The basic rules of engagement haven’t changed, but the pandemic has created new opportunities and challenges

Engaging our constituents has always been at the heart of advancement. There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a profound impact on how we live and work, and that it has substantially shaken the higher education alumni engagement world. While alumni shops have long focused on bringing alumni together on campus, the pandemic has forced a change in the way we deliver engagement programming. However, it has not necessarily changed the fundament principles of engaging alumni.

In this article, I aim to explore how the pandemic has driven alumni staff to rethink our approach to the four rules of engaging alumni.

1. Create purposeful engagement

The yin and yang of engagement is the critical balance between satisfying the audience’s needs and the institution’s needs. When an institution finds the right equilibrium it makes its engagement purposeful.

For the yin side of the equation, we must seek to understand what our constituents want and what will produce an audience. For decades, surveys have sought to understand what alumni want from their alma mater. Often what alumni say they want and what they will show up for are different. Through trial and error, we have tended to focus on engagement that produces the largest audience. And, ironically, institutions have often been weakest at offering programing that many alumni (especially younger ones) have told us they wanted–help with career and professional advancement.

For the yang side of the equation, it is critical that the engagement feature, showcase or otherwise exhibit the institution’s unique qualities. Alumni organizations exist to build support and maintain affinity for the university they serve. This is often achieved by featuring the work of faculty, students and other institutional talent. When alumni organizations do not embrace the institution’s strategic priorities as a guiding principle for engagement opportunities, they fail to live up to their advancement potential.

In a recent (pre-pandemic) program review of one of our client’s alumni organizations, staff indicated that one of their most successful programs was an alumni gathering at a professional baseball game. The metric of success was that it sold out faster than any other event they offered. However, except for some co-branded merchandise included with the ticket, there was little connection to the institution. I call this a “so what?” engagement.

Another client institution gathered alumni for the opening of a museum exhibit that featured a discussion by a faculty member who had expertise in the subject matter. In this case, not only did the alumni gather for a topic of interest, they also witnessed how the institution played a role in the advancement of knowledge. That type of program offers a stronger balance toward purposeful engagement.

2. The complete production

Throughout my career in advancement, I have tried to impress upon staff the importance of every program having a complete production schedule. Most importantly, every event needs a single manager who is in charge and calls the shots. In a perfect world, this is not an alumni relations officer or a development officer (he or she needs to be interacting with the audience), but someone specifically trained to be an event producer. After determining the purposeful engagement, there are four aspects of the activity that need to be managed:

  • Where: In conjunction with advancement team members and based on what we are trying to accomplish, the first step is determining the ideal logistics for the event. Prior to the pandemic that might include elements such as the site, parking and room set-up. Now the main consideration is timing. While most in-person engagement events were scheduled on weeknights or weekend days, the always-at-home world of the pandemic has expanded the possibilities.
  • Who: Advancement team members need to outline every participant’s role, as well as develop a program script that details the wide range of elements including: when the program will begin; who will serve as the emcee; how speaker introductions will be handled; who will oversee clock management; how the Q&A (and the audience) will be managed; how the program will close; and the post-program opportunities that will be made available. These aspects are as important in a digital environment as they are in-person.
  • How: The technical set-up and run-through can make or break your program. Elements such as audio, visuals and videos, lighting, internet connections and staging are vitally important for virtual programs. As we moved swiftly into the pandemic era, many alumni organizations scrambled to salvage programs by transitioning to livestreaming and webinars. Whether this was a new or expanded use of the technology for your shop, it has been anything but smooth. From so-called “Zoombombing” to camera and audio mishaps to dropped internet connections, these remote events have often lacked the polish of our in-person events. After a period of experimentation, it’s time we get streamed events to be as professional and successful as in-person gatherings.
  • Messaging: While many institutions are still developing a comprehensive and integrated social media strategy, that type of push can position a program for success. Among the many benefits such a program can deliver are promoting the event through multiple channels, messaging during and after the event to stir FOMO (“fear of missing out”), re-promoting the availability of a recorded program after the event, along with participant reaction and highlighting related materials available online. 
3. The guest experience

The ultimate goal for all of our engagement events is to have every participant leave feeling enriched and their affinity and belonging to the institution strengthened. But that is rarely accomplished through mere attendance. It must be cultivated through strategic touch points. For in-person events, these include a warm welcome at arrival, comfortable socializing with others, and introductions to key figures (such as faculty, administrators, other guests). This activity needs to be choreographed in advance and facilitated by alumni relations and development staff along with key leaders.

