In my previous post, I discussed the changing landscape of university engagement. Whether you are a university president, a junior level alumni engagement staff member or somewhere in between, here are a few thought starters to help spark a dialogue about what can be done to refocus university engagement:

1) Think of a university as a media company – I tell university and foundation leaders that I view colleges as holding companies. You have several businesses that the university “owns” – the education business, the business incubator business (R&D), the real estate business, the financial service business (ex – your investment strategy) and the one you don’t think of – the media business. Universities produce vast amounts of “content” every day. Amazing guest lecturers and performers are on campus, the dozens of magazines and online content and in many cases triple digit numbers of social media channels. Yet, in nearly every instance, there is no Chief Content Officer at a school to organize, package and deliver the content to its intended audience in an efficient way.

2) Your correspondence is assumed to be an ask for money – We’ve actually polled hundreds of alumni from all types of universities. It’s incredible to believe, but 100% of the alums we’ve asked view an email, phone call or direct mail piece from their alma mater as an ask for money BEFORE they even open it. Talk about alumni engagement! This dynamic needs to change. Yes, the ROI of outreach is a statistical reality, you will get some return each time you put the throttle down with an outreach, but, as I told my alma mater (Northwestern), I received 18 pieces of correspondence in one month and I acted on only one of them – it was an invitation to host current students for dinner.

3) Ask for advice – This is a solution to the above. The old adage “if you want money, ask for advice and if you want advice ask for money” holds true moreso in this space than any other I’ve encountered. Through our work with so many universities we’ve had a unique entry point to many high profile and wealthy alumni. These “top of the development pyramid” folks are well aware that development officers fret about contacting them and how to engage them. Nearly every single high net worth individual we speak with would welcome more conversations with the university IF the schools would ask them to share their advice with current students. Which leads me to….

4) Alums want to be “back on campus” – I know, you’re thinking “duh!”, we know that! However, I’m asking you to rethink what getting back on campus means. When I recently asked the head of annual giving of a Top 20 university for the most surprising success story she has had, she told me that she created a panel discussion from a specific topic as part of career night. One of those who returned gave a $5 million gift and she didn’t even make an ask. It’s unrealistic to get every alum back on campus, but if you create an online platform (and don’t you dare think it should be at your transactional “” site) that offers value to your readers they will come. This platform, which I’d recommend produces content DAILY (very achievable despite what you might think), also becomes a platform for you to reach out to alumni and make a specific ask for them to a)share their advice and b)be put in a positive light among a peer set they hold in the highest regard. With this type of approach, every alumni is now open to communicate within a way that can either begin, repair or strengthen a relationship.

5) You can’t have a one size fits all message – I’m fascinated by generational studies with a particular bent on media consumption. A Millenial doesn’t understand why anyone would want their name on a brick on campus. A Baby Boomer can’t understand why a Millenial would give money to a Kickstarter project. Yet, universities continue to distribute content that has one message and hope that it will resonate based on the connective tissue of the affiliation of the school. Millenials are driven by peer impact. Baby Boomers are driven by legacy. Yes, this is an admittedly large oversimplification in the interest of brevity, but you see the point. The emotional engagement button is different between (and often within) generations and if you don’t parse your message accordingly you’ll miss the mark on triggering a response.

I invite you to share your feedback. The communication landscape has changed so dramatically in the past decade that alumni engagement has never been more challenging, yet it has never offered so much opportunity.

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  • Ron Cohen on at

    Jay, you nailed it. Good stuff and we are seeing different, positive results by having made adjustments in line with your points.

    Ron Cohen
    VP Univ Relations
    Susquehanna (PA) University

  • Jay Sharman on at

    Thanks Rob. It means a lot coming from an insider like you! I’d love to learn more about some of those successes so I can learn what’s working. Congrats!

  • Mike Sear on at


    Bill Clinton spoke last year at my alma mater – DePauw University. In the alumni magazine there was a quick blurb wrapping up his comments. Later I learned that one student was given access to the former President while he was on campus. I thought that should have been the cover story of the alumni magazine – “one student has the opportunity of a lifetime.” That’s the type of content I want to see – stories that how is my university making a difference in the lives of its students and alumni. Then connect that experience with why it’s important to give to the university. Now you’re making a compelling case on giving.


    • Jay Sharman on at

      You hit on a key point. The value in editorial curation. In your example, the story that resonated with you was one that was not covered deeply enough or left you wanting more. Yet, technically DePauw did cover it, so from their perspective it “was in there”. Often times, folks tell us “we have a social media presence..we have a Twitter account..etc”. Having the platforms doesn’t guarantee that you’re connecting or engaging the alumni. This is where the true value gets unlocked. To the point of one size message doesn’t fit all, this very story could’ve been leveraged three (or more) different ways on three (or more) various platforms.

