In the webinar “Virtually Interactive Homecoming From Home” Kutztown University Director of Alumni Relations Mary Neuenschwander and Senior Director of the McFarland Student Union and Student Involvement Leah Cassellia discussed with GG+A’s Senior Vice President Andrew Allred how their teams collaborated to develop a completely virtual homecoming experience, which included cooking classes, live music, and a dance party. The experience culminated with a virtual event that enabled alumni and students to use customized avatars to interact in Degy World. The immersive virtual experience enabled them to see live DJs, take boat rides, and watch fireworks.
In the webinar, which you can watch by clicking here, Neuenschwander and Cassellia examined how they used creative thinking and energy to create a successful alumni engagement weekend.
Here we share questions from webinar participants and answers from Neuenschwander and Cassellia.
Q: How did your participation rates compare to in-person events?
MN: We quickly learned that you can’t benchmark off in-person events. We offer free beer and free food for our in-person homecoming and we can’t replicate that online. But, if you compare our virtual homecoming to our other virtual events, this event had our highest level of participation with 160 registrants.
Q: How did you promote the virtual homecoming event?
LC: Every night leading up to Saturday we had a number of events that ranged from bingo to trivia to a virtual escape room to an open mike night. During every one of those events we advertised the virtual homecoming, which helped create buzz.
We also advertised the event on the TV monitors in our student union and sent messages to students about the event via email, Facebook, Instagram, and Campus Labs, which is our online student engagement platform.
MN: We promoted the event to our alumni in our e-newsletter, as well as throughout our giving day challenge. We also sent segmented email blasts to six affinity groups. That enabled targeted messaging based on the needs of each affinity group.
At the same time, we also worked with key advocates in each of those affinity groups who could engage their friends and peers via social networks and email.
Q: Did you invite young alumni? What was their experience like? Were they hesitant to join? What was the biggest learning curve?
MN: Young alumni were one of the affinity groups we targeted. By offering a free virtual experience we were able to able to engage them in a way that we cannot in an offline experience that requires them to travel back to campus. In previous years that meant that the only young alumni who would return were those within a 60-mile radius. This broadened our outreach. We’re optimistic that the experience will encourage them to stay engaged with KU.
Based on our experience, we realized the benefits of removing barriers for young alumni. This event didn’t cost them anything, it didn’t require a significant time investment—they could dip in for five or 10 minutes then dip out—and they could engage from home.
Q: Did it bother you or any of your alumni that the virtual campus did not match the Kutztown University campus?
LC: We branded the heck out of it. It is always sunny in Degy World. It was awesome, there was a beach, along with a number of other interesting spaces to explore, which everyone seemed to enjoy.
Q: Obviously you were happy with the event, but were there any downsides to it?
MN: We didn’t have any benchmarks to work off of, which was hard. We had to let go of the expectations that it would be the same as the in-person event.
It also took time to develop because we were building this from scratch. There was no existing infrastructure to work off of.
LC: It’s also worth noting that it is helpful to find ways to make your audience familiar with the platform. We had a virtual open house the week before the event, which helped ensure that there were people familiar with the tool who could help us build buzz.
By the way, one significant benefit is that a virtual event was about half the cost of the in-person event.