Don’t fear the screen. Design better, funkier, and more valuable online programming that sparks alumni connections
Beloit College’s Folk and Blues Festival went virtual in 2015 (Photo: Jen Walsh; icons below: Yulia Vysotskaya)
When six Macalester College alumni couldn't travel to Minnesota to visit their alma mater, they gathered at one alumnus's home in Arizona for a wine and cheese party and chatted on the phone with the college president in a virtual town hall—along with thousands of other alumni worldwide. In Wisconsin, Beloit College recently hosted its annual on-campus folk and blues festival—and nostalgic alumni watched remotely from home. From class reunions to networking, more and more universities are getting savvy at hosting virtual events. Here's how eight institutions are doing it right.
With text messages, Skype, and Snapchat taking over the way we talk to people, a good old-fashioned telephone call is delightful in its simplicity.
That's the idea behind Community Phonecast, a live phone chat universities can host with thousands of alumni. College presidents can discuss new strategies and visions, admissions professionals can engage with an incoming class, and faculty members can discuss breakthrough research results.
Participants hit a number on their keypad to enter a queue to ask a question and then are patched in live to ask it. Although staff members screen queries, the caller asks the question live for everyone to hear. During a chat with Oberlin College's president on the state of the Ohio university, one caller stumbled when asking her question. "Oh, that's great, thanks," she said. "I didn't realize I was going to actually be asking it."
"Many alumni think, ‘Yeah right, is this really going to be the president?' So when they hear someone asking a question—unfiltered—the experience is much more memorable and believable," says Mickey Munley, the founder of Community Phonecast and former vice president for advancement at Grinnell College in Iowa.
Because the institution does the calling, alumni can easily participate. "People don't have to remember a date or a time or log in anywhere—they just have to pick up the phone," Munley says. That's why the participation rate is so high—when the University of Minnesota called 60,000 of its alumni, 10,000 listened to at least some of the call. On an average phonecast, 10 percent of the people who initially answered are still on the phone after 30 minutes. With subsequent calls, that number can grow to about 18 percent.
Universities can also conduct live polling ("Here are our four strategic goals for the next five years—rank which one is most important to you by pressing the corresponding number on your keypad"), and results can be reported almost immediately. Halfway through an October 2015 phonecast, Antioch College asked those who felt inspired to make a gift right then. The Ohio institution collected $123,870 in gifts during the call or directly attributed to the call. "We receive more positive feedback about these events than most anything we do," says Jennifer Jolls, vice president for external relations at Antioch. "Alumni feel they are heard and can ask questions, and we're able to relay important information."
Community Phonecast tracks who answered the phone and how long they stayed on the call, as well as the answers to polling questions. Annual fund officers can quickly follow up with an appeal targeted to individuals based on priorities they indicated during the call. "It lets you be much more real-time with people's interest and much more dynamic and personalized with your asks," Munley says.
Many universities have online lecture series, but DePauw University's Virtual Alumni College taps into hot news topics, such as the Ebola crisis, ISIS, Vladimir Putin, and the anniversary of Freedom Summer.
"We're very strategic about this," says Steve Setchell, associate vice president for alumni engagement and campaign initiatives. "When you can converge well-known, iconic professors and timely topics, these really take off."
The key is being flexible, Setchell says. Sometimes the lectures are scheduled in venues on campus with a live audience, but Setchell recently planned a talk with an emeritus professor living in Florida, who had the conversation from his living room. The series, which started in 2013, has also introduced new faculty to alumni.
Alumni tuning in can ask questions via an online form; the questions are then read aloud to the faculty member by university staff. Participation varies by topic, but Setchell has seen numbers as high as 220 for the online events.
When Ruth Goodman couldn't attend her 75th reunion at Cornell University because of health issues, her daughter suggested the university find a way to connect with her virtually.
The savvy alumni affairs staff at the New York institution jumped on that idea and hosted its first Virtual Reunion Reception in 2014.
