Social Media and Alumni/Donor Engagement


"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."
Tim Jones, North Carolina State University

The findings from an April 2011 CASE survey suggest that the majority of institutions use social media channels as “megaphones” for broadcasting content, rather than as tools for enhancing engagement strategies. The majority of institutions surveyed use an “umbrella strategy” for all audiences, with only 29 percent tailoring their social media strategies by target audience. Recognizing the largely untapped potential of these communication tools for expanding engagement with high-priority constituencies, we asked Andrew Gossen, senior director for social media strategy for alumni affairs and development at Cornell University, for advice on how development and alumni relations professionals can rethink social media use to leverage social networks in service of more strategic, targeted efforts.

Megaphone vs. Engagement

“If you think about social channels as a megaphone,” Gossen notes, “it can feel very efficient to blast your content out to however many channels you maintain – Facebook, Twitter, Google+. The problems with doing that are that you punish people who are following you on multiple channels and who now get replicated content, and you aren’t paying sufficient attention to the unique characteristics of each of these audiences. Your Twitter audience, your Facebook audience – these are not generic audiences. These are unique sets of constituents that we need to understand better.”

Online communities represent an exciting opportunity because they are often large, geographically diverse, and populated with potential volunteers who have digital skills that can be employed on your institution’s behalf. Perhaps most importantly, members of an online social community such as a Facebook group are already opted in to engagement with your institution.

To determine how best to mobilize these communities in support of specific strategic objectives, you need to:

  • Invest time up front in defining these communities’ demographics in as much detail as possible
  • Experiment with content to determine what content prompts the most response
  • Use that content to mobilize these constituencies in support of university priorities

Research: What Specific Opportunities Do Your Online Communities Represent?

Gossen recommends prioritizing studies of your social media constituencies, by reviewing the demographic data provided by the platforms themselves, by surveying your “fans,” and by correlating your follower data with your own prospect database. For example, beyond looking at Facebook’s demographic data, can you identify:

  • Where your fans live
  • How old they are
  • What their majors were
  • How many degrees they have achieved
  • What percentage of them give to your institution

"Say it turns out that 80 percent of those who Liked your Facebook page are already annual fund donors. In this scenario, it would be clear that Facebook is not a good venue for making impassioned appeals for annual fund donation. Your Facebook fans are already giving. But Facebook does become an excellent channel for stewardship – you can post content on how the annual fund is supporting student life and particular initiatives on campus, where their funds are making a difference."
Andrew Gossen, Cornell University

By doing this homework as early as possible, you will be able to make more strategic decisions on content, enabling you to use your limited time and resources to greater effect.

Mobilizing Online and Offline Communities: An Integrated Outreach

Once you have good data on who your online communities consist of, identify opportunities to extend the reach of your current efforts to those communities. Gossen 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.”

For example, Cornell University has begun live-streaming 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 (3,500 unique viewers from 58 countries), and the live stream allows Cornell to broaden the impact of efforts in which the institution is already invested.

"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

When asked to walk us through one particular example, Gossen illustrated 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

In fact, 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.


"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

In This Issue

Social Media: From Tactics to Strategy

A Letter from Amit Mrig, President, Academic Impressions

Social Media: Not a Brave New World

Social Media and Student Recruitment

In and Out of the Classroom: Using Social Media in Ways that Matter

Social Media and Alumni/Donor Engagement

Providing Central Guidelines and Support for Social Media