Creating a Departmental Alumni E-Newsletter

Despite the many articles titled “Email is Dead!” or “Email is Dying!” or “Email Jumped the Shark in 2010,” I still find email marketing to be a powerful tool. When done right, it allows organizations to share information directly with the people who really want to hear from them. I just sent out the first issue of our new Chemistry Alumni E-News, and I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the process and the project.

Step 1: Identify the Need

As I came into this new role, I knew there would be a lot of opportunities to push our departmental communications in new directions. Since there had never been a communications specialist role before, the department had never had the capacity to generate stories and communicate with our alumni and donor audiences regularly. We had always sent a rather exhaustive yearly print newsletter to our alumni, but that was about the extent of our regular communications. It was rather apparent that we needed to communicate with our alumni and friends more frequently. Additionally, I had already begun writing stories about what was happening in the department. Thus, we already had great content out on our website, but unless an alum visited our website regularly, subscribed to our news via RSS, or engaged with us via Twitter or our Facebook page, they might never have seen those stories.

Step 2: Set Up a List

In February, as I was getting ready to send our yearly print newsletter to the printer, I went ahead and set up an opt-in form on our website to allow alumni to sign up for the new e-newsletter. I also put a teaser for Alumni E-News in the print newsletter that included a call to action for alumni to sign up. A few people signed up, but it wasn’t a roaring success.

Step 3: Survey Alumni

In March, I sent a very brief survey out to about 10 alumni who had either already signed up for Alumni E-News or who were engaged with us on social media. I asked them how often they would want to receive the Alumni E-News issues, what types of content they wanted to see in each issue, and left room for additional thoughts or ideas.

Alumni respondents said they were most interested in:

  1. Faculty profiles
  2. Department news
  3. Student profiles
  4. Alumni events

Respondents were not as interested in notes from the chair, department seminars/colloquia, and university news.

Step 4: Build the E-Newsletter

Alumni-E-News

As a team of one, if there’s an easy and effective way to do something, then I’m not going to re-invent the wheel. I’ve used (and loved!) the MailChimp email service before, so I stuck with that. I’ve heard good things about Constant Contact, Vertical Response, Emma, and a few other services as well, but I like that MailChimp lets you send to lists of fewer than 2,000 subscribers for free. I started with one of their responsive email templates and customized the template a bit. View our first issue.

Things to consider:

  • Branding: Would a recipient know this email is coming from your department just by glancing at it? Does it align with your university’s visual identity?
  • Content: How many stories will you include? What types of stories? Will you include photos or videos?
  • Tone: Will your stories, blurbs, or other content sound formal? Fun? Exciting? Traditional? Conversational?
  • Customization: How much time can you devote to customizing the template? Will other team members be able to navigate the template easily?

Step 5: Build the List

At this point, I still only had a few subscribers for Alumni E-News. About a week prior to my anticipated send date for the first issue, I sent out an email to alumni of our department telling them about the e-newsletter and inviting them to sign up using a form on our website. About 10 percent of the alumni who received the opt-in email signed up to receive Alumni E-News. Our subscriber count is currently in the hundreds rather than in the thousands; however, I would rather have 50 subscribers who are expecting to get our e-newsletters and are looking forward to hearing from us than 5,000 subscribers who don’t know how they got on our list and aren’t as excited to hear from us.

I also began talking about Alumni E-News on our social media channels leading up to the first issue. Finally, at our graduation reception the week before the first issue was scheduled to go out, I asked graduating seniors and grad students if they wanted to sign up for Alumni E-News. On their end, it was a simple yes or no. When the first issue went out this week, it was probably the very first alumni communication piece any of these graduates had received from our department or institution. We talk so often about shepherding relationships with individuals along a path, as they go from prospective students, to enrolled students, to alumni, and perhaps eventually become donors or advocates. This was a simple way to engage with graduates at one of those important transition moments.

Step 6: Send It Out

This is the easy part: schedule that email to send! I looked at MailChimp’s post “When is the best time to send emails?” and decided to send on a Wednesday at 1 p.m. CST. Day and time are definitely two factors that are worth testing, but you have to start somewhere!

Step 7: Reflect and Test

I’m already thinking ahead to our next quarterly issue, and there are so many things I want to test over time: day and time to send, subject lines, different types of content, etc. As the list grows, there will be new considerations as well. It may eventually make sense to segment the list by degree type, location, or some other factor. For now, I’m okay with having established a good starting point. And there’s a bonus: because I started with a list of subscribers who opted in, so far the email has a 68% open rate and a 29% click rate. It’s a start!

John Maeda on the Characteristics of Creative Leaders

John Maeda, president of RISD and renowned designer, recently posted a comparison chart to demonstrate characteristics and attitudes that differentiate authoritative leaders from creative leaders. Having worked with both types of leaders, I found these lists inspirational. I aspire to resemble the creative leader more and more.

