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Talking Shop: Boring Benefits Can Kill Alumni Engagement
Talking Shop: Boring Benefits Can Kill Alumni Engagement

Gary Toyn wants to transform snoozefest alumni benefits into valuable advantages

By Tara Laskowski

Gary Toyn

For more than 25 years, Gary Toyn has worked with clients to enhance their member/donor acquisition, retention, and engagement. He is the lead researcher of numerous studies related to constituent engagement, including the Voluntary Alumni Engagement in Support of Education survey, which analyzes how institutions attract and engage their alumni. In a recent blog series, Toyn discussed the most beneficial and the "lamest" alumni benefits institutions offer.

Your recent blog post about "lame" alumni benefits generated a lot of response. Why do you think people were so riled up about it?

They were sad to see their benefits on that list. I talk a lot about creating benefits that are personally relevant to alumni—that solve a problem, deliver value, are easy and convenient, and are exclusive. Many of the lame benefits do none of these things. The one I got the most flak for was travel programs. Many institutions have great travel programs, but a lot of others are just revenue generators through vendors and aren't actually engaging alumni with their alma mater. I wanted people to look at what they are using their resources on and make sure they are using them wisely.

You've used the term "word vomit" when talking about alumni newsletters. How can alumni associations improve their content?

Hire content creators—people with writing skills, videography, and social media experience. We tend to hire generalists and get them to fit wherever we can. But if you are an alumni relations professional and you can write, it will differentiate you significantly from competitors. The risk of losing your audience with "word vomit"—stories that are too long or focused on the wrong topics—is a big one and can reflect badly on the institution, so folks with those skills will become increasingly important in the field.

What's a big mistake alumni associations make in communicating with alumni?

They are not producing their content. For many institutions, the newsletters are written by the communication department, whose goal is to control the brand, not necessarily to engage alumni. For example, the debate team winning second in nationals was a top story in my alma mater's e-newsletter recently. And I thought, I really couldn't care less. That's great for the school, but it's inwardly focused news. It's not solving a problem for alumni or keeping them connected. It's more effective for the alumni association to find ways for alumni to reminisce, build intimacy, show them how the organization changed their lives. That's the stuff that's relevant specifically to alumni.

What other alumni benefits should a small shop with limited budget and staff focus on to provide the most value to their graduates?

Reunions can be very successful, if that works for your school. Career services is an up-and-coming star, and if you can tie into an already existing career center, then you can leverage those resources. The ones to avoid? "Benefits" that only serve the institution: email for life or special offers with banks and insurance companies.

About the Author Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski is a senior editor for Currents magazine.




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