The art of alumni communications

Fancy 67% click-through rates and events with thousands of delegates? Then target the stickiest communications channels of all: alumni networks

By Gabrielle Lane

EY has a $50bn problem. In the words of partner and global alumni leader Michael Destefano, EY is “unlike Amazon or Apple, where your consumer can connect directly with a product and have great loyalty”. Nor can the firm rely on undercutting or outperforming its Big Four rivals. “There are other organisations that can do what we do.”

Instead, EY’s publicly stated aim to generate annual revenues of $50bn by 2020 hinges on relationships. “As a buyer facing two firms that price the work the same, why would they go for company A over company B? They might like or trust company A more. The bottom line is that you need to create a differentiating factor that breaks the tie in my favour,” says Destefano.

That differentiation is a task familiar to all comms professionals who operate in a competitive market. What’s interesting is that EY has decided not to blitz mainstream media channels with promotional messages. Instead, it’s focused on engaging with its network of former employees to enable it to achieve greatness. “For us, that’s exactly what an alumni programme can do, and has done,” says Destefano.

For years, education providers have quietly fostered relations with alumni, keeping them up to date with peers and encouraging donations. Engagement rates in these networks can be incredibly high. “Comms from a trusted source can generate open rates of 60% for monthly emails,” says Kieron White, whose company, Think Alumni, manages content for schools and colleges. “These engagement rates don’t seem to vary with frequency.”

So it’s no surprise that businesses and brands are now committing to alumni comms. Here’s how to make it work.

WHY SHOULD I BOTHER?

Put simply, business connections are business opportunities. “Keeping front of mind with alumni increases the chances that they’ll look at their alma mater when making decisions about who to work with,” says Tracy Playle, CEO and content strategist at Pickle Jar Communications.

EY, for example, is a global enterprise of 200,000 employees, but its alumni number around 800,000. “They include CEOs and CFOs, entrepreneurs and educators, all of whom are well-placed to provide intelligence about organisations, markets and transactions. Information is valuable and, if I have a network of people who I can tap for that information, I am better off than I was the day before,” says Destefano.

He believes this focus on networks is more important in the wake of the financial crisis: “As the market becomes more challenging, it fosters a mindset of ‘who I know’. If I am trying to target an organisation, I need to find that warm relationship within it.”

Aside from providing direct business, alumni communications drive reputation. “Advocacy is its most basic purpose. We want alumni to feel positivity towards an organisation and say good things about it to other people, in person or through social media,” adds Playle.

WHEN DO I START?

As all members of an organisation are future alumni, the experts recommend a relationship-for-life approach.

The value of an alumni network should be communicated from day one, through content, meetings and events.

“The early introduction of an alumni programme means that, by the time they leave, they are emotionally connected and see the value of it,” says Destefano.

HOW DO I REACH ALUMNI?

Existing platforms can offer a time-efficient, cost-effective way of targeting your audience. The trick is to tap into ‘self-identification’ on social networks.

Individuals who list an organisation on their profile are more likely to be responsive to its communications. They are also likely to be connected to other alumni who they can influence.

EY uses LinkedIn to ‘activate’ former employees, deeming the professional network to give authority to its posts. Analysis showed there were 300,000 self-identified EY alumni on the site, and 70% of current employees were connected to at least one former colleague. Sponsored updates and direct messages to these people capitalise on this pre-existing engagement, producing average click-through rates of 67%.

WHO SHOULD I TARGET?

Erika Clegg, co-founder of strategic comms design agency Spring, advises treating alumni populations, once identified, as hyperlocal communities. “Such communities can be geographic, demographic, physical or virtual. What unites them is a common experience that allows them to create trust.”

Because these communities are built on an emotional bond, influence depends not just on rank, but on character and connections. So reaching more junior professionals is just as important as contacting decision-makers.

EY has run two events in the past year that specifically drew together alumni aged under 29. “Sometimes comms professionals think too narrowly about who they are trying to form relationships with,” says Destefano. “It doesn’t have to be the CEO or CFO; there are always people who influence the influencer.”

EY is looking to develop more young alumni programmes. “The average person doesn’t leave EY and wake up as chairman of Coca-Cola. You need to treat everyone as important because everyone could have a bright future.”

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I MAKE CONTACT?

Alumni should be reminded about their experience regularly.

“Frequent and light-touch messages deepen behaviours,” says Edward Sevilla, former executive director of strategic communications, alumni affairs and development at Harvard University.

News updates and thought-leadership articles can be issued on a weekly basis, while large alumni events should take place annually.

HOW DO I GET EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT?

To inspire positive sentiment, get nostalgic. To mark its 50th anniversary in 2016, Leeds Trinity University asked alumni to share their memories of ‘Leeds Trinity moments’ in video or audio form, or on a postcard. The responses were collated into a book and oral-history project. The campaign also included events and the launch of a website.

“The return on investment of this campaign is engagement,” says Hayley Cook, press and media officer at the university. “Within 18 months, our alumni membership grew by 10,000 people.” The number of people attending the 50th anniversary celebration was also up by more than 60% on previous events. “It’s had a really positive impact,” says Cook.

Playle sounds a note of caution, however: “Nostalgic approaches can have good success with alumni but risk only engaging those who already feel warm and fuzzy towards an organisation. An empathetic, audience-first approach is going to be a win.”

HOW DO I NAIL THE MESSAGING?

There is a way to balance emotional and rational messaging. “Alumni communication should operate at the intersection between the narrative of the institution and the narrative of alumni’s personal experience,” says Sevilla.

This can be achieved through thought-leadership stories in newsletters, articles and online posts. “Stanford University talks about the great challenges the world faces. It articulates how the university is positioned in that world and what it hopes to achieve for the future; the content is inspiring but emotional and touches a chord with alumni about their personal experience,” Sevilla adds.

EY has taken a similar approach. It has created video content of former employees talking about their work and industries for its online platforms. “It plays to the firm’s brand of building a better working world,” explains Destefano. “We’ve found people always mention the skills they learned at EY.”

EY has also used sponsored LinkedIn updates, including a post from its CEO and chairman, Mark Weinberger, explaining why he left and rejoined the firm, and followed these up with a practical call to action via LinkedIn InMail to join the EY alumni network. This layered strategy prompted 833 registrations to its network in the first six days.

ANY OTHER SECRETS TO SUCCESS?

At the heart of alumni comms is PR reciprocity, says Destefano. “If an organisation does well, then the brand of the individual who used to work [or study] there goes up, and vice versa.”


This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2017.

Posted in Editor's Picks, Internal Comms, Public Relations

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