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Engaging your alumni in international student recruitment

“Most businesses find that their best customers come from other customers’ referrals or “word of mouth” advertising.  Why would it be any different with international [student] recruiting?”

— Don Sears, on Envisage International

Engaging alumni as a resource to aid in student recruitment is a no-brainer and recognised as such by most post-secondary institutions. Jessica Guiver, author of The International Student Recruiter blog, sums up the value of alumni to recruitment efforts this way:

  • Location (alumni are where prospective students are)
  • They have first-hand knowledge of the university
  • They are enthusiastic supporters of the institution
  • They want to help and be involved with their alma mater

Guiver’s first point is particularly important for institutions with internationalisation mandates: alumni represent a low-cost method of reaching out to potential students around the world, offsetting at least some of the travel costs associated with student recruitment.

But while virtually all post-secondary institutions would agree that alumni represent exceptional recruitment aids, not all are capitalising on this value. Many take it as a given that proud alumni will speak highly of their school and leave it at that, guessing at more than formally organising, maximising, and measuring alumni impact on recruitment goals.

This ICEF Monitor article sets out some tips and best practises to assist you in evaluating the extent to which your organisation has an effective alumni-based recruitment strategy – one with set goals, tactics, and performance indicators – and one that can be built upon over time for real results.

Organising alumni impact

Not all alumni are created equal. Some have earned higher distinction (grades, awards) at school. Some are more enthusiastic. Some will not do anything on a volunteer basis. Some have just graduated (and thus have fresher memories of their experience and possibly more time on their hands) and others have been out of school for a while (possibly harder to connect with and motivate but potentially more successful in their careers). Some have gone back to countries that have been targeted by your institution as a priority market, and some have not.

Understanding your alumni segments, and knowing how to motivate them to real action, is crucial to any serious alumni strategy. Along this line, the GlobaLinks Learning Abroad Alumni Association features four levels of involvement: with each successive level, alumni responsibilities go up – as do incentives and rewards.

Also key to organising alumni efforts is creating a dedicated and updated webpage where alumni can find all the information they need to portray your institution in an attractive and accurate light. The Thunderbird School of Global Management provides an excellent example of a comprehensive alumni webpage.

Maximising alumni impact

Some alumni will be so excited about the experience they’ve had at your school, you’d have to pay them not to tell everyone they know about it. Pride is certainly a wonderful reason for alumni to tell others about your institution, but there are other reasons that may increase the motivation further: online and offline networking channels and events, continuing education and invitations to prestigious lectures, career development assistance, vouchers for travel and entertainment, technology discounts (see Thunderbird’s), etc. To whatever degree your budget allows, make sure it’s worth it for alumni – who have busy lives, just like the rest of us – to market your institution.

If an alumnus has graduated from a key institutional programme area you want to really promote and meets other important criteria (e.g., enthusiastic, well-spoken) you may want to custom-design a programme for them with a higher level of responsibility and rewards. This makes sense given the potential return on your investment in this alumnus is higher than with others. Other examples of where it might make sense to custom-design alumni programmes include:

  • Alumni who have gone back to a country that is a high-priority target for your institution
  • Alumni who have decided to become financial donors for your institution
  • Alumni who have become very successful in their careers, and whose history of going to your school will help with your brand’s image

In other words, it should not be expected that all alumni will represent your brand to its fullest extent on a volunteer basis. Given that alumni represent word-of-mouth, and powerful word-of-mouth at that, their value should be recognised as formally as any other elements in your marketing mix, and invested in accordingly.

Measuring alumni impact

Similarly, viewed as an element in your marketing mix, alumni impact can be measured. It is not a “maybe it made a difference, maybe it didn’t” intangible. Developing measurable performance indicators lets you see what’s working and what could be improved upon, what should be repeated and what should be dropped. Some examples of performance indicators (KPIs) in an alumni strategy might be:

  • Number of alumni volunteering to promote your institution to some degree
  • Number of donors
  • Number of alumni in your highest level of engagement (i.e., those choosing the highest level of responsibility)
  • Amount of donations
  • Number of events/student fairs at which alumni actively promoted your institution
  • Number of communities and countries in which alumni actively promoted your institution
  • Number of alumni testimonials gathered per year
  • Number of alumni email addresses
  • Number of new students reporting alumni had an impact on their choosing to study at your institution
  • Number of communities and countries in which alumni actively promoted your institution

Identifying and evaluating KPIs also paves the way for goal setting for the next year. Here are just some examples of goals in an alumni programme:

  • Increase number of alumni in highest engagement level by x%
  • Increase number of alumni volunteers in x countries by x%
  • Introduce x number of new alumni reward programmes to encourage alumni engagement

Words to live by

Finally, we’ll include a good list put together by Don Sears on the basics of alumni recruitment:

  • Make sure they [alumni] are passionate about the school. Passion sells!
  • Make sure they have had some level of success. Seeing a living breathing success story sells!
  • Manage expectations up front. You want to make sure that the alumni immediately knows what you are going to be asking them to do and what budget they have to work with for certain events.
  • Keep them informed about things happening at the school and upcoming or recent changes. For example, the school is investing in a new sports complex or library.
  • Build a website that you can direct potential students to that has their local alumni contact information.
  • Use social media to communicate your messaging and build a community.

Do you have examples of, or stories about, excellent ways alumni have helped to recruit international students to your institution? Is your institution doing something innovative and effective in leveraging alumni? Let us know by adding your experiences in the Comments tab below.

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