Universities: Get Learned

I recently wrote an open letter to the Vice Chancellor of one of my old universities in response to an unsolicited request I received asking for money.  The topic, along with my decision to write an open letter in response, was much discussed on LinkedIn. I read and replied to each comment, as I was both surprised at how topical the issue was and I was also genuinely interested in the various opinions shared. By way of a wrap up, the University of New England reached out to me, having investigated the points of communications failure that led to this situation and I’m pleased they’ll now be keeping in more regular contact.

However, the cheque still won’t be in the mail. 

In days gone by, university alumni were the one-stop-networking shop for graduates. The place connections were made that companies were built on. They were for all intents and purposes, the original offline social network.

But those days are long gone.

Today there are a multitude of on and offline networking opportunities for the modern graduate- from vocationally niche meet-up breakfast groups to fancy events with world leaders to business podcasts to LinkedIn communities running on an offline events around the world.

Apart from the ‘we went to the same university’ commonality, what do modern day university alumni offer that isn’t catered for amongst the plethora of professional associations, online groups, social networks and events companies selling what ever conference it is you’re buying?

My question is this: what is the return on the graduate’s re-investment?

That’s right: where is the return on re-investment for graduates?

And I really do mean re-investment because when you join a professional association you receive a range of benefits for your subscription fees. Online networking groups are often free, fancy events are on a as-you-like-it interaction basis, podcasts are free and LinkedIn communities – also free.

What is the alumni point of different in a market teeming with networking opportunities?

I paid for my education. I chose my course, I paid my fees and like many Australian students, I paid off the government student debt I incurred. My university professors were well paid for the tuition they provided me. The university also received government funding based on my enrolment.

Like any business contract, a service was provided and a fee paid for that service.

Did I benefit from the education I received at each of three of the universities from which I graduated – of course I did.

Do I feel like I owe them anything? No, I don’t.

Why? Because my universities aren’t unlike any of the other institutions that had a meaningful impact on my life through education. From my kindergarten where I was transitioned from home to school; to my primary school – where I was taught to read, write and count; to my secondary school where I was taught chemistry, biology, physics and math.

Should I spend my life indebted to donating to all these institutions?

Or should I live the life they cumulatively educated me to pursue?

The life where I contribute meaningfully to society in my own way, pay my taxes and support the causes and charities I choose to.

No one has ever been able to adequately explain to me why universities, above all other educational providers, are due more of my regard and coin.

I understand why universities ‘ask’ – they are like any other government under-funded educational institution, but I find the distinct lack of ‘give’ in this equation out of touch with the world in which we live.

In today’s age of digital and social media, the ‘ask-take’ mentality strikes me as an exceedingly incongruent approach to graduate engagement. In fact it tells me that the university lacks any audience acuity what-so-ever.  From their antiquated mailing lists to the missed social media and digital opportunities – perhaps this is their way of subconsciously alluding to their planned obsolescence?

I truly hope that isn’t the case, but the reality is –  if you aren’t innovating your business model: regardless of which business you are in, your shelf life in a world of constant technological evolution is remarkably short.

Universities: it’s time to get learned.

The value proposition of your alumni network to graduates has changed. You are now competing with professional associations and online communities against the backdrop of the digital communications revolution. You can no longer trade on the currency of the world ‘alumni.’ In fact, we are living in a world where for many, university is a conscious choice based on their projeced career trajectory. Universities exist in a marketplace full of differing educational experiences and opportunities, not all of them leading to a Bachelors Degree or post-graduate study. Entrepreneurs are grown out of high schools, bypassing formal graduate educations in preference to real word, hard knocks and skin-in-the-game business. Higher education is an option, not a necessity.

So where is your university in this equation?

Are you still writing mail-out monologues of self-congratulations and buzzword heavy guff? Running a few local events every few months? A magazine? Perhaps some email marketing campaigns?

Or have you joined the digital revolution?

Almost your entire student population will walk through your doors during O-Week (on-campus or online) with a Facebook account. Certainly most will walk out after graduation with a LinkedIn profile. Some may even be on Twitter and Instagram. On all those channels there are professional networks vying for their time, their coin, their membership. Some offer tangible benefits, professional development events, networking and awe inspiring speakers at events.

Universities: where are you when those students check-in on campus using Facebook or Swarm? Where are you when they mention you on Twitter? Tag you on Instagram? Add your universities badge to their LinkedIn profile?

More give, less take.

Universities are the organisations best placed to exploit the social communications revolution. You have a captive audience for three or four years at a minimum. If you can’t sell the worth of your alumni in that time, it’s because you are not competitive in the graduate marketplace. Just like any other marketing campaign, you need to create a demand for your product and that sell should start first year, during O-Week. It’s the longest internal marketing campaign in history but by graduation, you should have cultivated a new alumni member and a volunteer brand ambassador -for life.

Alumni membership should be something that is to be aspired to because it’s on and offline actions, it needs to inspire the next generation. It needs to engage with them before graduation to prove its relevance and worth.

You have at your disposal some exceptionally successful graduates who have certainly achieved amazing things. How are you telling their stories? Giving them an opportunity to shine and showcase their achievements?

A magazine article isn’t enough. You need target audience saturation. You need to be communicating where your student population is consuming their information.

Universities: it is ridiculously easy and cost effective to convert students pre-graduation to alumni brand ambassadors post graduation. Leverage social media to it’s full potential. Engage. Profile your successful graduates in an authentic way using YouTube, Instagram, Twitter Q&A’s, podcasts and Google Hangouts with the students you have today. Give your graduates the opportunity to tell their story.

Engage to communicate. Tell your graduate’s stories – the narrative is no longer about what the univeristy has achieved, for in actual fact ‘it’ hasn’t achieved anything. It’s people have.

By putting your people back in central focus, by capturing their hearts and minds with authentic stories of journey’s to success and the roads less travelled, you inspire greatness in others.

In times gone by, university halls were lined with the portraits of people each with their own amazing story.

The total sum of your universities legacy comes not from it’s name; rather it comes from your staff and your graduates. Those who came to share their knowledge with stories to engage and educate; and those who came to learn- who returned with stories to inspire.

Have you built your digital hall of graduate fame?