Ask The Experts: What Do Alumni Want?

Matthew Herek currently serves as the associate director of young alumni engagement in the office of alumni relations and development at Northwestern University.

Over the past year, I have sat in many meetings as my colleagues and I try to find the right places to be in social media. Then we spend time trying to figure out the right way to utilize virtual embassies on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Sometimes we end up right on the money, other times we miss the mark.

There is a certain amount of soothsaying that goes into a social media strategy. Predicting the behaviors and reactions of the alumni who interact with us in these forums is often based on a best guess rather than hard data (now that there is more surveying being done on social media behavior, we hope to become more fully grounded in fact rather than cheery optimism).

Rather than continue to peer into my crystal ball, I thought it might be interesting to ask for the perspective of two Northwestern alumni who work with social media daily.

  • Rob Campbell is a 2008 graduate who is now the coordinator of digital media for baseball’s Cleveland Indians. Rob talked about his role with the Indians in this 2010 interview.
  • Noah Chestnut is a 2007 graduate who is now the director of digital media at Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington, D.C. He was also the man behind @jfkturtles on Twitter, and he learned some interesting lessons that are worth reading.

Now, the thing you all hoped to learn about from this post….what do alumni want?

1. What are your expectations of us in social media? What sites should we be on? How should we be using them?

Rob: I think sharing information on the university and what alums are doing is key on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Google+ could be a viable option, too, depending on the brand roll-out (Q3 for brands). YouTube interviews could be cool content.

Noah: Safeguard the university’s brand on all platforms. If a new network launches, I expect NU to survey it, see if people can use it to discuss Northwestern and make sure to stake a claim with an official Northwestern account. For example, Northwestern may not be active on Quora, but I would like NU to register and have an official account.

Stay in touch with distance. I want my school to keep me updated, but I do not expect to have a daily relationship with my school. I am probably in the minority on this, but I prefer to get two to three messages a week at most. I am more likely to take the time to read them and engage when there is less content. As a student, I would expect a daily engagement.

Be honest and personable. I want to feel like I am speaking with a person, not a PR feed for NU or a development associate. Hit me up for money, but do so in a way that is respectful of our overall relationship.

I think NU should experiment with all social media sites so they can see how students/alums use them. Should Willie the Wildcat have a Tumblr? Give it a shot during football season. Should Northwestern be active on Instagram and share pictures of the campus during the school year? Try it out. I am a fan of letting your alumni market determine where you should invest resources. There is an expectation to be active on FB/Twitter, so you should meet those. But I think the real success will come in targeted experiments and campaigns.

2. What’s something Northwestern has done in social that really appealed to you?

Rob: I really like something as simple as seeing re-tweets from Northwestern on what alums or the university are doing in my news feed (keep up the good work!). It definitely makes me feel closer to what I experienced and what is going on at Northwestern.

Noah: I really like the NU daily news (via with featured alums as the source for news. That is a great way to use a service that I usually find annoying. It actually turned me onto the NU Alums twitter account.

3. What kind of behaviors in social media do you see as turn offs? What makes you want to unfollow, hide and unfriend us?

Rob: I think trying to inject too much personality is a turn-off. I think alums all have positive connotations with the school and social media communications need not be overtly positive or edgy.

Noah: Too much content. Be respectful of my time. Not listening. Ignoring questions from alums. Common sense stuff really.

4. Name a way that you have used social media in the “real world” that could be applied to a university successfully?

Rob: Hashtag chats with alumni for specific disciplines at set times (tap key social media users to participate), Twitter lists of alumni users in specific cities for networking (potentially host on web, too), conduct a small figure social media donation push and allow for donations to be shared via social media, triggering a small incremental match (i.e.percent of donation or small set dollar figure), alum of the week with possibly a short profile on Facebook or just a username on Twitter.

Speaking with alumni like Rob and Noah has been incredibly helpful to me. First, it’s always a good thing when alumni share their expertise with you. Second, I’m finding more and more alumni are working in roles that are social media specific. As many development operations move slowly but surely towards establishing their own staff persons in social media, the knowledge alumni share can help bridge the knowledge gap between the university conference room and main street.

2 responses to “Ask The Experts: What Do Alumni Want?

  1. Thanks for the feedback Krista. Alumni are a great resource for alumni relations work (who woulda thunk it right?).
    I’m sure most schools have an alum or two who are involved in social media that could be tapped for a similar conversation.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Matthew! I agree–social media strategy can be a shot in the dark, but it helps to go directly to your intended audience and *ask* them what they think. You never know what you might find out just by simply asking a few questions like you did.

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