Are alumni events on a path to extinction?

The volume on this question is increasing, with a strong push for digital engagement to replace events as the primary mode of connection for and with alumni. It’s a feasible argument: social and business media platforms permit far greater reach and overcome the 2 logistical problems that haunt in-person events – geography and timing. A university trustee told me a few years ago: “Look, if there’s something important you want me to attend, give me 6 months’ notice and don’t make me drive more than 15 minutes to get there.”

But let’s suppose there’s a 3rd problem: the events themselves. Not logistics, but the content.  Schools’ approaches to live events have not changed much over the last 30 years. Happy hours, ball games, and the occasional swoop of senior administrators to present “state of the school” messages remain the primary offerings. Send 1,000 invitations, receive 30-50 positive RSVPs, expect 10-15 no-shows, and end up with a gathering of maybe 20-40 people.

Why is this? Because most events don’t create urgency or a compelling reason for alumni to attend. People are busy…and these kinds of events no longer carry high enough value to dislodge other things from their calendars.

And yet…there are still events people prioritize and attend. Examples:

World Cup soccer “watch parties”. During June and July 2018, hundreds of thousands of people across the planet watched soccer matches together: on gigantic screens in city squares, plazas, and parks as their home countries competed in arguably the most popular sporting event in the world. Opening round matches were scheduled and announced in December 2017 so the dates were known well in advance. The intense pride on display – from goofy costumes and face-painting to the group-level joy and commiseration – was contagious and fun.

Wildfire update meetings. If you live less than 100 miles from a forest fire that’s burning out of control, you want information constantly. Meetings run by safety and emergency management officials who share the latest news about perilous and worrisome conditions draw hundreds of community members together; moreover, real-time social media broadcasts inform thousands more who appreciate that the news can come directly to them.

Funerals. OK, we may not be eager to attend these, but remembering family and friends is a priority and a community expression of grief, compassion, and humanity. People make time to come together in these moments, usually with very little notice. On-line guest books create the platform for expression by those who want to be there but can’t.

So from events that draw on fierce national pride, extreme danger, and death, what are the takeaways that could inform more consequential, audience-enticing alumni events?  Here are three thoughts:

  1. Urgency matters. Do not hold an event because “we go to (NAME OF CITY) every year”.   That bar is way too low. Hold it because your school is doing something or about to do something extraordinary: something that’s valued by others (not just by the school) and is therefore important enough to bring directly to alumni.
  2. Participation matters.  People like events in which they have a role. “Listening” isn’t a role. Drinking isn’t a role (really, it isn’t). Instead, how about: asking alumni to make a difference in the lives of students by intentionally networking with 3-5 of them? Or how about probing alumni for their thoughts/opinions about an important issue for the school to help inform an eventual leadership decision? Or how about pulling heartstrings and inviting alumni to contribute their stories, captured at the event on video, which then become part of a permanent historical archive?
  3. Communication matters. People’s lives and schedules mean it’ll still be the case that a large percentage of invitees won’t be able to attend an event. So first, schedule a date-time-venue as far in advance as possible. And then, compel the large majority who don’t or can’t come by a) creating the opportunity for virtual attendance – in fact, design with virtual attendees in mind; and b) require post-event reporting: tell everyone what happened; why it was important; and what happened or will be happening as a result, including any calls to action. If an event doesn’t merit that type of after-messaging, either re-think it or don’t hold it.

Assuring urgency, participation and communication requires deliberate, focused planning. In some cases, it will take months to get right because the necessary work is iterative and collaborative. And the big challenge is when the event point person is someone who has a long list of other assignments. If you are shaking your head in agreement with that last statement, then perhaps you are at a crossroads: either switch to digital as your primary mode of alumni engagement, OR start thinking more critically about what you want events to accomplish and raise your standards for designing and executing them.