The alumni team set up a large screen at the reunion dinner so that the five in-person attendees could see Goodman, the longtime class correspondent, and hear her react to the presentations. A computer booth allowed alumni to video chat and interact with her via Google Hangouts. "It was beautiful. She was tearful," says Lisa Bushlow, director of class programs for alumni affairs and development. "It meant the world to her and the people around her."
The university planned to do the same thing for the 2015 reunion, but Goodman passed away. Her classmates, however, vowed to meet annually rather than wait until their 80th reunion.
"This was a learning experience for us, to listen to the needs of our alumni and adapt when necessary," Bushlow says. "It really was a successful and meaningful connection for them, and that is why we are here—to make those experiences possible."
The University of Pennsylvania has found success with alumni-exclusive Coursera classes on popular topics that appeal to all ages. Both courses the institution has held—History of the Slave South and Revolutionary Ideas: Power, Laws, & Politics—maxed out at 500 participants and were expanded to include more than 650. Graduates from 1940 to 2014 signed up for the history course, and nearly 70 percent of those who completed the course said it changed their perspective on the contemporary world.
Other impressive numbers: 28 percent of enrollees in 2014 completed the course, more than six times the Penn Coursera average, and 98 percent of alumni rated it as very good or excellent. Other education-based virtual activities have been well received by Penn graduates. Alumni Relations hosts a live faculty lecture webinar series, pre-departure webinars for Penn Alumni Travel passengers, and a winter reading project that brings alumni and faculty together for a book club discussion.
"Our alumni want Penn to be a source of lifelong learning opportunities, regardless of where they're located geographically," says Alyssa D'Alconzo, director of alumni education, alumni travel, and career networking. Her biggest tip? Get professional training about conducting effective webinars. "Online events require the same prep time and management as in-person events. You have to work hard to make sure people don't log in physically but check out mentally," she says.
(Art courtesy of University of Pennsylvania alumni relations)
A virtual event doesn't have to be live. At Michigan State University, nearly 1,000 students, friends, faculty, and alumni recorded clips of themselves singing the "Victory for MSU" fight song to create the coolest pep rally you've ever seen through a video screen (bit.ly/MSU_virtual_song).
The 100th anniversary of the song prompted the idea from Kevin Epling and Anthony Siciliano, university photographers and videographers. They developed a one-stop website that included a how-to video explaining the project, a karaoke version of the fight song so people could practice singing it, and an upload link to send in the completed video.
The final video—which displays alumni's and friends' clips in a Brady Bunch-style montage—debuted at the MSU Homecoming game on October 3, 2015, and will be played at other alumni and athletic events throughout the year. The global performances range from adorable kids singing and dancing to operatic voices completely on pitch. Individuals sang with headphones to hear the music, and groups of alumni choreographed moves (including bobbing in a lake). MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon even sang along with a Kermit the Frog puppet. As a fan commented on the YouTube video: "Super fun."
Since 1970 when the Folk and Blues Festival at Wisconsin's Beloit College was born, students have gathered for the day-and-a-half-long festival to listen to live performances and make memories.
In 2015, the tradition went virtual as well, thanks to student volunteers in the university's communication office. Using Periscope, a social tool that provides livestream video on your phone, Beloit students broadcast Folk and Blues so that alumni worldwide could watch.
"Our alumni's principal concern is that we are not changing so dramatically that they'll feel like an outsider when they come back," says Jason Hughes, chief communications and marketing officer.
Traffic and parking are never issues for attendees of the University of Oregon's Virtual Happy Hour. Participants chat using the text-based platform Brazen, which pairs attendees one-on-one for timed sessions and then swaps them out for a new chat. "The randomness is similar to an in-person networking event, where you never know who you're going to bump into," says James Chang, director of the Duck Career Network.
But low-pressure doesn't mean no work. Attendees still have to prepare questions and review etiquette to make sure they give a good impression. Chang offers tips to participants before they log in: Make sure to say hello before diving into a question, type on a full keyboard rather than a phone or tablet so you can respond promptly, and spell-check your message before hitting send.
