Staying connected

July 6, 2012
Alex Witherow with child

Since graduating from Baylor in 2003, Alex Witherow has lived in London, California, New York City and Washington, D.C. None of those areas are particularly partial to covering Baylor news -- but that hasn't been an obstacle for the Baylor business graduate.

"I stay connected to BU alumni through the D.C. alumni group here," he explains. "We are pretty religious about watching sports games together and are all very spirited. If there's a Baylor game nearby, we'll typically drive to it.

"I've started following Baylor through Facebook; that's how I track all the updates. That has only increased my pride in our great university," he adds. "Baylor is a place that helped define who I am today and educated me for future jobs, and it was there that I developed great friendships with people I still talk to. For me, it's important to stay connected to Baylor because it's an experience that is a part of who I am."

A generation ago -- or even a decade ago -- staying connected hundreds of miles away would have been far more of a challenge. The past 10 years have seen incredible changes in the way people communicate, as sites like Facebook and Twitter have sprung up. Until very recently, if you wanted to keep up with faraway friends, you probably did it the same way your parents did: phone calls, letters and the occasional visits.

The same held true for alumni who wanted to stay connected with their alma maters. Most alumni would receive a call once a year asking them to update information for a directory or to make a donation, and publications, brochures and letters would arrive in the mail periodically. The really involved fans might make it back for Homecoming or athletic events.

Today at Baylor, intentional efforts to better involve Baylor alumni -- coupled with the explosion of electronic communications tools -- have changed all that. Homecoming still draws Bears back to campus each fall, and now every interested member of the Baylor family receives the quarterly Baylor Magazine, but those traditional methods are just the tip of the iceberg. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and a dedicated alumni website daily share what's happening on campus with the Baylor family, while the Baylor Alumni Network regularly gathers Bears in cities all over the country to connect with one another and the university.

And that's just the way the framers of Baylor 2012 would have wanted it.

At the turn of the millennium, the growth of Baylor's alumni base -- both in numbers and geographical reach -- demanded a more robust approach to communication with alumni.

"Ten years ago, I would suspect that we were only reaching, on a regular basis, 10 percent or less of our living alumni," recalls Tommye Lou Davis, BA '66, MS '68, vice president for constituent engagement. "We have a goal now of reaching every single living alumnus."

"We have a very loyal alumni base," adds John Barry, vice president for marketing and communications. "Who else has a Homecoming like we do? But we have to remember: We are a national university that has graduated more than 150,000 people. And our folks are not only all across the country, they're all around the world."

That evolution meant that Waco-based events like Homecoming, though important, were no longer sufficient on their own. Improved communications efforts were needed, and Baylor 2012 made that clear.

The vision's Imperative IX called for "enhanced involvement of the entire Baylor family," specifically mentioning the use of "emerging technologies" to better communicate with students, faculty, staff, alumni and other friends of the university.

"How do you engage those people when it's now much harder for them to come for an event on our campus?" asks Barry. "That's where I'm so proud of the work we've done to introduce all manners of ways in which we can reach out to those folks and say to them, 'Hey, you're still part of the Baylor community, even if you happen to live a thousand miles from campus.'

"There is a relationship some students have with their university that is effectively contractual. 'I paid you a fee, you educated me, now we're going to shake hands at graduation and part ways.' That is not the relationship Baylor seeks with its alumni, and in my experience that's not the relationship Baylor alumni seek with their institution. I think that's one of the things that makes Baylor a special place."

Baylor Magazine was the first new effort to spring from the university's renewed focus on alumni engagement. Launched in 2002, the publication carried the Baylor story to students, alumni, parents, as well as leaders in higher education and anyone else interested in the university.

"Baylor Magazine's mission is simple," wrote editor Vicki Marsh Kabat in the first issue: "to help you get to know Baylor, its people, programs, hopes and dreams, accomplishments and challenges. We are a university with a vision, and a major part of that vision is to build a lifelong covenant with our students.

"You see it in the rosy cheeks of a toddler dressed in green and gold on her father's shoulders at the annual Homecoming parade. You see it in the wrinkled face of a 90-year-old gentleman waving a Baylor pennant courtside at the Ferrell Center," Kabat continued. "Baylor's impact on its students is more than a marketable degree; it is an ongoing relationship."

Today, the magazine reaches almost 140,000 homes four times a year, free of charge, with thousands more copies distributed on campus and across Waco.

The growth of electronic communications, beginning with email, offered more timely and cost-effective ways of reaching the Baylor family.

