Activating Online Alumni: Building and Benefiting from Alumni Social Networks

By Meyers, Harriet | University Business, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Activating Online Alumni: Building and Benefiting from Alumni Social Networks


Meyers, Harriet, University Business


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If you build it, they will come. Your alumni are already Face-booking, tweeting and linking in, in ever-increasing numbers. Colleges and universities are taking advantage of this activity to launch and grow robust social networks of graduates that strengthen alumni engagement, boost volunteerism and stimulate giving.

"Over the years we've spent so much time and money engaging alumni regional clubs and affinity groups across the country with individual calls, phone-a-thons, visits and emails," says Keith Hannon, Cornell University's associate director of social media. "Online virtual communities offer a faster, cheaper opportunity to be more nimble and evolve in a way never possible before."

One unique aspect of social networks is that alumni choose to opt in. This offers the opportunity to build a foundation and database of supporters, or "ambassadors," who often have strong online networks of their own. Ambassadors can share news provided by their alma mater and promote opportunities to support the school.

Social networks offer colleges and universities cost-effective marketing opportunities. For example, Cornell administrators decided to capitalize on reunion month to drive more young alumni to its university Facebook page. "We paid $1,000 to promote the page to the 21- to 31-year-old demographic with a Facebook ad that ran for one month and generated 900 new followers," says Hannon. "At 90 cents per acquisition, no other advertising cost can compare."

Along with these benefits come challenges. "One piece of the puzzle for anybody trying to manage social media for an alumni audience is what network to jump on," says Michael Stoner, president of the higher ed marketing agency mStoner. To reach alumni, he especially recommends using Linkedln (in part because of the new university page options) and Facebook (already a key institutional channel). Stoner also believes other social media networks, such as Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, can be effective for schools.

Another challenge is finding the resources to manage social media properly. "It is very important to dedicate somebody who is knowledgeable about the engagement norms of the channel used, is plugged into the organization and keeps your business objectives in mind," Stoner says.

Here's how five institutions are using social media networks to reach alumni and support business objectives.

The University of Texas at Austin: A private social network

When administrators at The University of Texas at Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering surveyed applicants to its nontraditional graduate programs for working professionals, they learned that nearly one-third of them were referred by graduates of those programs. That's why "it made sense to invest in our alumni," says Trammie Anderson, marketing manager at UT Austins Center for Lifelong Engineering Education. "We decided to do that by providing them the benefit of a private social network."

She selected a private social network that uses a cloud-based web application by 360Alumni. "It was cost-effective to go with a developed platform created by experts in alumni network building," she says.

Her team's goals include: helping alumni of the engineering school's professional master's degree programs connect easily and privately, providing an alumni directory and interactive map of alumni locations, and allowing jobs to be posted.

Anderson announced the free network in email blasts to current students and alumni. "We push out fresh, current content about what's happening at the university and in the engineering profession," she says. "And we make a point to post information that's different from what's on our website."

The first eight months saw an "excellent" 40 percent registration rate (about 200 individuals), she reports. "We are building on the good impression our students gain while they're here, so they'll stay engaged when they leave, and in turn they will market the program for us. …

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