What Miami University learned from alumni engagement scoring

What Miami University of Ohio learned from alumni engagement scoring

For today’s alumni engagement managers, an alum’s gift history is just one piece of the data puzzle that also includes every email click, event attendance, volunteer activity, board service, and campus store purchase. Understanding this alumni behavior helps institutions improve communication strategies, plan better events, connect with disengaged graduates, prepare new grads for future giving, and predict giving patterns.

Alumni engagement scoring

So what’s the key to putting all the puzzle pieces together? The answer: alumni engagement scoring. It’s how you can take cumulative engagement data and turn it into predictive models for driving quality engagement, better volunteer experiences, and, ultimately, giving models that help build the pipeline for your development colleagues. In the process, you’ll discover which engagement activities matter most, find new patterns in alumni and donor cultivation, and ultimately drive more valuable engagement opportunities—along with donations.

All that said—there’s a learning curve to engagement scoring. The criteria you use and the way you measure success can determine the impact that scoring has on adjusting outreach channels and communication among your key constituencies. Miami University of Ohio has learned through experience and has tips to share.

Young alumni engagement scoring at Miami University

A few years ago, Miami University started using engagement scoring to improve their volunteer and event management. They’ve recently stepped up those efforts by using analytics to develop new data visualizations, measure outcomes, and take data-informed action. They’re also using engagement scoring to uncover the trends of their alumni and donor populations and apply this critical information to shape their future engagement activities.

Using their young alumni cohort as an example, Tim Jones, senior director of advancement information systems and analytics, and Amy Shaiman, application team leader, explain how engagement scoring corrected some misconceptions, clarified their true level of engagement, and helped the university appeal to young alums in a more effective, authentic way.

Q. When you looked closely at your young alumni data, what surprised you?

“Everybody has their own perceptions about young alumni, which we define as anyone who’s graduated within the last 10 years. We took a focused look at this particular group and their engagement scoring. We expected them to be less engaged alums, but as we went through our scoring, we were surprised to find that they were much more engaged than we thought they were.”

Q. Why the disconnect between perception and reality?

“One of the reasons was email open rates. We've heard from several different schools that are giving up on emailing young alumni. But we found that they were actually on par with the average alum. Also, as we dug into it a little bit more, we found that they were coming to a lot of events. Now that we know that, we’re less worried about the fact that they don't open email because we see this other engagement.”

Q. What other uses has Miami found for engagement scores?

“We’ve been able to determine our most engaged cities, which can really help you if you're trying to decide where to hold an alumni event.

We can also determine things like ‘best majors.’ If you're trying to figure out what messages you might want to send to alums of a particular major, or if you're trying to decide if you should do an event for a particular school, you can actually use these scores to determine your more engaged groups. You can do the same with activity groups, like associated student government or the marching band.

We are also using engagement scores to help us measure the return from our alumni events and programs. We analyze the changes in engagement scores six to twelve months following the event to understand the influence and impact of our programs.

These are just a few ways that you can target groups. The more you use these engagement scores, the more uses you’ll find for them.”

Q. What are your top tips for engagement scoring?

1. Clarify your goals

“Know why you’re creating your engagement scoring model and what you’re trying to do with that information. In our case, we were specifically focused on our alumni association engagement and really wanted to determine who was and was not engaged so we could create different groups for more targeted communications. That way, instead of saturating our communications with general messaging, we were able to change our messaging to say things like, ‘Hey, we missed you,’ ‘Wish we could get you back,’ or ‘We’re glad you're already engaged with us and we appreciate that.’"

2. Establish common definitions

“People were always asking us, ‘Can I have the best marketing majors’ or ‘the best 200 people to form the Associated Student Government’? And, of course, my follow-up would be ‘What do you mean by ‘best?’ Everybody has their own definition of what ’best’ means. Scoring gives us better indication of who our more engaged constituents are.”

3. Centralize your data

“A couple of tips for collecting data. One: try to get your data in one place. Two: keep it simple at the beginning. We expect to add more and more and add a little bit of complexity. There's nothing wrong with keeping it simple—you still add value immediately and then you can keep improving your model as time goes on.”

4. Establish parameters

“We focused on giving, event, and volunteer data from the past five years, our alumni association’s standard for current engagement. Why five? Because if for whatever reason an alum had stopped giving, stopped going to events, stopped volunteering, then we've really sort of lost them—and we need to be aware of that so we can communicate with them differently than we would communicate with more recently engaged alums.”

5. Set your engagement score calculations

“Do the different elements—give, volunteer, and events—have different importance? It depends. For our alumni association, that wasn’t the most important calculation. They wanted to get people to be more engaged, and they wanted to make sure that we were counting people as engaged if they volunteered or went to events—even if they didn't give.

But you should use what's important to you. You may want to make a model that’s more beneficial for your development office, so you may want to give a higher score to giving or to contact reporting. These things are flexible, and sometimes you have to use them for a year or two before you decide what's working, what's giving you value.”

6. Understand the many uses of engagement scores

“Again, one of the reasons we started to look at engagement scores is because we frequently get requests like, ‘I’m creating a mailing for 5,000 people, so I need the 5,000 best.’ Engagement scoring helps us give them the best answer.

You can also use engagement scores to:

  • Design collections and segments of your constituents that help people understand where your alumni are, engagement-wise. You can divide people into groups, whether you're looking at your constituents as a whole versus alumni, or friends, parents, and so on.
  • Create data visualizations to look at people who are unengaged or have expired engagement, minimal engagement, steady engagement, or high engagement. You may want to look at scores for your population as a whole, then smaller groupings.
  • Show the quick values for a group of people to help people understand the data.
  • Develop communication segments so you can craft more tailored messages.
  • Show what’s working—and perhaps surface some opportunities for improvement.
  • Measure ROI over time.

Looking for more information on building an engagement scoring program at your institution?

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