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Thinking Outside the Quad
Thinking Outside the Quad

From tall ships to blockbuster flicks—how pop culture and current events can help you engage alumni.

By Dena Levitz


Lafayette College capitalized on the re-creation of its namesake’s historic ship The Hermione to forge new connections with alumni and friends. (Photo: Friends Of Hermione-Lafayette In America)

Sometimes the best publicity for your institution has nothing to do with the institution.

Whether it's tying physics research to Star Trek or bragging up your soccer team during the World Cup, popular news events can lead to exciting opportunities for alumni and community engagement.

Here's how institutions from Catholic University to Lafayette College used current events to energize past and present students.

Capitalizing on Cinema

You might discuss the latest video game craze or television show cliffhanger with your friends and family, but what about using pop culture references to promote your academic institution? When it works, linking a university to a song or a film that's on everyone's radar can bring otherwise-overlooked academic research to life and grow a college's name recognition.

Take the date of Oct. 21, 2015. In 1989's Back to the Future Part II, main character Marty McFly travels in a DeLorean to that day. As the October date grew closer in reality, fans were busy with special showings of the movie, social media posts, and newspaper articles—USA Today even published a mock cover in homage to the film.

Colleges and universities also seized upon that day, using it to generate publicity and have fun with a beloved movie.

California's Stanford University modified a DeLorean so it could drive itself. New York's Ithaca College created a detailed video about—what else—the intricacies of hoverboards. A student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign continuously played the Back to the Future theme song on chimes from the campus bell tower.

Communications staff at Illinois also used Back to the Future Day to showcase researchers' work relating to predictions in the film's plot. Meaghan Downs, editorial associate for social media at Illinois, tapped engineering and other science-based faculty to analyze factors like the feasibility of dog-walking drones. (Psst—they are scientifically possible; the real obstacle is regulation.) Their insights were shared on the university's Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn channels.

"Sometimes it doesn't make sense for us to join the [pop culture] conversation. Trying to latch onto something like Drake's latest music video wouldn't work," Downs says. "But Back to the Future is a movie that's centered on innovation, technology, and where things are headed, so it wasn't too much of a stretch."

This more obvious tie-in means on-campus researchers can build larger followings and become more prominent in their fields. Pop culture associations can boost the university's stature and alumni's pride in the institution.

Downs' post, for example, reached 60,000 users just on Facebook. While the goal isn't to go viral, that many people, without the connection to the movie, would be unlikely to read about academic research.

"I joke that part of my job is to take things that are ‘boring' and make them interesting," Downs says. "Things like alternative-fuel research might not seem super compelling, but when you can link it back to something like a major movie, it gives people an entry point."

In 2013, Ohio Wesleyan University launched a campaign related to the just-released film 42. Administrators hoped that the film, which tells the story of Jackie Robinson's achievements in breaking baseball's racial barrier, would boost alumni donor participation given the unique tie-in: Major League Baseball executive Branch Rickey was an influential force in Robinson's ascent and—you guessed it—an Ohio Wesleyan alumnus.

During the fundraising campaign, alumni were given a 42-hour period to reach 360 donors. If they did so, a prominent donor agreed to give $25,000. Alumni hit a home run in this challenge, reaching 377 donors while being reminded of the contributions of a fellow alumnus, says Justin Ware, vice president of digital fundraising strategy at ScaleFunder, which works with a number of higher education institutions on creative campaigns.

Connecting with pop culture for an online event—be it fundraising or broader alumni engagement-can be smart because "many of your constituents are already online for the purpose of reading up on pop culture," Ware says.

When, though, can this tactic veer too far?

"If you're too removed from the public discussion, it's going to come off like a stretch," Downs says. "Think about tone and voice. Sometimes if you try too hard to be hip and current it doesn't resonate." It would take a special kind of university president to pull off a rap, for example.

"Be sure your messaging reflects your audience's culture and taste," Ware says. "For a campaign like the 42 effort … not only did this messaging support diversity—a key institutional priority—but Ohio Wesleyan has an alumnus who was directly involved in the story portrayed in the film. That was a perfect opportunity to leverage pop culture."

Holy Exposure!

In fall 2015, when Pope Francis celebrated his first public Mass in the United States, 30,000 people gathered outside the basilica adjacent to The Catholic University of America—a record event attendance for the Wash­ing­­ton, D.C., institution.

With only the entire world watching (no pressure, right?), the university's advancement team wanted to spotlight the institution and make sure that alumni, faculty, and staff were energized by this honor, says Scott Rembold, vice president for university advancement.

Staff from all departments worked around the clock for months to prepare for the occasion, organizing special events and revving up excitement through digital channels. Campus Ministries launched an effort called "Walk with Francis" that planned service activities and study groups based on Pope Francis' teachings. An added stress? Raising funds to cover the costs of hosting the historic event, which Rembold says each Catholic agency involved in the visit did as well.

