Inside Queen’s University’s alumni relations revolution

Inside Queen’s University’s alumni relations revolution

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In this episode of NousCast we head inside Canada’s Queen’s University, which had bold ambitions for the way it connected with the hundreds of thousands of alumni listed in its database. 

Along the way we’ll hear about how Nous supported Queen’s to segment the database on criteria beyond just demographics, used human-centred design to understand what resonated with alumni, and used journey maps to chart a better way to connect.  

In this episode we speak to Scott Anderson, the Executive Director of Marketing, Communications and Donor Relations in the Office of Advancement at Queen’s University, and Tess Lawley, the Nous Director who led the project. 

About NousCast

The NousCast podcast brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. In each episode of our third series, NousCast will feature interviews with Nous clients and consultants to a cutting-edge project, from the challenge to the approach, outcomes and lessons learnt. 

“It’s easy in a large institution to forget that we really have to be driven by our clients, in this case, our alumni. What the journey maps allow us to do is understand how they’re connecting with the university from their perspective.”

Scott Anderson, Queen’s University, Office of Advancement, Executive Director of Marketing, Communications and Donor Relations 

Ari Sharp:

Hello and welcome to NousCast, brought to you by Nous Group, an international management consultancy. I’m your host, Ari Sharp, and in this series of NousCast, we’re looking at some of the projects we’ve undertaken at Nous over the past few years. You’ll get to meet the clients we’ve worked with and the Nous consultants who supported them to meet some of their biggest challenges.

Ari Sharp:

Today, we’re heading to Ontario in Canada where Queen’s University had some bold ambitions for reconnecting with its alumni. Along the way, we’ll hear about how Nous supported Queen’s to segment its database on criteria beyond just demographics, used human-centered design to understand what resonated with alumni, and developed journey maps to chart a better way to connect. Joining me from Ontario is Scott Anderson, the executive director of marketing, communications and donor relations in the Office of Advancement at Queen’s University, and Tess Lawley, a Nous director in Canada who works with clients on big design challenges. Let’s get into it.

Ari Sharp:

Scott, if I can start with you. Queen’s University is a major Canadian university, part of the U15 Group, and you had around 250,000 entries in your alumni database. Take us back to before this project. What challenges were you facing in building engagement with alumni?

Scott Anderson:

Well, we obviously know a lot about our alumni. We have a pretty robust alumni relations team and even though we’re de-centralized, our faculties also spend a lot of time cultivating alumni. But, the information we had about them or have about them is primarily demographic and geographic, and we have had a tendency to really treat them as if they were still students, so their faculty association is the most important piece of information we have about them and that’s how we engage them, is through faculty news and… But, we know that that’s not the way the world works. When you leave university, you often end up in a career that has nothing to do with or very little to do with the subject matter you studied at university.

Scott Anderson:

I always use the example of my own daughter who graduated from Queen’s with a political studies degree, getting a number of different promotions and she’s doing her best to learn marketing as she works. She hears from the faculty of Arts and Science and not the Smith School of Business, which actually has a lot to offer her in terms of thought leadership, further education. So, even just knowing someone’s employment or career path is valuable. But, she has a lot of interests outside of work as well that align with many of the things that Queen’s is doing around music or the arts, and she doesn’t hear about that either, at least not in a way that would engage her.

Scott Anderson:

So, the challenge we have is really understanding our alumni as human beings rather than students who once attended Queen’s and they’re now out fondly remembering their days at the Grad Pub.

Ari Sharp:

And, Scott, so in meeting these challenges, you wanted to understand the different groups in your alumni cohort, but you wanted to go deeper than just looking at demographics. Can you tell us what you were seeking?

Scott Anderson:

Yeah. We are trying to understand the psychographic profile of our alumni. We want to know what they’re interested in. We want to know what motivates them, what gets them going so that we can engage them around those issues and those interests. You know, you mentioned Queen’s is a prominent university. There is an awful lot going on at Queen’s and through Queen’s in the broader world in terms of impact and across a gamut of subject areas. So, there’s a lot for us to filter to our alumni, but we need to understand who among our alumni is going to react to what content, what programs, what communications. And, so, that’s really what we set out to do.

