New set of expectations leads to evolution of technologies and vice versa.
Since the inception of the Internet, Universities have progressed in the use of online tools made available to them to communicate and engage with their alumni. As Internet technologies has evolved, so have the expectations of alumni. As such, the technologies used by institutions have had to evolve to meet the changing expectations of these alumni. Any alumni affairs office needs to understand that today’s alumni are graduating with expectations set by the websites and technologies that they are currently interacting with. Institutions first launched online directories starting the late 90’s. These directories were best defined as one-way communication, where the institution was delivering simple content or information directly to their alumni. As Internet technologies advanced, institutions began to develop more sophisticated onling alumni centers. These sites allowed alumni to begin to generate their own content, such as class notes, while managing their own profiles. In the early 2000’s, some alumni affairs offices began to uses these sites to drive advancement objectives by allowing online donations. Today, alumni expect to be interact with one another and build or extend their social networks created during the stay at the university. This progression of technology has happened in the span of about 10 years, and we should all plan the evolution of alumni expectations to continue.
Starting in the mid 1990’s, many universities began simply by publishing their popular offline directories online. Just like with many “brick-and-mortar” institutions at the time who were launching websites, these universities were limited by the available online technologies. These first online directories were “Web 1.0” technology, featuring one-way communications from the institution to the alum. Even though in today’s terms, these websites seem simplistic, they were mandatory at the time – as young alum’s expectations were changing. “Paper” directories seemed so outdated and sending these to these newer alumni risked disengaging them. Many of these first sites were further driven by cost-savings as well, when institutions looked to save money on printing directories. Even though e-commerce was being innovated through sites like Amazon and eBay, many higher education institutions did not invest in technologies to support online fundraising until later. As such, most decisions for these technologies were limited to the Alumni Affairs offices with limited involvement by Advancement Services. Lastly, these sites were limited to institution-only content, meaning that they were not designed to collect much data or present interactive content submitted from alumni. An alum might be able to change his or her address or update her name when she got married, but not much more.
Starting in the early 2000s, online technologies began to advance in sophistication. Consequently, as alumni began to spend more time online travel sites, news sites and stores, their expectations became similarly more sophisticated. Many universities began to invest in more advanced technologies to meet those needs. As such, a alumni began having access to more robust online alumni centers. In addition to an online directory, alumni began to update their information, add class notes, and engaging with their school in more sophisticated ways. This stage in the evolution is where we start to see alumni communicating back to the institution and communicating a little to each other. With the increase in sophistication, many alumni affairs offices began to seen their level of investment also increase. Many institutions began to demand more return on investment, which required more measured results. The most popular method of measurement was (and continues to be) the percentage of collected email addresses. However, some alumni affairs offices began to coordinate with Advancement offices and started to offer simple online fundraising programs – perhaps extending a annual appeal. Lastly, as the technology improved, many of these websites became more “database-driven” which meant that not only could they display data (like an alum’s name and address), it could collect more data, like interest. This information would become much more important as technologies continued to evolve.
In the late 2000’s, Web 2.0 technologies exploded onto the scene, extending alumni expectations to another, higher level. While alumni began to interact more online, they were continually being drawn to more sophisticated websites, like MySpace and Facebook. These sites allowed your alumni to catch-up, share information, and interact with things that interest them most. These were many of the same goals and objectives of the original alumni centers that many institutions just got through building and launching. As one would expect, there are now many technologies available for institutions to design and launch to meet these expectations. But these technologies must be intelligently designed, with the right expectations and mix of features. A university need not try to battle with Facebook, but simply needs to understand its advantages over these other to be successful. Three areas of that have proven successful for institutions as of late are peer-to-peer fundraising, content personalization and club/chapter websites. All three technologies offer the ability for institutions to create very engaging web experiences for their alumni, that cannot be replicated elsewhere. The focus of this discussion will be on the development of alumni social networks through volunteer-driven club and chapter websites.
Just like any project, launching a successful chapter and club online community requires clear project definition, intelligent design, planned execution, and results evaluation. The first step involves defining the project. As you will see from our examples, each university set forth a clear project goal and built defining objectives around that project goal. Next, the university must work to design the right solution using the right technology. You need to ensure you have the proper staff and support to execute a success plan. Lastly, the project objectives must be continually measured and technologies need to be evaluated. Let’s look at each of these phases in more detail and provide relevant examples where applicable.
Defining the project starts by setting a clear project goal. A good example of a clear project goal would be to create an online solution so that chapter/club volunteers and other alumni could create online networks and interact with each other. With this goal in mind, you should define measurable objectives. We will review some sample objectives on the next slide, but in summary these objectives need to match your project goals and must be easily measured. Before you begin to design your solution, you should survey your alumni to understand their needs for such a solution. These surveys should help you understand how your alum want to interact with each other within these club and chapter networks. Surveying will also help you understand what kind of support and tools potential chapter/club volunteers will want from you.
