If the past few years are any indication, traditional marketing methods alone won’t be effective in engaging with higher education prospects. Shifting regulatory and technological policies signals that you will need to get creative with where you look to for student recruitment. One such resource can come in the form of your institution’s greatest advocates and supporters — your alumni. Alumni relations can be a powerful force in guiding students to your institution and accomplishing your marketing goals.
The Power of Alumni
It can be difficult to conceptualize the overall influence that your alumni have over prospective students. Each student has their own motivations for pursuing an American education, but the influence of alumni certainly has its place among those. From a brand-level perspective, there are a few ways.
The legacy that alumni leave behind can have a lasting impact on how students view your school. What do their successes say about your institution? Is your school built on academic excellence? Is your school located in an exciting sports town that has a welcoming environment?
Students and families build their perception of your university from the real stories and successes of your past graduates. If you can leverage those accomplishments through effective brand-building by alumni relations, you can control the narrative of how prospects perceive your school.
School alumni can place your institution in the media spotlight and affirm your ability to cultivate talent.
A great example of this would be the lasting impact that Hope College alum Thao Le has had on her alma mater. Today, you can find her working as the senior financial analyst at Amazon. Still, not too long ago, she made waves at Hope College as an international student from Vietnam. As a member of the Mortar Board, Phelps Scholars, and Hope Asian Perspective Associations, you could tell she was destined for great things. The foundations Thao built at Hope College have led many international students to follow in her footsteps toward higher education.
Students are dreamers at heart. They have goals and aspirations for attending an American university and walking down the same halls as the successful alumni who have come before them. Seeing themselves in the alumni who have graduated from a school gives them hope that they can have the same experiences and accomplish similar goals.
Creating experiences for prospective students that place them in the shoes of their predecessors shows them that the future they’ve dreamed of isn’t such a dream after all. Some examples of how to do this would include conducting virtual campus tours that showcase historical places or moments in your campus’s history, highlighting special programs that alumni have taken, or creating a webinar led by members of your alumni network.
What do Alumni do for Universities?
To be fair, most alumni aren’t well-known or don’t have an incredible media following — there’s no guarantee that your school will ever have that type of student. However, alumni in all walks of life, with differing degrees of success, continue to impact their alma maters. If you cultivate alumni relationships, here are a few of the ways you can expect your alumni network to impact your future student enrollment.
1. Loyal Supporters and Ambassadors
The vast majority of alumni contributions will come in the form of word-of-mouth or social media marketing. Suppose your alumni had a memorable experience during their time in university. In that case, they’ll probably continue to engage with your university’s social media pages or speak positively of current events related to their alma mater.
The benefit of receiving this type of alumni engagement is that it requires no effort or direct cost to the school. As a result of their enjoyment during their studies, they’ll continue to engage and create conversations well beyond the scope of their education. That isn’t to say that cultivating these alumni doesn’t require any effort, although we’ll get into that later.
Another way alumni show their support is through volunteering at significant events, offering their time to help around campus, or even coming to speak at seminars if they are highly touted in their respective fields. Alumni who had a fulfilling experience during their time in university are known to be a nostalgic bunch. Finding ways to relive their college experience or spend time in the cities that made them who they are is something they love to do, and offering to volunteer is one of the many ways they choose to do it.
Students particularly look forward to meeting with and listening to the experiences of those who have come before them. Seminars from your alumni network hold a unique opportunity to hear directly from accomplished individuals who may have started where they are right now. The conception of the ‘webinar,’ particularly the increase during COVID, has provided students with a unique opportunity to have a more personable experience, and alumni a great platform to speak. Students can address concerns and ask questions — a great way to increase your alumni engagement.
The most impactful example of alumni ambassadors can be seen in international alumni. International alumni can show prospective students how an American education will assist with career opportunities in their native country. Sharing their experience overseas will also give prospects a better idea of what to expect during their study abroad and how to best prepare for their eventual move. The value of your alumni’s recommendation may hold more weight than most others as it’s the closest to what the student will likely experience.
