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Alumni Marketing and Communications: Making a Connection to Memories

November 19, 2009

A few years ago, I was at a concert listening to music I hadn’t heard live since I was a teenager. It was great. I was listening to Barry McGuire, the raspy-voiced singer-songwriter of the 1960s anti-war movement known for his #1 song, “Eve of Destruction,” and one of a few who blazed a trail for the new Christian rock genre during the Jesus People Movement of the late 60s and early 70s.

The concert moved me. After it ended, I approached Barry and asked him if he was ever going to perform again with a couple of other early rock bands with whom he collaborated way back when. I looked forward to asking the question. The music they made influenced my life, and I was curious about the possibility of that happening.

But when I asked him the question, he became slightly animated, dismissed the idea outright, and said that was then, just a period of time in his life, and that he moved on long ago.

Huh. His answer surprised me, at least until I had a little time to think about it. He moved on, but I hadn’t. My connection to Barry McGuire was emotional, based more on my memories than the music itself.

I was reminded of this experience a few months ago, when I came across an episode of Chris Isaak’s television program that featured my favorite 1970’s music group, Chicago. The old days were all Chris wanted to talk about with the original members of the group.  There were some great stories, and Chris knew that’s what his audience would want to hear. And he was right.

You see, I’m not a Chicago fan entirely. I’m more of a fan of Chicago for the period from their first album, Chicago Transit Authority, through Chicago VIII. My interests changed after that point, the group changed, and with the exception of about three songs, I don’t really know much about the group after that Chicago VIII album.

My connections to Barry McGuire and Chicago are tied to experience and memory, both of which are directly related to who I was as a person when I experienced their music.

And so it goes for how most alumni are connected to their alma mater. Their connections are frozen in time. They take little interest in their alma mater because their connections are not about what’s happening now, they’re about what happened to them when they were there so many years ago.

And what do many institutions do to try to bridge this chasm? They talk about themselves–a lot: their great programs, events, faculty and campus improvements. All good stuff, but it makes their alumni magazines essentially glossy company newsletters.

Try this instead as a part of a comprehensive marketing campaign for alumni. Listen to them, by formal survey, conversations off campus, through social media, etc. And remind them of what they loved about their alma mater. Remind them how much fun they had. Remind them how much they grew, and how their alma mater prepared them for life. Do all of this by telling alumni stories through words and pictures.

Marketing higher education effectively to alumni requires institutions to develop brand messages tailored to alumni across the generational spectrum.

Truth is, most alumni will not become active supporters of your institution. They have moved on. The alumni who support the annual fund, attend homecoming, and refer prospective students to your college have made the connection between then and now. They are grateful for what they received at their alma mater, and they want to give back.

Reinforce their support and encourage other alumni to do the same by connecting them to their emotional ties to your campus, reminding them that a new generation of student is walking the same hallways, sitting in the same lecture halls, sleeping in dorm rooms, and preparing for life just as they did years ago.
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2009 5:02 PM

    Rick: Of course it makes perfect sense but I love the way you got into this through music. It helps folks imagine what it would be like to communicate with alums through their experience not the institution’s. It’s a subtle but important shift. Mine would be Go Gos, Talking Heads, Stray Cats, Soft Cell, Divo, Rolling Stones “Start Me Up” phase. I can think of a lot of alumnae friends who would not be interested in connecting on institutional issues, but the music would draw them in.

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      November 19, 2009 5:19 PM

      Andrea, thanks for your comment. Yes, it is a subtle shift in strategy, but one that should alter how some institutions communicate across media.

      And, good list there! I liked the Go Go’s, and The Rolling Stones really did adapt to the shift in musical style, didn’t they?

  2. KateNonymous permalink
    November 23, 2009 2:07 PM

    Are there any schools that you think get this right?

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      November 23, 2009 4:33 PM

      I am not able to name any, but I’m sure there are good examples. Most schools get it partly right with the alumni news section of their alumni magazine, and with their online alumni community where memories and pictures are being shared. But I don’t think many institutions are doing so because of a strategy to connect emotionally with memories across media. Old photos are used for homecoming communications for a lot of institutions, but that’s an easy call, particularly because retro is so popular with design. For many universities and their alumni communications, I just think there needs to be a better balance between institutional news/information and stories/pictures about alumni that is the result of a marketing plan that considers the audience and what will interest them.

  3. March 17, 2011 10:18 PM

    hi,everyone.i’m from philippines and currently working as a marketing staff for the alumni of a college in manila.this site has particularly caught my attention as i was doing a research on how to market my alumni.i would love to see more of this.thanks and more blessings to you….

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      April 25, 2011 4:34 PM

      Thank you. You’re welcome.

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