Then there was a critical question: How would Catholic University distribute the 1,400 tickets it was allotted for the Mass? The Vatican confirmed that the university was a tour stop only five months before the Pope's visit.

Kyra Lyons used this uncertainty to her advantage. The assistant vice president for alumni relations and university advancement called on alumni to update their contact information so that they could get the inside scoop on tickets and participate in a random drawing. Nearly 3,000 alumni responded.

On the day of the Mass, the university held a reception for 500 alumni, donors, and trustees. The event included updates on the school's present and future. Afterward, Lyons received flurries of emails from thankful attendees, whose bonds with the institution were strengthened.

"We were delighted to do that for our alumni," she says. "We're the only university that's had three popes visit the campus. It's a definite point of pride for alumni to say, ‘That's our university.'"

For members of Catholic's family who couldn't travel to D.C., social media kept them involved before and after the service. The day before the Mass saw more tweets about the impending papal visit than about U.S. House Speaker John Boehner's resignation, Lyons says.

Now, the priority is to sustain the momentum and goodwill, Rembold says. Catholic posted a professional video of the festivities on its University Advance­ment website. A commemorative book, filled with photos of Pope Francis' visit, will be sent free of charge to parents, students, donors, and alumni. And the university is fundraising for an institute centered on the teachings and principles promoted by Pope Francis.

"Millions of high school students saw Catholic and were introduced to our community," Rembold says. "Our president likes to say it was like hosting four Super Bowls at once."

Alumni Call-Outs at Ports of Call

The Marquis de Lafayette was so inspired by the American Revolution that at 19—the age of your average freshman—he boldly asked the king of France for permission to join the fight. The king refused, but Lafayette journeyed to America anyway, becoming an influential figure in the country's development.

This fearless spirit is the guiding force behind his namesake, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, where the marquis' story still inspires students and staff.

So when administrators discovered that a village in France was re-creating one of Lafayette's five historic ships, they knew their institution had to be included in the event, says Kristine Todaro, director of special projects and media relations. The Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, the organization that funded the project, sailed The Hermione to 11 North­east U.S. ports in summer 2015 so that the public could explore the ship.

"It was an amazing opportunity for the college. We are an hour and a half from Philadelphia, New York City, and many of the ports of call where the ship was going," Todaro says. "Plus, we have alumni up and down the Eastern Seaboard."

Lafayette staff worked with the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America to organize in-person events such as tours, dinners, and meet-ups. The college also managed a full digital campaign that used the ship's journey as a tool for engagement, particularly among alumni.

Participation far exceeded hopes. At five of the ports, the college rented nearby space to host a party for current and past students who wanted to see the ship and celebrate its connection to the institution. In some cities, those affiliated with Lafayette College received special tours of The Hermione. In Philadelphia, a second gathering was held for select alumni and donors to help raise money for a $400 million capital campaign. More than 300 alumni, parents, and friends attended the events, which mostly sold out. Even better, 25 percent of the alumni had graduated within the past decade. The hope is to continue a dialogue so they'll volunteer and give back to the institution more readily, Todaro says.

On the social media front, the college hired a writer to assume the voice of the marquis' sword via Twitter (@MarquisSword), writing playful, first-person posts that expressed excitement about the visit and shared fun facts about Lafayette ("@hermionevoyage day 96: I was a man of letters, writing 4-5 per day. But now I'm all atwitter!"). Alumni across the country were encouraged to print a cutout of Lafayette and take photos using the hashtag #BeTheMarquis. On a dedicated website for the event, staff posted a humorous video challenging students to correctly pronounce the name Hermione. The site received more than 12,600 unique page views during the three-month campaign, impressive given that Lafayette has 28,000 alumni overall.

Kim Spang, Lafayette's vice president for development and college relations, says these components, especially the social media campaigns, made the Lafayette community part of a historic experience that will forever unite them.

"With alumni, we've always done chapter events," she says, "but this really took Lafayette on the road."

The ship's voyage also coincided with a renewed interest in the marquis. Hamilton, a musical featuring Lafayette as a prominent character, was getting rave reviews on Broadway, and author Sarah Vowell had just published the book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

"It was this great moment," Todaro says. "The marquis is more of an unknown figure, so we saw this as a wonderful opportunity to educate people about the college and what he stood for."

About the Author Dena Levitz

Dena Levitz is an award-winning journalist based in Dublin. She was a staff writer for the Augusta Chronicle and Washington Examiner and has also contributed to CityLab by Atlantic Media, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, PBS MediaShift, Bloomberg News, and Narratively.




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