Digital engagement: The new addition to time, talent, and treasure

By Whitney Wilson

Our free time is getting scarcer, and with so many pressures on spare hours, it’s no surprise that people have become more discriminating about how they spend their time. For organizations that put on events, that’s bad news.

Events are the engagement strategy for many institutions. Unfortunately, constituents are increasingly time strapped, and are unable to invest in such a commitment. This overreliance on events for engagement has left institutions in a vulnerable position where they know they need to find new, interesting ways to engage alumni outside of just hosting events.

“Declining event attendance is something that everyone is aware of but is reticent to talk about. That’s because attendance serves as a proxy for engagement at a lot of schools. To say you have fewer event attendees is to say you have fewer engaged alumni. This isn’t necessarily true, but it looks that way.”
-Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon, Former Director of Alumni Engagement, University of San Francisco

Work from the Alumni Attitude Study found that 70% of people say non-sports alumni events are important, yet 60% of alumni have never been to an alumni event. With statistics like these and mindsets like the one Dr. Dillon described above, how are institutions supposed to move forward? What is the key to unlocking secret to improving alumni engagement in a world where it is becoming hard to get and keep alumni engaged?

Our research found that there’s a large, overlooked middle in the constituent community who want to be actively involved yet don’t have the time to come to events. They seek medium-commitment programming that provide higher levels of engagement than just reading a newsletter but have a lower time cost than attending an event. This is where digital micro- engagement opportunities, online interactions that require more active participation than typical forms of digital engagement, come into play.

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Kind words through digital channels

In 2016, Western University launched Kind Mail, a digital micro-engagement initiative that satisfies both the constituent’s need for active engagement and the university’s desire to better connect students and alumni. Using Twitter and an easy-to-navigate submission form, Western created a popular program that allowed alumni to fill out a digital postcard with words of encouragement for current students. By using audience listening to identify campaign themes that resonate with alumni, recruiting top potential advocates to participate, and simplifying the call-to-action to maximize organic growth, Western University developed a program that exceeded participation goals.

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Use audience listening to tailor campaign themes

Western knew they wanted to do a digital micro-engagement campaign but they originally did not know what topic to center it around. Before launching Kind Mail, Western used their alumni Twitter account to figure out which themes had the highest engagement rates with their audience. They noticed that during alumni takeovers of their Twitter account, the posts talking about residence halls on campus exhibited higher engagement rates. They decided to test the theory that residence halls were a popular topic by one day highlighting residence halls in a tweet.

They asked people to respond with their room number and the year they lived there. The tweet had positive, high engagement and they received more responses with room numbers than they expected, thus confirming that this could be a theme they could center their campaign around.

Identify top potential advocates

When it came time to launch the campaign, they proactively reached out to individuals who had responded to the initial test tweet to invite them to participate in Kind Mail. Additionally, they specifically contacted volunteers and high profile alumni via Twitter inviting them to participate in the campaign.

Simplify the call to action

Kind Mail’s call to action is beautifully simple—provide words of encouragement during a stressful time of year. It is an easy to complete, short time commitment ask of alumni. They remember how stressful finals can be and jumped at the opportunity to provide some kind words to a student.

The submission form is mobile friendly and asks for a brief 190-character message. The form asks alumni to provide their old dorm number so a postcard with their unique message can be directly delivered to the room’s current occupant. Alumni also have the opportunity to provide their Twitter handle, which allows students to reach back out and thank them directly for their note. The nostalgia of thinking of their old residence hall, combined with the thoughtful call to action, led to some amazing participation rates and results.

The results?

Kind Mail took place over the course of four days. During this time, they didn’t send any mass email blasts and did no paid marketing. However, with over 73,000 organic Twitter impressions they were able to receive over 1,350 submissions, far exceeding their initial goal of 200. In year two of the program, they maintained momentum and had 1,337 participants, 235 of which were repeats. This brought their two-year total to about 2,500 unique participants. Interestingly, they were mostly non-donors, making this a great warming touch.

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When we asked Meghan Cocurullo, the Digital Engagement Officer in charge of this program at Western, about the campaign’s success, she chalked it up to its speed and accessibility. She stated that while not everyone can come to an event, with Kind Mail, “alumni can participate from anywhere in the world.”

Time, talent, and treasure have long been the three cornerstones of engagement. With programs like Kind Mail, and digital micro-engagement opportunities in general, advancement is beginning to evolve how we define engagement.

Source: “Solving the ‘Paradox of Event Attendance’ – Leveraging Communications,” Alumni Attitude Study, October 20, 2014, http://alumniattitudestudy.org/solving-the-paradox-of-event-attendance-leveraging-communications/.

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