Using Nostalgia to Engage Alumni

Posted on 08/18/2019

The list of ways to engage alumni is a long one. Homecomings, reunions, athletics, regional events, networking receptions, volunteer opportunities, newsletters, social media, and the list goes on. But something that excites and engages a graduate from one institution may not necessarily interest a graduate from another. That’s why it is so important for advancement programs to understand what makes their institution culturally distinct.

A similar challenge can exist within each institution. What excites a graduate from one class or academic program may not necessarily interest a graduate from another. Finding pockets of common interest is critically important and allows advancement shops to focus their efforts and get the most out of their resources. At the same time, it’s also important to identify “bonding agents” for these various groups. These are the people, things, and experiences that bring alumni together and give them a sense of community.

There are two kinds of bonding agents. Internal bonding agents are part of (or associated with) the institution, like a popular professor, a building on campus, or a winning sports season. External bonding agents, by contrast, are not unique to the institution. They’re often more general reminders of a period of time or symbols that hold special meaning for a generation. Both types of bonding agents can give alumni a sense of nostalgia, which can be a positive motivator when it comes to engagement. Effective advancement programs know this and work to incorporate them into their alumni communications and programming.

William & Mary found a creative way to use nostalgia to engage its alumni. At the beginning of the fall semester, they sent emails to alumni from the classes of 1970 through 2018 that listed the most popular movie, album, and pop culture item from the summer before their freshman year. To enhance the feelings of nostalgia, the effort was planned to coincide with the time of year when students were arriving on campus to start the new academic year and move into their new dorms and housing.

The email campaign linked to a landing page with a headline that read, “Do you remember the summer you arrived at William & Mary? Reminisce using the links below and share your memories on social media using #wmMovein.” The page was organized into five-year clusters and described a “trendy item,” “top album,” and “summer blockbuster” for the freshman year of each class. 

Although the campaign’s primary purpose was engagement, rather than an appeal, a follow-up email solicitation was sent to nondonors two weeks later. It included a student-created video that featured current students reacting to these past trends and encouraged others to share through social media. All in all, the engagement metrics for this effort were very positive: The length of stay on the landing page was particularly high. It even generated a moderate number of gifts during a time of year not known as a strong one for alumni giving.

If you’re looking for a novel way to engage your institution’s alumni, consider William & Mary’s approach. Using nostalgia to remind alumni of their connection to the institution, the college boosted engagement and generated gifts at a time not known for them. A blast from the past and a link to today’s students was all that was needed.


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