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 waited weeks to take my wife to this Mexican restaurant.

It was MY restaurant. I didn't own it. I didn’t even work there. But I found this small dive-of-a-joint that was amazing. It was tucked away in a converted gas station, down by the railroad tracks a few miles from my office.

It’s known for its tacos al pastor.  A pineapple infused meat that is so incredibly tasty, that people travel for hours for one of their burritos or tacos or enchiladas. I think the food is out-of-this-world incredible. The service personable and the prices are fair. A perfect combo.

I was excited for my wife to try it. I didn’t want to oversell it, so I downplayed it a bit. But as we arrived, the parking lot was packed, and her anticipation grew. After we ordered, we got our food and found a place to eat. I was so excited for her to try it that I didn't even notice my own plate. I just wanted her to love the place like I loved it.

She took a bite.

No reaction.

Another bite. A slight look of concern.

"Well? Isn't it just amazing?!" I asked.

She paused. Looked at me with a puzzled look and 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 passionate about a particular brand regardless of price, convenience or other outside factors because they have a personal connection to the brand. I have a personal connection to the restaurant because I was one of their first customers, I came to know the owner and connected with him, and oh yeah, the food was great.

Transactional loyalty is a different animal. It occurs when the consumer frequents a retailer based on proximity, price or convenience. But when certain conditions change – like when a retailer raises prices or changes their menu - then the customer's dollars are at risk of being spent elsewhere. My wife will only go to this Mexican place with me, or on the rare ocassion, she may even get some take-out just to surprise me. But she won’t ever go on her own. She’s just not in to it like I am.

Transactional loyalty is fickle among consumers. But at the end of the day, it's loyalty nonetheless. And isn't consumer loyalty about getting people to spend their dollars?

The same goes for alumni. Their loyalty can be fickle, and their degree of loyalty will determine when and how they engage, volunteer or give.


The Science of Emotional Loyalty (or Lack Thereof)

When it comes to consumer loyalty, a recent Nielsen survey showed that 78% of consumers are not loyal to a particular brand. The studies show that consumers will abandon their “favorite” brands in favor of lower prices. Purchasing decisions are being made less and less on emotion and more on a cold, hard ratio of pure bang-for-the-buck.  According to Ernst & Young, just 25% of US consumers consider brand loyalty as something that impacts their buying behavior.

As for alumni loyalty, the percentages are much the same, the vast majority of alumni will be transactionally loyal. While the levels may differ between institutions, most alumni will have some level of transactional loyalty.  Far fewer will develop an emotional connection.

So how can you cultivate more emotionally loyal alumni?

Three Emotional Loyalty-Earning Strategies

Despite our best efforts, emotional loyalty can't be purchased, and it also isn't entirely earned either. There are, however, a few best practices that will put any institution in a better position to connect on a deeper level with alumni. 

  1. Alumni Must Trust You

Alumni must trust their alma mater. If they don’t trust you then forget about getting any of their time, talents or resources. They need to believe that you see value in them beyond their level of giving. If they believe you have their interests in mind, you'll build trust. But it takes time, patience, and a commitment to serving your alumni.

How do you destroy trust?  One bad experience can ruin years of relationship building. One poor interaction is all it takes, such as making it difficult to obtain a transcript or degree verification. Asking alumni to give out of proportion to their loyalty to the institution will destroy trust faster than anything. Without properly cultivating a relationship, sending unwanted or unwelcomed solicitations will surely stifle engagement and giving.

  1. Empower Alumni

Every effort should be made to involve alumni into your institution’s mission. That requires offering them meaningful and relevant opportunities to engage. It also means making every effort possible to help alumni become experts at speaking about your institution. Give them informative and entertaining content that will help them be your advocate. 

Alumni should also be invited to shape every aspect of the institution, leveraging their knowledge and expertise to make improvements, decide priorities, and build the institution’s reputation. Administrators, staff, and faculty will come and go, but alumni are tied to their alma mater for life. They understand that their success is often tied to the reputation of the institution.  Give them a meaningful voice, and they will reward you with a greater emotional attachment.

  1. Incentivize Loyalty

For a growing population of alumni (especially Millennials and GOLDs), the “currency” that appeals to their transactional loyalty, is currency.  Cash value. They want – no – they demand real, tangible value from your alumni organization before they will consider engaging with you. Now I’m not suggesting you start a cash-back or tuition rebate program. What I am suggesting is investing some of the money you raise from your alumni, and give some of it back in the form of incentivizing benefits.

To impact alumni on a large scale, a compelling loyalty program is a great way to do this. While some may not see the ROI in paying for a scalable alumni loyalty program, a well-crafted, thoughtful program can systematize your outreach and cultivation efforts. Remember, 85% of the population wants value from any organizations they affiliate with.

Incorporating an effective loyalty program into an alumni organization will promote greater levels of both transactional and emotional loyalty.

The Final Word

The bottom line is most alumni want a good relationship with their alma mater. Like a retail business, alumni organizations must form meaningful, lasting relationships with their alumni, in order to be in position to have a predictable level of alumni giving and engagement.

Any Loyalty is Good Loyalty

Eventually, my wife may become a little more invested in MY Mexican joint. And it probably won't take a life-changing burrito to do it. It may just be her proximity to a brand advocate (me!), or it could be that when the owner knows her name and offers up a free appetizer that will suit her taste, she’ll finally become more emotionally invested.

Or, she may never go beyond the occasional customer that stops in for a convenient lunch or take-out. Which is still a pretty good customer to have.



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