Ari Sharp:

Tess, if I can bring you in here. You’re a specialist in human-centered design. Just what is HCD and how did you use it to help Queen’s University to better connect with its alumni?

Tess Lawley:

Human-centered design… And, some people might know it as design thinking. It goes by a few different names and at Nous we refer to it as human-centered design or HCD, is a method of solving business problems that puts the user, which might be a customer or a client or in the case of our work with Queen’s, it was the alumni, really at the center of your research and also your design. So, instead of us as expert consultants or designers or even a business itself deciding on the solution for a problem, we try to blend that expertise with research with your users or the customer or the alumni, in this case, to come up with a solution that works for both and that sort of ticks all the boxes.

Tess Lawley:

In our work with Queen’s, we used Nous’ HCD user research methodology to really deepen that understanding that the university has around its alumni. And so, as Scott spoke to, Queen’s wanted to know what motivates alumni and what their interests are, and you only really get that by understanding your alumni as humans, so human-centered design becomes a really good methodology to be able to achieve that. And so, Queen’s has this fantastic alumni database and we love good data in human-centered design, but it wasn’t giving the advancement teams exactly what they needed to understand the humans that are in the alumni base.

Ari Sharp:

And, you found multiple ways to connect with alumni to understand how they thought about things. Can you tell us about the engagement that you had with them?

Tess Lawley:

Certainly, because this is one of my favorite things to talk about, so I’m happy to go on about this for as long as you need me to, Ari. On this project, we used this really effective human-centered design research method where we combine quantitative and qualitative research and analysis. So, our first step was to analyze the alumni database and start looking for trends and the kind of attributes that might influence behavior in the alumni group. And so, to use an example, one of the data pieces we looked at it was the level of engagement with the university. So, how consistently are some alumni responding to surveys or attending events or even volunteering at the university and donating as well? And, we were able to use that demographic data to understand trends like at what age does an alumni normally start donating or what age do alumni start volunteering.

Tess Lawley:

After that quantitative analysis, we then went really deep on qualitative engagement. So, we did a whole heap of interviews and focus groups, and I think we ended up at just over 50 alumni and staff who we engaged with really deeply, and we used that process to really understand the why behind the trends that we were seeing in the data.

Ari Sharp:

Tess, you mentioned one of the themes that emerged from the consultations. I understand that you came up with five in total. Can you tell us what they were? And then, how did you use them?

Tess Lawley:

There were five themes that emerged and each of those themes became the basis of an individual persona and then we took that persona through and started building out a common journey or a user journey and storyline for them.

Tess Lawley:

Our five themes were Queen’s champions, the alumni who really believe in the university and they advocate for it wherever they go. Scott’s team knows these folks really well. These are the champions who engage with the university very regularly. There was a theme of nostalgia for alumni who really sort of long for the days that they were at Queen’s and we found that it wasn’t just longing for the past, it was wanting Queen’s students today to have the same great experience that they had. So, there was a… Kind of a present and a future application to that idea of nostalgia as well.

Tess Lawley:

The third theme was around really demanding lifestyles, so alumni who have priorities other than Queen’s and limited time to engage with the university, and they were a great group to engage with because even though… Because their time is limited in how they engage with the university, we didn’t have a lot of information on their motivations or their attitudes, and so by using this human-centered approach, we were able to really learn more about what they thought and felt, even though they don’t necessarily call up the university semi-regularly.

Tess Lawley:

Our fourth theme was about change and impact and alumni who were interested in the impact that Queen’s has on the world. And, our fifth theme was around philanthropy and group of alumni who habitually give to charities and one of the charities on that list may or may not be Queen’s.