The chats are a great way to network. After he hosted an online interview with an alumnus who worked at Nike, Chang invited attendees to "talk" with the speaker after the webinar. The alumnus was so impressed with one student that he invited her to Nike headquarters for a tour.
"That's our end goal: to create that initial connection online that leads to deeper connections face-to-face," Chang says.
The National Endowment of the Arts celebrated its 50th birthday with a loud roar of support. The organization used the social platform Thunderclap to create a virtual flash mob so supporters could simultaneously wish it a happy anniversary.
More than 500 people sent Tweets, posted Facebook statuses, or added Tumblr messages about the NEA at 1 p.m. on September 29, 2015, for a total social reach of 2.5 million people.
While participating in a Thunderclap session is super easy—pre-drafted messages allow users to spread the word with the click of a button—Paulette Beete, social media manager for the NEA, was pleasantly surprised by how many people personalized their message. Perhaps the biggest perk? The 50th anniversary hashtag #arts4US ended up in Twitter's trending column, a good sign of how far the message had spread.
If your platform is difficult to figure out and it's hard to sign up for an event, you're going to lose everyone but your IT alumni. "The great thing about virtual events is that people don't have to travel, pay for parking, or build in extra time," says James Chang, director of the Duck Career Network at the University of Oregon. "But the cons are that alumni have to learn how to communicate on an unfamiliar platform, which can be intimidating."
Tools such as Periscope and Livestream are accessible to anyone with a smartphone, but up-close-and-personal interaction is harder with your attendees. Using a software platform like Brazen allows for more interaction between attendees, who are communicating via text-based messaging. But your alumni might get frustrated with the registration process or not feel comfortable navigating the platform. Experiment and listen to your alumni. Post-event surveys are key to finding out what works for your constituency, Chang says.
"One thing many colleges miss is how they can repurpose content and maximize resources," says Mickey Munley, president and founder of the communication firm Munley Company. If you are hosting a live webinar or lecture, post the recording on your website. "And if you say you're going to answer any questions that you didn't get to during the live event, then make sure that you do," Munley says.
Longer recorded sessions of a webinar or discussion can be broken down into highlights and repurposed after the event, says Bruce Mortimer, director of alumni relations at Macquarie University in Australia. His team holds in-person events in Sydney while offering a live webinar for global alumni. "Post-event, we upload the full broadcast to our site but also edit the session into a series of shorter vignettes focused around particular questions posed during the discussion," he says. This approach saves alumni time by providing bite-size, targeted information they can access without having to sift through an hour-long presentation.
Alyssa D'Alconzo, director of alumni education, alumni travel, and career networking at the University of Pennsylvania, participated in a session by Andy Goodman of the Goodman Center called "The Webinar on Webinars" (bit.ly/Goodman_webinar). "It gave us an opportunity to go beyond considering the content we wanted to offer and think strategically about the type of experience we wanted to provide participants," she says.
A clear and lively agenda is key for successful webinars. You should also conduct several run-throughs on new technology at the location where you'll be hosting the event. When using a live-streaming tool such as Periscope, make sure you've got a good wireless connection wherever you're going to be, says Melissa Dix, web and new media director at Beloit College. Nothing is drearier for participants than wasting 15 minutes of the event on technical issues.
Finding a convenient time for alumni worldwide is tough, so changing up the schedule for a virtual series might be the best way to catch everyone. The University of Oregon's Virtual Happy Hours are held at 4 p.m. Pacific Time, because Chang felt that made the most sense for alumni. "It's an early happy hour on the West Coast, but you're still catching New Yorkers around 7 p.m.," he says. Steve Setchell, associate vice president for alumni engagement and campaign initiatives at DePauw University, hosts virtual faculty lectures in the evenings for Eastern Time, because he's "reluctant to compete with the workday." But D'Alconzo hosts professional development webinars for University of Pennsylvania alumni during the Eastern Time lunch hour.
Tara Laskowski is a senior editor for Currents magazine.
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