Every week I hear from colleagues at other companies who are intrigued by the concept of corporate alumni relations and curious what it takes to create an effective alumni program. Of course there are the basic considerations like determining where in the company your program will reside, why it exists, how you will staff it, and what technology platform you’ll leverage, but there are a bunch of more nuanced points to think about as well.
Here are the most critical (and in some cases counter-intuitive) insights that I’ve picked up along my journey:
It’s not about you; it’s about the alumni.
Though an alumni program might come about because of a specific need from your company (e.g. a desire to re-hire alumni or tap into alumni relationships for business development), the program must focus on delivering value to alumni. If you view the alumni community as simply another platform to promote your company’s products/services/news, you likely won’t maintain compelling levels of engagement.
A great first step is to find out what your alumni want. Through informal conversations, surveys, and good old-fashioned experimentation, you can get a pulse on what your community is interested in. Maybe they want to see stories about alumni accomplishments. Perhaps they’re eager to access thought leadership from your company. Maybe they want to find out about job opportunities with fellow alumni. Pay careful attention to email and website metrics so that you understand where alumni are directing the most interest—this should help you devise strategies to engage them. There will definitely be opportunities to promote your company, but it starts with an alumni-first attitude.
Internal coalition-building is crucial.
It’s sort of strange to consider that one of the most important aspects of building a community of external alumni is to engage your internal colleagues—but this is critical. As your program gets off the ground, your company’s current employees can reach out to their friends who have left over the years and drum-up participation in the alumni network. When alumni get a note from a friend who’s still with the company (“Hey—want to join me for our alumni network launch party in San Francisco next Wednesday?”) it makes the program feel much more personal and enticing. You can even create contests to incentivize employees to support your efforts.
Additionally, internal partnerships help the alumni program deliver value to alumni and to your company. For example, a subject matter expert from a high-profile department can present cutting-edge research during an alumni webinar, or a senior executive can serve as the host of an alumni networking event—both huge value-adds for alumni. Partnerships with colleagues in Marketing/Communications, Talent Acquisition, CSR and/or Business Development also ensure that your program’s activities are actually helping to drive impact in these functional areas. Bottom line: your alumni program won’t be successful if you operate in a vacuum.
Executive participation matters.
If you can recruit senior leaders to support your alumni program publicly, it sends a strong signal to alumni that they are valued by the company and that the alumni program is worth their attention. I am fortunate to work in a company where several executives have supported our program—through video testimonials on our website, webinar participation, hosting of events around the world, etc.—and I’ve seen significant alumni engagement spikes in areas where executives are highly involved.
Alumni want to feel that they’re part of something special when they join your alumni network. When they receive an event invitation signed by the CEO, or they’re greeted at a networking event by the local office leader, or they’re able to participate in a private Q&A with the chief strategy officer, that element of exclusivity is reinforced and the bond is strengthened.
The growth of the community can’t be forced.
In large companies, initiatives and campaigns are often rolled out at a global level, and stakeholders around the world are expected to fall in line and execute on plans—regardless of their personal buy-in. It’s a top-down approach. When it comes to alumni programs, I think that a bottom-up approach can be more effective—meaning that you start small and let the program gain momentum organically.
You want your people who are most passionate about alumni to be the ones planning your alumni activities and events—especially at the beginning. When your early successes start generating buzz within your company, that is when more and more people will be drawn to participate. In our company, the success that we had with U.S. alumni networking events led to colleagues reaching out to me from places like China, England, India, Jakarta, New Zealand, Romania and Spain wanting to plan their own. We didn’t rush a global rollout—we let it happen organically, as people genuinely got excited about the program—and this made a huge difference in the quality and authenticity of our alumni engagement.
Above all, running a successful alumni program requires a nimble mindset and a true passion for serving alumni. Your alumni community is a living entity—always growing, changing, evolving—so it’s crucial to keep a pulse on the needs of the community to deliver experiences that delight your alumni and keep them engaged.
Dan Klamm is an alumni relations leader with experience in the corporate and higher education spheres. He currently serves as Director of Alumni Relations at Nielsen, where he has built the alumni program over the last two and a half years. Previously, he spent seven years working in student affairs, marketing, and alumni relations for his alma mater, Syracuse University.