January 26, 2021Kathryn Kaysen Jackson is the director of Alumni Career Services at the University of Illinois Chicago.
I believe 2020 presented many of us new professional challenges and, if you are like me, you learned a lot, laughed a little, and scratched your head a bit. Many of us mastered the operational “pivot” – particularly as it pertained to keeping our university ecosystems connected and engaged. Where I work and live, we continue to (mostly) work and learn from home, which means virtual alumni and student engagement for the foreseeable future.
I work in advancement at the University of Illinois Chicago, delivering alumni career development programming and, in March of 2020 we transitioned to 100% remote work. Our journey involved what I would describe as applied design-thinking as we rapidly prototyped ideas, poured over data and feedback, and prepared to deliver value via virtual engagement. Here I share some lessons learned from this journey.
Since March of 2020, I have seen a significant increase in free digital content—much of it marketed to the same people our career centers and alumni associations are trying to engage. Many organizations began or increased the delivery of content via webinars which may seem like just an alternative way to deliver programs but proved to be more challenging than assumed.
According to livestorm.com, the average attendance rate for webinars is 46%.
At UIC, our Alumni Association (part of Advancement) in partnership with our colleges, launched a new, live webinar series called UIC Alumni Exchange. The series features alumni and faculty experts speaking on a variety career, lifelong learning, science, politics, social justice, food, and business topics. We kicked off in late spring (2020) and as of November had 3,000+ registrants, an average attendance rate of 50% and a high percentage of unique (first time) participants.
Some of our take aways include:
- Best Day & Time for Webinars: Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday (like career fairs), mid-day (although we did Monday and Friday programming if that is when the speaker was available);
- Best Way to Host the Program: For the majority of webinars, we used a video meeting platform that allowed a gallery view of attendees so that it felt like we were gathered, most speakers seemed to prefer seeing the audience;
- Best Ways to Facilitate Immersive Engagement: We used chat instead of Q&A for a real time “all together” feeling which often resulted in attendees using chat to network and share advice; We invited speakers to include video, slides and polls;
- Quality and Safety Measures: We had one “on-air” moderator and two “behind the curtain” moderators to run the chat, activate polls, and curate questions; We developed a policy of an “instant end” to the event should we get hacked or disrupted which the on-air moderator always announced to the audience in her opening remarks; Prepared “planted” questions were always ready in case we had a passive audience; they were not always needed but were comforting to have on stand-by.
According to MegaMeeting.com, Thursdays are the best day for webinar attendance.
We received unsolicited praise via social media about the webinars on
- The programs’ high quality and diversity of topics
- Excitement over not having to travel to participate
- Appreciation for being able to engage scientists, economists and a variety of other experts who were otherwise assumed out of their network.
Virtual Book Clubs
In June of 2020, we launched our UIC Virtual Alumni Book Club using a free platform. We promoted the book club around commencements to engage new graduates and offered 2 reading options: fun and career development. Our goals were to engage people “where they were”, provide a unique benefit to affiliating with us, connect alumni and students who enjoy reading, and offer engagement to people who do not prefer live webinars.
Two months after launch we had 100+ members. We cross promoted the club via social channels, e-news letters, virtual commencement apps, and at the end of our webinars. This was a less labor-intensive program to facilitate with the greatest challenges being:
- Book preferences vary greatly
- Not all readers want a “social” experience
- A club requires a manager familiar with the book and good at facilitating dialogue
Digital Programming is not business as usual…
Digital programming is more than programming, it is engagement with many layers, opportunities, and potential obstacles. You can set up a program and invite people to participate, but given the many virtual ways our audiences can spend their time, it is clear they seek value, relative ease of access, and a quality experience.
If you have not yet ventured into virtual programming, here are some design considerations:
- A well-planned program requires collaboration, preparation and takes longer than anticipated
- Execution is much easier with multiple sets of hands and eyes working together
- Closed captioning is challenging to do with certain software features such as break-out rooms
- The constant challenge of serving audiences with varied technical aptitude and hardware access looms large. I delivered a resume webinar where over 50% of the students were participating using their smart phones—my long slide deck and multiple polls were considerably shortened once I learned of this.
I believe our investment in virtual programming was the right move for many reasons but most of all because we reached an audience with a variety of constraints (geographic, health, etc.) that otherwise found it difficult or impossible to attend in-person events. What is more exciting is we were able to engage experts and speakers who, thanks to technology, were accessible while demonstrating the value of our University by keeping the “expert” brand consistently within our institution’s ecosystem.
Virtual engagement seems here to stay and is exciting. If you’re ready to jump in, how will you deliver value, meet your audiences’ needs and unsure a good stakeholder experience? If 2021 is anything like 2020, I’m sure we will all have the chance to prototype some ideas and pivot!