Tess Lawley:

And so, for all of these groups, we were able to not just identify these themes that were strong for the alumni group and so for that sort of particular population group that Queen’s is really interested in, but we were able to then validate these themes at a larger scale. So, first we validated them with the advancement staff who work directly with alumni so they know these folks really well, and many of those advancement staff are also Queen’s alumni so they were bringing their own experience to our conversations as well. And, I remember in that session we had a whole heap of nodding heads and lots of people mouthing, “Yes. Absolutely.” in the video chat, so we knew that we were on to something good with these themes. And, then we used an alumni survey to actually validate those themes at scale, and we could get to the point where we were able to say with good clarity for the whole alumni base about 19% of Queen’s alumni identify most strongly with this idea of being a Queen’s champion to understand the alumni base as a whole.

Tess Lawley:

So, we were really pleased with the results of all of these engagements where we were able to validate these themes because they really resonated strongly with the alumni and it gave Queen’s staff some insights really quite immediately into alumni groups who they don’t engage with every day or every week. So, some of those staff who were sitting there saying, “Yeah, I absolutely know the Queen’s champion, but I do want to know more about these philanthropists or these folks who are really focused on change and impact.” It sort of allowed us to, even before the end of the project, engage with those staff and really start them thinking about the different motivations and attitudes that exist with the alumni they work with.

Scott Anderson:

I would jump in and just add that the way we describe the themes, the way we frame them, allowed us to really re-frame the thinking we did around our alumni. And, I’ll use one example. The nostalgics [inaudible 00:11:35]. At the beginning, we were calling them the nostalgics and they want the students to have the same experience they had in the seventies and eighties. Well, universities have evolved since those times and many of the traditions that were in place then just are not considered good practice or acceptable in today’s age. But, by re-framing that group of people and calling them the guardians, we were able to really look at it in a positive way. These are the folks who are really trying to protect the life force of Queen’s, the thing, the special sauce, the thing that makes us attractive to students and helps us to create a future generation of people with nostalgia for their days at Queen’s.

Scott Anderson:

So, when we started thinking about it that way, it became clear to us that what we have to do with the guardians is really help them understand that there are new traditions and help them mourn the traditions that we have to give up because they’re just no longer part of good public life. So, that was, to me, one of the most useful aspects of this, framing all of these groups in a positive way so that we can understand how to engage them going forward to get the most out of our relationship with them.

Ari Sharp:

Scott, one product that emerged from the consultation were journey maps which show the experience from the alumni’s point of view. What was the value in the journey maps for your team?

Scott Anderson:

Well, we’re still uncovering the value of the journey maps, but from early on it was clear that we were going to be able to understand how our engagement works from the alumni perspective rather than the institutional perspective. It’s easy in a large institution to forget that we really have to be driven by our clients, our… In this case, our alumni. It’s easy to put the institutional needs ahead of the needs of our alumni in a… Broadly speaking. And, what the journey maps allow us to do is really understand how they’re connecting with the university from their perspective and where it’s working and where there are pain points that we should address and try to improve.

Scott Anderson:

And, my hope is that it helps us move away from, as much as we possibly can, from this institutional view of our alumni as engineering grads or business grads or arts and sciences grads, health sciences, education, whichever part of the university they came out of, and understand how they’re connecting with us as business people or marketers or artists and parents and busy people. How are…? What does that journey look like now? I think that’s the real benefit for us, is trying to re-frame the way we view the relationship that we have with our alumni with real information in real time.

Ari Sharp:

Tess, if I can bring you back in. You produced an implementation plan that drew on Nous’ seven levers for culture change. Can you tell us about the seven levers and what they mean for Queen’s?

Tess Lawley:

Yeah, certainly. The hardest part of implementing products like personas and journey maps is actually changing the mindset of the people who will use them and who will benefit most from them in an organization. So, throughout this work, we think very deeply about the staff experience here because if you imagine yourself as someone working with alumni in a particular faculty at Queen’s, you as the staff member probably identify most with that faculty. That’s where you sort of align yourself. However, to Scott’s point, if you’re an alumni who hasn’t had anything to do with your faculty for about 10 years, you don’t align yourself with the faculty. So, what it then requires of those staff members is to put themselves in the shoes of the alumni and think beyond the sort of alignment that they have as a staff member to really kind of take an alumni-centered approach.

