What’s Your Alumni Leaders’ Journey? (Part 1 of 2)

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Do you know the secrets to using customer journey mapping to transform your students and alumni into superstar regional leaders?

Most alumni relations and advancement professionals know all too well the challenge of finding and keeping topnotch alumni volunteers and leaders. But what if we approach this challenge with an entirely new mindset and model? What if we apply the idea of customer journey mapping to alumni engagement, specifically the journey and development of a top regional alumni leader?

According to Adam Richardson’s article* in the Harvard Business Review, a customer journey map is simply “a diagram that illustrates the steps your customer(s) go through in engaging with your company, whether it be a product, an online experience, retail experience, or a service, or any combination.” A journey map helps tell a customer’s story by illustrating their experience.

A customer’s journey ideally culminates in the continued use of, commitment to, and even advocacy for a specific product or brand. Similarly, in an alumni’s journey, the goal is a lifelong commitment to and advocacy for the institution. Though their journey stages may not always follow such a neat trajectory (there is overlap between each stage), you want alumni to be as engaged as possible (in as many ways as possible) throughout.

One key suggestion Richardson offers is to ask your customers to map their journeys for you for your research purposes. Well, ALUMinate did just that!

I recently had a compelling conversation with Charlene Huang Olson, a star Princeton University regional alumni leader, who was presented with the Award for Service to Princeton in 2013. Charlene has nearly 20 years of experience in alumni leadership and engagement strategy, having served as president of the Princeton Club of Chicago, Chair of the Alumni Schools Committee, and board member of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. She has also held roles with international reach including Class President and Reunion leadership. She has served several terms on the Executive Committee of Princeton’s Alumni Council. In addition, Charlene is currently a senior advisor for ALUMinate.

Charlene Huang Olson
Charlene Huang Olson

In our interview, Charlene shared her own story as a regional leader and her tips for finding and developing great alumni leaders. In this two-part blog series, I apply the customer journey framework to Charlene’s insights in order to map out the stages of a great alumni leader’s development.

As a starting framework, we’ll use the categories Awareness, Consideration, Purchase, Retention, and Advocacy (as used in the sample journey above).

In part 1 (this post) we’ll discuss the first stages of the journey, including initial actions institutions can take when students are admitted and while they are on campus, and what to do as soon as those students graduate.

In part 2 (April 10th), we’ll delve into the later stages of the alumni leader’s journey, including ideas for how to get alumni to attend leadership meetings and how to build a strong leadership succession plan in regions.

All of these stages fit together in a broader regional alumni engagement strategy. In addition, even though Charlene is an alumni leader for Princeton, many of the lessons of their success with regional alumni can be applied to any institution, because all students are on a type of journey. This post is for any professional who works with alumni at any institution.

A sample customer journey map
A sample customer journey map
Stages: Research > Admittance > Attendance > Graduation and Transition > Life After Graduation (various sub-stages)

Stage One: Research and Admittance (Awareness and Consideration)

Start before they arrive.

When I asked her what steps she takes to engage regional alumni, Charlene explained that “the strategy for alumni engagement begins when students are admitted. Alumni cultivation begins when they set foot on the campus for the first time, sometimes even earlier.”

Researching the institution, being admitted, and weighing the offer are the first stages in an alumni leader’s journey, which correlate to Awareness and Consideration in the customer journey map. Charlene suggests that during this stage, in an organized, intentional way, institutions create a web of connections that endure: between the student and the institution and the student and other students. Here are some examples:

  • -Alaska Pacific University does a summer trip for prospective students. Activities include meeting with admissions, touring campus, whitewater rafting, going to a local glacier, camping on the campus, hiking, and visiting a local sea-life center.

  • -Common reads are a great way to build connections between students by giving them a shared intellectual experience. We found a Campus Common Reading Roundup here.

Stage Two: Attendance (Purchase and Early Retention)

1) Honor established traditions and create ones that will reverberate for decades.

As Charlene pointed out, “A person doesn’t start being important once they graduate.” It can be a real disadvantage to wait until students graduate to start thinking about how to grow them into engaged alumni and regional leaders. As soon as students start attending the institution, they are in the Purchase stage—the time you may want to work to retain them as a future potential leader or donor.

Reflecting on how her university experience shaped her into an alumni leader, Charlene pointed out that, throughout a student’s time on-campus, institutions can foster relationships among alumni across the decades by sharing unique and time-honored traditions with students while they are on campus. This can involve sports-related traditions, iconic spaces on campus, historical traditions, different rites-of-passage, etc.

Did you know ALUMinate can help you plan and host traditions and events for your alumni in regions? Find out more.

Most institutions have these kinds of traditions, but one that stood out to us is Texas A&M University’s Muster Tradition, which celebrates the institution’s camaraderie while honoring Aggies who have passed. It’s the largest on-campus event and practiced worldwide.

In our conversation, Charlene noted that advancement and alumni relations professionals may want to have a hand in these common experiences and traditions, including tracking and assessing how well they fit into broader strategies over time, which brings us to…

2) Track as much as you can and actually make use of it.

One of the important lessons Charlene has learned from her work as a regional leader is the need for institutions to keep and use data on individual students from the beginning. “If you don’t bother to do it,” she said, “you don’t know what you won’t know.” Ways of gathering information could include logging what clubs they join, their affinities, sports teams they support, events they attend, etc. Take note of patterns and changes.

3) Connect students with strong leadership potential with current alumni leaders.

Charlene was a volleyball player in college. Occasionally, when the university reaches out to her now, it is a current student on the volleyball team who makes the call. This sort of connection allows the student to see what an engaged alum looks like, what is expected of them, and the benefits of that engagement. The common interest can also help connect or reconnect the alum to the institution.

As Charlene explained, alumni relations and advancement professionals could play a role in planting the seed of alumni volunteering, leadership, and giving in current students as they prepare to leave the institution and are riding the wave of graduation excitement. Here are examples we identified in our research:

  • -Elon University’s Office of Alumni Engagement is working “on a four-year program that incorporates programming, communication and fundraising activities that explain to current students what it means to be a successful Elon alumnus.”

  • -The University of Michigan Alumni Association’s magazine published a useful article, “Four Tips for Your First 100 Days on the Job,” for recent graduates. This is a good example of a way to work to retain the commitment of your young alumni.

Want to know how alumni can help you design strategic connections between students and alumni in regions? Contact us today to learn more.

Stage Three: Recent Graduates (Retention and Early Advocacy)

The next step is to have alumni in regions reach out to recent graduates as soon as they arrive (in the Retention and Early Advocacy stages of their leadership journey).

An institution can be extremely helpful to their regional leaders by regularly making them aware of new alumni or recent graduates that move into their areas.

Being welcomed to a city by a fellow alum can create an immediate and familiar connection. This outreach takes personal effort, but is often greatly appreciated. Regional leaders can make a personal call welcoming the new alumni to the city, share an information packet of relevant information about the region, offer to show them around, or invite the newcomers to an event to meet more local alumni. This can also be a great way to recruit new volunteers as the recent graduates look for opportunities to become more involved in their new community.

Stay Tuned…

We hope these insights for how to use the customer journey framework in alumni engagement have been exciting and useful to you!

Check back on April 10, 2018 for Part 2 of this post—we’ll discuss how to transform these active alumni into leaders and how to build a foolproof leadership succession plan.

Other helpful customer journey map resources:

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