How McMaster Re-Engages Alumni and Donors Through Digital and Social Media

McMaster University

Social media has enormous potential, but using it effectively requires careful attention to your constituents. 

McMaster University is using social media to reach alumni and donors on their own terms. Rather than reach out to alumni as a monolithic population, they strive to form individual relationships with each alumnus and alumna.

We asked Erin O'Neil, digital engagement alumni officer, and Dave Dawson, public relations coordinator, to discuss McMaster's strategy. They held a panel on the subject, "Feels Like the Very First Time: Re-Engaging Alumni and Donors Through Digital and Social Media" at the CASE DII Conference on February 8.

How does social media change how we think about alumni engagement?

Great question. It's exciting to us that social media is more and more becoming the norm. It's not "new media" anymore. Facebook and Twitter have been around for years. Even Snapchat has been around long enough to be a mainstay. The issue is not whether or not to be on social—you don't get points for just showing up. Rather, the issue is how you build a persona for your organization on social.

With respect to alumni engagement, these platforms force us to be more creative to stand out from the crowd. We're not one of three pieces of mail arriving on a given day; we're one of many thousands of messages our audience could possibly see in an hour of a day. It also forces us to reassess our tone and perhaps be more relaxed (although we caution against hopping on too many cultural bandwagons).

Social media is incredibly personal, and that's important to consider for two reasons. First, it allows us to have back-and-forth conversations with individual alumni on social media. We can see a photo they shared from an event and say 'hey, great smiles, thanks for coming' and make that personal connection. But the second consideration is that not everyone is on social media, so how do we use email, online networking, video, livestreaming, and other digital avenues to engage alumni with a similar personalized experience?

How can we use social media to reach alumni on their terms and not ours?

As social media strategists, we're not just that new kid in the corner always looking at their phone; we're beholden to the same institutional goals and professional standards of excellence. Reaching alumni on their terms is key to our success.

But this goes back to our point that you can't just show up online and expect to receive praise and earn engagement. Social media is the domain of individuals, and so as organizations operating on social platforms, we need to be unique and interesting like an individual. The alumni of my school are a diverse group, and as a whole they are also different from the alumni population of another university, so there is no panacea for appealing to alumni on social.

There are two consistently effective strategies we have encountered for developing an effective engagement strategy.

One is to be vigilant: you have to do your research, test, track, constantly evolve. Be deliberate about setting up experiments and know what you want to learn, how you can put your findings into practice and fine tune your strategy. The other is nostalgia. This is our competitive edge when we work to stand out from the crowd of social media messages. Without fail, our social interactions based on nostalgia and McMaster pride do much better than our other types of posts.

Could you share two or three examples of schools and other organizations who use social media to successfully engage their constituents and outline why those efforts were successful?

We have a major professional crush on the social media team at Cornell, led by Keith Hannon. Their whole social presence is exploding with personality and creativity and does an excellent job at tapping into pride and nostalgia.

Like every other fundraising organization in the world, we adore charity:water. Their visuals are breathtaking and always consistent, which is something we'll be emphasizing in our CASE DII session. In particular, they do such a good job of putting their donors and supporters at the centre of their messaging. It's not about their work as a charity; it's about the people who empower them to do that work.

The Government of Ontario runs a great Twitter account for Service Ontario. They have the unique challenge of making license renewals and parking permits seem like less of a drag, and they're doing a pretty good job of it. Their key to success is simple and appealing visuals and occasional fun stats. Suddenly filling out government paperwork doesn't seem so horrible.

Follow Erin and Dave on Twitter.