Johns Hopkins University recently hosted one of the first — if not the first — completely digital Alumni Weekends. We asked Johns Hopkins University’s Assistant Vice President for Alumni Relations Susan deMuth to share her reflections on the experience.
Q: On-campus Alumni Weekend and Reunion is a beloved Spring tradition for Hopkins, and it takes months of planning to execute. Walk us through your process for moving it all online in a matter of weeks.
A: The original Alumni Weekend was to be held April 24-26. There were several steps involved in this decision — first the team needed to work remotely, and once settled and once we understood the landscape, we had about 6 weeks to make this happen. At the start, we reached out to reunion classes and shared with them the vision and asked for their input. Then the reunion team focused on streamlining the offerings — what are the favorite weekend traditions, who did we think would tune in and for what, would it all be live, what platforms would we use, how many volunteers would we need? We bounced ideas off of the class committee chairs throughout the process and ultimately, the schedule was cut from 130+ events down to 35 and enlisted 50 volunteers to help make it all happen.
Q: Throughout the past few months, institutions have been generating an impressive amount of content and Hopkins is no exception. How did you go about curating content for the weekend?
A: When it came to Alumni Weekend, we literally let our emotions guide us — what are the favorites that our alumni simply love and how could we replicate that for them. Then we thought about them in the context of Hopkins. For example, Alumni Weekend always has a component of academic offerings — these are always well attended by our alumni. We have a crab cake luncheon so let’s have a local chef walk everyone through his recipe while we have lunch together. Lacrosse is obviously a big deal, so we worked with Athletics to air one of our NCAA Championship games from 2005, which was one of our reunion classes, and we had an alum from the team, who is also a new coach for the program, offer commentary and answer questions via the chat function. Fortunately, we already had commitments from faculty and alumni in terms of content production for the weekend. And we added family activities, assuming that some alums would be at home with their kids. One great idea was to move our Saturday night dance party to Thursday night as the official weekend kick-off. We asked alums to send in photos and videos and song selections while a DJ spun records. It was a really fun way to start the celebration.
Q: Talk a bit about the formats you used.
A: We decided that everything would be live with adequate spacing between events to let people go about their daily activities. No one wants to spend 8 hours online. We used Zoom, YouTube and Facebook Live. It took 50 volunteers to produce the 35 events because we knew we needed redundancy in case one moderator’s internet went down. The events were all open and our moderators tracked comments so that anyone disruptive could be bounced. We did have an app created for the weekend but because everything was online, it didn’t get as much traffic as we had hoped. We were also aware that each event had to have a certain production value so that our attendees wouldn’t be disappointed in us or the experience. In particular, the dance party and the president’s remarks were planned similarly to how we execute live events – scripting, rehearsals, run of show, an assigned producer, etc.
Q: What are your top take-aways in terms of overall experience, any metrics you can share, would you do it again?
A: First of all, we will always have a digital component to the weekend going forward. Being online encouraged new people to attend, new regions to be heard from. It turned out to allow the inclusivity we have been wanting. In terms of metrics, we’re still pulling together the data. I can say that a typical on-campus Alumni Weekend would attract about 7,800 people. Our dance party alone has already received 12,000 views. Some of the events were completely open, meaning that we didn’t collect RSVPs. But attendees registered for many of the others so it’s fun to look through that information.
Q: So, what’s next?
A: Right now, we are only looking forward. How can we as an Alumni Association continue to engage the alums from Tokyo, Hong Kong, Dublin, London, Seattle, Chicago who attended the digital weekend? Is digital a way for our regional teams to connect more? I’m not quite sure what all of this means just yet, but we’ll figure it out. We’ll get there.
This article first appeared in the Level5 Events Insights Newsletter in June, 2020. To subscribe, click here.