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Reaching out to university alumni through social media

Alumni departments turn to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and more, to engage alumni.


This past October, when Felix Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier in a free-fall jump from the stratosphere, the alumni relations department at McGill University realized that the person who designed the outfit used for the jump was a McGill graduate. Within hours, the department had posted an article about the designer on three separate Facebook pages: that of the alumni department, the faculty he’d graduated from, and a volunteer-run branch of alumni.

The opportunity to piggyback on news to deepen connections with alumni is one of the many ways social media can benefit university alumni and development offices across Canada. “We need to be where our alumni are,” says Derek Cassoff, director of communications for McGill’s office of development and alumni relations. “We need to be in their newsfeeds.”

And the alumni are decisively there – on all platforms of social media, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn. More than 90 percent of online adults now use social media regularly (according to the U.S. 2012 Digital Marketer Benchmark and Trend Report) and younger alumni prefer to communicate by social media rather than by email or print. This means that social media is no longer optional for effective communications with alumni.

A 2012 survey by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (an association of university and college professionals in development, alumni affairs and communications) shows that 83 percent of U.S. colleges and universities are using social media to engage alumni, with 96 percent on Facebook, 80 percent on Twitter, 73 percent on YouTube, and 68 percent on LinkedIn.

Many Canadian universities have set up alumni groups and profiles on the major social media platforms as well (Canada-wide data isn’t available), although some have not yet learned how to use them effectively.

Social media can be less expensive for campaigning and more flexible than mainstream media. A quarterly or semi-annual print magazine is expensive to produce and cannot possibly reflect the interests of all or even most of the thousands of alumni at different life stages. It’s easy for potential donors to tune out the message.

Moreover, social media have made it possible for universities to discover what alumni really care about and to invite them to be willing participants in an ongoing conversation. Strengthening those ties, say the professionals, will ultimately lead to more successful fundraising.

Some alumni will even help solicit donations, as Andrew Pettit (@cupOmagic) was inspired to do by McMaster University’s fundraising campaign last December, tweeting that “I’ll donate $5 for every RT: #McMaster’s 125 Bursary Challenge aka sharing ‘the best time of my life’ with #HamOnt youth.”

McMaster’s goal was to raise $125,000 for student bursaries in 48 hours. McMaster began mentioning the campaign – part of its 125th anniversary celebrations – in its monthly email newsletter to all alumni, and then seeded the discussions on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. It all culminated with 48 hours of fundraising on the website.

“This is the first time we’ve done something like this. So far the results have been excellent,” reported an excited Kyle Kuchmey, McMaster’s digital communications alumni officer, halfway through the challenge. The university surpassed its goal, raising $180,942 from alumni worldwide. Better yet, it reconnected with some alumni on its “do not call” list who reached out to the university.

As McMaster’s experience shows, alumni can be very responsive to social media when it’s used well. Social media can also nurture a sense of community, as the University of Alberta’s school of public health found through an alumni engagement survey last year. “Public health” had been housed in different faculties and departments over the years, and it wasn’t clear that alumni were aware that the school of public health existed; it became a separate unit in 2006. The survey showed that 76 percent were aware of the school “and feel affinity towards us,” says Andrea Lauder, marketing and alumni relations associate at the school, who is doing her master’s thesis on the topic.

“They were interested in hearing about alumni profiles, student profiles, research that is done by the school, and they want to be connected and they want to contribute, even if they don’t live in Edmonton,” reports Ms. Lauder. The school promptly set up a closed-membership group on LinkedIn, with sub-groups on specific topics. “It gives them a place to have safe and closed discussions about important health issues,” she says.

Often faculty- or region-specific groups or pages have an easier time enticing alumni to participate than university-wide alumni pages do. Unlike some, the U of A’s school of public health chose to merge alumni, students and faculty in the same groups, to encourage interaction and professional development. About 60 percent of the active participants are students and about 30 percent are alumni, the second most active group. It may be that mixing alumni, staff and students is a better model for generating engagement, but research hasn’t yet answered that question. University-wide Facebook pages tend to generate far more comments, shares and likes than alumni-specific pages do, but how many of those reactions are from alumni isn’t known.

The Université de Sherbrooke’s Facebook page has had nearly 20,000 likes and most of its posts get comments.  A post mentioning that it ranked as the top Canadian university, and sixth worldwide, in sustainable development got 426 likes, 175 shares and 15 comments in just over a day. It has not divided its efforts with a separate alumni page, however.

That could be because every page, group and profile needs constant care and feeding. Many alumni and development departments struggle to find adequate resources for this. Because of the volume of information flowing through social media and the way postings are displayed in a newsfeed, staff must post messages several times a day to ensure even some of them are seen by alumni. Unlike a stock-market ticker, the newsfeed posts do not repeat: if readers miss them, the posts are quickly buried. “You have to be there all the time. You have to be dedicated to putting your message out there,” advises Cynthia Breen, alumni officer, e-services, at the University of Waterloo.

