How Oklahoma State University Engages Young Alumni

 Chase Carter

When you're tasked with engaging over 200,000 alumni, it doesn't take long to figure out what works and what doesn't.

The Oklahoma State University Alumni Association does that every day—but it doesn't just engage alumni. The OSUAA team has also adopted a highly effective alum-from-day-one strategy that engages students as early as their freshman year.

We asked the OSUAA's Director of Communications and Marketing, Chase Carter, to share some insight on young alumni engagement.

Could you describe the OSU Alumni Association's young alumni engagement strategy?

We have seen the most impact in engaging with young alumni by starting the process even before they graduate.

In 2011, we rebranded our Student Alumni Association and began offering a student life membership option within it that allows students to make payments each semester toward a life membership through their bursar account. If they begin the payment process their first semester freshman year, they graduate as a fully paid life member (at a discounted $600 rate as well).

The program has done very well, and we have been signing up more than 500 student life members each year since we launched, compared to only a few hundred annual memberships we would normally sell at our graduation event.

This process has a number of benefits. First, it allows us to begin communicating with students and educating them about the mission of the Alumni Association early on in their collegiate career. By doing a life membership, we also take the pressure off annual renewals and acquisition post graduation.

It took many years to put the program together and ultimately was made successful through a strong partnership between our alumni board chair and the university president. The support and cooperation of the Office of the Registrar was also key to modify the bursar payment system to allow for the $75/semester charge.

Athletics play a significant role in the Oklahoma State brand and anchor the OSU community. What lessons have you learned from engagement around athletics that transfer to other engagement efforts?

There are very few things that bring together and excite our alumni as much as OSU athletics.

We have a wide variety of programming centered especially around football game days that include a three-hour event and pep rally inside the OSU Alumni Center, watch parties nationwide with OSU Alumni Watch Clubs and a carefully choreographed stream of posts on our social media channels.

We play off this passion for sports by having programming year round that promotes alumni engagement with the help of athletics. One example is our Cowboy Caravan—a series of approximately 10 summer events hosted by OSU Alumni Chapters across Oklahoma that provide an opportunity for local alumni networking and a Q&A session with a prominent OSU head coach.

We recently expanded our two largest Caravan events this summer in Oklahoma City and Tulsa when we moved them to the respective OSU branch campuses in both cities. This partnership not only showcased the branch campuses to alumni in those communities but also provided us a new venue to host community food trucks, have inflatables for children and generally host a more family friendly event, which was very well received.

Is there anything you’ve learned about young alumni engagement over the years that has surprised you?

I mentioned earlier our success with student life members in our Student Alumni Association. We have struggled to gain traction with this group on Facebook but found they respond very well to posts on Instagram.

It’s very important to be using the specific media your target demographic is responding to when trying to connect with them. Our Office of Undergraduate Admissions has had wild success using Snapchat—so much so that we’ve considered it for student and young alumni engagement as well (if only we had more staff resources).

Our alumni always respond well to nostalgic pieces and beautiful pictures of campus. Those of us in alumni communications and marketing always need to remind ourselves that although we work every day on a college campus, a vast majority of our constituents do not—and they always love reminiscing with photos and videos from their alma mater.

If you could impart one piece of wisdom to someone devising a new young alumni engagement strategy, what would it be?

Do your research.

We are not nearly as far along on a young alumni engagement strategy as we should be, but I know some of our peer conference schools like Iowa State University are doing it well after years of research and planning.

We have worked hard in building up a strong network of engaged student members, and our next step is to leverage this group when we begin to expand our young alumni engagement programs. But we still have a lot of research to do to find out what exactly these young alumni are interested in from their alma mater’s alumni association.

Follow Chase on Twitter: @loyalandtrue86.

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