It’s vital to look at what institutions are doing well – and not so well – in digital to be able to extract any common pattern for success or failure. My focus is across Alumni Relations and Annual/Regular Giving.

Content Creation

Institutions generate huge volumes of content. Most of it is written down, and never read again. This is a huge missed opportunity.

I encountered 9 institutions who believed that they ran an efficient distributed content sourcing framework across the institution – all but one of these did this by dedicating a specific communications representative to each relevant department. The remainder of the institutions stated that sourcing and curating content from within the institution was a constant strain – even if this content was only used once a year in the alumni magazine.

Content discovery across the internal and external networks of the institutions I encountered on the whole was in early stages. On digital, relevant content drives every engagement. This is a massive area for growth, and the more distributed this process becomes, the more growth in engagement institutions will realise. More on this in a later chapter.

Content Platforms and Marketing Automation

Most institutions are using a form of content creation platform or Content Management System (CMS). Typically, content creation is distributed to 2-10 individuals, whereas the actual task of updating the CMS itself with the new content or articles is concentrated in a very small number of individuals (often just 1-3). This reflects normal practice in the wider commercial sector, where truly distributed content creation within a brand platform is perceived as an organizational and reputational risk.

There is a wide variety of system used for the CMS purpose, with varying degrees of integration into other technical functions – some are simply used for updating the website with static content and the occasional news item; others include fundraising, event registration functionality, email list automation, and even alumni information management portals, including form-builders. Typically, the more complex a system, the fewer people have the understanding of how to update it. This creates bottlenecks.

There is little best practice in terms of the structure of these systems and tools. They have often grown as an agglomeration of similar-sounding functionalities, and as vendors have gradually widened the scope of solutions. It should be noted that those I spoke to who were using off the shelf industry standard CMS tools (such as WordPress) were broadly happy with the functionality and design available to them (even if this tool is much less functional); where greater effort has been made to concentrate functionality into a market-specific solution, most were frustrated by the complexity and reliability of the resulting system. Those who had chosen to use a variety of specialist but off the shelf vendors to serve each specific need (e.g. fundraising, event management, email management, website, alumni information management, custom forms) had greater satisfaction with their systems configuration.

The phrase “Marketing Automation” was new to most I spoke to, despite it becoming a prevalent phrase in the wider commercial space. Only 3 of those I spoke to had tried to implement modern marketing automation software on their digital implementation, with MIT running visibly the most sophisticated set-up.

Giving Days and Crowdfunding

Giving Days are the process of running a concentrated fundraising drive in a short period of time, often one day (but sometimes a little longer). Typically, there is a major digital component, though Giving Days are mostly multi-channel, bringing together on-campus activity with telephones, email, and occasionally direct mail. All those I spoke to were aware of or had previously used Giving Days. Only 5 of the interviewees were not actively planning to use Giving Days in future. Vendor diversity on all sides were enormous, and consultants often play a major part in delivery.

Crowdfunding at a university is the process by which the institution centrally adopts the methodology as another solicitation channel for raising funds, either using an existing platform, or commissioning their own. Around 75% of those I spoke to had considered or currently used crowdfunding – it was a new concept to the other 25%. There was considerably less confidence around using crowdfunding, mainly due to a lack of confidence that there was enough “fundable” material at an institution. Typically, when crowdfunding is deployed, it is used by the student body and occasionally smaller research projects/groups to raise small amounts of money (relative to the main capital goals of an institution). As this is a more specific piece of technology, vendor diversity was not as large – 3-4 companies are dominant in a much smaller market.

Social Media Promotion Programmes

Social Media in the Higher Education sector appears to have followed the same pattern that it followed in many other sectors: relatively late uptake, resourcing by temporary or junior staff, a lack of strategy, a lack of long-term investment, and a belief that traditional direct marketing approaches could be translated into the social media space. This is not to say that the delivery on social media is particularly weak – in many cases, social media engagement was contributing substantially to awareness, engagement, and ultimately giving to institutional projects and priorities.

The challenges stem from a lack of a solid understanding of the different medium that is social media, the differentiated platform uses (e.g. Facebook being primarily about representing real-world networks online, versus Twitter being primarily about discovery and connections to alternative peer to peer networks based around interest/influence), and ultimately the fact that strong engagement on social is about empowering people to act as mouthpieces for an organisation, rather than treating it as a one to many communication medium.

As a result, much of the sector is operating in a sub-optimal but stable equilibrium, and it is hard to break free from this equilibrium to try a different approach, as different approaches require substantial shifts in patterns of work, established metrics, and ultimately mean taking an untrodden path. The most success in social today is centred around amplifying particular events or giving campaigns on a specific day or days in a year. Facebook is particularly effective on Giving Days, because alumni are relatively well connected to each other and Facebook’s algorithm will promote content that is regularly liked or shared by connections, encouraging further engagement by those with an existing affinity. Institutions have become used to this and started adopting tactical initiatives to exploit it by requesting that in advance of a particular day, close supporters like and/or share a particular piece of content, amplifying its reach.

