Building Lifelong Relationships: Designing for Meaningful Alumni Experiences
Updated: May 21
Paradoxically, it has been an uneventful yet eventful year. Our basic needs of safety, security, belonging, and connection were tested. Just as our lived experiences over this time shaped how we think and feel, our lived experiences working at or with organizations (i.e., our interactions with all people and 'things' that are part of an organization) shape how we think and feel about the organization.
A growing number of organizations are prioritizing the creation of better experiences for humans of the world at work and are taking action to pursue the same. The pandemic has reinforced its importance while simultaneously upsetting the make-up of what is erroneously thought to be a changeless experience landscape, at least in organizations' eyes. The pandemic also compelled many organizations to take actions they did not foresee nor adequately plan. One of the most common was/is downsizing – letting go of people and increasing the number of alumni.
As a result, we have more organizations evaluating the establishment of corporate alumni programs that will preserve some aspects of the existing relationship. Although these challenging circumstances typically can damage or destroy those relationships, organizations committed to an enduring lifelong relationship can transform the last stages of an individual's experience with an organization (exit and extend) from poor and inhuman to empathetic, positive and meaningful.
This requires a new approach - an approach that is human-centric, not organization-centric. One that uses human-centered design to create mutual exchange of value.
Let's dive a bit deeper.
I define the human experience of work as a person's entire individual perception of their experience with an organization over the duration of the relationship. It is influenced by each interaction happening between all the people and ‘things’ that make up the organization including external customers or partners (beyond HR and HR stuff) and the individual. From the individual's first moment of awareness of the organization through everyday work life experiences to the day they depart and reconnect with the organization. The typical stages of an individual's journey with an organization over time are encounter, enter, engage, exit, and extend. Each stage is of equal importance when cultivating a symbiotic relationship. However, in the context of work-based relationships, the exit and extend stages are typically neglected or thought to be 'too late to redeem’ by companies even though there may still be significant human and business benefits.
MEANINGFUL ALUMNI EXPERIENCES
According to futurists, our interconnected transparency culture and competitive talent market will continue to intensify. Therefore, it is unwise for organizations to maintain the status quo of underestimating the importance of building lifelong relationships - or to further deprioritize them.
Alumni experiences are an individual’s perception of their experiences during separation from the organization and beyond. Meaningful alumni experiences ensure that persons feel heard and respected and that their contributions are valued regardless of the amount of time spent with an organization or the scope, volume, etc., of their work. It also continues to serve humans and their needs beyond the finite work arrangement.
For the organization, well-designed and well-delivered alumni experiences bolster the ability to attract and hire quality candidates by avoiding pitfalls such as 'bad break-ups gone viral' in the form of, for example, scathing emotionally-driven comments on employer review sites. Meaningful alumni experiences reinforce the employer brand and build brand advocates and ambassadors. They can even re-attract talent and generate referrals leading to future business opportunities, partnerships, and innovation collaborations. They can enhance company market research, retain and grow the customer base, and extend the organization's visibility and reach in the community.
Some impressive statistics: individuals who have a positive exit experience are 2.9 times more likely to recommend the organization than those who report a negative or even a neutral experience. Companies with an engaged alumni community see a 2.8X increase in revenue per individual, a 4.5X increase in product innovation, and six times increase in employer attractiveness. Organizations with formalized alumni programs consistently rate those organizations 20% more positively compared to those without. Typical rehire rates in organizations lacking an alumni program are about 3-4%. Meaningful alumni experiences can double that. In business generation, 15% of all revenues are directly related to alumni in key decision-maker positions on client sides, and 50% of all revenue is indirectly linked to alumni influencing decision-makers or acting as coaches for the former employer.
DESIGNING FOR MEANINGFUL ALUMNI EXPERIENCES
When a people-centric experience-based proposition is the aim, the quality of the human's experience of all the possible interactions is the focus. We identify the right offerings for the alumni based on their needs (e.g., events, charity giving opportunities, learning opportunities, etc. ) and intentionally design the interactions, touchpoints and channels that create the best experiences. What goals are alumni trying to achieve? What needs are they trying to satisfy? What pain points do they encounter with the current experience? How might you solve for this space in a way that generates positive feelings, advocacy, and other mutual benefits?
