Alumni communications – On how to keep in touch with those who left


A few days ago, we published the 5th issue of “Beyond the Pond” – the alumni magazine for all former students at Jacobs University Bremen. It’s called “Beyond the Pond” because on the university’s campus, there’s a little artificial pond that enjoys great fame and popularity among students (see picture above blends it with a swimming pool that used to be in its place). Maybe because it’s the most scenic part of campus (sadly enough); maybe because, year after year, it attracts a loved-up pair of ducks to its waters, which then produces some of the world’s most adorable ducklings. Now, that’s not the point of this post. I meant to say something about “alumni comunications” in general. Just why and how should former students/employees and their university/company talk to each other?

Why even talk to them?

The first question is why. Why is it that people produce alumni magazines, implement online platforms, create Facebook groups, or compile newsletter after newsletter for former members of the academic or corporate institution?

For students, and to a lesser extent for former employees, nostalgia plays a big role – simply the emotional attachment to their former place of study or work. This is obvious in the case of a small campus university like Jacobs University Bremen. It used to be a German army base and they still haven’t taken down the fence surrounding in. So after three intense years inside that little “bubble”, as we call it, you share a lot of memories. For us, the alumni magazine is about maintaining some of this shared identity beyond the fenced in bubble, but also about keeping informed about what’s going on inside that bubble.

It must be similar for former employees at the large audit company, whose alumni program I ran for a while. They kept talking about their intense moments on a project they worked on together, or about that one boss nobody liked. But generally, they seemed much more interested in “networking”, in inconspicuously figuring out whether their former colleagues have become CFOs yet or not. So much for the interests of those who left.

We really, really care

And why would the institutions, the universities and companies, care so much to keep in touch with those who used to fill their classrooms and office floors before? For a financial consultancy, the objective is relatively easy to guess: $$$. Here’s how we justified the existence of an official corporate alumni program: The employee leaves the company. The employee is successful in some other company. The other company becomes a potential client. The former employee still loves the financial consultancy he used to work for because, for all these years, the alumni program has made sure that he does.

Universities are also after the money, of course. Especially in the U.S., alumni donations make up huge parts of their annual budgets. Unfortunately for Jacobs University Bremen, it only released the first batch of graduates a few years ago. So they didn’t have enough time yet to accumulate enough cash to throw it at their former university. But I think that quite a few of them eventually will. After three years in a fenced in bubble, you tend to become a little attached to the place.

For both the university and the company, there are also a number of softer reasons why they might want to have an alumni program. These softer reasons end up being about money as well, but less directly so. For instance, an alumni program is useful for marketing purposes and to spread the brand. Convert former students into little ambassadors of their university. Moreover, having an alumni program is like saying, “Look, we really, really care for our employees, even when they’re no longer with us.”

They won’t care

Then the question is, how do you actually communicate with your former students and employees? Through which channels? What messages? How much control should you exercise over this communication? Or should you just provide the playing field? The answers to these questions depend a lot on the university or company culture, on its size, on geographical dispersion of its former members, on how big your alumni budget is, and on how much manpower you have to run alumni communications.

I believe the most crucial thing to keep in mind is that the two parties involved – universities and companies vs. students and employees – want to engage in this conversation for very different reasons, as I said above. The institution essentially wants money and marketing. But alumni want to reminisce and keep in touch. So the last thing you should do is delivering corporate PR messages to them. They won’t care very much. Also, they know what’s behind those PR messages because they used to work or study at the place.

Honestly now

This suggests that alumni communications should be more about providing the channels but not the messages. It also suggests that the institution should think about alumni communications as an open and honest dialogue. This works reasonably well with “Beyond the Pond” because it’s mainly former students who are responsible for the magazine’s content.

It doesn’t work well with the rest of Jacobs University because they like to keep all information to themselves. It also failed at the audit company I used to work for because we treated alumni communications as if it was PR. The reason seems to be that companies still try to keep very tight control over the messages they send out and about the image they present to the public. As I said, this won’t work with former students or employees because they know only too well what’s going on behind the scenes.

The bigger question is, of course, whether organizations are generally losing control over their public image because of the Internet and the the way it allows information to spread. But let’s leave that for later. For now, enjoy reading “Beyond the Pond”, let me know if you like it, and comment on what it means to be an alumnus/alumna.

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