Having explained briefly why digital is such a different kind of medium to traditional direct marketing, here I’d like to present two models – borrowed from another sector – which can help explain two new ways to think about alumni relations and development in the digital realm.

The intention here is not to provide an exhaustive framework for creating new programmes, or even assessing/evaluating them, but instead to provide some tools by which we can better understand what works, and why.

Over time, I expect a research base centred around these – or similar – models to emerge. I’ll be posting updates and case studies from the work I do with clients in this space here.

Hooked Model

In 2014, Nir Eyal wrote an extraordinary book exploring what makes digital products addictive, and the common set of underlying principles or methodologies being used by designers of these products. The book was called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”, and I would strongly recommend you read or listen to this if you are building anything in the digital landscape.

I don’t wish to repeat the book or the theory here, but there are two things worth exploring.

Firstly – there is the “Hook Canvas”, an image of which I include here.


The underlying theory can be summarised as follows:

  • habits are formed when an internal “trigger” causes a user to take a particular action
  • to form these habits, we must first drive a user through a series of interactions, often repeatedly through external stimuli, which eventually create the internal stimulus
  • the diagram above explains the interactions. First, an external stimulus (for example, an email) drives a user to take a particular action. They take that action (ideally, this is as simple as possible an action, such as clicking a button or opening an app on the phone). The crucial step in “hacking” the brain to get someone addicted to the product is the Variable Reward phase – where the action they take produces a non-deterministic outcome – sometimes very good, sometimes neutral, occasionally even bad. Once this reward is given for the action, a user is then asked to “invest” in the product – by completing more information, for example
  • the reason the Variable Reward element is so key is related to the way our brains produce and respond to dopamine. If the relationship between a particular action and the outcome is predictable, our brains model it, and it then becomes boring. If the relationship is instead unpredictable, we then continue to explore it, and it becomes habitual/addictive
  • if you think through how you might use Facebook – the external stimulus can be the little red “notification” icon, or a buzz on your phone. The action is to open the app. The variable reward is the fact that the content you see may be great (a “like” on one of your posts, or a new friend) or it may not be (being invited to something you aren’t interested in, for example). The investment is getting you in turn to like something, update your profile, or post status updates, which you are constantly pressured to do. Eventually, you find yourself pulling your phone out of your pocket to check for those little notifications, even when you haven’t had a buzz…

Secondly – clearly, it’s not feasible to think of the entirety of someone’s interaction with an institution as a habit-forming app, and I’m not proposing that. But what I am proposing is that we remember that people engage repeatedly with things that they care about, and beneficial behaviours can be formed around those engagements.

If you think through the higher education alumni relations/fundraising sector, it’s easy to plot out most of the journeys our alumni will take against this canvas model – and where you will find yourself struggling the most is the “variable reward” section. What do we currently give to or “reward” our alumni with that is both valuable to them and of variable value? It’s likely the answer – with the exception of events – is nil. You may also find that your paths of engagement do not follow this kind of loop – or that they follow a more complex one. What Nir has shown is that to build habit-forming products, we need to keep these loops as simple as possible and repeat them often if we want to get people to care and form habits around their engagement.

The implications for the alumni relations and fundraising sectors are substantial. Just four immediately obvious ones spring to mind below:

  1. All interactions contribute to someone’s stage on a particular psychological journey. Therefore a fragmented series of communications which do not take someone on a particular journey coming from different parts of an organisation or institution will not build the kind of relationship you want.
  2. When we play with digital, we are competing for attention with professionals who study deeply what makes people care, and what addicts them. With this in mind, think carefully before doing things like creating your own “closed social network” for your alumni. You are competing against Facebook, LinkedIn, and a myriad of other psychologically optimized experiences for a small fraction of the attention of your users, and you are likely going to lose.
  3. There is a whole body of research out there teaching us how and when people will engage in our digital “products”. We should learn from it.
  4. Any digital experiences should be thought through well beyond the initial “ask”, and even beyond the “thank you”. What is the long-term plan for that person? How are we going to get them coming back? What is the next trigger/action combination? What variable rewards can we deliver? The attention you are competing for is valuable, and if you get it right, it can become life-long.

Chasm Model

In 1991, Geoffrey Moore produced a seminal book called “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products”, related to how people engage with and buy high-tech products.

His book is one of the most widely-read and used texts in the technology startup arena. It was in the very early days of the internet, and its prescience has been noted since, as it forms the basis for most of the technology purchasing cycles we have seen – from the Walkman, iPod, iPhone, and more recently services such as Netflix. Moreover, it carries over heavily into the B2B market.

What was clearly not predicted when it was written was how relevant it is to running a campaign, and in particular, running a campaign on digital.

Below is the well-known engagement cycle, which will be familiar to most business graduates:


The premise is that people fall into loose categories:

  • Innovators: those who will engage with/buy your product, or get involved in your campaign, with minimal friction. These can often be people connected to you, or those who share the same vision as you for the future.
  • Early Adopters: people who are not necessarily aligned on your vision, but are driven by a desire to be first, because what you are doing is cool, and it’s cool to be first.
  • Early Majority and Late Majority: where most people are. They exist on a continuum. Typically, Early Majority will engage with someone if they can see at least a few proof points of others – people like them – doing the same. Typically Late Majority will engage with someone if they fear they will be left behind without it.
  • Laggards: these are those who are late to the game, and who really only engage because of the fear of missing out (FOMO, in modern web parlance).

Geoffrey observed that there was a big difficulty in crossing the gap between Early Adopters and Early Majority. There are vastly different motivations between the groups, and it can be very difficult for those in the Early Majority to adequately assess whether anyone else is using a particular solution or engaging with a particular campaign. What is happening in the Early and Late Majority segments is that ever-increasing “social proof” is required to get people to engage. This can only be delivered by showing those in those groups that others like them are playing ball.

With direct marketing-based solutions, this same problem exists in fundraising and engagement. The vast majority of our audiences will only engage if they see others also doing so. But if you imagine a telephone, or direct mail campaign, where 90%+ of the respondents will only participate if they can see that one of their friends has already participated, we run head first into a brick wall. How are we supposed to provide that “social proof”?

What the sector has been doing now for decades is getting incredibly good at identifying and targeting Innovators and Early Adopters, and squeezing as much money as possible from them, whilst largely abandoning the Early and Late Majority. This is reflected in the circa 2% alumni giving rate in the UK, and the 8-10% rate in the US.

For the first time ever, digital has given us an opportunity to turn this on its head. Social media provides us with the tools for those who have engaged to demonstrate and publicize their participation. That gives us the social proof we need to crack the majority.

This is the promise of getting digital right. 

Read on for Personas and Audiences.