Using Social Media to Engage Your Alumni and Donors – Part I

Reprinted from “Bright Ideas,” an online newsletter by The Woolbright Group.

Volume #6  Issue #5 November 2009

Using Social Media to Engage Your Alumni and Donors – Part I
Interview with
Mary Ann Cicala
Associate Director of Alumni Relations, Emerson College, Boston, MA

Jennifer Conboy
Associate Director, Electronic Communications
Office of University Advancement
Boston College

Wikipedia ( defines “social media” as: “Media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media uses Internet and web-based technologies to transform broadcast media monologues (one to many) into social media dialogues (many to many). It supports the democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers.”

To find out how colleges and universities are harnessing the power of social media as an element of a broad-based communications strategy, we turned to two forward thinking advancement professionals for their perspectives.

WG: Let’s start with the basics: please define “social media” –and why do you think it has become such a phenomenon?

Mary Ann: I believe that social media is a catch phrase for all online venues that have become the modern day “Third Places.” Urban Sociologist, Ray Oldenburg, describes the concept of Third Places in his book, The Great Good Place. It’s a place where anyone can socialize or hang out. Cafes, coffee shops, bars, and other centers of the community are instrumental in the culture of our country. Like these civic venues, virtual communities provide a sense of place and become informal gathering places where people feel at home.

There are three essential ingredients to a well functioning third place: they must be inexpensive, highly accessible to neighborhoods or a regular part of one’s routine, and should be a place where large numbers of people gather regularly to feel welcome and comfortable. The varieties of social media platforms online provide synchronous and asynchronous social interaction between media and consumers—in other words, the audience can easily be both producers and consumers. This ability to engage in dialogue in a public forum enriches public life because it invokes a sense of civic pride while providing opportunities for companionship and relaxations after a long day of work or school.

I believe that “social media” has become a phenomenon because one no longer has to leave the home (first place) or the office (second place) to interact socially because these virtual environments have the potential to function as new (albeit digitally mediated) third places similar to pubs, coffee shops, and other hangouts. The irony is that it is not uncommon to see consumers engaging in third places provided by popular social media platforms while actually sitting in, say, a coffee shop!

WG: Which platforms are you currently using, and please give us some specific examples of how you are using them.

Jen: At BC we have created a presence on Twitter (@BCAlumni), Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Twitter has been our focus recently since we started “Tweagle (as in twittering eagle) Tuesday.” Every Tuesday we ask a question relating to something on campus. Once responses come in, we re-tweet them, and the re-tweet spawns more comment. On Facebook we have a fan page dedicated to graduates of the last decade and we try to provide event updates and other content relevant to this group on the page. Our YouTube presence isn’t something we promote directly, but more that we use it to store all the videos we create. When we want to drive traffic to a specific video, we generally point alumni to our web pages where the video is embedded. Lastly, LinkedIn isn’t something that we officially manage from BC, but we work closely with the volunteer that created the general Boston College Alumni group.

Mary Ann: The alumni relations team at Emerson College incorporates online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Flickr. My favorite example for how Emerson is using social media is through Facebook groups and “fan pages.” The Emerson College Alumni Association has a Facebook fan page that links all of the official clubs, groups and other fan pages. For example, volunteers built a fan page for the class of 1999 as they planned their 10 year reunion. The Facebook fan page enabled the volunteers to encourage classmates to post updates similar to class notes, share and comment on photos that encouraged nostalgic conversations, and send personalized notifications to specific regions. Building on the momentum of the “25 Random Things” fad, one reunion committee volunteer posted a note entitled “Top 10 Favorite Things About Being A Class of 1999 Emersonian,” then “tagged” all of her classmates and encouraged them to repost their own list. This became viral and soon classmates all over the country began posting and commenting on each other’s notes and lists.

Emerson recently had a tough month with some bad press. But what’s interesting is we have alumni engaging in this conversation. Someone might post a negative comment, but then others will post a counter-point. So there is opportunity in a crisis situation! You want it to be organic, you don’t want to stop the conversation.

WG: What do you consider to be the greatest benefits of using social media?

Jen: One of the major benefits that I’ve seen is that we can immediately tell how interested alumni feel about the messages we post by their interactions. Using links we can track how many clicks we are getting on our posts to Twitter or Facebook. Facebook also has a feature to “like” posts that alumni find interesting. Our goal is to continue to provide content that alumni are interested in getting so that they feel that BC has helped them in some way. Also, if they feel this content is interesting, they will be more likely to pass it on to other BC friends in their networks.

Mary Ann: Social Media provides multiple touch points. It’s viral when friends are invited to download items, newsfeeds share updates with friends and contacts; and the third party platform [can be used to] send emails and reminders–thus making it a softer touch point for the institution.

In our presentation [Jen and I] talk about your “three places:” home/work/where you socialize. I think that what the phenomenon is – social media is replacing the traditional third place.

