Alumni Engagement Metrics: It’s about Outcomes, not Outputs

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As I wrote in my last blog, the topic of engagement metrics is now at the forefront of the alumni relations field. Metrics go hand in hand with the growing emphasis on strategic planning to determine the return on investment for alumni offices.

But reliance on engagement metrics in and of themselves can be limiting. If metrics are viewed only in terms of “outputs” such as event attendance, for example, then there is the risk of a false narrative being created about the success of the program.

I am more interested in “outcomes” rather than “outputs.

The emphasis should be on the impact of an alumni program, not just the turnout. Is the alumni office focused primarily on event logistics and the registration process? Or, is there a well-defined event strategy that shapes the program? A few examples to illustrate what I mean:

  • Homecoming is the single best opportunity to showcase the campus to those who return to this annual celebration. Unfortunately, Homecoming is often heavy on the social agenda, such as reunion activities and tailgates. If Homecoming Weekend were infused with an element of educational programming – i.e., collaboration with the deans to produce a series of exhibits, performances, tours and lectures in an “open house” format – alumni would experience a more complete and meaningful takeaway from their return to campus.
  • Let’s face it: many regional chapter events are basically happy hours with a collegiate theme. With a little forethought, these get-togethers can serve as an effective platform for bringing the institution to alumni in the region – particularly those who are interested in hearing more about alma mater. Chapter events can be programmed to feature faculty or guest speakers and updates from institutional leadership, contributing to a well-rounded alumni event.
  • The alumni travel program is often regarded as a revenue generator for the alumni office, with the principal output being the level of commissions earned based on traveler volume. This is a limited view of what is otherwise an exceptional engagement opportunity: beyond the unparalleled value in a faculty-lead lifelong learning experience, this is also fertile ground for donor cultivation (my alma mater is offering a 10-day excursion to Europe at a cost of around $12,000 for two; alumni with this level is disposable income are most certainly donor prospects!).

The metrics (“outputs”) for each of these examples are clear: the count of Homecoming registrants; chapter event attendees; and travel program participants. There is not an alumni office in the country that doesn’t desire comparable-year increases in volume.

But none of these experiences as described are being leveraged to connect alumni in a more meaningful way. Stronger Homecoming and chapter programming, for instance, reflect an intentional strategy designed to instill a greater sense of pride, connection and ambassadorship. As for the travel program? You’re not running a travel agency; you’re cultivating prospects. There is a big difference.

In other words, it’s not just how many attended, but a matter of how alumni feel when they leave the event. Did they leave inspired? Wanting to engage more? Feeling better informed about their institution? Receptive to making a gift? Or … meh?

In short, attendance is simply an output. Everything else is an outcome.

There are several action items that will help to bring the “outcomes” more to the surface as another important step in the engagement continuum. For example:

  • Consistently conduct post-event surveys.
  • Make a 100% commitment to input all engagement data into the CRM system.
  • Connect with alumni about their event experience (particularly travelers and prospects).
  • Identify potential volunteers/leaders among the attendee list.
  • Engage the Annual Giving office or gift officers based on who attended.
  • Draw overall conclusions between giving and attendance.
  • Involve a college or department in the program where efficient and mutually beneficial.

Woody Allen made the statement that 80% of life is showing up. But we don’t want our alums to just show up; we want them to share in our institutions’ success with positive, meaningful and irreplaceable experiences that are the gold standard in alumni engagement.