How powerful are online networking events for strengthening alumni communities? These alumni services professionals share the secrets behind their best events.
Something special happens when you meet someone from your alma mater.
You stand up a little straighter, smile a little wider, and welcome the chance to talk to a fellow alum. You expect that your new connection embodies the best parts of your college experience. Maybe they’re dedicated, enthusiastic and caring, just like you.
From sports tailgates to job interviews, an alma mater mention can turn a new acquaintance into foot in the door at your dream company, or even a fast friend. But sometimes the efforts of alumni staff to bring these awesome people together fall flat. After work, your alumni are probably exhausted. On the weekend, they want some time to themselves.
How can online networking events really make a difference for alumni? We asked a few of the alumni coordinators who use the Brazen platform to share their success stories. Here are five tips to remember when planning your online event — as told by the pros. (Click here to tweet these tips.)
1. Set realistic expectations for your online event
Time flies when you’re chatting online, and it can fly even faster when you’re going on a virtual networking spree.
“You have to balance the ability to make connections with the ability to make meaningful impressions,” said Tina Knight Vance, senior associate director of alumni career services at Temple University. “We tell our attendees that the goal is to share contact info and connect offline.”
Even if alumni have a hard time stepping away from other tasks, you can still encourage them to pop in to your event for a few minutes. “People love being able to jump into the event so easily,” Tom Dowd, associate director of alumni career solutions at Lehigh University, said. “It’s a great lunch hour activity — someone can’t stay the whole hour but still met three people.”
Online networking events are new, and your event might be the first time your alumni have tried this method. By providing a bit of coaching prior to the event on the finer points of online networking, you’ll calm participants anxieties about whether they’re “doing it right.” And when your participants are prepared and excited, they’ll enjoy the networking experience even more.
“To be able to tell an alumnus that you can be at home, not feel intimidated and still network and meet your goals is fantastic,” Vance said.
2. Imagine the perfect networking equation for your alumni
If you’re just starting to use the Brazen platform, don’t cater your first event to alumni from a certain dorm or graduation year. You’ll limit your attendance if your initial group is too niche. But you do want to narrow the field in some way, rather than simply inviting everyone who ever attended your school.
“I try to develop events with different themes or hooks, and we always feature up to five different industries each time,” said Lindsay Macala, former coordinator of Columbia University alumni association career services. “My ultimate goal is to find unique ways to market and advertise each one.”
Instead of hosting an event for music industry alumni, invite musicians, actors, set designers, and sound engineers to participate. By thinking about how different industries can work together, you’ll offer more ways for your alumni to connect.
3. Consider timing and alumni needs
Remember what’s on alumni minds throughout the year. Host an event between Thanksgiving and winter break, and attendance might not be as high as you’d like. But host an event in early summer, when new alumni want to connect with other grads, and you’ll likely see lots of participants, including many first-timers. Or consider a “back to school” event to reconnect with alumni as they’re getting excited for college football season.
Right after New Year is also a popular time for events with job-search or career-networking themes, since that’s when many employees take stock of whether they’re happy in their jobs or want to seek out a new position.
“We did one event called Networking in the New Year, which was very well attended,” Macala said. “During that time of year, making changes to all aspects of life are top of mind, and career is certainly a top priority.”
4. Pump up your marketing efforts
Social media may not be the best way to make meaningful connections with your alumni, but it’s always a good idea to use your channels to let the community know about your events. Every tweet, Facebook post, Instagram photo, and email blast counts!
Leveraging those other platforms is how Temple University’s Owl Talks have attracted up to 275 participants for open alumni networking. “The emails that we send out to promote these events have some of the highest open rates,” Vance said.
5. Host online networking events as a gateway to engagement
Remember, the event is just the beginning. Encourage your alumni to use your events as a starting point for creating relationships and opportunities, so they’ll continue that momentum even once the event is over. One way the Brazen platform facilitates this is by making it easy for participants to connect on other channels like LinkedIn once the real-time chat ends.
“Those participating online become more engaged and subsequently become aware of the various events we organize, and then participate in in-person events when possible,” said Michael Steelman, director of alumni career services at The George Washington University. He also recalled job opportunities and donations that resulted from participation in online networking events.
“I had a conversation during an online event with someone living in San Francisco, and I suggested she come to an in-person event held in her area — she came and brought friends,” he said.
Online events are a great way to inspire your alumni to give back — both by opening their checkbooks for your institution, and continuing to build professional development opportunities with other alumni. And both of those components are crucial to developing a strong alumni community.
Do you have other tips for hosting a successful online networking event for alumni groups?
Ginny Manocha is the Director of Accounts and Customer Success at Brazen. Ginny describes herself as curious learner and loves reading about new trends between business, technology, and marketing. Follow her @ginnymanocha or connect on LinkedIn.