It strikes me that being a creative leader requires a lot of trust. You need to trust that you’re working with people who will rise to meet challenges and who will respond to your openness and flexibility with those same qualities.

In contrast, authoritative leadership is really about checking off boxes, CYA, and making sure you’re never wrong. I don’t know about you, but to me, this type of leadership sounds very stressful and unsustainable.

Authoritative Leader

  • Symbol of Authority
  • More Sticks
  • Hierarchical
  • Linear Path
  • Plan and Execute: Launching with 1.0
  • Sustaining Order
  • Yes or No (clear)
  • Literal in Tone
  • Concerned with Being Right
  • Think like a General or Conductor
  • Delegates Actions
  • Closed System
  • One-Way
  • Close the Ranks
  • Follows the Manual
  • Loves to Avoid Mistakes
  • Reliability
  • Orchestra Model
  • Community in Harmony
  • Wants to be Right
  • Open to Limited Feedback
  • Your Opinion Matters

Creative Leader

  • Symbol of Inspiration
  • More Carrots
  • Networked
  • Nonlinear Path
  • Iterate and Do: Living in Beta
  • Taking Risks
  • Maybe (comfort with ambiguity)
  • Metaphorical in Tone
  • Concerned with Being Real
  • Think like an Artist or Designer
  • Hands-On Driven
  • Open System
  • Interactive
  • Permeable
  • Improvises when Appropriate
  • Loves to Learn from Mistakes
  • Validity
  • Jazz Ensemble
  • Community in Conversation
  • Hopes to be Right
  • Open to Unlimited Critique
  • What are You Really Thinking?

Which characteristic inspires or challenges you?

Who Isn’t Your Audience?

An infinite audience, photo by James Cridland (james.cridland.net)

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to let go of certain audiences? It’s tempting to include everyone. And working in higher education (and especially in public higher ed), it can be even harder to let go, because isn’t everyone a learner, and isn’t it our job to reach out to everyone?

I’m constantly re-learning this lesson: Knowing who my strategic audience is, and also who it’s not, makes my stories and projects better.

It’s really hard to write a compelling story when the audience could be prospective students, current students, alumni, donors, parents, the media, faculty, staff, other institutions, other scientists, the local community, and the campus community.

It’s a little easier when it’s alumni. Or when it’s the media. Or when it’s donors.

It’s hard to let go. But it’s also the only way to win.

Take-Aways from the Global Leadership Summit

I had the good fortune to attend a watch party for the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit a few weeks ago. I’ve always enjoyed learning about leadership, especially because it often seems that the business world has such a jacked up view of what leadership should look like: Dress in power suits and power colors. Take charge. Take the floor. Put yourself in the spotlight. Micromanage your team to make sure the job gets done. Etc, etc, etc.

If you haven’t heard these “leadership” tips, then you’ve surely heard others.

That’s why I love learning from people who have different approaches to leadership. And yes, there are many different styles of effective leadership out there. Perhaps even a unique style for each individual leader.

And, as an aside, some leaders are starting to get onboard the countercultural leadership train. Seth Godin talks about “finding the right people, agreeing on where you want to go, and getting out of the way.” (Video) Brad Feld, author of Startup Communities: How to Build an Entrepreneur Ecosystem in your City talks about “give to get.”

Here’s a hodgepodge of great ideas and insights from the Global Leadership Summit:

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Conflict (William Ury)

  • “The harder the problem, the softer you need to be on the person.” Listen, put yourself in the person’s shoes, and respect.
  • Work together to come up with creative solutions that meet all parties’ needs.
  • Ask the person “Why is that?” and ask them to help you understand their interests in the situation.

Great by Choice (Jim Collins)

Collins, author of Built to Last, Good to Great, and Great by Choice, talked about organizational health and planning for long-term success. He’s researched hundreds, if not thousands, of companies to find what influences lasting success. He describes his framework for what makes a great organizations in three parts:

  • Fanatic Discipline: Collins says the most successful organizations in the long term are those that make consistent progress, no matter the conditions. He calls this concept the 20-mile march. Rain or snow or sunny weather, these organizations have the discipline not to run too far too fast in the good times and not to run too little too slowly during the bad times. “Chronic inconsistency is the signature of mediocrity,” he says.
  • Empirical Creativity: The great organizations use little test cases to figure out what will work. They refine and refine until they can execute the big win and know that it will succeed. Collins says that in this way “discipline can amplify creativity.”
  • Productive Paranoia: The great organizations are fanatic about being prepared. During the good times, they prepare for the bad. They’re never caught by surprise.

Greetings from Across Campus

Surprise: I’m almost one month in at my new position as the communications specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Chemistry.

Since the beginning of the year, my mentor has been encouraging me to think about what I want the next steps in my career to look like. And although I’ve absolutely loved the challenge and learning opportunities associated with working within a research group located on campus, I’ve really missed being plugged directly into the campus community and working for the direct benefit of students.

