What Alumni Relations & Advancement Can Learn from Public Radio

Alumni relations and advancement offices aren’t the only ones thinking about engagement these days—every company, website, and media outlet is, too. And that means competition.

One institution is engaging its audience particularly well—it’s a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy-looking industry. Public radio is excelling where other news outlets and media are declining. And it has insights to offer those of us in higher ed who are also competing for our audience’s attention.

Here’s what we can learn.

Public radio is like a three-legged stool. If it’s missing a leg, it cannot stand:

  1. Attention
  2. Affinity
  3. Utility

Attention

Attention is the limited resource every advertiser and media company is competing for. Some people call it mindshare, but as we’ve come to spend more and more time on screens, the less buzzwordy attention thankfully has become the more common term. The more of your audience’s attention you have, and the longer it lasts, the better.

Web developers often speak of designing their platforms to attract more eyeballs and be more sticky, but these terms trivialize and oversimplify human psychology, so we’ll avoid using them.

Public radio doesn’t just have a lot of its audience’s attention, it also holds it for a very long time. Decades, in many cases. It’s always there when you turn on your radio or open your podcast app. It’s there during your commute, when you’re making dinner, when you’re on a long flight—even when you’re looking for a reusable bag for your groceries.

NPR swag

Public radio becomes a regular part of its listeners’ lives.

Schools don’t have the benefit of a nationwide radio network, but some schools do have similar ways to hold their community’s attention.

The most obvious one is sports.

But we’ll get into that in a minute.

To apply the lessons public radio has learned, ask yourself a few questions about how you hold your alumni’s attention now.

  • How much of your community’s attention do you have? An hour a month on average.
  • How do you get it? When they read our alumni magazine.
  • When do you get it? Once a month, when our magazine is delivered.

Then look for opportunities to get their attention more often and hold it longer.

Affinity

Public radio listeners are often staunch supporters of their local stations. That’s why they give—it isn’t just so they can get a tote bag. But that tote bag does become a way for them to display their affinity publicly.

When it comes to strength and depth of affinity in higher ed, it’s hard to beat college sports.

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Simply put, college sports give alumni a way to stay connected with and invested in their alma mater after they leave.

What other examples are there of traditions that create that kind of alumni affinity? It’s hard to think of any. In the 20th century, schools and their alumni took institutional affinity for granted. You cared about your alma mater, that’s just the way it was. But young alumni today don’t necessarily feel that kind of loyalty. Schools have to earn it.

Public radio earns its listeners’ affinity over time in a number of ways.

People are one way public radio gets to their listeners’ hearts. Any NPR listener can recognize the voices of Nina Totenberg, Scott Simon, and Renee Montagne. They probably even know the names and voices of their local reporters. People generate warmth that institutions alone cannot.

Tradition is another way to create affinity. That’s one reason why NPR still airs reruns of Car Talk, and why Prairie Home Companion continues even now that Garrison Keillor has retired.

Lastly, reliability, which is one of public radio’s strongest attributes. You can turn on your radio at any time knowing what you’ll hear. The same shows at the same time each day, every week, for years on end. It just works. It’s hard to say that about, say, a corporation’s customer service.

These are all things you can emulate—and most likely already do—at your institution.

Utility

Utility is the least intuitive point of the three to folks in higher ed. We all instinctively understand that we need to get our audience’s attention and build affinity. That’s why alumni magazines and reunions have been around so long. But schools don’t often ask themselves, “How can we be useful to our alumni now that they’ve graduated?”

Public radio is a tool that listeners use to get news, commentary, and culture. It performs a function in its listeners’ lives.

Colleges and universities perform a function too, but that function often seems to cease upon graduation. That’s one reason why it’s so important to have a strong alumni network—it’s perhaps the best way for a school to continue to serve its alumni after they’ve left.

Alumni networks, like this one on Switchboard, remain useful long after alumni graduate.

Alumni networks, like this one on Switchboard, remain useful long after alumni graduate.

There are other things schools can do, too. Some schools offer group insurance discounts, discounted tickets, and other perks to their alumni. But these are largely ancillary to the mission of the institution.

As public radio does, it’s best to find utilities you can offer that align with your institution’s mission.

Scale

Scale is a little different from the three points above in that it’s more logistics than anything else. But it’s also one of the prime reasons for public radio’s success, and that’s why we conclude with it. Scale is how public radio can be in virtually millions of cars and living rooms across America.

Schools have been harnessing attention, affinity, and utility for decades already. But most are only just beginning to scale those strategies. Reunions, events, and magazines can only reach so many members of your community at a time. If you want to reach them and keep them engaged at scale, you need to find technologies, like radio, to help.

You might have the best engagement strategy in the world, but if it only reaches a couple hundred alumni, you won’t get any traction. Online tools that let you capture attention, build affinity, and deliver utility to thousands of people at a time are an easy way to solve that issue. While you’re thinking about the three legs of the stool, always be asking yourself, “How can I deliver this to as many alumni as possible, as efficiently as possible?”