The Power of Knowing What Your Alumni Want

Engaging with your brand ambassadors

Why Now is the Time for Alumni Research

It is more critical than ever for communications and marketing leaders to understand alumni priorities, concerns, and evolving interests. Declining public confidence, rising costs, and skepticism about higher education value are taking a toll on alumni engagement. One in three young adults carries student loan debt, alumni giving declined 13% last year, and post-2000 graduates feel much less connected to their alma mater than older generations. Lower enrollments will lead to small alumni populations, making every relationship count more.

How can alumni communications teams best motivate and inspire alumni in the new normal? Research-driven communications and brand strategies can help your institution build trust, relevance, and affinity to impact positive change.

Changing demographics and perspectives provide a great time for fresh thinking and dialogue with your institution’s alumni. Amid uncertainty about how institutions will fare in the future, your alumni are arguably your most influential segment. Their opinions and willingness to advocate on your behalf shape perceptions of your institution in communities and workplaces. Their recommendations inspire others, including their children, to consider attending. Their belief that your institution maintains its commitments and cares about its graduates reinforces positive feelings about their life decisions and personal development. As invested members of your community, the success of their alma mater can drive giving, as well as impact, reputation, and referral. It is time to invest in getting to know them and what drives their connection to your institution today.

Typically, investment in market research is focused on reaching and attracting prospective students, but when it comes to alumni, there is a tendency towards assumptions and hearsay rather than market research to really understand who they are and what drives them.

Angela Paik, Founder at Cause and Effect Strategies and former Vice President for Communications and Marketing at Trinity College, agrees. “If an institution is going to invest money in market research, they tend to focus it on prospective students who are going to pay tuition. For the vast majority of institutions that are tuition-dependent, that’s a necessity. But I wish that more institutions could devote resources to research on their alumni. When I was at Trinity, the advancement office undertook a big survey of alumni. And it was hugely helpful and so informative. It can make a big difference in helping alumni to continue to feel connected to their schools and continue to feel valued.”

Why Research is Essential for Effective Communications and Branding

Reveals the “whys” behind the numbers and analytics: Net promoter scores (NPS), applicant referral counts, email response rates, annual fund and event participation, social media sentiment analysis, and segmentation analytics are good indicators of alumni engagement, revealing weaker and stronger performance areas. Primary research is complementary, getting to the bottom of the issues. For example, your alumni are skipping reunion and presidential speaking engagements. Does that mean your alumni aren’t interested in meeting in person, or that some segments prefer smaller group Zoom sessions for a more meaningful exchange? Children of alumni aren’t applying in the same numbers as in the past, but why? If your internal team is mired in circular debates about KPIs, alumni research will help you move to action.

Builds trust and authenticity: In times of uncertainty and lagging numbers, institutional leaders can be hesitant about what alumni research will reveal. In actuality, research is a sign of strength, a reflection of mission and an act of dialogue and respect. It shows that the institution is changing with the times and is open to new ideas from its most valued constituents. It asks questions about: What inspires/concerns you as you think about college today? How are we doing in the context of these opportunities and needs? What could we do better? Communications that acknowledge and engage with contemporary alumni expectations and priorities can inspire renewed interest. Confident institutions can even share findings from research in alumni communications, reinforcing transparency and inspiring confidence in adaptability and paths forward. 

Defines relevance for different generations: Many alumni programs look much like they did two or more generations ago, but attending reunions, traditional volunteering through board and chapter involvement, and annual giving campaigns may be less relevant and meaningful today. The speed of change means that pre-pandemic alumni research needs to be updated to reflect changing attitudes. Younger generations, coming of age in an era of skepticism about institutions, financial anxiety, and the value of college, seek relevance, transparency, and accountability from institutions. Authentic alumni research starts fresh. It asks questions like: What are you curious about and seeking to learn? What would you like the institution to offer you? What does involvement look like to you? Findings and insights help alumni relations and communications teams develop segmented approaches and programs that will more fully engage alumni across the lifecycle.

Illuminates belonging—the driver of brand and positive engagement: Alumni research commonly finds that belonging and connection are among the strongest predictors of willingness to recommend and give. To learn what drives pride and a feeling of ownership, ask questions like: In college, what experiences made you feel that you belonged? Today, what makes you feel proud about the college? Are there symbols or places on campus that remind you of your connection? Through understanding the roots of belonging, institutions can develop marketing strategies that are more inclusive, supportive, and effective in fostering a sense of connection and trust.

