A critical first step in the journey to life-long giving is incentivizing alumni to become involved. Alumni benefits are a powerful tool that can attract alumni to initially engage. To be effective, benefits must be personally relevant to your alumni. The elements of a compelling alumni benefit are given, with seven “lame” benefits identified and the reasons why they aren’t effective. (About a 5-minute read)
What are the lamest alumni benefits?
I’ll get to it in a minute, but I first need to explain what makes a particular benefit lame or not.
Benefits are meant to help attract alumni to initially engage with your institution, and keep them engaged as they journey on their path to life-long giving. For any benefit to be engaging, it must be personally relevant to your alumni/ae.
This sounds like a common-sense strategy. But our research shows that most alumni organizations in higher education don’t see a need to give their alumni many benefits at all. Their "engagement strategy" instead skips the cultivation process and dives head-first into the solicitation.
That’s not an engagement strategy. It’s a solicitation strategy, and unfortunately, it is the most common strategy, used by 71.4% of alumni organizations. It’s also a big reason why two of three alumni professionals report that a lack of alumni engagement as their most significant concern.
Why must an engaging benefit be personally relevant to your alumni?
Because we seek out personal relevance every day. We unconsciously require it whenever we shop; we want it from our news sources, in our music and in entertainment. Personal relevance is something we demand… and we’re annoyed when we don't get it. From having to wade through SPAM to finding nothing but fliers, circulars, and junk mail in our mailbox. It’s all useless unless it’s personally relevant.
5 Key Elements of a Personally Relevant Benefit
Why aren’t more alumni organizations trying to engage their constituents with personally relevant benefits?
It’s a puzzling question, yet delivering on personal relevance is one of the biggest keys to successful engagement.
The research is quite compelling. I’ve found an exhaustive list of studies showing how personal relevance impacts advertising, communication, and persuasion. I won’t bore you with the details, but here’s a study with a long list of peer-reviewed, scientific research underscoring the importance of personal relevance in motivating people to engage.
While there is no such thing as the perfect alumni benefit, here are the five key elements of a compelling, personally relevant benefit:
- It solves a difficult or frequent problem for your alumni.
- It delivers compelling 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.
I’ve looked at all types of alumni benefits and discovered a few that are compelling, but many others that are lame excuses for alumni benefits.
Using the VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking study as a starting point, I’ll use data reported by alumni professionals who rank their own benefits according to each one's capacity to attract and engage alumni.
Here are the seven lowest-ranked alumni benefits, and why they are lame:
Lame Benefit #1: Discounts at the campus bookstore
Do your alumni view coming to campus as a convenient way to solve a difficult or frequent problem? Is the campus bookstore in close proximity to most of your alumni? It is easy to be on campus and find a place to park? Is it worth the extra effort to come to campus to get a 15% or even 25% discount on a limited number of items? Discounts are a powerful engagement tool. Why else would every retailer, airline, supermarket, or merchant use discounts to attract and engage their customers? But to engage alumni using discounts, the discount must meet the personal relevance test: they must add value, be in close proximity, be convenient and easy to redeem, and be unique/exclusive and not available to the general public.
If you were to give your alumni a 50%, 25%, or even a 15% discount at their favorite local restaurant, or at a popular big box retailer, auto service center, or grocery store, that would be very relevant, and solve one of the most common problems we all face: how do I pay less for the things I buy every day? An engaging alumni discount program offers unique, in-store discounts on everyday items, at popular merchants in all retail neighborhoods nationwide, wherever your alumni live. Such alumni discount programs do exist and are used by alumni organizations.
Lame Benefit #2: Access to campus services, like the library, gym, or cultural arts programs.
This is another frequent “benefit” offered to alumni, but more often than not, is irrelevant to a significant number of your alumni. Most alumni will not view your library, gym, or cultural arts programs as convenient or unique enough to utilize very often. Frankly put, there’s simply not enough compelling value to make these offerings a real benefit. Only 7% of alumni professionals report that this benefit has a meaningful impact on engagement.
