Alumni engagement at Cornell

Cornell University's Secret Sauce for Higher Ed Marketing

3 min read

If your institution’s marketing team sends out an email, is the goal to have that email read or to spark an actual conversation? 

Colleges and universities are competing for attention, from other schools and other businesses. Your communication efforts need to cut through the clutter and actually reach students and alumni.

 Ashley Budd to joined our higher education live event series, For Your Institution, to talk about conversational marketing in higher ed. Ashley is the Director of Marketing Operations for Alumni Affairs and Development at Cornell University. She is well known for her creative and innovative marketing campaigns, and she is one of the most influential voices in education marketing and fundraising.

In our conversation, we went over some best practices for reaching students and fine-tuning the messages schools send to their constituents. Drawing on some of the successes at Cornell, Ashley says a strong part of their strategy is a conversational tone.

“We’re inviting a conversation in all of the writing that we’re doing. This approach is really effective in helping to make your communication feel personal. One of the things we’ve been trying to tackle from a digital strategy perspective is how can we make things more personal. We’ve found that you don’t need to be a tech behemoth, you don’t need to have all the data to do hyper-variable personalized messaging, to have a personal conversation.”

Alumni engagement requires a ton of communication to a variety of different audiences, all with separate interests. Segmenting texts and emails is important to ensure your alumni members are getting messages that are relevant to them. Cornell University has an interesting strategy to keep their alumni engaged and informed. They created a "Snack Bar", with easily-digestible stories and updates. Alumni can see what the institution is up to and comb through the nuggets of information that they find interesting.

“There was a ton of awesome content coming out of Cornell. We saw the Snack Bar as a place to deliver tiny social-sized snippets, rather than long-form storytelling. We might want to share quotes, photos, social, posts, or data points. You see those forms posted there. It’s similar to a social feed, but it’s ours to control in our own environment.”

Cornell shares their Snack Bar  content in an email format which links it to their website. Sending too many emails is a fear most higher ed professionals have. Cornell’s Alumni Affairs and Development department has experienced a very low opt-out rate while still sending their entire base of alumni members two emails a week.

“We picked two days a week that we were going to send an all-alumni communication. Since April, 2020, Cornell alumni have been getting two emails, from my department. Every Tuesday, they get a newsletter, every Thursday, they get a single call-to-action email. The consistency helped us create alumni engagement. Open rates increased and click rates increased. This is specific to email communication, but your sender reputation is tied to frequency. If you are only sending a communication to your audience once a month or less, your sender is reputation is not going to be as strong as if you had several touch points.”

While a conversational approach is key, and communicating like a human is a big part of personalization, you don’t necessarily have to be overly clever with your email subject lines and texts in order to get your message across.

Emoji’s are a powerful way to get your message open, through text or email. Ashley also states that having your school identified in the “from” portion of an email or the subject is a must. People are more likely to ignore texts and emails if they do not know who the sender is.

Check out the full FYI episode with Ashley, Cornell University's Secret Sauce for Higher Ed Marketing, for more information on the school’s success.