IRIS Donor Strategy Product Manager Tony Davey discusses the role of social media in building alumni communities. He looks at ways to make your website work harder to engage old boys and girls and considers some of the social networking tools available to complement your website.
While the article is aimed particularly at schools, there are some useful pointers that will also be relevant to the higher education sector and to other not-for-profit organisations, including charities and membership bodies.
If you're interested in knowing more about developing and maximising your online presence, please read the recently published IRIS NFP Solutions white paper. It’s written specifically for not-for-profit organisations. Simply click here to download.
Use your website to build communities
Today’s old girls and boys expect to be able to participate in online peer-to-peer communities, networks and forums. Having a strong web presence enables you to attract a new generation and re-engage those who have lapsed.
A web portal with interesting and useful content and privileged access to an alumni-only area becomes another compelling reason for former pupils to support your work. It reinforces their connection with the school and helps you to maintain the connection with them.
Keep new leavers engaged
Schools often find that for the first few years former pupils may show little interest in maintaining contact. They feel they’ve put their school days behind them. Gradually, their interest grows and they begin to see the value of having a ready-made network.
This is why we recommend that you sign up leavers before they go and offer them automatic membership of your alumni organisation for the first seven years. View this ‘loss leader’ as a way to maintain contact and capture any change of address.
In the meantime, it’s worth considering if you could offer unique content for recent leavers to develop their interest.
Find old boys and girls
Searching social media websites can offer a useful way to locate alumni who have disappeared off the radar. Spending just half an hour a week to track them down and drop a line to invite them to reconnect can pay dividends.
As a rule of thumb, Facebook tends to be the social networking site of choice for under-forties, with the professional sites, such as LinkedIn, gaining in appeal after the age of thirty.
Protect your online presence
Who owns your online presence?
It’s not such a silly question. You need to embrace the new media before a well-intentioned old boy or girl does it for you. Once they set up ‘your’ Facebook group, it will become difficult to establish your own official presence and drive people onto your controlled site. At best, your impact and core messages will become diluted; at worst you'll find your online presence has been hijacked.
So, while we would always advise that you take a considered, strategic approach to developing your online presence, please don’t leave it too long.
Also on the subject of controlling content, some of our customers have asked us how to integrate Facebook fully with our Web Connect online community software. However, think of the images that could end up on your website if you were to have a direct connection with no monitoring of content...actually, it doesn’t bear thinking about!
With Web Connect for IRIS Donor Strategy, we offer the happy medium that protects your organisation from some of the worst excesses of Facebook postings. Facebook-like buttons could enable visitors to your Web Connect site to post your news and announcements on their Status. They can then spread the information ‘virally’ across their personal Facebook pages. Viral marketing or ‘word of mouse’ is a powerful tool in today’s online communities. What news or information could you offer that your alumni would pass on to others?
Some schools are also putting links to ‘micro-blogging’ services on their website. Twitter is perhaps the most popular example. Who could be your bloggers and how would you ensure they stay on message without sounding stilted?
Keep alumni coming back for more
All these social media techniques are cheap, even free, to set up and run. But you need to be prepared to spend time managing your social media profile, engaging in the debate and keeping content fresh. Whose job will it be to look after your social media and update the information regularly?
If you can start the ball rolling with just one good idea a week, you will make your website worth revisiting. Don’t forget, too, you also have the perfect ‘market research’ vehicle for sounding out interest before investing time and money in organising an event or launching a new fund-raising campaign. Running surveys and opinion polls also creates a sense of ‘dialogue’ to encourage repeat visits.
One IRIS Donor Strategy customer allocates time every Friday afternoon to the job of updating their alumni microsite. As the site has caught on, former pupils have begun sending in their queries, suggestions and photographs. They all seem delighted to have a new opportunity to re-engage with the school and their contributions are helping to keep the keep the content fresh. Additional updating has become an easy task for the school’s alumni development office.