Alumni Engagement: Is it a pyramid or a funnel? Neither!
My first professional stop in higher education was in direct marketing for engagement management at EAB (formerly Royall & Company). One of the biggest perks of working at EAB is often you had the opportunity to work and travel with Dick Whiteside. Dick, the former VP of Enrollment at Tulane, was an infectious personality, a tremendous storyteller, and you any amount of time you got to spend with him on any given day would result in learning something valuable.
In enrollment management, you have a very linear goal from prospective students to admit to deposit to enroll. When Dick presented to schools, he would always show a slide with the enrollment funnel. He’d promptly click a button, the funnel would flip into a pyramid and would exclaim “it cannot be a funnel because funnels imply that gravity does the work for us!” Getting high school students to enroll in your institution is challenging at every level and so is grabbing the attention of your alumni base.
In alumni relations, there are well thought out funnels, pyramids, cycles, and even spider webs. However, there isn’t that one-size-fits-all linear path that fits in enrollment management. We have the challenge of not only energizing and activating our alumni but doing that through the course of someone’s life.
In Part 1 of this series “Alumni Value: is it about giving or activating” we’ve hopefully established two consensus hypothesis:
The more engaged an alumnus is, the more likely they are to give.
The primary goal of an alumni relations office should be activation and engagement.
With this established, whatever visualization you want to display for alumni relations should not include giving and should not seek to demonstrate the monetary value of your alumni. Instead the fundraising visual should live on a different plane since that is not the end goal of an alumni relations professional.
Personally, I like to visualize our work as a pipeline or series of pipes. Pipes can feed into other pipes (giving) and can also help with the prospect of continuity fluidity of the involvement of an alumnus throughout the stages of their life.
The Engagement Pipeline (Alumni Relations)
The first step in establishing your engagement pipeline is creating the categories or stages that your alumni base will reside in at any given point in time. Just establish this structure will set you up nicely down the road to start establishing an engagement score (more on that in a later piece).
The “Unengaged” portion of your pipeline is pretty self-explanatory. The most important thing to remember is that, with the majority of institutions, this will always be the most substantial portion of your pipeline. This is the group where we are merely trying to pique their interest using meaningful messaging and unique value propositions.
Do you have those alumni who like every single thing you put on Instagram but never come to an event or aren’t active in any other way? Those are your “micro-engagers,” and they have tremendous value. I would define this as the group who are actively sharing and commenting on social media, and also those who are clicking on your emails (not merely opening).
Think about all the opportunities your department provides and then think about his portion of the pipeline of the people who are active in those opportunities. These are your alumni who have attended events, joined a chapter or group, are participating in career services, or have found some other way to get involved with your programming.
The next logical step for activated alumni is for them to become an active volunteer. Super Alumni are your volunteers and color bleeders. Event volunteers, chapter leaders, board members, admissions representatives, giving volunteers, etc. all fit into this category.
The path is not linear...
Contrary to the graphic above, the process of activating an alumnus is not a linear one. At any point, someone can jump from an “Unengaged Alumni” to any stage in the pipeline, and at any point, someone can become inactive or unengaged. This not only speaks to the need to listen to your alumni base to provide unique value propositions throughout the life of an alumnus but also to how meaningful messaging can help expedite your engagement pipeline.
For example, you may notice that someone is mainly involved as a micro-engager but hasn’t moved on from that stage. That cohort of your population is a perfect opportunity to message with digital volunteer opportunities such as becoming a social media ambassador or network catalyst.
When I worked at Longwood University, we had an alumna who lived all the way out in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. In the past, there wasn’t much opportunity that we could provide her to engage beyond giving. However, with a digital-first approach, she became a social media ambassador and offered incredible digital capital (pictures of her in Longwood gear in a cool place) and professional value as she exhibited unique opportunities for Education majors at Longwood.
The point of this isn’t whatever wacky visualization you want to choose to represent your engagement flow (never hire me to be your plumber). However, more about knowing the next logical engagement step for an individual to take along their journey.
If we have tracked and categorized the engagement of our alumni, then we have a tremendous advantage in further engaging them with curated opportunities.
Think about ways not only to categorize your engagement but also to collect engagement interests. That way when an opportunity comes up to get more involved, then you have the most logical step in your portfolio of engagement initiatives to offer them.
Take the profile above, for example, the next logical step for this person would be to get them involved as a group leader of some sort.
In short, you can be agnostic about whatever representation is out there, but remember that there is no end of the funnel or tip of the pyramid. We’re in a lifelong relationship with our alumni and one that always needs cultivation, growth, and innovation to make sure we are meeting the needs of our alumni and providing a mutual relationship of value.