Alumni experience design is, unsurprisingly, similar to designing for the best customer, employee, user, etc. experiences. It is the application of human-centered design to design services, products, and experiences. Creating meaningful alumni experiences involves understanding the people and the context, identifying their motivations and needs, alleviating their pain points, and bringing them value and delight through relevant offerings (be it a service, product, program or community) and positive experiences. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of their lives, reduce frustrations, and create efficiencies that did not previously exist.
Throughout my career in helping prominent global brands design meaningful experiences, I've compiled design considerations and reinforcements that can maximize the return on effort and investment:
1. Framing the right alumni ‘problem' to solve is the only way to create a meaningful experience for your alumni. Do your homework. Research is key. Engagement and exit data can be valuable in analyzing the effect of good or bad experiences; however, they do not provide the insight necessary to solve for the right human problem. Learning from other organizations can be useful but such knowledge must be weighed against the knowledge that each organization's experiences are unique. Variables such as cultural differences, brand relevance, etc., can also add uncertainty or entropy.
Before making decisions on offerings and or proceeding to buy an engagement platform as a primary channel, spend the appropriate time to conduct qualitative research with departing employees, free agents, and existing alumni to understand their goals, needs, unmet needs, and desires in this context. You might even extend this research to current employees since they usually have the most pertinent plus detailed perspectives. Map the exit and extend stages of the human journey to understand the highs and lows of their experience so that you can identify moments of truth and pain points encountered by alumni when interacting with your offerings and the organization in general. Understand the operational side of experience (often referred to as the backstage) as well by service blueprinting a holistic picture of what needs to be solved to design and orchestrate a seamless experience for all involved.
2. Use the insights gathered to develop a well-defined alumni experience strategy with a shared vision and purpose can ensure design intentionality and consistency and accelerate change. Human-centered experience strategies helps brands and organizations uncover new opportunities to create value for and build advocacy with people. It serves to inspire, align, and guide, plus it also brings innovation and a human face to what would otherwise just be a strategy.
When developing your alumni experience strategy, now is the best time to determine if you want to build your alumni engagement platform or partner with a firm to provide. Be wise. Don't get pulled based on cool features or functionality or purely price without evaluating a platform based on your strategy - the bigger picture informed by the who, what why, and how. Unfortunately, when we move forward with a platform without a rigorous evaluation, we get sub-optimized outcomes for the alumni and the company– may be not immediately but certainly in the foreseeable future because this becomes the primary channel for interaction between the alumni and the organization, the alumni and the alumni community, and the alumni community leader/owner. With that said, there are some fantastic products available in the market. Check out Aluminati for its strategic understanding of how user experience fits within the end-to-end alumni experience and for the amazing user experience of its engagement platform. Check out Enterprise Alumni for its robust back-end analytics and reporting.
3. Design each offering and the experience and implement iteratively. Keep it collaborative and co-creative. Iteratively designing and implementing the desired offering and experience helps build and release over time to balance investment and organizational capacity and to de-risk your investment. Collaborating and co-creating with alumni and internal and external stakeholders along the way enables quick feedback and usually provides for more innovative ideas.
In summary, the overall approach put very simplistically involves continuous cycles of research, ideation, prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining activities to design offerings and experiences that work for alumni (and in turn the organization). Such activities (not to be understood as prescribed steps or linear) include:
Complete research and use the human insight to develop an experience strategy.
Narrow in on an opportunity.
Co-generate ideas for meeting the needs of your alumni base and the organization with alumni and stakeholders.
Develop a minimum viable experience prototype (which is just enough of the total experience to validate desirability, feasibility, and viability).
Test the prototype with alumni.
Use what you learned from testing, amend the design, and release it to your alumni market.
Continue the learn, design and release cycle over and over again until you have evidence or are satisfied that you've reached the best possible total alumni experience for your alumni market.
Lifelong employment with a single organization is an exception - no longer the norm. However, building and maintaining lifelong relationships through creating and delivering meaningful experiences for people should be the new norm. And in today’s world there are endless opportunities and possibilities to make it a reality.
I have helped prominent brands develop their experience strategy and design for and implement experiences that win the hearts of people and business. My specialization encompasses researching, envisioning and designing experiences for humans of the world of work. I'd be honored to help you. Let's talk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lisa Morris is the founder and chief human-centered experience strategist and designer at XPLOR, LLC. XPLOR is an experience design and innovation firm specializing in transforming the human experiences of work and workplaces. Read more about XPLOR and our client success stories at xplordi.com.
Sources for Statistics:
Gallup, Sodexo, Sertoglu, SP Ventures