The Power of Research-informed Alumni Communications

Imagine creating the title and cover for a book without knowing anything about it. The result would be generic. Take that further in considering creating communications for a school. The way to stand out and really connect with your community–whether it is alumni or prospective students—is by getting to really know them and what drives their connection. That understanding is the core for developing custom creative solutions. 

2communiqué recently completed a comprehensive relaunch of Bryant University’s magazine. Our research included interviews with key stakeholders, focus groups, meetings with the people responsible for the brand messaging, and a campus tour to understand what made Bryant unique. In relaunching the university’s magazine as a brand magazine it was imperative to understand the school’s business+ curriculum and their audience celebrated for their grit and hard work ethics—similar to the brand research for an institution. The result is a magazine that embodies the values of the school and their strength delivering a business-focused liberal arts education.  

Bryant’s decision to relaunch this key communication is not unique. During the pandemic many schools had to make tough decisions with their budgets. Unfortunately many cut funds for alumni communications—and they are now feeling the impact. Many are realizing that they lost contact with this influential audience segment and are looking to re-engage. An effective way to do this is through strategic storytelling–reminding people why their alma mater matters and the importance it holds to them.

Research guides the development of those stories to ensure that you are connecting with your alumni in a deeper manner.

How to Get Great Research

Know what you will do with the results: Are you reimagining your communications strategy, preparing to launch a capital campaign, or refreshing your brand? Each requires a specific research approach and question set. Avoid a kitchen sink approach that asks about everything but doesn’t drill down on the topics that matter most.

Invest in external research support: Alumni research is not a DIY project. Your institution needs the objectivity, expertise, and credibility that external alumni research providers guarantee. Research experts who have worked with numerous institutions bring successful techniques and guidance that will make the most of your investment. And when it comes time to share results with institutional leadership and faculty, experts can objectively represent challenging findings and be a heat shield for the communications team.

Commit to custom research: Participating in a multi-institution benchmark research program may be less expensive, but oftentimes, 80% or more of the questions are standardized, which leaves your institution little room to ask the specific questions you need to know. “Customized alumni research projects are typically the way to go—especially if you have a lot of questions about your alumni’s motivations, interests, and preferences,” says Mike Hanus of Constituent Research. “Customized research projects allow you and your team to collaborate with a research expert in order to best gather insights on your alumni, and engage with them in a more personalized, meaningful way.” Message testing and communications preferences from alumni can feed directly into your own communications and branding goals.

Don’t ask for data that you’re expected to know: Alumni will be frustrated and skeptical of research that asks them to report when they last gave, what events they’ve attended, and whether they read your emails. These data are your responsibility to maintain in your alumni records, and alumni know it. 

Involve the internal team in the right way: Get leadership commitment to the project and an approved budget before you reach out to external vendors, so that they can give you their best proposals. Identify the decision-makers who will approve the research plan and question sets. Ask colleagues to participate in informational interviews where they can share their priorities and questions, then let them know when they can expect to learn about the results.   

Make research engaging for respondents: Respondents may be easily distracted during research by reading or watching other content, skipping among tasks, or even completing research while they’re in transit. Anne Lee Groves, founder of Lee Groves Consulting, says “Utilizing a variety of question types and methodologies yields a wider breadth of insights and combats research fatigue.  For example, we can ask respondents to review a prototype alumni magazine cover and tag what they like and dislike about it to compile a heat map of what was most and least appealing. We can ask respondents to share videos and photos from reunions for context about their affinity for the school. Adding qualitative research like focus groups, interviews, or online bulletin boards can go even deeper into the personal stories behind the numbers from survey research.”

Consider sharing the results: To really deliver on the spirit of transparency and engagement that motivated the project, share select results in alumni communications. When alumni recognize that their voices matter, they will be more likely to re-engage with your institution and to participate in sharing their thoughts in the future. 

Joselyn Zivin, Ph.D. is a strategic marketing and growth consultant partnering with institutions and nonprofits to deliver big ideas and education offerings to new generations of global learners and influencers. She brings 25 years of experience as university vice president of marketing and communications, head of strategy at an online university, market research practice leader at a global higher ed consulting firm, full-time faculty member, and senior consultant to 100+ colleges, universities, and education businesses. 

Kelly McMurray is the founder & creative director at 2communiqué, a content strategy and creative design firm. She founded the firm in 1999 to focus on strategy and design with a narrative lens. Working primarily with clients in the education sector including Bowdoin College, Brown School of Medicine, Georgetown Business, Iowa State, and the University of Tampa the firm advises their clients on how to connect and engage with the communities through storytelling.