** I have listed four potential project objectives – each meeting the criterion of being easily measured. Email communication continues to grow in relevance, and has become a critical, cost-effective form of communication. Additionally, email communication is critical to connecting to younger alumni (40 and younger) and necessary for sending timely messages requiring immediate attention. Since club and chapter volunteers often have better and more accurate data on their fellow alumni, they can be helpful in harnessing better data on your alumni. Any chapter/club community project should expand the institution's access to correct emails for its alumni. Additionally, chapter and club online communities should drive greater alumni interactions as measured by increased traffic on the university websites. Next, cash-strapped programs can look to cover costs by charging fees on online transactions – whether through online donations, member dues or event registrations. These funds can help pay for ongoing support and cover other fees associated with the program. Lastly, better data and more interactions should be coupled with the delivery of more relevant information to your alumni. Chapter and Club sites have the benefit of localized information with the potential for deeper connections based on the interests of the alum. Volunteers can send targeted emails and share local stories with their members. These types of interactions can deepen the relationship between an alum and the institution.
Once the project has been defined, your next step is to design the right online solution. Start by educating yourself on existing implementations. Review other websites from comparable institutions. Also, since your alumni spend so much time on sites like Facebook and YouTube, you need to understand the expectations that those sites are setting for your alumni. Next, select the right technology from a vendor or developer that has a proven track record. Remember that the Internet is a fast-moving marketplace, so be sure to “future proof” yourself by selecting a solution that will continue to grow with your needs and be able to invest in ongoing development. Lastly, design your solution around the right features – not just all features available within the technology. The features must match the needs that your alumni described in surveys and should align with specific objectives. If a feature does not meet both of these criteria, then it should not be included in the finished design.
** When reviewing technology solutions, you need to look at four main technology areas. First, the solution should include a robust CRM with the ability to capture all forms of data, and exchange that data openly between systems. Since you will be granting access to data and tools to chapter/club volunteers, the system should have the ability to control functional access so that chapter/club volunteers get approved to get access only specific tools, like sendingemail, creating a news article or updating member data. The ability to create user roles and customize those roles will give you the flexibility to design the right solution. Next, the technology must be able to host and maintain 100’s of individual club and chapter network micro-sites. These sites can be created based on a template by the alumni association staff, but eventually need to be turned over to trained volunteers in the clubs. Chapter/Club volunteers need to be able to communicate with their members. Thus, the system needs to be able to provide simple tools to send outbound communication. While volunteers may prefer to use Outlook, it is important to push them to use these more advanced tools to ensure data and activity tracking of all communications. Lastly, university events will be the primary reason for most alumni interactions on chapter and club sites. Members will want to participate in local recreational sporting events, dinners, university lectures, and other forms of activities. This is the best way to engage your alumni and build affinity to your institution. As such, chapter/club volunteers need to be able to maintain robust event calendars and capture alumni interest and attendance for those events.
The next step involves the execution of the project and the ability to provide the right support to ensure overall success. You need to staff the project appropriately using the best combination of vendor and internal resources. While vendor staff may be expensive at first, their expertise will ultimately help your own staff adopt the technology faster. You must invest heavily in system by training both staff and alumni volunteers. Your staff should offer one-on-one trainings with new chapter/club volunteers or host ongoing training seminars for all chapters and club volunteers. You can post online recorded trainings or develop paper-based step-by-step trainings to supplement the personal trainings. The intent of this investment is to ensure a high rate of adoption of the tools – without training, the tools will go unused. Another good idea is training alumni-facing staff, like gift officers or regional staff on the tools. These individuals are constantly speaking to those key alum and can be a resource to answer questions.
The last step in any successful project is to measure the results of the program and evaluate as necessary. You need to periodically (that is weekly or monthly) measure the progress of project against your defined set of objectives. The results of the project should be shared with the entire staff and across the rest of the institution, as necessary. Sharing of results and successes should help to encourage adoption of the technologies. Positive results should be used to provide ROI cases for executives, while negative results should be used as opportunities to change behavior to ensure better results. Lastly, you need to understand that the Internet is always changing. Selecting a vendor that can future proof you against changing expectations is critical. Older technologies can quickly lose the interest of highly expectant alumni, so you should plan to re-evaluate your project every three to five years to make sure you are providing what your alumni expect and want.
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Just implemented. Just went through requirements gathering and project assessment. Nice UIAlumni networks
Engaging alumni with online chapter/club communities
Engaging Your Alumni to Build Their Own OnlineChapter/Club Communities2010 CASE District I ConferenceJanuary 28, 2010Zach Wheat, Director of Interactive MediaUniversity of Virginiazjw6b@eservices.virginia.eduKathryn Hall, Technical Product SpecialistBlackbaudkathryn.firstname.lastname@example.org