2. Financial Contributions
The alumni network represents one of the most significant sources of funding for institutions. As American universities and colleges have been forced to undergo budget cuts and work with less funding, the impact of alumni contributions will be felt more than ever.
One of the largest departments affected by budget cuts around the nation has been the marketing department. Marketing is responsible for attracting new prospects and increasing enrollment — without marketing, your school can’t realize your goals for reaching out to international students.
Alumni funding is used for various projects, from facility maintenance to scholarships for exceptional students. Without on-campus instruction in many states, re-allocating some of those resources towards rebuilding/supporting a marketing team may be a great way to realize your goals once again. Your alumni network can act as both your greatest voice for marketing and the backbone that supports it financially.
3. Mentoring, Internships, and Career Opportunities
To this point, we’ve explained how alumni can make a significant impact on student enrollment even from a distance. The most meaningful impact they can have on students, however, is a bit more personal. Many schools offer professional mentoring or networking through their alumni network. Having connections is essential regardless of whether you’re a student from America or an international student.
The opportunity to be mentored or receive internship recommendations from alumni can be appealing to prospects because of the edge it will give them when they pursue their careers. Learning key industry insights from industry professionals or working alongside a team of experts can be an irreplaceable experience, the type that changes the trajectory of a career. Mentorships benefit both the student and alumni and have led many students to be more prepared than their peers by the time they graduate.
Students aren’t sold only on the experiences they will have at your institution, but the additional experiences they may have outside of it. Students with internship experiences on their resumes are sought after by workplaces. Receiving a recommendation from accomplished alumni can increase a student’s chances of landing an internship. Coupling their education with a taste of what they’ll experience in the real world provides a solid reason to consider one school over another.
International students have cited that one of the most significant considerations when choosing where to study is the guarantee of/opportunity to obtain work post-graduation. U.S. institutions have struggled relative to countries such as Canada and Australia due to the lack of work opportunities that have been presented to them during the application process. A strong alumni network that features the benefit of post-graduation employment is an enticing prospect for potential students and something that your school should look to emphasize in its recruiting efforts.
Creating Alumni Engagement
Having alumni contribute to your institution sounds nice, but the reality doesn’t always match expectations. Having an engaged alumni network isn’t as simple as reaching out when you need help or even after a student has graduated. To reap the benefits of having alumni help with student enrollment, you have to make them want to help.
The nurturing process for creating an engaged alumni network begins before the alumni have even started attending your university. Cultivating the relationship between your school and the student is key to retaining their interest well after graduation. A few ways to create meaningful engagement with students, and eventual alumni, is to:
1. Create a Personal Student Experience
Consider a student who has attended a university for four years, graduates in a month, and this is the first time they’ve been contacted in any capacity. Why would they care? There is no rapport, and frankly, not much can be done to convince them otherwise. On the other hand, if over the years the school has sent updates on potential work-study opportunities, shown interest in their experiences via surveys, and offered to help with their job search after graduation — that’s how they can gain loyal alumni.
The student experience begins the moment a student researches a school and extends to well after they graduate. The experience that’s offered must meet the needs of students at every touchpoint from their first year through graduation and beyond. Having a concrete plan for how you intend to do that is a good start.
2. Build a Community
Only so much can be done as an institution except facilitate the student’s and faculty’ experiences. Memories are best experienced together, and bringing fellow students, alumni, and even faculty together to celebrate and enjoy the moments at your institution is what makes a lasting impression. Now the question becomes, how do you do that?
Social media can be a great way to accomplish these goals, Twitter and Instagram in particular. These platforms lend themselves to being communal spaces where you can drive conversation and interaction. Share exciting moments that lead to student, faculty, and alumni engagement. Like how someone’s favorite brands continue to earn their loyalty, build that same desire to advocate for your institution within the students.
The alumni influence on future generations cannot be understated. Building strong relationships with students during their time at university will allow your institution to benefit from the support they’ll give after graduation. By treating current students the right way, they may also be influenced to pass it forward in due time.
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