of today give for very different reasons than the older folks. A sense of obligation isn’t going to cut it with your graduates of the last decade. They want to give to their favorite professor. Or to send a group of anthropology students on the same trip that they went on.
 
You must lay out a reasonable content calendar. Figure out what you’re going to say before asking for support repeatedly.
 
In my opinion, this is the main issue in higher education fundraising today. Asking for support without making a compelling case for why you need it.
 
How do I convince them, you ask?
 
It’s just marketing. And marketing is just telling a compelling story that creates demand or prompts action.
 
Tell your stories, dang it! Develop a content strategy that engages your different audiences.
 
And don’t expect that you can include this in a single letter. That’s where the content strategy comes in. You need to nurture their support over time.
 
Keep doing what you’ve been doing with your 60+ donors. But you’re going to need to up your game to reach the millennials.
 
Show them what your scholarship recipients are doing on campus or post-graduation. If you are a faith-based school, then talk about missions. Talk about the impact your alumni are making. Say something, say anything besides “we’d like to count on you to support the next generation of blah, blah, blah.” Because that message is not resonating with the younger crowd.
 
And, I hate to be a broken record here, but without clean data… you’re hosed for pulling off any of that.
 

4. Just plain boring

I took a look at my client’s emails and came down with an instant case of narcolepsy.
 
They sounded like my parents asking for money only using jargon. My brain itched trying to get through them.
 
Did you know…
    • 73% of Millennials will share content if it makes them laugh.
    • 64% of Millennials will respond to content that is “thought-provoking or intelligent.”
  • 30% will refuse to read any content that doesn’t entertain or educate them.
If you can’t write in a humorous, engaging style (link to humor writing post), find someone who can.
 
Don’t hoof it on your own. Not everyone is Steve Martin. Just make sure your content creator visits Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter often.
 

5. Assume things are working

My new client’s alumni events were pissing off the younger crowd. They focus on top donors. The 60+ crowd who is keeping them going.
 
And, guess what? It was working! Not a soul under age 55 attended the President’s dinner in recent years.
 
Does this sound familiar?
Participation is down, but dollars are holding steady.
 
Time to do a happy dance? That’s a “NOPE!”
 
Older donors are giving more dollars. Meanwhile, the GOLD are tuning out.
 
Do you know what that means in about 10 years? BIG problems. Those top donors are going to roll out of the game. Where does that leave them?
 
Don’t be blinded by the here and now. Play chess with the tactics. Be three moves ahead.
 

6. Spotted some major issues but didn’t move on the info

Not every comment is going to be a gushing compliment. And that’s fine. Until you actually ASK your audience what they think, you’re guessing.
 
If you DO take the time to survey your people, what did you do with the results? Once you got over the sting the more unpleasant comments, of course.
 
Did you share it with the President’s Council or the like, or did you jump into action?
 
Don’t ignore this super-valuable insight. Don’t forget to plan for regular surveys of different segments. When you get feedback, you need to make an action plan. Don’t look it over with disdain, welcoming the next random interruption.
 
And it isn’t just surveys. There is data all around you to drive your next move.
 
For your email marketing efforts: A/B test subject lines and work to improve that open and click-through rate.
 
For alumni website: try some inexpensive heat-mapping software to see what they actually do on your site.
Don’t guess! To measure is to know.
 

So what’s the point?

Facts are facts, my friends. Revolutionize how you’re doing things or go extinct. Figure out how to be engaging. Your future depends on it.
 
You’re at a college campus, so you’re up to your elbows in your audience. Throw a rock, hit a millennial.
 
Hey…. that could be a game! Jest. I sure hope none read this post…
 
Here are a few suggestions to get you going next year:

Alumni Interviews
Do research. Create a list of who you want to target. Then tell their stories. Chase them for an interview instead of a donation. You’ll get a great alumni story to add to your site and market through email.

Facebook Retargeting
Serve ads to your audience on Facebook, where a large chunk of them practically live. Get them back to your site for events rather than support. You can target your email list, so spend a little bit of ad budget to ensure alumni are seeing your stories and content.

Systems Review
Review the systems you have. Could you liken them to a junkyard clunker? Get some demos, find out what would bring you to the 21st century. If you’ve got data or system issues, better to know now and start budgeting for a fix down the road. Don’t kick that can.

Get busy segmenting
It can be almost impossible to figure out segments from the past. Instead, start by setting up ways to start tagging new folks or updates in your database. Face it: you’re not going to fix overnight a database problem that was 10+ years in the making. Create the right systems and then chip away at it. That’s all you can hope for.

Create an editorial calendar
Don’t rely on a last minute thought to send an appeal for #GivingTuesday or #Homecoming. Rather, give yourself a guide for the content you are putting out via email and on your site. Think about seasons, plan around your event calendar. Make great storytelling a department-wide expectation.

 

How does this story end?

 
After a tough-love chat with our client, we have gotten them to drink our kool-aid. We still have many miles to go. But at least we are on the right highways and byways together.
 
Getting these things done takes a bit of expertise and time. Want your own bout of tough-love? Have our consultants roadmap your school.
 
Let’s get a quick 15-minute call on the books. Just to get acquainted with your biggest issues. We’ll know pretty quickly if a larger conversation makes sense from there.
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