Another of my favorite examples is one alum’s use of the Emerson College Alumni Association discussion group on LinkedIn. While many alumni successfully take advantage of this networking platform to post job openings, brand themselves, and seek insight in their career paths, this alumnus posted the question, “Who was your favorite professor?” To date, this is the most popular discussion with 130 responses in the form of “comments.”

WG: Do you consider social media to be an integral facet of your communications strategy?

Both: Without a doubt! It’s part of the discussion in everything we do now.

WG: Do you have a formalized social media strategy? If yes, what are its components?

Mary Ann: Emerson College is currently formalizing a social media strategy. In June, the College formed a “Social Media” working group. To date we have published white papers on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The group meets monthly and reports to the Vice Presidents for Communication and Marketing, Institutional Advancement, and Admission. The goal is to have a unified and branded image and to advise the institution as we work towards a formalized media strategy.

Jen: We don’t have a formal strategy yet. We are spending more time strategizing about the messages we are sending out in general and how those are communicated via our website. From there, we will use social media sites to drive people back to the web site. To help with this process, we have added another position to the Advancement Communications and Marketing team; there are now three positions dedicated to the web: Web Specialist (technical), Electronic Communications Specialist (manages all emails), and Associate Director of Electronic Communication (pulls it altogether).

WG: Do you use these tools differently in relation to your various target audiences, ie, alumni, donors, prospective donors?

Jen: We do not differentiate between donors and prospective donors when targeting social media sites. We did, however, reach out to donors specifically during our Neenan Challenge last fiscal year. During the challenge we asked donors to help us share our email messages across their BC networks. We included a “share” button (by on every message so that our donors that offered to help out could easily pass along our email messages.

Mary Ann: In the beginning, Emerson College used the various online tools differently to
target our audiences. For example, LinkedIn, was originally the best choice to engage more experienced alumni (15 years and out) while Facebook and Twitter were the best platforms to engage younger alumni. However, this is no longer the case. Alumni of all ages and backgrounds can be found on the many social media platforms.

It is important, however, to note that print communication should still be factored in with marketing and communications. While the majority of alumni can be reached through social media platforms, and while these platforms provide much more cost efficient means of communication—there is still a large enough population who are resistant to social media. At Emerson College, we will sometimes limit our mailings to alumni who are not registered on our online communities, or for whom we do not have working emails.

WG: Do you find that your audience segments tend to self-segregate, ie, gravitate to one version of social media vs the others?

Mary Ann: In the beginning Facebook tended to be for a younger audience. Now we’re finding that [alum from the] mid 70s – 80s are participating. LinkedIn is a more mature audience. Twitter started out young, but the alum who are on Twitter are very savvy social media users.

Jen: Because our Facebook presence is geared toward alumni 10 years out, we don’t know if an older audience might participate otherwise. Twitter seems to be used by a broad range of class years and I would agree with Mary Ann that they are usually more savvy social media users.

WG: Who implements, monitors, and maintains your blogs, and/or Facebook, LinkedIn, or other platforms?

Mary Ann: The alumni relations team at Emerson College delegates the day to day operations of electronic communications to one member of the staff. However, the entire team is fully engaged in monitoring and maintaining the various platforms. Many of these platforms are also managed by an army of volunteers.

WG: Do you twitter? If yes, please explain what role it plays as part of the mix.

Both: You bet!

Mary Ann: Emerson College is, in fact, “Twitterpated.” Twitter allows the alumni association to use a mix of formal and conversational communication styles when posting news about the college, its current students and student groups, and celebrate the successes of individual alumni.

We have found that Twitter is not only a tool for broadcasting information: it is a powerful way to monitor the Emerson College brand. Twitter allows users to search for keywords or phrases that appear in other tweets. Searching can be achieved on Twitter’s website or through third-party websites that expand searching options, like Monitter (, and Tweetdeck (

For example, a search for “Emerson College” on Twitter on September 2, 2009 yielded a tweet from a user stating, “Emerson College & others using social media for student orientation; ‘same message, new delivery’” The link provided in the tweet directs to a Boston Globe Higher Education story about how area colleges and universities are tapping social media to welcome incoming freshmen and orient them to their campuses and Boston

Monitoring Twitter not only gives Emerson the opportunity to view tweets about the college, but also provides an immediate way to respond to individual concerns or complaints. Twitter allows users to publicly reply to another user’s tweet by posting the ”@” symbol and the username. For example, if a user named ”TheMACDoodle” posted a negative experience about Emerson, we could quickly reply by posting a tweet saying, “@TheMACDoodle, if you’d like to provide suggestions on how we can improve, we’d love to hear them.” Emerson can instantly connect to the needs and wants of other Twitter users, as long as we are monitoring information posted there. Another benefit of monitoring Twitter is the ability to foster real-time conversations with followers, humanizing the institution’s online presence.

End Part I. Look for Part II of this interview in the February issue of Bright Ideas.

Continue reading Part II of Using Social Media to Engage Your Alumni and Donors.


About themacdoodle

Communications Manager, Creative Strategist, Community Builder, & Possibility Agent
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