Alumni loyalty can be either transactional or emotional. When your alumni are loyal emotionally, they give and engage at higher rates. Here are three best practices to achieve more emotionally engaged alumni.

(About a 4 minute read)

I had been eagerly anticipating the day I could finally take my wife to this incredible Mexican restaurant.

It was MY spot. I didn't own it, or even work there, but I had stumbled upon this hidden gem of a joint. Tucked away in a converted gas station, just a few miles from my office and nestled by the railroad tracks, it had become my go-to place. And for good reason.

This place was famous for its mouthwatering tacos al pastor. The meat, infused with the sweet tanginess of pineapple, was simply out-of-this-world delicious. People would travel for hours just to get a taste of their burritos, tacos, or enchiladas. The food was incredible, the service was top-notch, and the prices were fair. It was the perfect combination.

I couldn't wait for my wife to experience it for herself. I didn't want to hype it up too much, so I downplayed it a bit. But as we pulled into the packed parking lot, her excitement grew. We placed our orders, received our food, and found a cozy spot to sit. I was so eager for her to take that first bite that I barely even noticed my own plate. All I wanted was for her to fall in love with the place, just like I had.

She took a bite.

No reaction.

Another bite. A slight look of concern.

"Well? Isn't it absolutely amazing?!" I asked, holding my breath.

She paused, looked at me with a puzzled expression, and finally said, "It's...weird."


I was emotionally connected to this restaurant and was heartbroken when she didn't share my passion. She didn't hate it, she just didn't fall in love with it as I had.

I still go there frequently, but I have to drag my wife along.

These two differing experiences are a perfect illustration of the two types of loyalty we alumni/advancement professionals should understand: transactional loyalty and emotional loyalty.


Transactional Loyalty vs Emotional Loyalty

In the consumer world, emotional loyalty is the ultimate goal. This is when consumers are head over heels for a particular brand, regardless of price, convenience, or other outside factors, because they feel a personal connection to the brand. I mean, I practically have a love affair with this restaurant. I was there from the beginning, got to know the owner, and boy, the food was incredible.

Transactional loyalty, on the other hand, is a different story. It's when consumers stick with a retailer based on proximity, price, or convenience. But if something changes – like prices going up or the menu getting a makeover – then their loyalty is at risk. My wife only goes to this Mexican place with me, or occasionally surprises me with take-out. She's just not as smitten with it as I am.

Sure, transactional loyalty can be unpredictable among consumers. But hey, it's still loyalty. And when it comes to consumer loyalty, isn't it all about getting people to open their wallets?

The same goes for alumni. Their loyalty can be a rollercoaster, and how loyal they are will determine when and how they engage, volunteer, or give.


The Science of Emotional Loyalty (or Lack Thereof)

But wait, here's the cold, hard truth: when it comes to consumer loyalty, a recent Nielsen survey burst our bubble and showed that a whopping 78% of consumers are not loyal to a particular brand. It seems that these days, consumers are more concerned with getting the best bang for their buck than swooning over a brand. And according to Ernst & Young, a measly 25% of US consumers actually consider brand loyalty when making purchasing decisions.

The same goes for alumni loyalty. The majority of alumni will be transactionally loyal. Sure, the levels may vary between institutions but don't hold your breath for a deep emotional connection. It'll be like finding a needle in a haystack.

So, how on earth can you turn the tables and cultivate those elusive emotionally loyal alumni?

Three Emotional Loyalty-Earning Strategies

While emotional loyalty cannot be bought or completely earned, there are several strategies that institutions can implement to foster a deeper connection with their alumni.

  1. Alumni Must Trust You

Building trust with alumni is crucial for fostering a strong relationship with their alma mater. Without trust, it is difficult to secure their time, talents, and resources. Alumni need to feel that their alma mater values them beyond their financial contributions. By demonstrating a genuine interest in their well-being, their trust in the institution will grow. However, trust is fragile and can be easily damaged.

A single negative experience, such as a challenging process for obtaining transcripts or degree verification, can unravel years of relationship building. Similarly, asking alumni for donations that exceed their loyalty to the institution can erode trust. Unwanted or unwelcome solicitations can also hinder engagement and giving. It is essential to cultivate a positive and meaningful relationship with alumni to maintain their trust and support.

  1. Empower Alumni

Make a conscious effort to involve alumni in your institution's mission. This means providing them with meaningful and relevant opportunities to engage. Additionally, take the necessary steps to help alumni become experts in speaking about your institution. Offer them informative and entertaining content that will empower them to advocate for your cause.

Furthermore, it is important to invite alumni to contribute to every aspect of the institution. Tap into their knowledge and expertise to drive improvements, set priorities, and enhance the reputation of the institution. While administrators, staff, and faculty may come and go, alumni remain connected to their alma mater for life. They recognize that their own success is intertwined with the reputation of the institution. By giving them a meaningful voice, you can cultivate a stronger emotional attachment and they will undoubtedly reward you for it.

  1. Incentivize Loyalty

To appeal to a growing population of alumni, especially Millennials and GOLDs, it is important to offer real, tangible value that resonates with their transactional loyalty. They want to see the benefits of engaging with your alumni organization before they commit. I'm not suggesting starting a cash-back or tuition rebate program, but rather utilizing some of the funds raised from alumni to provide incentivizing benefits.

One effective way to impact alumni on a larger scale is through a compelling loyalty program. While some may not initially see the return on investment in implementing a scalable alumni loyalty program, a well-designed and thoughtful program can streamline your outreach and cultivation efforts. Remember, 85% of the population expects value from any organization they affiliate with.

By incorporating an effective loyalty program into your alumni organization, you can foster higher levels of both transactional and emotional loyalty.

The Final Word

In the end, it's clear that most alumni desire a strong bond with their alma mater. Just like in retail, alumni organizations must strive to establish deep and enduring connections with their alumni, ensuring a consistent level of alumni engagement and support.

Any Loyalty is Good Loyalty

Maybe, just maybe, my wife will eventually warm up to MY Mexican joint. But it won't take a mind-blowing burrito to win her over. It could be as simple as my passionate endorsement (I am the ultimate brand advocate, after all!) or perhaps when the owner greets her by name and surprises her with a delectable free appetizer. That might just do the trick and make her emotionally invested.

Then again, she might always remain a casual customer, popping in for a quick and convenient lunch or take-out. And you know what? That's still a darn good customer to have.



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Topics: Alumni Relations & Engagement, alumni benefits, Customer Engagement, best practices