  • Beth Truta on at

    Jay–this is great. #1 is a huge learning for the higher-ed space so the sooner they start understanding the better!

    • Jay Sharman on at

      Thanks Beth. Indeed, it’s a different mindset, but one that is becoming more valuable each day. The challenge is to really think past “this is the way we’ve done it” and really start breaking down the walls inherent in large schools in particular between colleges, communications infrastructures etc…Thanks for the note!

  • haag0025 on at

    Great ideas, Jay. Alumni engagement is an evolving topic, and there is certainly a gap in the research to understand the future of alumni engagement. Universities need to a better job of aligning alumni engagement goals and strategies among its various colleges and alumni associations. For example, the business school at the University of Minnesota (my alma mater) has a very different alumni strategy than the College of Liberal Arts, and to that effect, the U of M alumni association has their own goals and strategies to attract alumni. The U of M does have opportunities for collaboration, but the real issue is understanding our recent alumns and future graduates. I would guess that many of the B1G schools have similar examples.

  • Jay Sharman on at

    Go Gophs! Thanks for the note. I really think in a future post I should break it down by size of school. One of the inherent challenges I see with the larger state universities is the fact that each college/school within the university is decentralized in many ways and thinks of their respective silo/brand as the affinity. When you talk to most alums, their affinity is ultimately with the school, the experiences within that school played a role in the affinity but its about the brand of the school. The communications outreach from the College of Liberal Arts (or any of the colleges) gets parsed separately from the umbrella brand. A ton of inefficiency within the overall university on this communication set-up. Gotta break down the silos. Easier said than done.

  • Vicki Rennecker-Nakayoshi on at

    Jay, this is all great. I would like to know what you consider to be the best online platform to reach out to alumni and keep them engaged?

    • Jay Sharman on at

      Vicki – fantastic question. Just like there are no magic bullets for a one-size-fits-all message, the same thing applies for platforms. As you probably could guess, media and content consumption varies by generation, age and demographic – and even these are generalizations. We work with a media market research firm, Magid & Associates for this very reason. You’d be surprised by not only which age groups are consuming which type of media on which platform, but also WHEN they receive it.
      Simply put, any content strategy must live under the premise that your alumni will want content to delivered to them in their “ecosystem”, if you will. For some, that means connecting with them on Twitter. Others, it could be Facebook (skews much older than you might think). For others, if you have a compelling blog or online presence with daily content, they may come to you.

      The key is to have a centralized content “hub” strategy and ensure that you’re delivering the content in to all the various channels where your alumni are consuming content. It’s complex, and relatively complicated, but don’t be overwhelmed. That’s why firms like ours exist to help!

  • Piper Donnelly on at

    I agree, messages to alumni need to be tailored specifically to them, and I agree that they want to get back on campus. They want to stay engaged, it’s all about giving them the right resources to do so. In a recent case study, University of Texas seems to have alumni relations down pretty well with their Texas Exes organization. They get alumni together for face-to-face interaction with numerous events, and the alumni seem to love it.

  • Jay Sharman on at

    Thanks for sharing some of Verge Pipe/your team’s work! I think one of the keys to large scale engagement is the word “AND”. High touch events are great. Creative engagement online, including designing your own wine label is great. And…and..and..
    One recent development exec told me they had 25% of alums that they believe they’ll never get back or convert. 25% that are highly engaged. It’s the on-the-fence 50% that they are focusing on and to this point it’s about relevancy of content, frequency of touches and a way to measure increased engagement. The events are definitely a piece of the equation, but what about all the days between events? More to come..

  • Carolyn on at

    Great pointers. We have visited over 400 campuses (and looked at their websites for researching), and you are right on the money! Some are colleges in general are very organized, welcoming (to visitors and alumni alike); some are a disaster. I was interested to read this post from a little different perspective. We are a small, private company that travels the country photographing college campus architecture. We sell the fine art images on our website. They are clearly striking a chord with alumni, as our sales this year have tripled since we began selling last year. At this point, we would like to start building a B2B aspect to our business by partnering with college alumni associations as we are realizing that the connection to their college is more than sports (!) and we would like to help them promote a way of reaching alumni through the campus architecture. Not sure where to begin. Any suggestions for how to approach this sort of partnership? Thank you.

    • Jay Sharman on at

      Carolyn – I’d invite you to talk with some of your existing clients first. Since you’ve tripled sales presumably that includes several colleges. Each school has its own labyrinth to navigate. As you likely know, they are VERY silo-ed when it comes to decision making. Most alumni associations have at least one marketing or communication executive and that would be the profile I’d start with if you don’t have pre-existing relationships.

      • Carolyn on at

        Thanks for your advice Jay.

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