This is of course interesting, as it reflects a growing understanding that different networks have different strengths, and institutions are able to respond to observable and measurable results in a differentiated way. Over time I expect this understanding to strengthen and successful strategies for engagement on other networks will emerge. But this will take time, and lots of it, as social still tends to be operated as a detail by relative juniors in the alumni relations or annual giving space. It’s also affected by complex institutional policies and multiple social presences representing different parts of enormous organisations. This is likely to only get better when organisations shift focus onto underlying purpose and simple “rules of engagement” but otherwise decentralise authority.

Distance Learning

Naturally, digital provides a huge opportunity for remote/distance learning. As of yet, however, this is not an area that is closely connected to alumni relations. Delivery of courses to current students almost always include online components, but these are delivered with little or no integration into the journey of the student as they depart the institution. True remote learning by non-resident students (e.g. in the form of MOOCs) is often run by either an innovation, marketing or academic office, again with little cross-promotion or support within alumni communities. 

At present therefore this makes little or no impact on alumni experience.

Online Mentoring

Mentoring – particularly leveraging the power of digital for discovery, matching and delivery (as well as monitoring and evaluation) – was an aspiration at most of those I spoke to. However, the reality is that successful online programmes are few and far between. There was a perception in a number of clients that they had been sold online platforms for mentoring which had largely failed to engage those either wanting mentoring, or wanting to mentor, and whilst there was relatively sophisticated monitoring and evaluation functionality and integrated communication channels (even video chat functionality!) the actual take-up and engagement was often lower than with a traditional offline program.

Again, as a result, whilst there’s institutional interest, a need from within the organisation, and plenty of volunteers to deliver mentoring, digital is not currently having a significant impact on the alumni experience.

I believe this can and will change as we move to use digital as part of the solution, and move away from anything which constrains the interactions. For example, digital (and social, in particular) is a phenomenal way to keep up to date on what alumni are doing, and therefore identify appropriate mentors. Technology can also provide a far faster and more efficient matching process. But where it will encounter barriers is in the actual intermediation of the mentoring itself. Those seeking mentoring and offering mentoring are not looking for a new place to take part in it – they are simply looking for the relationship, whereupon they will take the next steps themselves on a channel best suited to their respective needs. It is my belief that digital has a huge role to play here, but not the one it is currently being used for.


Email is, of course, the channel which never dies. Everyone I spoke to was running regular email newsletters to alumni, and some were using email to make periodic asks for gifts. Email is not a conversational or social medium when used by an institution – it is by definition a broadcast channel. As a result, the results are comparable to low-attention direct marketing – and given the volumes of emails people receive and the habitual ability to ignore anything that does not immediately appear relevant, engagement rates with email were substantially lower than other direct marketing approaches.

There are ways to make email work better, of course. When a human reaches out personally to another human on email, response rates shoot up. When the email is about one thing, not many, and the thing is relevant to the recipient, response rates shoot up. One institution I spoke to had an incredibly power decentralized fundraising model amongst alumni, and email played a key part in this – with class agents reaching out by email to those in their year group on a personal basis to ask for support or donations. Because this was a specific, targeted and person contact, it was both hard to ignore and it also carried personal value for both parties, giving them the opportunity to build upon or create new relationships.

It’s my belief that the future of email as a marketing channel in this space is this form of decentralized advocacy and fundraising.

Online Communities

Private online communities have the potential to be enormously powerful, but have mostly failed to deliver at present. This is largely because of a combination of a lack of understanding of user behaviour by the institutions in the space, and what can be generously described as misleading selling by technology vendors.

Where institutions have created private social networks on their own platforms supplied by a vendor, engagement is remarkably poor. Users may login once or twice, and may respond to email triggers to engage or update their details, no activity takes place through these platforms. This is simply because the vast majority of their existing social engagement is carried out through existing social networks such as Facebook, where their community and friends already are. Replicating a subset of that network elsewhere with reduced functionality and relatively clunky interfaces, and where most of the “value” of doing so is already better served through more general purpose networks is never going to work. The Hooked Model I introduced earlier backs this up. There is simply insufficient material to drive any form of addictive behaviour.

Where institutions have been very successful on the other hand is in creating private groups within existing social networks, such as on Facebook or LinkedIn. These groups benefit from the hugely addictive notification-driven applications and networks that already exist, whilst also providing a safe, relatively private and highly relevant space for alumni or friends of the institution in question. At the heart of success on these communities is an understanding of where content is going to come from – and those who know how to listen to both internal and external audiences, encourage relevant participation, and curate and amplify the best have delivered fantastic engagement. The next step is converting this engagement into productive action.

Read on for Risk.