The latest 2020 VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking Study provides 5 specific data-driven ideas to help you attract and engage your alumni in a post-pandemic world.  

Although the 2020 VAESE survey was conducted before the crisis, there’s still a ton of data that can inform us about how to attract and engage your alumni in a new, post-pandemic world.  There may never be a more opportune time to reconnect, reengage, and rekindle alumni loyalty than right now. Your alumni will be looking to make connections and trying to make sense of the new reality. Here are five data-supported tactics to help you boost alumni engagement when stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

1-Focus on Digital Benefits and Services.

The VAESE study revealed some interesting trends when we compare these results with our first study in 2015.  Digitally delivered benefits and services were among the most effective and engaging, well before the current crisis. The study reveals 44% of alumni organizations report their digital communication efforts (social media, blogs, e-newsletters, etc.) are the most effective at engaging their alumni. We also learn that the impact of clubs/chapters/reunions is trending downward, dropping 25% from 2015, and unguided alumni travel programs have dropped 57% since 2015.

It’s not likely that all in-person events will go away forever, but even before this crisis, we saw a downward trend in the reported effectiveness of reunions, clubs, chapters, and some social mixers. Additionally, we don’t know what impact this pandemic will have on your people’s willingness to attend large public events where people are hugging, shaking hands, and standing close to each other, but the data suggests we should be rethinking our reliance upon in-person events.

For example, some organizations have created virtual book clubs, and others are experimenting with virtual alumni days.  Some are holding virtual alumni reunions, while others are considering moving their alumni board meetings or other frequently held meetings to the digital space.

The key to engagement in any type of organization is offering an incentive that attracts the attention of your constituents and encourages them to engage.  If you’re not offering your alumni any meaningful benefits, it’s just downright silly to expect alumni to engage with you. (Especially if all you’re doing is soliciting them.) The VAESE study shows the following:

  • 88% of all alumni organizations invest little to nothing in alumni benefits.
  • 84% of alumni professionals rate their benefits and services as having little or no value.
  • 47% invest nothing in benefits or rely on philanthropic generosity to engage alumni.

These stats are truly baffling to me as I see a vast majority of institutions still refusing to give their alumni any benefits. Now is the time to change.

While there is no such thing as the perfect alumni benefit, a compelling digital benefit should offer each of the following:

  • It solves a difficult or frequent problem for your alumni.
  • It delivers real, tangible value.
  • It is within close proximity to where alumni live and work (physically or digitally).
  • It is easy and convenient to use.
  • It’s unique or exclusive, and not available to the general public.

If you can’t deliver on all criteria, favor those that deliver on most of them.  

While I’m obviously a “little” biased, I know of over a hundred alumni organizations that have successfully offered their alumni/ae a nationwide private discount network with dining, retail, entertainment, and travel discounts.  For information on how to identify and select such a program, see this discount program buyer’s guide for alumni organizations.


2-Prepare for Alumni Unemployment

The VAESE study reveals the impact of career services has been trending upward 33% since 2015.  The study also reveals that career services “is the most valuable, yet underutilized alumni service or benefit.”

The recent historic spike in unemployment claims offers your organization a one-of-a-kind opportunity to boost your relevance and deliver value when your alumni need it most. A significant percentage of your alumni will face some type of impact relating to their employment. Prepare now to offer career-related information for your alumni/ae by identifying your SMEs (subject matter experts) on all aspects of career services. For alumni who find themselves unemployed or underemployed, consider organizing webinars or other virtual events to educate them on topics like:

  • Updating resumes, interviewing skills, and using LinkedIn and other social media platforms to network and submit resumes.
  • Unemployment laws, financial planning in a crisis, student loan repayment guidelines, etc.
  • How to start a business or consulting service.
  • How to join the gig economy, and the advantages and pitfalls of freelancing.
  • Provide tips and assistance for alumni needing to return to school to enhance skills/credentials

With a little thought and planning, you’re team may come up with a dozen or so topics that may be relevant. Once you have a working list, prioritize your plan and get to work.  


3- Survey Your Alumni ASAP

The VAESE reveals roughly half (48%) of all alumni organizations have not surveyed their alumni in the past 24 months. There’s no better time than now to ask questions of your constituents. Identify ways you can best serve the existing needs of your alumni. Ask them what they think about your organization and your benefits. Learn how they value your existing programs and services.  See which programs or services you need to grow or create, and which ones you need to put on hold. Without data, you won’t know where to focus your efforts. You may also be surprised to learn that your pet projects or programs are no longer relevant. Some people just don’t like hearing anything unflattering about their organization. But you can’t grow and improve unless you know what to change.

The costs associated with conducting a quick alumni survey have decreased significantly in recent years. Check out these free options and low-cost survey options.


4- Develop New Communication Channels

The VAESE study reveals email is used by 99% of organizations, Facebook by 96%, and LinkedIn by 83%. If your organization is not using other communication tools in addition to email, Facebook, and LinkedIn, now is the time to get started.

What other channels should you consider? We’re seeing the greatest upward trend in impact and usage for the following:

  • SMS (text messaging) has increased by 233% since 2015
  • Using a dedicated mobile app has increased by 53%
  • The usage of Instagram has increased by 30% since 2015.

If you’re not actively gathering alumni cell phone numbers, start now. This data shows that 98% of SMS texts get read, and they have a 209% higher response rate than phone, email, or Facebook. But with that level of engagement comes the responsibility to use it judiciously. You’ll face significant penalties if you don’t scrupulously maintain your opt-in/opt-out list.

Because we all spend so much time on our phones, if you’re looking to engage alumni via their mobile devices, you can find turn-key options that deliver relevant and compelling benefits to alumni no matter where they live. Otherwise, you can partner with a vendor who specializes in delivering an alumni-specific mobile app.

Instagram has seen the greatest growth in popularity over the past two years and may offer a new avenue to attract your GOLD alumni. For some, it may be helpful to start by asking an alum who is an SME on social media to help you get started. 


5-Consider an Online Community

In addition to what the survey said about email, Facebook, and LinkedIn, let’s look at what VAESE respondents say about the impact of private online communities. Our survey reveals their usage and impact have decreased 56% since 2015. Five years ago 45% of alumni organizations reported having a closed online community. Today that number has dropped to roughly 20% of reporting institutions.

However, with the dramatic need for digital services, this survey result would likely be different if the question were asked today, or even a year from now.

Clearly, alumni organizations will need to migrate many of their alumni benefits to the digital space. The real question relates to the return on investment. Is it worth paying for all the enhanced functionality you get from your paid digital alumni community versus the off-the-shelf products and free social media platforms?

I trust alumni directors who recommend and endorse their online community platforms because they enjoy high levels of alumni engagement, networking, mentoring, etc.  I also know that not all alumni programs can afford the luxury of such powerful platforms, especially with the increased competition from a host of SaaS platforms and free apps. This is an issue worth discussing with your team and your colleagues at other institutions.


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Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, alumni, institutional advancement, alumni benefits, alumni engagement

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For 25+ years Gary Toyn has helped organizations large and small improve their constituent/member acquisition, retention and engagement. He's a multi-published author, writer, and researcher.

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