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Going Beyond Email for Alumni Engagement

Email marketing to alumni is effective, but we keep sending more and more. What’s the point of diminishing returns and how do we stem the tide?

January 29, 2019
 
 

One of the primary audiences for Fordham's University Marketing and Communications office is alumni. Last year, we sent 811 emails through our email marketing system, Mailchimp, which was an 11% increase over the year before and a 24% increase over the year before that. In fact, the email output from our office has increased 75% over five years. These stats do not include emails sent to prospective students by our Admissions offices or emails sent to current students and staff by other departments. It is safe to say that if you have an affiliation with Fordham, you are receiving increasingly more emails.

And for good reason. Email marketing works. It’s a trusted form of communication with people who have already given you permission to be in their inbox, and it remains the strongest performing media ahead of search engine marketing and display marketing. Christopher Hubner addressed just that in this recent Call-To-Action post Underestimating the Power of Email, where he rethinks click-driven content in favor of brand building in the context of new student recruitment.

However, since alumni receive the bulk of our emails, they aren’t new customers. We go back to them again and again over the course of years, even decades, with news and events, solicitations, engagement opportunities, etc. With above-average open rates and click-through rates, they seem relatively tolerant of our increasingly frequent communication, but do they have a tipping point? How much is too much?

The Dreaded UNSUBSCRIBE

The easiest way for us to measure tolerance is by monitoring unsubscribe rates. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 requires that email marketers give their constituents the option of unsubscribing from all emails or opting out of receiving select types of emails. As an institution, we are then banned from contacting our unsubscribes again via email which, from an alumni relations point of view, has some dire consequences. Never again can you harness the power of email to invite that alum to a reunion or celebrate a school accomplishment or participate in a giving day. It can feel a bit like a family estrangement.

People who unsubscribe rarely share their reasoning even when given the option to do so, but the random nature of the behavior seems to imply that it isn’t any one particular email that offends, but rather, it’s the constant flow that eventually erodes the relationship. They’ll receive, on average, an email a week from Fordham for three years or thirteen years and then poof! they’re gone. Sometimes, we find that it was accidental, but more often than not, the alum sincerely doesn’t want another Fordham email.

So what can be done to avoid that point of no return? Send less email.

Alternatives to Email

Seems simple enough–send less email–but is it feasible? It’s going to be a hard sell to career services who wants to promote an upcoming networking event and to the fundraisers gearing up for the annual gala and to the dean’s office looking to advertise a new continuing education opportunity. We need to consider some alternatives.

  • Newsletters

Email newsletters can be a good email alternative that sneakily still uses email. An email newsletter allows a group to neatly package several events and news items together. By establishing more email newsletters for deans’ offices and departments, we have been able to reduce the number of single topic emails and found that alumni seem to tolerate regularly-expected email communications like newsletters better than one-offs. It also has a bonus outcome of brand building since the effect of the sum total of the items in a newsletter is larger than any one item.

  • Paid Social Media

Sharing events and news items on social media seems like a no-brainer, but as social media has evolved, we’ve learned that there is such a thing as over-sharing. On a platform like Facebook, the algorithm punishes a brand for posting too frequently, and on other platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, posting too frequently becomes white noise.

Paid social media, however, offers a different set of tools with a modest spend. By uploading custom audiences or targeting users by school/major/career, we have been able to put news and events items in the feeds of exactly who we’re trying to reach and again with added benefits–impressions, organic shares, and opportunities for dialogue in the comments.

  • Calendars/Newsfeeds

The humble blog and calendar can sometimes be overlooked in the digital advertising space, but widgets in our web content management system allow us to feature events and news items front and center on department homepages using the RSS feed generated by blogging and calendaring software. It isn’t push technology but it’s another channel to support other efforts we’re making to get the word out.

Do you have any other ideas or tactics that are working for you? Texting? Instant messaging? I love email marketing, but in order to ensure it stays effective and welcome, we need to be wary of overuse and look for other ways to reach our alumni.

Donna Lehmann is the assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University in New York City.

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