In 2007, Baylor Proud launched as a blog and email newsletter designed to share headlines and highlights of the great things Bears are doing -- like the "Baylor family refrigerator door," as its mission reads.

The blog is updated daily with news of alumni, faculty and student accolades and accomplishments, stories of inspiring faith and service, photos, videos and more. Every two weeks or so, more than 94,000 alumni, students, faculty/staff, parents and others receive an email with highlights from the blog.

Two years later, the university jumped into the worlds of Facebook and Twitter. Today, nearly 8,500 people follow @BaylorProud on Twitter, and more than 85,000 fans "like" Baylor on Facebook.

"It used to be that if we had your address, we could send you a magazine and maybe a president's letter now and then," explains Barry. "Now, if you can find your way to a computer, you can connect with us immediately. If we have your email, we will send you information to keep you up to date and informed. But even if we can't find you, we've made it very, very easy for you to find us and to maintain those connections.

"Our goal is to be in communication with all Baylor alumni, and that's a pretty lofty goal. I don't know that we'll ever get there, but we will try, because every alumnus is important to the university -- those who come to campus every year, and those who haven't yet had a chance to reconnect at all. We have a responsibility to seek out our alums, and we'll continue to try to communicate with them all."

As sites like YouTube, LinkedIn, FourSquare and Pinterest grow, Baylor's marketing and communications division continually reassesses where the university's resources should be invested.

"We're living in a time where things are being launched with such regularity and frequency that it seems like every day there's a new greatest thing," says Barry. "The strategy we've taken is that we don't necessarily want to be an early adopter; we want to be a necessary adopter. It isn't about being out there first; it's about doing what's best to meet the needs of our alums. While we have unlimited enthusiasm, we have limited resources, so we need to invest our resources in a way that will function most effectively. Based on the feedback we receive from our alumni base, I think our communications mix is right where it needs to be."

Recognizing that many alumni are not able to return to campus as often as they would like, attention turned to ways the university could be taken to them. In 2003, the Baylor Alumni Network began to bring together former students in various cities with common interests -- first across Texas, now nationwide and even internationally.

"When I graduated, Baylor was a smaller school, and we stayed connected by coming back to campus," says Davis. "My children who have graduated from Baylor look forward to coming to Homecoming, too, but they also want Baylor to be a part of their local community, and I think that's what the Alumni Network has provided."

Baylor Alumni Network staff provide an infrastructure for organizing events, but the real work is done by local volunteers in each city. "We are volunteer-driven, staff-supported," says Davis. "We could not be effective without our 450-plus volunteers across the country who give generously of their time and really help facilitate these events. The Alumni Network doesn't just belong to Baylor; it belongs to everybody who wants to be engaged with Baylor."

In Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, regular breakfasts and lunches bring together alumni to hear guest speakers and for networking. Each August, the Parents League organizes sendoff parties in 60-plus cities across the country as students prepare to return to school, and parents gather monthly to "stand in the gap" for Baylor students, faculty and administrators through "First Call to Prayer."

Women's Network groups from Amarillo and Tulsa to Denver and Washington, D.C., support students by raising money for scholarships. Young grads enjoy mixers and "aftermurals" groups, and alumni of all ages gather for watch parties during important athletic events in countless U.S. cities.

When the university began the process of sculpting the new strategic vision that would become Pro Futuris, the Baylor Alumni Network sent university representatives to 17 cities for community input sessions to hear what alumni all over the country had to say about Baylor.

"I learned that they were hungry for a Baylor presence in their communities, and it gave me a passion for accommodating those desires," says Davis. "We need to be a part of their world, instead of expecting them to come and be a part of our world here on campus."

That hunger is seen in the numbers: magazine circulation well over 100,000, with email subscriptions and Facebook followers approaching that number as well.

"One thing we've learned in the last 10 years is that, if you provide opportunities for Baylor alumni to connect back to Baylor, they will," says Barry. "It doesn't seem that long ago that we were sitting around talking about the Baylor Proud idea, the Facebook idea, and wondering if people would like it and attach worth to it. And every time we introduce a new means of connection, the answer is a resounding 'yes.' They absolutely want to hear from us. Baylor alumni want to be engaged with the institution.

"We've benefited from what has happened in the information community and social media, but our efforts haven't come about accidentally; they've happened because Baylor University has made communication with alumni a priority. We want our alums to know that they are of great importance to this institution."

"I don't think there's any way we can adequately express what Baylor 2012 has done for this campus," adds Davis. "I look around, and I see our academic programs. I see our athletic programs. I see our student life. I see the Alumni Network. Everything is so much more robust and excellent. And that was exactly the point."

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