One approach to free up resources for social media is to reduce the frequency of alumni print publications. Another is to take advantage of eager alumni volunteers. In fact, the existence of self-organized, volunteer-run alumni pages is what led several alumni departments into social media. The University of Toronto last fall took over the administration of a LinkedIn alumni page started by a graduate, says Jonathan Cheevers, U of T alumni outreach coordinator. This was done in response to requests from group members – it was becoming too large for them to manage. Another unofficial U of T alumni page on LinkedIn is almost double the size, with more than 18,000 members.

All this non-staff involvement can be unnerving for universities because it requires giving up control. Nonetheless, when McGill staff saw that enthusiastic graduates had created Facebook and LinkedIn alumni accounts of their own, rather than trying to close down the unofficial accounts the staff offered training to volunteers who wanted to run alumni-related social media pages.

A common fear among administrators is that people will use social media to post negative content, but that happens very rarely on alumni social media pages. And if things do go wrong, having a base of engaged alumni online can help with damage control. When information about some McGill donors was leaked in March 2012, the university’s development office, expecting the worst, emailed 50,000 donors to apologize and explain how the situation would be handled. The reaction on social media was a pleasant surprise. “There was a lot of Twitter chat. Most of it was very flattering,” says Mr. Cassoff, the communications director. “People were amazed at how thorough our data collection was!”

Twitter tends to be the platform of choice for breaking news and sharing fresh information. The University of Waterloo alumni team leveraged Twitter to welcome brand-new graduates to the “alumni club” during convocation ceremonies last year. The team set up a Twitter wall at the site of convocation and invited people to join the “Convo-sation.” As the students entered and left the venue, the Twitter wall displayed the tweets – including congratulations from faculty members, friends and family who weren’t able to attend. In all, 2,000 tweets came in from all over the world during the four-day convocation period.

The university took photos of the new alumni with the school mascot and holding a message board, where grads jotted down their plans for the future or remembered favourite times at Waterloo. The photos were posted on Facebook, generating comments by 1,000 users during convocation week and more afterwards. “Now we have them!” confides Ms. Breen.

And it’s not only young alumni who are flocking to Facebook. McGill was surprised to discover that most of the Facebook commenters were graduates from the 1970s and ’80s, who were using the medium to find old friends and reminisce about their student days. A nostalgia-laden post showing a box of Kraft Dinner and asking viewers what they ate in their student days had the memories flooding in.

“Posts with photos drive engagement,” notes Richard Fisher, chief communications officer, development and alumni engagement, at the University of British Columbia. UBC’s most successful Facebook posts are often photos of its scenic campus.

On the other hand, alumni groups on LinkedIn are there primarily to build a professional profile, to network and to find jobs. Reaching out to fellow alumni can be a good starting point, so LinkedIn alumni groups are growing fast. Concordia University, for instance, has more than 10,000 members, and even Saint Mary’s University, with a student population of about 7,500, has 2,590 members in its alumni LinkedIn group. There are four pages of listings of U of T alumni-related groups on LinkedIn.

YouTube is expected to grow in importance among alumni networks. It is now the second most popular search engine, after Google. To increase their impact, YouTube videos can be shared easily on a university’s website, Facebook and LinkedIn pages and spread via Twitter. This also helps boost the university’s search engine rankings, thus building its visibility.

The most effective campaigns use all of the major platforms as well as traditional email and print communications. The mac125bursary campaign not only used McMaster’s social media accounts but also leveraged the power of “social media ambassadors” on and off campus who were strong supporters of the university and bursaries. “The influencers will reveal themselves if you are listening to your channels,” observes Mr. Kuchmey at McMaster. Once you spot them, he says, contact them directly and ask for their help.

Another successful campaign was the “Greatest McGillians Contest.” When McGill asked alumni, via different web and print channels, to nominate the greatest McGillian, 700 nominations rolled in. Videos of alumni and others from the university’s extended community defending their choice were posted to YouTube. To generate buzz, McGill ran a “who am I” contest on Facebook and Twitter, unveiling arcane facts about each of the finalists in the form of a quiz. All this activity generated over 60,000 votes for the Greatest McGillian. “There’s no way we would have had that much interest,” says Mr. Cassoff, “if we were relying on the one print magazine that came out during the campaign and a few emails.”

There’s still a lot of experimenting going on with social media, and it can be full of surprises. But alumni and development departments need to get into the act, say communications professionals. There’s no doubt that it is becoming an essential tool to build connections with alumni. “Start now. There’ll never be a right time because everything moves so fast,” advises Mr. Fisher of UBC. But don’t start, he adds, “unless you’re willing to commit to the long haul. Once you start, there’s no going back.”

Tema Frank is a social media communications consultant, writer and podcaster. She can be found at Visit her blog to listen to excerpts from her interview with Derek Cassoff, director of communications for McGill University’s office of development and alumni relations.

Tema Frank
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