Why You're Failing Online Alumni (& 5 Simple Ways to Do Better)

Jan 28, 2016 - Joe Matar
Think college is synonymous with dorm rooms and ivy-covered campuses? Think again. More and more students are getting degrees without ever stepping foot on a college campus. In 2014, about 7.1 million US students were enrolled in at least one online-only class. (That’s a whopping 5.5 million more than when the Babson group started tracking in 2002.) Online learning results in a vastly different collegiate experience than that of traditional students. Online students have different problems, successes, and learning opportunities. These differences make for differently motivated alumni as well — and traditional alumni engagement methods don’t always cut it. So how do you engage better with online college graduates? Try these five steps to get started. [clickToTweet tweet="7.1 million US students are enrolled in #onlinecollege. Are you engaging them after they graduate?" quote="7.1 million US students are enrolled in at least one online-only class. Are you adequately engaging them when they graduate?"]

1. Understand your Online Alumni

Understanding your online alumni is your first step toward effectively connecting with them. Which online degrees are most popular? Do you know why? Alumni from different online programs may have very different needs depending on the job market for their chosen career. Discovering why your students chose an online program as opposed to a traditional on-campus experience is also important. Was it flexibility, affordability, or accessibility? And did they have a good experience with the online program, or do they wish they have attended a physical campus? This information will help educate you on how to approach your alumni and get them to actually interact with each other and the university.

2. Use Relevant Social Media to Connect with Online Alumni

Social media can be a powerful tool to connect people. Are you using it correctly? Don’t feel the need to be on every platform under the sun, but do make sure to have a presence on the main sites your alumni use for job hunting, connecting with friends, or consuming media. If your alumni are actively job hunting, they’ve probably created LinkedIn profiles, but may be a little lost on how to use them properly. Try offering LinkedIn profile training the same way you might offer resume reviews to on-campus students. Both Villanova University and Cedar Crest College have hosted highly successful online career coaching events for alumni, which would be doubly valuable to online college graduates. Make a valuable alumni networking space by creating successful Linkedin Groups for graduates from your school’s various programs. Create a space where alumni can network, ask for advice, post articles, and have conversations with each other and your alumni association. Online alumni may not feel as connected with other graduates and the college because they weren’t there physically. These groups can help them make those crucial connections and feel closer to the school. Remember: Simply creating a page or group isn’t enough. Start conversations, share relevant articles, ask questions, and be active on your accounts. Don’t talk at your alumni — talk with them through daily interactions on every page. [clickToTweet tweet="Don’t talk at your alumni — talk with them. #AlumniEngagement" quote="Don’t talk at your alumni — talk with them."]

3. Provide and Show Value

Whether your program focuses on providing further education, helping people network, or getting graduates their first job, you need to first and foremost provide value. When an online student graduates, contact them right away to explain the benefits available to them. Online graduates may not know about the alumni program (or may even be unsure if the program includes them). Online students are often left out of campus programs, which causes them to feel less important in the eyes of the school. Show them that this isn’t the case. Start by connecting new alumni with some older, more established alumni who can help with their career goals. A simple introduction can help create lasting relationships and show graduates you care about their well-being. If your alumni can’t see the value directly in their careers, they likely won’t actively participate in your alumni program. Provide value by sharing relevant information, facilitating networking opportunities, and adapting your resources to their changing needs. Reaching out to online alumni in different ways that always provide something of value will encourage them to engage with you. An engaged alumni is more likely to give back to the school and help out other alumni. One new engagement method to try is hosting online, chat-based events. Online events allow alumni to ask other professionals questions, engage in intelligent conversation, and network. These type of events can be held on a massive scale for people around the world to participate in, or on a smaller, more private scale to provide local or degree-specific value. Online graduates are generally familiar with event tools like this, especially if your school encourages online group work, and may even prefer to connect online over in-person conventions.

4. Invite Online Alumni To Help With Current Classes

Nothing is more flattering for alumni than the school asking them to speak with current students. Why should online classes be any different? Get some online professors on board, set up a live chat or video stream, and let your online alumni share their experiences. Since they did the online program, they also can offer helpful advice to current students and could even talk about the benefits of the alumni program to them. Contacting them on a personal level, either through a phone call or email, will enter you into meaningful conversations with alumni. Targeting successful alumni can involve them not only in helping current students, but also in becoming a resource for other alumni. Since they know the challenges presented to online graduates, their feedback on the challenges facing online alumni will prove invaluable.

5. Don’t Ignore Non-Traditional Students

Many online students fall into the non-traditional students category. These include parents finishing their degree, retirees wanting an education, people looking to further their career with a second degree, and others in similar situations. There isn’t a lot of information on how to help non-traditional students because colleges have historically kept poor tabs on the graduation rates of their adult students. Non-traditional graduates can still benefit from your alumni program. They may be looking to find a new job, wanting to network to further their careers, or looking for the opportunity to continue their education through your alumni program. Or, they may have challenges you haven’t encountered yet. Putting extra effort into discovering their needs help you tap into a previously overlooked group of alumni. Going out of your way to help these students can create loyal alumni, helpful resources, and avid promoters.

Don’t Miss Out On Great Alumni

All alumni are created equal, but not all alumni are the same. Grouping online alumni and traditional graduates together is a dangerous approach that can inadvertently alienate great people. Try taking a more targeted and thoughtful approach to each type of alumni — it can only help engagement rates and create even better alumni networks.

What is your program doing to engage online alumni? Share with us in the comments below.

  [avatar user="ben24allen" size="thumbnail" align="left" /] Ben is a published writer who specializes in business, marketing, social media, motivation, and video games. You can follow him on Twitter @allen24ben.   alumni-engagement-post-cta