With a storied history including a top-20 national ranking in all-time victories, a top-10 national ranking in both all-time winning percentage and 20-win seasons, and ranking third in regular season conference titles behind perennial NCAA men’s basketball powers Kansas and Kentucky, Western Kentucky University is no stranger to post-season play. So perhaps it is expected that they would have a coordinated and strategic process for using their basketball, football, and other athletic success as an opportunity for greater alumni engagement and advancing fundraising relationships. Longtime experience is certainly part of their success, but it takes the annual commitment of visionary leadership, a lot of cross-campus planning and coordination, and a tested playbook to follow.
As a proud life member of the WKU Alumni Association, I so admired the timely communication and invitations sent to alumni during WKU’s 2018 NIT Final Four run, that I reached out to my friends Laura Smith, Assistant Director of Alumni Engagement, and Anthony McAdoo, Executive Director of the WKU Alumni Association, asking if they would share their process so that we could all learn from it. They humbly and graciously agreed, and the following is a sneak peek at parts of their playbook.
Have a Game Plan in Place Beforehand
The entire campus community understood what a wonderful opportunity these tournaments are for outreach, visibility, and community building. The President’s Office, Office of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement, WKU Athletics, and the Marketing and Communications office had a coordinated plan well before the season began outlining what steps would be taken, when each step would be activated, and which office would be accountable for each step. This “playbook” was created through a series of meetings, phone calls, and emails. This kind of coordination allowed them to do several things well:
- Coordinated email and social media messages from each office that were complementary, while also providing distinct pieces of additional information.
- Partnered on events for “Tournament VIPs” and open invitation pre-game events.
- Made personal visits with major donors in each of the game cities.
- Publicized ticket information and provided a link through Alumni Association website for ease of purchase. This kept fans from trying to find their way through the NCAA/NIT website.
- Provided information on tournament events through an insert in ticket mailings to pre-tournament ticket purchasers.
- Chose and reserved venues for Conference USA Tournament events well in advance. Sites were chosen for visibility and proximity to tournament venue.
Plan Ahead When Possible and React Immediately and Strategically When Not
While advance planning was possible for activities through the conference tournament, announcements on where NIT games would be held were made by the NCAA with little advance notice. Being able to implement the steps immediately and many times outside of regular office hours is critical in providing alumni and fans with time to respond. Having the playbook and assignment of responsibilities in advance was key to reacting quickly. The team was able to choose NIT meeting and event sites within hours of learning the new city. Again, they chose venues based on proximity to the game venue and good visibility. This is a wonderful opportunity to build brand awareness when others see tens or hundreds of fans dressed in their team colors.
To get a good crowd, the staff sent emails and made phone calls to ticket purchasers and local alumni in each site city. They also connected with key alumni in each area to assist in event promotion and production. Alumni clubs are a great resource for this, but this is also a great way to engage alumni whether or not you have alumni clubs. In addition to asking these “ambassadors” to share information through their social networks, the team strategically used University, Alumni Association, and Athletics social media channels to get out the message.
Don’t Forget Those Without A Ticket
Some alumni and fans are not lucky enough to get a ticket or have the ability to attend the game, and the team did not forget about them. In addition to providing on-site events for all ticket holders, the staff encouraged regional watch parties and publicized them via email and social media. One event in Los Angeles for WKU’s game with USC created its own Facebook page. It reached thousands and had hundreds of likes. This was a wonderful opportunity to excite a base of alumni who rarely get the opportunity to attend a game or even watch one on TV given their geographical location. That kind of engagement and publicity is priceless to the alumni association. The one thing they did not do but will consider next time is using local media to reach alumni and fans who are attending or watching from home with the goal of leveraging their enthusiasm into one large community-driven event.
In the end, the team had some really wonderful outcomes. They increased alumni engagement, specifically in some markets where alumni rarely get special attention from the campus. They saw increases in website traffic. Their alumni and fans interacted with and shared content on social media in greater numbers. And while it’s sometimes difficult to confirm a cause and effect, there is evidence nationally that institutions see spikes in admissions applications, campus visits, and new members for the Alumni Association and Athletic Foundation. So, get your playbooks together and prepare. The return on investment can be manifold. Now, if only we could guarantee each of you a championship season!
For more information on developing your post-season playbook for alumni engagement, contact Karl Miller.