In my new post, I’m focusing on department-level communications and advancement. The great news is that there’s never been a better time to work in advancement at a public university. The community here at Wisconsin knows that this is a priority, and the campus community is really working to coordinate strategic advancement efforts across the university, while still allowing a lot of freedom at the department/unit level.

I’m stoked to be in such an amazing department, working with amazing people. More to come as I continue to settle in!

Engaging Your Community Part Four: Measuring and Adapting

Once you’ve identified the most appropriate social platforms for your organization, gotten started, and begun evaluating emerging social platforms, it’s time to begin measuring and adapting your approach.

If you work in a team environment, consider creating a regular report that helps your team members understand what you’re doing and what you’ll be focusing on addressing in the next phase. The frequency and level of detail are up to you. Personally, I’ve found that a quarterly report out to my team members is most helpful. I prepare an 8-page web and social media report that includes an executive summary at the beginning. Within the report, I try to identify key events that have driven traffic at specific times during the quarter.

I found Olivier Blanchard’s book, Social Media ROI, very helpful when I was considering what to measure and include in the reports. Blanchard recommends keeping a list of everything you can measure, for example:

  • Number of Twitter followers
  • Volume of outbound tweets each day
  • Volume of inbound tweets each day
  • Number of outbound replies each day
  • Number of RTs each day
  • Number of click-throughs (inbound through Twitter)
  • Number of Facebook fans
  • Number of Facebook updates each day
  • Number of likes each day
  • Number of comments each day
  • Number of comments per update
  • Number of shares each day
  • Number of shares per update
  • Number of click-throughs (inbound via Facebook)
  • Number of blog visitors each day
  • Number of unique visits to each blog post
  • Number of comments each day
  • Number of comments per post
  • Number of click-throughs (inbound to website from blog)

It’s important to note, however, that focusing on the number of Twitter followers, Facebook fans, or raw pageviews isn’t enough. The goal in this measuring and adapting process is to look at trends over time, (e.g., year over year).

“Regardless of your focus … what you are looking for in these data sets is change. What you want to see are shifts in behavior indicating that something you are doing is having an effect … Every individual bit of data, in the way it either changes or doesn’t over time, tells you a little bit of the story you are trying to piece together … The question every change begins to answer is this: Is what we are doing having an effect?”— Olivier Blanchard, Social Media ROI

I try to pick three to five take-aways each time I report on web and social media analytics and metrics. These can be anything from noting a page that has a short average time-on-page and reviewing the content, to noting trends in the top blog posts for the quarter and considering how to schedule more posts like those, to reviewing the referring domains and investigating why visitors were coming from those sites. Your team will likely also raise questions that will drive you to investigate further.

I’ve been using Google Analytics and Adobe Omniture in addition to native social media analytics tools (e.g., YouTube, SlideShare, MailChimp), as well as homemade reports and graphics in Excel.

Have you been working through this same process for your organization? If so, I’d love to hear your promising practices and learn from you! Or, if you’re just getting started, I’d be happy to share a copy of the pdf report I’ve developed.

Related posts and resources:

Connecting the Dots in Online Learning

My last online learning post was prompted by news about the launch of edX. Since that time, this continues to be a hot topic. At the end of the last post, I posed a few questions. It’s time to revisit those questions:

Is edX truly an altruistic venture, or will it begin to generate revenue at some point (e.g., through advertising, selling lists, etc.)?
A great article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Inside the Coursera Contract: How an Upstart Company Might Profit From Free Courses,” tackles this one. In fact, I’ll just leave you to read about the eight possible business models mentioned in Coursera’s contract with University of Michigan.

Will the platform take off? If so, who will use it?
Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng co-taught a class on artificial intelligence (AI) last year. According to Reuters, 104,000 people enrolled in the class, nearly 25,000 completed most of the work, and 13,000 scored high enough to earn a statement of accomplishment.  Many of these classes are just getting off the ground; it will be interesting to see what the enrollment and completion numbers look like once these courses lose a bit of their novelty. I’d also like to see additional information about who’s taking these courses.

Will users really learn via edX, and how will they know when they’ve mastered a subject?
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin System announced plans to create a flexible online degree program. This announcement wasn’t too ground-breaking, except for one feature: students will be able to earn credits by testing out of specific competencies, including things they’ve learned in other learning environments (via Coursera, edX, at another school, or at work):

The flexible diploma is meant to translate past online and classroom coursework along with work experience into UW college credits that could be combined with additional online learning to complete a degree. The program also is being designed to tap existing online courses at UW and other universities around the world. The online courses would for the first time be broken down into smaller learning units. Students would be tested on each unit independently and at their own pace. (Source: University of Wisconsin System)

Most new online learning platforms aren’t equipped or accredited to grant certifications and degrees; traditional colleges and universities are. I’d be surprised if more colleges and universities didn’t scramble to adopt this approach soon.

Thoughts?