Tess Lawley:

And so, that’s really a mindset shift that you have to have in the organization in order to make the most of the personas and journey maps. And so, we use the seven levers of culture change to brainstorm and to kind of put a little bit of structure around all of the different ideas that would make it really easy for those staff members to think, “Okay. I’m going to think in a really alumni-centered way as I design this event or write this communication.” Or, whatever’s on their to-do list that day.

Tess Lawley:

And so, we collaborated with the staff, with the actual users, on the implementation plan and staff brought up ideas like we want to use the database differently, we want some of this attitude and interest data in that database, we want to pilot these products in one area and then sort of scale it up and what would be the first step in that. And, even things like what are the practical additions to these products that would make it really easy for a staff member to use like checklists and practical tools. And so, after taking all of those ideas that were sort of grouped around seven levers of mindset or culture change in an organization, we were then able to map those against a maturity model for Queen’s, take the university from using the personas and journey maps in sort of like a pilot or in a sort of discreet piece of work to sort of map out over time what would it look like to really embed these products and embed alumni-centered thinking in everything that advancement does and everything that Queen’s does more broadly.

Ari Sharp:

Tess, we know that no project is ever smooth sailing the whole way through. Can you tell us what challenges did you encounter and what did you do?

Tess Lawley:

This one I’m delighted to say was actually pretty smooth sailing. I’m happy to report. More seriously, if I think about the success of this project, the biggest challenge in this work is usually stakeholder engagement in the business or in the university, especially in big, complex organizations like a university, and we were extremely lucky to have a PM on Queen’s side, Josh Adler, who did a huge amount of stakeholder management. And so, after every workshop we did, Josh would approach stakeholders, get feedback, bring that back to our team so that we could make our next engagement even better. And, it meant that by the time we got to designing the products and kind of our final presentation as a consulting team, staff were absolutely bought in. People were saying, “When will we have this? Can I look at it now? When will you send this to me?.” And, we were able to allow Scott and Josh and the team to hit the ground running with the products, which was great.

Scott Anderson:

And, I would add, and Nous is not paying me to say this at all, I’ve worked with a lot of agencies and outside contractors over decades and I think this was one of the very best relationships that we’ve had with an agency. I was really impressed with how smoothly it did go because that’s not often the case.

Ari Sharp:

That’s really encouraging to hear. Scott, if I can give the last word to you. Having gone through this experience, what advice would you give to other universities looking for better ways to build relationships with their alumni network?

Scott Anderson:

Well, I think trying to forget what you think you know and start with fresh eyes to really understand your alumni from their perspective and also the institution’s perspective, and really just to try to build a culture that is willing to experiment with the ways that we engage alumni. And, I think in our case, the personas and journey maps are going to help us do that. We’re piloting with a few of our faculties and departments within advancement to really roll this out slowly, which would be my other piece of advice. Don’t just throw this out and expect people to be able to use it. So, that we can demonstrate not only best practice but successes and then roll those out to our broader community so that we can establish a really professional way of using the personas and journey maps to build programs, to build communications, to build broader alumni engagement.

Scott Anderson:

And, my hope is that ultimately as technologies improve, we will start to be able to use artificial intelligence to really… And, other data to really build on these personas and refine them to the point where we’re coming very close to individualized, personalized programming and communications.

Ari Sharp:

Scott Anderson and Tess Lawley, thanks so much for talking to NousCast.

Scott Anderson:

Thank you for having me.

Tess Lawley:

Yeah. Thanks for having us, Ari.

Ari Sharp:

That was Scott Anderson from Queen’s University and Tess Lawley from Nous Group. You can connect with Tess via the Nous website. That’s www.nousgroup.com. While you’re there, check out our case studies and thought leadership insights. That’s it for this edition of NousCast. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. We’ll catch you next time.

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