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 couldn't wait to finally introduce my wife to this amazing Mexican restaurant.

It was a special find. Although I didn't own the place or even work there, this hidden gem of a restaurant had become mine.  Located 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 for lunch. And for good reason.

This spot became renowned for its delectable tacos al pastor. The meat, infused with the delightful tang of pineapple, was simply divine. Customers would travel long distances just to savor their burritos, tacos, or enchiladas. The food was exceptional, the service was top-notch, and the prices were reasonable. It was the ideal combination.

AdobeStock_698106162 - tacos el pastorI was eagerly anticipating my wife's reaction to the restaurant. Trying not to oversell it, I played it cool as we entered the bustling parking lot. After placing our orders and finding a cozy spot to sit, I couldn't help but watch her closely as she took her first bite. My own plate forgotten, all I wanted was for her to enjoy the experience as much as I did.

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, gave me a quizzical look, and simply stated, "It's weird."


I had a strong attachment to this restaurant and felt a bit disappointed when my wife didn't share my enthusiasm. She didn't dislike it, but it didn't captivate her like it did me.

Since that soul-crushing day when I began questioning all of my wife's culinary choices, I remain loyal. While it may take some gentle persuasion (bribery) to get her come along, she doesn't understand my obsession with this place. Don't get me wrong... she'll go there willingly, as she's since found a few menu items she likes. But it's just not her passion. 

These contrasting experiences perfectly highlight the importance of recognizing the two types of loyalty that alumni and advancement professionals should be familiar with: transactional loyalty and emotional loyalty.


Transactional Loyalty vs Emotional Loyalty

emotional-connection-2Rb2I8TZ6O8-unsplashIn the consumer world, emotional loyalty is often seen as the ultimate goal. It happens when consumers develop a strong attachment to a particular brand, irrespective of factors like price or convenience. Personally, I have a deep appreciation for this Mexican restaurant. I have been a loyal customer from the start, built a relationship with the owner, and truly savored the incredible food they serve.

On the flip side, transactional loyalty occurs when a consumer's loyalty is based on practical matters like proximity, price, or convenience. When something changes – like a price increase or the menu changes, their loyalty may also change. My wife only goes to this Mexican place with me, or occasionally surprises me with take-out, but she's simply not as smitten with it as I am. She is not emotionally loyal like 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?

Similarly, alumni loyalty can be likened to a rollercoaster ride, fluctuating in intensity and impact at various points in time. This ebb and flow of loyalty plays a critical role in determining their willingness to engage, volunteer, or contribute to their alma mater.


The Science of Emotional Loyalty (or Lack Thereof)

However, it's important to understand that consumer loyalty can be a complex matter. In a recent Nielsen survey, it was revealed that 78% of consumers may not have a strong attachment to a specific brand. Nowadays, consumers often prioritize value over brand loyalty, with only 25% of US consumers actively factoring brand loyalty into their purchasing decisions, as reported by Ernst & Young.

Similarly, when it comes to alumni loyalty, most alumni will likely exhibit transactional loyalty. While the levels of loyalty may differ among institutions, it's important to manage expectations and not necessarily anticipate a profound emotional connection from every alumni.

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

Three Strategies to Earn Emotional Loyalty

Although emotional loyalty cannot be purchased, there are a few key strategies that institutions can utilize to cultivate a stronger bond with their alumni.

  1. Alumni Must Trust YouCanva Design DAF_bdJU_q0

Canva Design DAF_bdJU_q0Establishing a foundation of trust with alumni is paramount in nurturing a lasting bond with their alma mater. This trust is the cornerstone that allows for the cultivation of meaningful relationships, encouraging alumni to invest their time, talents, and resources into the institution. It is crucial for alumni to perceive that their alma mater values them beyond just their financial contributions. By showcasing a genuine interest in their well-being, your institution can nurture a sense of trust that forms the bedrock of a strong alumni relationship. However, it's important to recognize that trust is delicate and can be easily fractured.

A single negative encounter, such as a cumbersome process for obtaining transcripts or degree verification, has the potential to unravel years of relationship building. Similarly, soliciting donations that surpass alumni's loyalty to the institution can undermine the trust that has been established. Unwanted or intrusive solicitations can also impede engagement and hinder support. Therefore, it is imperative to cultivate a positive and meaningful connection with alumni in order to uphold their trust and garner their ongoing support.

  1. Empower Alumni

Make a deliberate effort to engage alumni in the mission of your institution. Provide them with opportunities that are both meaningful and relevant to encourage their participation. Try helping your alumni to become knowledgeable advocates for your institution by offering them engaging and informative content. Empower them to speak passionately about your cause and support your efforts.

It's crucial to involve alumni in all facets of the institution. Harness their expertise and insights to drive progress, establish priorities, and elevate the institution's standing. While faculty and staff may come and go over time, alumni maintain a lifelong connection to their alma mater. They understand that their achievements are intertwined with the institution's reputation. By providing them with a meaningful platform, you can foster a deeper emotional bond, leading to valuable support and engagement.

  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. 

One effective way to impact alumni on a larger scale is through a compelling, value-added benefits. While some may not initially see the return on investment in adding benefits, but a well-designed and thoughtful program can give you a compelling reason maintain ongoing communication with alumni, and even boost your cultivation efforts. Remember, 85% of the population expects value from any organization they affiliate with.

By incorporating an effective, value-added benefit for all your your alumni will help you 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 share my passion for 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