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Evaluating Alumni Conversation: What Alumni Think and Feel

Alumni are one of the most influential voices in building your brand. And, if you’re in advancement, it’s your job to nurture these voices by engaging your alumni and building relationships, creating a stronger connection to their alma mater. To do this well, it helps to understand their pride and pain points so you can better speak to and with them, celebrate their wins, and ease their grievances. 

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As the second in my series on alumni conversation, this post is a deep dive into sentiment among various alumni audiences. Sentiment is categorized automatically by our software and tags all mentions as either positive, neutral, or negative. Analyzing alumni sentiment tells us what alumni enjoy and what they struggle with. It gives more context and depth, and a holistic understanding of your alumni instead of various data points and statistics about their relationship to your campus. This insight enables you to relate to and empathize with the experiences and feelings your alumni go through and offers the opportunity to tailor your campus messages with these experiences in mind. 

"Nerd Note"Nerd Note: Sentiment is the determination of online conversation that is positive, negative, or neutral. A caveat to this is that software can automatically determine sentiment but because there are nuances software can’t determine (e.g., sarcasm), the best way to interpret it is through a human analyst’s review.


Sentiment Analysis: Positive, Neutral, and Negative

I analyzed alumni conversation over a three-year timeframe, from July 2016 through June 2019, and detailed my methodology in the first post in this series. When I looked at sentiment over the entire three-year period, it was 18 percent positive, 21 percent negative, and 61 percent neutral. The biggest trend I noticed was that sentiment was consistently most positive in December, May, and June—the typical months for graduation. 

Digging deeper into positive sentiment conversation, celebrating graduation was the largest topic—with recognition of the event, nostalgia about past graduations, and acknowledgment of growth experienced both throughout college for upcoming graduates as well as growth that occurred since graduation for those who graduated. But I noticed there was considerable negative sentiment mentioning graduation, too. This conversation varied, but covered everything related to uncertainty about job security, finding a job, and debt and student loans. 

I also wanted to better 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. 

Digging Into Alumni Segments

Time Since Graduation

First up, segmenting alumni by time since they graduated. I created four different groups. 

  1. Graduates from the past year (25% positive, 33% negative, 42% neutral) 
  2. Graduates from 2–5 years ago (33% positive, 30% negative, and 37% neutral) 
  3. Graduates from 6–15 years ago (29% positive, 33% negative, and 28% neutral) 
  4. Graduates from over 15 years ago (18% positive, 25% negative, 57% neutral) 

"Nerd Note"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. 

Campus Takeaways 

  • 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. 

Campus Takeaways

  • 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

The next data point I examined 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. 

Campus Takeaways

  • 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. 

Geographic Regions

The last data point 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 

A map segmenting U.S. geographic regions and sentiment Data

Similar to other segmentations, positive mentions from all groups concentrated on graduation, whereas negative mentions referenced grievances with debt and regret for attending college. 

Campus Takeaways

  • 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 Does All of this Mean?

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. 

3 alumni think about finances, graduating, and important dates

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Subscribe to NewsletterThe post Evaluating Alumni Conversation: What Alumni Think and Feel originally appeared on Campus Sonar's Brain Waves blog.

Sarah Marks

Sarah is a Social Media Data Analyst for Campus Sonar. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, concentrating in Cognitive Science and Marketing. Sarah is fascinated with the underlying influences impacting human behavior and how social listening can be leveraged to enact positive change on college campuses. As a running and ice cream enthusiast, she is excited to discover all that Madison has to offer!

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