At the best events, those “working the room” should be assigned individuals to seek out and scripted with advance notes about recommended conversations and actions. We are seeking clues to further engage alumni in the life of the institution. Shortly after the event, personal notes thanking participants for attending and seeking their feedback are essential. A broad message should also be sent to all guests with an event evaluation, information on where to locate additional information about the speakers and subject matter, cross-marketing other events, and links to support the subject matter through the university.

For a remote/digital event, ensuring a positive guest experience can be challenging. Engagement planners need to employ creative ways of making the guest experience fulfilling. Some institutions are deploying Zoom break-out rooms for discussion or limiting participation to small groups that allow for discussion (such as book clubs), having staff follow-up with guests immediate after the event with a chat or phone call to get feedback, and allow guests to see other guests so they know who else is participating.

Digital gatherings need to break up talking heads with visuals and videos, have scheduled breaks and hold to a tight timeline. Now is a great time to experiment with different formats that serve to maximize engagement toward positive guest experience.

4. We are what we measure

The fourth rule of engagement is to determine the goals and measurements of success in advance of the event. While many institutions have long measured participation by the “butts in seats” metric, that’s rarely acceptable. We need to determine how each engagement activity serves to strengthen the relationship between participants and the institution. Measuring the interaction between engagement and philanthropy is important. This starts with understanding alumni behavior as engagement consumers, including tracking the steps of interest, response, registration, participation, post-participation, and feedback. We also need to look at engagement types, frequency, individual timelines and social media responses. I encourage alumni relations professionals to collect as much data as possible—even if your current database does not have fields to store everything you collect. It is better to have spreadsheets of data in need of sorting and analysis then not have the data at all. 

What we’ve learned about the digital engagement world, so far

Prior to the pandemic some institutions had launched nascent digital engagement programs, but they were mostly add-ons and after-thoughts to in-person events or viewed as experimental. Now most institutions live in a world of digital engagement only.

In transitioning to the new reality, there have been pleasant surprises. Many institutions are reporting dramatic increases in the number of alumni participating in alumni programs. Digital engagement removes many barriers from participation, especially related to distance and travel time, and increases inclusion. Personal investment of time, cost and social capital for participation is low. However, the increase in participation also increases the stakes for alumni relations professionals to keep participants interested and engaged. It’s a great time to work in partnership with other campus offices on developing interesting content. And, often, those hard to schedule VIP speakers (including celebrities) are more willing to participate in an online event.

While most graduating students and their families were not looking forward to an online commencement ceremony, the digital participation for these events was extremely high. And, while they lacked the pomp and tradition of in-person events, they came with other advantages such as less overly long speeches, not having to endure less than ideal weather and often greater focus on the individual graduate.

The longer the pandemic wears on, the more sophisticated we will become at digital engagement. And, while it will be delightful to offer in-person activities again one day, it is likely that a high percentage of our engagement will remain online. Perhaps this is just the “black swan” event that the profession of alumni engagement needed to broaden our reach for the long term.


Keith‘s counsel is available to your organization as part of GG+A’s new Virtual Resources for Advancement Professionals offering, which you can read more about here.

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About the author

Keith Brant

Vice President

Keith Brant, Vice President, has led advancement teams at distinguished higher education institutions for more than 30 years in all areas of advancement, including development, alumni engagement, marketing, advocacy, special events, and advancement services. He has created strategies for ambitious major campaigns that have exceeded goals, directed programs through transitions,…