Thursday, February 5, 2009

schools study ways to promote digital alumni connections

By Lee Chilcote
Published in Crain's Cleveland Business, 1/26/09

Imagine a group of Oberlin College alumni, gathered in front of a high-definition television in New York City or San Francisco to watch a concert being performed live on campus.

That’s the vision of Ben Jones, Oberlin’s vice president for communications. “We need to create a communications system that engages alumni in lifelong participation,” says Mr. Jones, who sees technology as a tool to link alumni with campus activities.

Alumni communications in Northeast Ohio are rapidly changing as colleges and universities use the next generation of technology — including blogs and social media tools — to reach out to alumni. But many alumni groups are struggling to effectively use technology and stay on top of technological trends.

“Technology has shrunk the world, and it makes it easier to communicate,” says Dan Clancy, executive director of alumni relations for Case Western Reserve University. “But we don’t want to send out e-mails that people don’t read, so we try to be strategic.”

Citing a digital divide, most schools still send alumni magazines by mail. Many of these institutions also offer additional content online and send e-mail newsletters to appeal to Internet-savvy alums.

“We have many alumni who grew up with technology, and others who didn’t,” Mr. Jones said. “In five to 10 years, this gap may not be there. In the meantime, we don’t want to leave anyone behind, but we also don’t want to limit ourselves.”

The divide, Mr. Jones adds, is not necessarily between older and younger alumni. “We have older alumni who are computer scientists that helped to create the Internet, and younger alumni who don’t use the Internet every day,” he says. “There is a spectrum in each generation.”

The primary difference, says Carolyn Champion-Sloan, executive director of alumni affairs for Cleveland State University, is in how alumni use the Internet: “Those over 35 use e-mail to communicate, but aren’t necessarily on it all of the time.”

Lines of communication

Technology has afforded alumni groups the chance to communicate quickly and to target communications to specific alumni groups, CWRU’s Mr. Clancy said. He cited a recent visit to Tokyo by CWRU president Barbara Snyder. After the alumni association sent out an e-mail invitation to the Tokyo alumni chapter, 50 alumni attended the reception.

“The next morning, when I arrived into the office, pictures from the event were waiting in my e-mail in-box,” Mr. Clancy said.

In order to cultivate personal relationships with alumni, schools also are trying to personalize their communications by creating alumni-only sites that allow graduates to specify their interests and network with other alumni where they live.

“Our graduates could be anywhere, chatting with one another in real time,” says Mr. Clancy of the AlumNet system recently launched by CWRU.

Oberlin also is working on an opt-in communications system that will, among other things, allow graduates to receive their alumni magazine by e-mail only. “We need to move beyond a one-size-fits-all strategy,” Mr. Jones said.

Another trend is the explosion in popularity of social media sites such as Facebook. This popularity has led alumni groups to use these sites for networking.

“We know that our graduates are already using these sites, and this is one way we can reach them,” says Lori Randorf, director of alumni relations for Kent State University. Ms. Randorf has created Kent State alumni groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Other schools, such as Oberlin, are using interactive blogs to communicate with the extended campus community. Mr. Jones recently launched a blog ( and hired student bloggers to write entries.

Many schools also view technology as a tool for raising money. “Through the Internet, schools can cultivate relationships without relying on face-to-face contact and phone calls,” said Ann Womer Benjamin, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education. “It’s also easier to maintain contact lists.”

Not everyone agrees, however. “Fundraising electronically just isn’t warm and fuzzy,” says Vondea Sheaffer, coordinator for development and alumni relations at the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy, who says that personal outreach is essential. “You still need to create a connection.”

Not without its downfalls

While technology offers many advantages, it can be time-consuming and expensive.
“People think technology is cheap, but it isn’t always,” said Mr. Jones. The toughest part of his job, he adds, is choosing what to prioritize. “It changes quickly. There’s always a danger that by the time we implement ideas, they’ll be outdated.”

While technology is certain to advance in the coming years, it also is likely that some things will remain the same.

“Just because Amazon introduced the Kindle doesn’t mean that books are obsolete,” Mr. Jones says. “The alumni magazine will always have a print version, because some people want that.”