Best Practices

4 Tips for Using Zoom to Virtually Engage Alumni

4 Tips for Using Zoom to Virtually Engage Alumni




April 5, 2021

Last modified: 

January 19, 2022

For universities and other higher education institutions across the country, alumni engagement is essential to maintain a steady stream of support for driving programs. Historically, alumni engagement relied heavily on in-person events, but your alumni programs in 2021 probably don’t feature the same in-person happy hours, mixers, and fundraising events that they once did.

COVID-19 has curtailed in-person gatherings, but it’s still possible to engage with your school’s alumni in an effective and meaningful way. Zoom has emerged as the most popular virtual conferencing software option and has played a significant role in continued alumni engagement during the pandemic.

Homecoming checklist

While it’s not quite the same as meeting in person, Zoom can still provide a venue for your alumni to build relationships, network, and learn. Using the knowledge and experience we’ve picked up from these industries, we’ve compiled a list of tips for using Zoom to engage with your alumni virtually.

1. Host virtual events

When planning virtual events for your alumni on Zoom, there are two broad categories to choose from: meetings and webinars.

Zoom meetings allow for more significant interaction among attendees. Attendees can see each other on screen, write messages to one another in a group chat, share their screens, and ask questions. Alternatively, webinars are well-suited to facilitating virtual presentations where audience interaction isn’t necessary. In a Zoom webinar, attendees don’t see each other on the platform—they’ll only see the presentation that the host is sharing on their screen. This is a perfect space for conducting webinars with multiple panelists, addressing relevant topics such as managing time while working from home, career coaching, etc. - here's a recent webinar on combatting Zoom Fatigue.

There are all sorts of engaging ideas schools have used in the past year when it comes to Zoom meetings. Perhaps the most popular has been the virtual happy hour, where alumni gather in a Zoom room to have a drink after work, network and listen to a speaker. A few other ideas are conducting virtual yoga classes, game nights, or organizing virtual book clubs for your alumni.

The overall purpose for all virtual Zoom events is to engage your alumni and maintain a sense of community despite the distance we have to keep due to the pandemic. A mix of fun, social meetings, and educational webinars can accomplish those goals and provide additional value to your alumni.

Antioch College's Virtual Div Dance Party with 400+ attendees

2. Prepare detailed plans

Before you have your Zoom meeting or webinar, make sure you prepare ahead of time. First, set a goal for your virtual Zoom event: What is the purpose? What do you hope the meeting will accomplish? Next, make a plan for how the event will go. How long will it last? What will happen during the event? Who will be invited?

Let’s say you’re planning a happy hour. You’ll want to make a schedule ahead of time to help the event run smoothly. The schedule might include:

- Alumni introductions: 15min

- Group screenshot: 5min

- Speaker: 10min

- Q&A: 20min

Once you have a schedule in place, gather the necessary staff members involved in the event and do a run-through of the event activities beforehand. Test your internet connection and familiarize yourself with all of Zoom’s features to avoid technical issues during the actual event. Some additional tips to prepare well for your event are:

Promote the event

An essential aspect of Zoom event preparation is promoting the event to your school’s alumni network. Using your alumni CRM, segment your potential supporters and send emails informing alumni about the event. Use your segments to reach your alumni with personalized messages that will most intrigue your audience. For instance, you may provide additional information about your speaker’s newest book in invitations to your supporters who studied English.

Include the agenda for the event in these promotional emails so that the attendees know what to expect from the opportunity.

Ensure security

You may have heard of “Zoom bombers”—people who join Zoom meetings to which they were not invited in order to disrupt the event. To avoid having your event bombarded with Zoom bombers, there are a few security measures you can take, like:

- Require a password to enter the event.

- Use the waiting room function.

- Lock the event room after ten minutes.

- Do not allow attendees to screen share.

Taking these steps will help to keep Zoom bombers out of your event so the focus can remain on your alumni.

3. Tailor events to specific audiences

While general alumni events like happy hours are fun and engaging, consider hosting events specific to certain topics or audiences to provide real value to your alumni. One example is hosting life skills workshops for fresh graduates on topics like financial literacy and home buying. According to DonorSearch’s guide to alumni giving, building relationships with recent graduates is an effective strategy to increase the likelihood of future giving.

Other events might be geared toward different segments within your alumni network.

For example, The College of William & Mary has a virtual alumni event titled “Women’s Health Series: Improving Maternal Health” and a webinar about diversity in the workplace. Providing high-value content to specific segments of your alumni in addition to the camaraderie naturally involved in these events will strengthen alumnae’s ties to their alma mater. Plus, they’ll be appreciative of the genuinely helpful programming and services your events provide—and odds are, they’ll remember that when you reach out to them for your next fundraising campaign.

If you’re unsure which events or webinars would be desirable to your alumni, consider asking some of your alumni leaders for ideas and/or sending out a questionnaire to your alumni as a whole to gauge interest in specific topics. A fitting event for the current era might be geared toward the class of 2020 and helping them navigate the COVID-affected job market.

4. Empower alumni to lead their own Zoom events

It’s challenging to engage a nation of alumni with Zoom meetings—they can easily become large and overwhelming, not conducive to networking and connecting with other alumni. Smaller, location or interest-based virtual events may be just the thing your alumni need to connect with one another. Empower engaged alumni with the ability to run their own Zoom events. These leaders may be presidents of their local alumni associations or just particularly involved former students. Consider reaching out to alumni who previously ran in-person events and gauge their interest in launching Zoom events during the COVID era.

Once you have a list of interested and qualified alumni leaders, ask them to pitch event ideas, design agendas, and receive approval before moving forward with the events. Develop detailed training materials to distribute to these alumni about running successful Zoom events in order to ensure all alumni engagement opportunities run smoothly.

Samueli Academy's virtual networking event

Zoom is an easy-to-use platform that can do wonders for your engagement strategy if used the right way. Organizing webinars, group calls, and virtual events are great ways to with your alumni - no matter where they are. Incorporate these four tips to create a meaningful presence within your alumni community during the Zoom era.

About the Author

Gerard Tonti

Gerard Tonti is the Senior Creative Developer at Salsa Labs - the premier fundraising software company for growth-focused schools, nonprofits, and associations to better engage with their supporters.

Gerard's marketing focus on content creation, conversion optimization and modern marketing technology helps him coach nonprofit development teams on digital fundraising best practices.

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