If you have fond memories of your college days, your alma mater would love to tap those sentimental feelings and keep the connection going – for a life time. In the current economic climate, the link between schools and their alums can represent more than just wistful feelings, and as colleges look for additional funding, alumni can help bring some much needed revenue to campus. Traditionally a reliable source of support, that funding has become even more crucial as colleges look to cover needed expenditures on anything from student scholarships to construction projects. And while the time honored approaches of fundraising such as phone drives, mailings, sporting or homecoming events continue to be successful, colleges are also looking at new ways and more effective partnerships to strengthen their alumni connections.
Fueled by research revealing that over 80 percent of alumni want stronger connections to their university, Barnes & Noble College realized the significance of that connection when they launched their Igniting the Alumni Connection initiative. As a customized loyalty program designed to help build and enhance relationships with alumni, the program was designed to work seamlessly with a school’s alumni association, using the resources of the campus bookstore along with electronic marketing and social media to help foster that connection.
At Boston’s Northeastern University, the program is taking off. “The Alumni Association had initially approached us to act as a bridge for them to collect donations for the NU fund,” explains Northeastern University Bookstore manager Tim Meisel. “At that point, it was less about revenue, and everything to do with building a stronger alumni connection for the university,” he adds.
Although one out of every six people in the local Boston population has some connection to the university, Meisel points out that as a co-op driven university, where students learn technical skills at local companies while continuing to take academic classes at the university, Northeastern may not have enjoyed the same cachet of some of its neighboring institutions. Despite a thriving hockey team, the school has no major football presence, and as an urban campus, limited parking and access has meant it’s also harder for alumni to visit the campus. As a result, the university has a particularly dynamic alumni association. And as Northeastern’s brand continues to grow, it has also increased its outreach to alumni. “It was a small thing to gather email addresses, but it was the start of the first real initiative to use the bookstore as an extension of the university’s efforts to encourage that relationship,” Meisel says.
At the University of Chicago, the bookstore has also found a valuable role in supporting its connection with alumni. “We work very closely with the university covering the needs of all constituencies,” explains David Shield, University of Chicago bookstore manager, “and we view alumni as an important part of our school that we want to connect with.” Although the university may have at first been protective about marketing to its alumni, Shield was able to demonstrate a compelling commitment. “We realize that everything we do represents the university and we wanted to show we could provide exactly the right customization to our emails and website, so the marketing was seamless with the school’s colors and image,” he says. So far, the program has been positively received by alumni. A recent nationwide survey of alumni enrolled in the Igniting the Alumni Connection program reported that 82 percent “think we send just the right amount of emails” and 84 percent “are pleased with the alumni promotions they have received.”
That attention to detail also extended to the look of the bookstore’s online presence where the choice in alumni merchandise has greatly increased and now includes a special plush Phoenix, the school mascot, with a portion of each sale going towards the alumni development fund for student financial aid. “It’s an important part of the university to build a strong alumni base,” Shield says, “and with 70,000 active alumni, this is really our opportunity to support them and help promote their brand,” he adds.
At Northeastern, the university is putting considerable effort and resources consolidating its goal of becoming a more nationally recognized university and, by helping support its alumni efforts, Meisel sees a definite role for the bookstore. “We’ve worked with them to get their alumni mark correctly represented in our product assortment and on our website,” he says.
The Northeastern Bookstore website is also the first school to feature a special drop down tab, where alumni can specify a certain dollar amount that can be added to their checkout cart. It’s a feature that will also be displayed on the store’s homepage and reflects a cooperation which has prompted Northeastern’s own alumni department to close their own retail operation in favor of working with the bookstore. “We’re just a small, but key part of their branding campaign to get their mark and their message out there,” Meisel says, adding, “Getting our alumni more involved is an important element of the university’s long-term planning, and we’re involved not as a separate entity, but as a part of the university − part of the school’s plan.”