For those of us in academia, Commencement looms just around the corner. Despite the myriad details that go into the ceremony itself, the purpose and messaging are consistently straight-forward. While there are opportunities for creating moments that speak to institutional themes, the goal is clear – get those students across that stage.
But what about the events that stretch across the academic calendar the other 11 months of the year? It’s our experience that the more general events focused on alumni and donor engagement can fall a bit short on direction and intention.
It’s almost ironic. Institutions filled with professionals who are experts in – and often teachers of – how best to articulate key messages fall victim time and again to engagement plans that are long on calendar items but short on strategy.
And so, we offer our thoughts on the 3 most common event pitfalls in Higher Ed and how to avoid them.
1. Alma mater fatigue: It’s a big, busy world and alumni understandably can feel barraged by too many random invitations from too many areas of the institution.
It’s always best that universities engage audiences as one unified institution. We encourage schools to convene an internal Communications group that meets on a regular basis (perhaps every semester) to develop an institutional approach to specific constituencies. Members might include representatives from Advancement, the President’s Office, Athletics, and even the Performing Arts Center, if there is one on campus.
This is one step beyond the shared calendar that many schools have. Meeting face-to-face to create a schedule of all planned communications, such as event invitations, ticket sales, and magazines, can help bust through the clutter you may be creating inadvertently in your alumni’s mailboxes and inboxes. It will also help as you develop policy and procedures for who “owns” the various audiences for the topics at hand. Sure, there can be some lobbying and jockeying for position, but it’s always better to skirmish internally vs appear disjointed externally.
2. Shotgun approach: Many institutions don’t know enough about specific constituencies and therefore run the risk of sending along relatively generic and frequently off-point information.
Even for a general event, it’s okay to prioritize who you want to reach and why. Once you know who you want in the room, it will be easier to suss out what will draw them and what to do with them once they are there.
Our rule of thumb is that creating an event that is “meant for everyone” often can result in something that doesn’t truly resonate with anyone. An “All Call” alumni gathering might not yield the participation you hope for. It’s almost never the case that you actually don’t have a preference of which 500 people show up.
3. Best kept secret: Whether because internal culture eschews “bragging” or because of missed marketing opportunities, it’s not unusual that an institution’s best stories and present-day claims to fame go unmentioned during events.
You can avoid this by committing to intentional programming during an event. We believe that attendance is one of the most visible signals that someone is ready to engage. Alumni and donors in particular have already chosen you at least once. They are primed to have their great selection decision affirmed, which means they are open to receiving the best information about you. Make the programming interesting and rely on storytelling – rock star alums, beloved faculty, bright and shiny students.
Decide which 3 pieces of information you want guests to walk away with and then figure out the most dynamic ways to get the ideas across. The old adage is true: tell them, tell them again, and then tell them what you told them.
Fortunately, it’s never too late to map out what you want to say to whom and determine how best to be seen and heard. Along the way, you’ll want to measure the hits and misses – ticket sales, clicks, shares, likes – whatever the appropriate metrics are. And don’t forget to put a stake in the ground and define success up front so you know what you’re counting and why.
This blog was produced by the event strategists at Educe, a boutique firm focused entirely on the needs of higher education. To learn more about their offerings, visit the Educe website.