As most senior alumni executives are "digital immigrants," and most alumni staff are "digital natives," new data shows that the gap in tech preference and proficiency may negatively impact alumni engagement.  (About a 5 minute read)

According to data from the VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking study, 77% of alumni organization admit they need to update the technology solutions they offer their alumni, and 87% report they “struggle to attract and engage young alumni.”

While there may be a host of reasons why higher education alumni organizations struggle to keep up with technology, I’ve recently analyzed some of the data from the VAESE Alumni Benchmarking study, and I think I may be able to shed some new light on the issue.

In a nutshell, a digital generation gap may be at the root of the problem.

When looking at the age and experience of alumni professionals, the average age of the senior alumni executives is 52.3 years-old, (born before 1964.) The average age of the professional staff (excluding clerical personnel and the senior director) is 36.6 years old (born after 1980). The average age of the youngest professional staff member is 28.3 years old, or born after 1985. Demographers consider 24 years to be approximately a generation, and a lot of technology happened during that brief time frame.

What it comes down do is this:  in the typical or “average” alumni office, the final decision maker is a digital immigrant, while most professional staff, and a large segment of alumni are digital natives.  So how does this affect alumni engagement?


Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

If you’re not familiar with the terms “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” Digital Natives are born after 1980, and grew up immersed in technology. They are naturals when it comes to the language of technology and social media networks. Some researchers report that their “neurological structures” are “wired” differently than preceding generations. Digital Immigrants (myself included) have had to adapt to technology, and figure it out as we’ve been exposed to new technologies. As late-comers to the digital party, we still rely on the same methods we learned in our formative years when we communicate, solve problems, and learn.

Digital Immigrants tend to be more linear in their approach to learning and problem solving, and focus on one task at a time. We often prefer to communicate one to one, versus with multiple people, and we also like to talk on the phone and leave voice messages. (Which can annoy many digital natives!)  We’re not intimidated by a lot of text, and don’t need pictures, sounds or video to get our attention.  

Digital Natives tend to be far less linear in how they work, learn and communicate, and are often more willing to trust their intuition and the collective knowledge of others. They multitask well, are far more reliant on social networks and crowd-sourcing, and are drawn to pictures, video and sounds as opposed to text.

It’s not to say that digital immigrants aren’t capable of being fluent in the language of technology. (It just so happens that digital immigrants invented the technologies we’re talking about) But just like those who learn a second language, some are more fluent than others.

Of course, these are broad generalizations and don’t apply to everyone, so cut me some slack for oversimplifying. I’m just trying to point out an important pattern.


The Technology Blind Spot in Alumni Relations?

We asked respondents to rate the senior alumni executive's proficiency with technology. If they were the senior executive and rating themselves, we asked them to estimate how their staff would rate them.

56% of senior alumni executives reported they were “very proficient” or “mostly proficient” with technology. In contrast, 80% of alumni staff members rated themselves as “very proficient” or “mostly proficient.”  We also found that when senior alumni executives were rating themselves, they had a nearly 20% higher assessment of their own proficiency than how their staff would rate them. Therein lies a significant gap in perception. Many senior alumni executives may believe they are keeping up with technology, but their digital native staff tend to disagree.

We also asked another question about technology: Do you believe your organization needs to update the technology solutions/benefits you offer your alumni/ae.” Overall, 76.8% of alumni professionals agreed that they were falling behind in technology.

But when breaking down the responses by age, and controlling for all other relevant factors, alumni professionals 50 and older were 18% more likely to believe that their technology solutions/benefits were just fine, thank you very much. 


The Effect of the Digital Gap

As a digital immigrant, I’m not standing in judgment nor am I condemning my contemporaries for preferring non-tech engagement practices over technological approaches. Tech is often more risky, complex, and requires serious investment in both equipment and expertise. So who can blame us for being wary of tech solutions that appear to be half-baked, or may prove to be obsolete before they are fully implemented?

But unfortunately, some of us may have a blind-spot regarding the technological needs of our organization. For others, having years of real-world experience may be causing some analysis paralysis. Regardless of the reasons, the result is: you may be clinging to old engagement methods while your organization falls even further behind. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about whether your organization is keeping up or falling behind, answer these ten tech-related questions, then ask your staff to answer these questions and compare your answers. The results may lead to some interesting discussions. 

Ten Tech Questions For Alumni Organizations:

  • Is your alumni website mobile optimized? (You can check it here.)
  • Do your emails include a text version and a link to view the email in a web browser? (I recommend a host of email best practices, but these two are a good place to start)
  • Is social media a daily focus or a “when-we-get-to-it” afterthought? (True social media engagement takes a daily commitment to content creation)
  • Do you offer your alumni a mobile engagement app? (81% of college grads have a smart phone, so you're missing out on a huge engagement opportunity if you ignore mobile.)
  • Does your organization regularly publish a blog? (If not, see how MIT is making their blog work)
  • Does your organization use a social media posting tool? (It helps you schedule social media posts, here’s a list of suggestions)
  • Do you email a PDF version of your e-newsletter or do you create emails using HTML, CSS or Javascript? (See this article here about why you should stop sending PDF e-newsletters)
  • Is your alumni communications (newsletters, email, etc.) text heavy, or do you have a good balance of text in relation to images?  (Too much text is a sure sign that a digital immigrant is making the decisions about content.)
  • Does your organization actively and aggressively collect mobile phone numbers from your alumni/ae? (Mobile phones are the primary communication tool for most alumni)
  • Are you set up to communicate with your alumni via SMS (text) messages? (81% of Americans send or receive text messages, and 98% of text messages are opened--compared to 88% of emails going unopened, 71% of tweets ignored, and 84% of Facebook news feed stories not viewed.)

I know many of you are doing very well when it comes to technology, and I congratulate your organization for being proactive. Keep up the good work and keep moving ahead with new and even better technology solutions.

On the other hand, I'm aware of a few alumni organizations that could use some guidance. Feel free to reach out to us, or to any other organizations you trust to help you assess  your needs.

I’d love to hear your comments.

Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, Customer Engagement, surveys, higher education

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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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