Lame Benefit #3: Online community/alumni directory.
Of those organizations offering a branded online community or alumni directory, only 5.2% report that these services have made a significant impact on engagement. 77% of alumni professionals report that their online services/community has had “some” or a “minimal” impact on engagement.
When it comes to alumni online communities, not all are created equal. Some do well, but many are expensive and disappointing. Does your online community offer better functionality and services than free social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, or a myriad of other networks? Are more of your alumni connected to a public site as opposed to your in-house alumni online community? If so, it’s a pretty clear indicator that your online community lacks value.
What makes for a lame online community? When there isn’t a critical mass of your alumni signed up to use it, or they’re not generating enough compelling content to keep alumni coming back.
Lame Benefit #4: Free email or lifetime email forwarding.
A few decades ago, this benefit had some appeal, but today it offers no real value. And while it may be nice to have an email with the “.edu” domain, it’s not a compelling enough reason to justify the hassle, especially when it’s so easy to get a Gmail account. According to the VAESE study, roughly 68% of alumni organizations still offer this service, but only 4.9% of alumni organizations report that this benefit has any significant impact on engagement. It's also a powerful lesson as to why you should think twice before offering a lifetime benefit of any kind.
Lame Benefit #5: Auto/life/pet insurance
I’m a big fan of generating revenue from partnerships like insurance vendors, but sometimes organizations aren’t getting the best value for their alumni. As stated previously, discounts can be a powerful tool to engage, as long as the deal adds value, is easy to use, and isn’t offered to the general public. If you’re insurance program isn’t meeting each of the aforementioned key elements of personal relevance, it’s not going to be a real benefit, but just another product you're selling to generate revenue. Only 2.2% of alumni professionals report that their insurance program has any significant impact on alumni engagement.
Lame Benefit #6: Co-branded travel programs
Of those alumni organizations offering a travel program, 61% report that their programs have “minimal or no impact on engagement.” 32% of alumni organizations don’t offer these programs at all and for good reason.
Co-branded group travel programs especially (where a vendor offers a group travel itinerary with your organization’s branding) are usually not a good value if that's what your alumni are looking for. Your alumni will typically pay a premium, just to pay for middle-man expenses, including a percentage your alumni organization receives. Alumni can find travel deals online that have more value than what these programs offer. The appeal of traveling with other alumni can be overshadowed by the high costs. These travel offerings are not exclusive to the institution, (especially for smaller schools, where several schools are lumped together in order to have enough travelers to justify the trip.) Nor do they solve a problem for most alumni, because booking your own travel is much easier and more convenient.
Of course, larger alumni organizations have far greater success because they can fill an entire trip with like-minded alumni and friends. But when considering the total number of alumni organizations, they account for a very small percentage of our statistical universe.
Lame Benefit #7: Financial services/banking
This is often pitched as a benefit, but instead of offering ease, convenience, or adding value to get alumni to join, they appeal to alumni loyalty to get them to sign up, using a pitch such as “show your pride and bank like a loyal (enter mascot here.)” Of all alumni organizations that offer banking and financial services as a benefit, 86% report that this service has “minimal or no impact on engagement.” Let’s face it, changing banks is never easy or convenient. EVER. So don’t pretend that you’re making life better or making it more convenient for your alumni.
Alumni banking programs aren’t’ solving a problem for alumni unless you’re assuming that many alumni are gnashing their teeth thinking “I wish I could change to a new bank that makes me feel warm and fuzzy about my alma mater.”
However, if this type of service is generating revenue for your organization, go for it. But don’t sell it as an alumni benefit. You cheapen any other benefit that really adds value and delivers on the promise of personal relevance.
Now that you know the lamest alumni benefits, which benefits are most engaging? That’s the subject of our next article: The 3 Highest Rated Alumni Benefits.
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I’d love to hear your comments on this topic.