Recognizing and understanding what different segments of your audience cares about allows you to create more authentic messaging.
By Sarah Marks, Campus Sonar Social Media Data Analyst
Examining how alumni discuss their relationship to your institution provides you with insight into the moments that bring the most pride, pain, and potential influence, as well as how active they are in-person and across the social space. I've looked generally at their conversation and at sentiment, but I also wanted to understand how different types of alumni might view certain events and talk about their experiences as graduates.
To do this, I broke the entire alumni audience into smaller segments. My goal was to show that not all alumni celebrate or worry about the same things or process their happiness and concern in the same ways. Recognizing and understanding this can help your team better understand what alumni go through and, in turn, empathize with them to create messaging that resonates.
Time Since Graduation
One segment I created was grouping alumni by time since they graduated. I broke them into four different groups.
- Graduates from the past year (25% positive, 33% negative, 42% neutral)
- Graduates from 2–5 years ago (33% positive, 30% negative, and 37% neutral)
- Graduates from 6–15 years ago (29% positive, 33% negative, and 28% neutral)
- Graduates from over 15 years ago (18% positive, 25% negative, 57% neutral)
Nerd Note: Since we analyzed multiple years of data, we categorized each post from the identified time since graduating at the time of the mention, not what it would be in real time. Because people typically speak about their experiences in the current moment, it didn’t seem accurate to extrapolate to the current time period. For example, a post that said “I graduated 3 years ago” in 2017 was categorized the same as a post that said “I graduated 3 years ago” in 2019.
Recent graduates (graduates from groups 1 and 2) express pride and nostalgia for their alma mater and college experiences; however, they also express anxiety and frustration around feeling their degree didn’t “pay off.” Examples that expressed this feeling include mentions about not finding a career in their field of study, the large amount of debt they amassed, and feeling overwhelmed by adulthood.
- With all of the uncertainty that leaving campus can bring, it could be beneficial to highlight stories or connect younger alumni to alumni further along in their lives and careers who overcame initial challenges. This might show these graduates they’re on a similar path to success and not alone in their challenges with debt or other issues.
- Also, knowing that recent graduates have mixed emotions, your campus might think about how to add value and further their connection to their alma mater. Consider ways you can give back to recent alumni, such as creating online communities for recent alumni so they can network and connect or sending "spirit" boxes with alumni swag to encourage alumni gatherings.
Graduates from groups 3 and 4 also express nostalgia, usually with another positive expression such as paying off student loans, feelings about a friend or family member’s upcoming graduation, or appreciation for how far they’ve come since graduation or college in general. Negative sentiment for this group stems from discontent over how long it took to pay off their student loans (most express that they did pay them off, whereas this is a present burden for recent graduates), along with discontent over the changes in the collegiate landscape and random politically charged complaints.
- It’s important to acknowledge that navigating life post-grad is tricky and filled with mixed emotions. Oftentimes, people, especially recent graduates, simply want to feel a sense of connection and belonging, which most people tend to establish with their alma mater during their undergraduate years. Many colleges only communicate with their alumni when they ask for contributions in a variety of ways, however, colleges should also consider ways to support and give back to their alumni. Creating ways for alumni to connect online and in-person with other alumni, as well as with professors and other mentors they might have had on campus, for both personal and networking purposes, creates a sense of community especially for alumni who relocated to a new city after graduation.
- Another idea is to profile alumni and ask questions about more than just their career. This spotlights the good your alumni achieve in the “real world” and shows that their career isn't the only way to define success. All of these ideas achieve the “home” feeling from your university after alumni walk across the graduation stage and leave campus.
Alumni vs. Friends and Family
Another segment was the sentiment of mentions from alumni and mentions about alumni from friends and family members. For mentions from alumni, sentiment was 27 percent positive, 32 percent negative, and 41 percent neutral. Mentions from friends and family about alumni was 32 percent positive, 27 percent negative, and 41 percent neutral.
For positive mentions, both audiences greatly celebrated graduation, but there was one subtle difference. Friends and family were likely to only discuss graduation and their pride in the graduate, whereas alumni talking about themselves were more likely to frame graduation in the context of other prideful moments such as securing a job, buying a house, and personal growth they’ve made since graduation.
Negative mentions from alumni surrounded the struggles of feeling as if they don’t make enough money to cover their expenses and debt. Friends and family usually mentioned this by recognizing their loved ones worked hard for their degrees and felt as if they deserved better. With personal mentions, this is often portrayed as doubt—whether or not the degree was worth it and overall frustration surrounding their levels of debt.
- Graduations are one of the most prideful moments for individuals and their friends and family. Engaging with alumni and their loved ones during this time provides the opportunity to celebrate with them and share the joy they’re experiencing. Lifting up and amplifying these achievements and success stories provides positive messaging that your alumni and their friends and family can all relate to.
- One idea is to use popular channels and create content to connect your alumni and incoming students, further deepening your connection with them. For example, when Rebecca Stapley worked at Nazareth College, she used Instagram Stories to ask alumni fun questions about their favorite books or advice for incoming students.
Finally, I looked at was sentiment across the country. I found that mentions were relatively similar when separated into geographical regions.
- Northeast: 19% positive, 18% negative, and 59% neutral
- Midwest: 21% positive, 20% negative, and 59% neutral
- South: 23% positive, 21% negative, and 56% neutral
- West: 24% positive, 22% negative, and 54% neutral
Similar to other segmentations, positive mentions from all groups concentrated on graduation, whereas negative mentions referenced grievances with debt and regret for attending college.
- Overall, the themes are similar across the country related to main events and concerns for alumni. But, as we’ve seen with other segments, this doesn't mean there aren't opportunities to find and highlight personal experiences and, in fact, makes these experiences even more important to help you stand out.
What This Means
Understanding your alumni is key in creating messages that resonate. Having alumni feel personally connected to and cared about by your campus motivates them to take on desired actions such as sharing messages from your university to their online audience, donating to your campus, or connecting with past, present, and future members of your campus. Recognize the pride and nostalgia alumni feel during graduation, tap into it, and share it—encourage alumni to share their favorite memories and photos from graduation or time on campus, and share tips for new graduates.
Concurrently, understand that, particularly for newer graduates, debt, loans, and #adulting may present significant financial burdens, but there are other ways for these alumni to feel connected to their alma mater—for example, schedule events for alumni, create social media pages or groups where they can connect, send newsletters that share alumni accomplishments, or establish opportunities for them to give advice to prospective and current students. When your alumni feel understood and heard, they’re more likely to feel and display a stronger sense of connection to your campus.