Expanding the Reach of Your Alumni Events through Social Media and Mobile Technologies

Social media and mobile technologies offer low-cost opportunities to increase the impact of your alumni events, because you can extend the reach of your current efforts to online alumni communities such as a Facebook alumni group or Twitter feed.

Andrew Gossen, senior director for social media strategy for alumni affairs and development at Cornell University, advises: “Our engagement efforts and our annual cycle is built around offline, physical events ... reunion, homecoming, etc. ... and our staffing is often allocated to serve those events. We support the growth of alumni communities and clubs because they connect alumni to each other and to the university in beneficial ways. We need to think about online communities in the same way, and find opportunities to extend what we are already doing.”

Expanding the Footprint of Your Annual Events

Asked for examples, Gossen illustrates how an alumni relations office might employ social media tools to enhance and extend the reach of a reunion event:

  • Beyond just tweeting and posting reminders about the upcoming event, use a Twitter hashtag to encourage conversation among alumni before they arrive on campus
  • Tweet actively to a backchannel during the event
  • Have staff – or trusted volunteers – active during the event, taking pictures, shooting video, and otherwise gathering content that can be pushed out via social media channels (Flickr, Facebook, YouTube) to the larger alumni community even as the event progresses

Gossen suggests considering a new category of alumni volunteer – alumni who are responsible for capturing content at alumni and university-sponsored events beyond the campus. In the case of Cornell University, which has a global alumni community, alumni volunteers can capture content around the world – something the institution’s alumni relations office is not equipped to do.

"Offline, we are already offering high-value events with content of interest to our alumni. We’re already investing in these, we know they work, there’s no guesswork involved. So it is an easy and inexpensive step to extend that to our online community, greatly expanding the opportunity for engagement and expanding the audience for the event’s message. Use social media to enhance what you already do well."
Andrew Gossen, Cornell University

ENGAGING ALUMNI IN COMMENCEMENT

Tim Jones, the executive creative director of university communications at North Carolina State University, relates this story:

"Spring 2011. We wanted to find ways to increase engagement around commencement. We have a thriving community of students and alumni on Facebook, but rather than jamming that channel with content, we asked one simple question about memorable professors. 200 responses came back sharing memories. We asked one question, started a conversation, and received a rich body of content plus a list of names of rock-star faculty to feature. That was the only thing we posted during commencement. We looked for the best opportunity to leverage our users, our content, and the time of year."

Here are two additional examples from Cornell University, involving live-streaming and the use of a mobile app to increase engagement.

Live-Streaming Events

Cornell University live-streams annual events to its Facebook page, providing opportunities for members of their Facebook community to interact with one another in the comments. The results are measurable (in Fiscal Year 2012, Cornell reached 19,562 unique viewers from 102 countries), and the live stream allows Cornell to broaden the impact of efforts in which the institution is already invested.

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

"Often, the million-dollar question has been: How do you document ROI for social media? When you are integrating social media into your current engagement strategy and using these channels to enhance your existing efforts, this question becomes easy to answer. Rather than trying to quantify an inherent value to the number of Likes on a Facebook page, you can demonstrate that you gave X number of alumni in X number of countries access to a live event, at minimal cost."
Andrew Gossen, Cornell University

A Reunion App

Cornell recently partnered with a third party vendor to develop a mobile app specifically for their annual alumni reunion this summer (the app will be tweaked and improved for the reunion next year). We asked Gossen about the approach Cornell took -- and what the school has learned for the next year.

The app was conceived to achieve two objectives:

  • Provide ease and convenience in completing key tasks for those attending the event
  • Help connect alumni attending the event with each other and with the larger alumni community

To meet the first objective, Cornell's reunion app provided mobile access to the event schedule, maps, and a built-in session evaluation feature, permitting Cornell to collect real-time feedback on each session at the event.

To meet the second objective, the app included features such as:

  • Twitter backchannel and uploading to Instagram
  • Noting whether other alumni you know have checked in
  • Instant messaging for those alumni attending the event

The idea was to replace the traditional message board with the mobile app, and facilitate sharing of content and connections among both those alumni at the event and alumni who were unable to attend but who could engage via social media. One lesson learned: Gossen notes that the instant messaging feature was not often used by alumni at the event; those who were inclined toward online conversation went directly to the Twitter backchannel.

SURVEY REPORT: ONLINE GIVING, MOBILE APPS

Curious to see how the majority of shops are responding to this increase in student and alumni reliance on mobile technology, Academic Impressions conducted an informal survey in October 2012 of annual giving and alumni relations professionals. The results are indicative of a gap between the technologies alumni are using to interact with their alma mater and the technologies the alma mater is prepared to use in reaching out to its alumni.

You can read the executive summary here.

What Are You Trying?

How is your shop engaging online alumni communities during reunion and other major events? Drop us a line at daniel@academicimpressions.com and let us know.