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Using personas and journey maps to transform a university’s engagement with alumni

Our Work | Case Study

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Queen’s University is a U15 university in Ontario that is highly ranked for student experience.

The alumni database provided an opportunity for connection

Queen’s had 250,000 entries on its alumni database but little understanding of the wants, needs and motivations of most of its alumni. This made it difficult for the university to build enduring relationships with its alumni to support advocacy, community involvement and fundraising.

The university’s advancement team invited us to work with it to develop personas and journey maps so Queen’s could better nurture alumni at scale. The university wanted to understand a broad cross-section of the alumni base, but to go beyond the database entries to understand alumni as whole humans with interests and motivations – not just demographics.

Human-centred design and data analysis revealed personas of alumni

Gaining the deeper understanding we were seeking involved combining our deep expertise in human-centred design and data analysis.

We started by analysing 140,000 active alumni profiles to find patterns and relationships between engagement and donations. We also heard from about 40 alumni in interviews and focus groups to better understand these patterns and the motivations behind them.

The research and analysis revealed five themes, which we used to create personas of typical alumni. These themes were:

  • alumni who advocate strongly for the university in the community
  • alumni who remember their time at the university fondly and want students today to have a similar positive experience
  • alumni who have limited time to engage with the university
  • alumni who are interested in the impact Queen’s has on the world
  • alumni who habitually give to charities, including to the university.

We ran a survey to test that these themes reflected the larger pool of alumni. We then produced a persona and journey map for each theme, using an iterative process that allowed us to test and validate our findings with alumni. The personas and journey maps were elegantly designed by our visual design studio in collaboration with the Queen’s marketing team.

Finally, we produced an implementation plan that drew on a maturity model and Nous’ Seven Levers for Culture Change to provide practical guidance on embedding the personas and journey maps in staff practice.

The university is embedding alumni-centric thinking

Advancement staff across the university gave strong positive feedback on the personas and journey maps, reporting that seeing them gave them a better understanding of the alumni base as a whole and prompted them to think differently about their work.

Queen’s is undertaking a pilot program with select faculties and groups to test how the personas and journey maps can be best used for communications, mass solicitation, events and programming, volunteering and strategy shaping.

Through this pilot the university will collect data and develop other tools to support staff in best-practice use of the products to embed this alumni-centric thinking across the university.

You can hear more about this project in this episode of NousCast.

What you can learn from Queen’s University

Personas built on interests and motivations can offer a richer understanding of the attitudes of alumni than can demographic details alone.

Journey maps that show the pathways of the user through an experience can help to reveal pain points and opportunities.

To improve engagement with alumni across a whole university requires a process of cultural change that draws on an array of levers.