Can you tell me something about yourself and your school?

I am the Senior Development Officer here at ACS International Schools and I only started six weeks before lockdown, so I am fairly new to the role.

Although 50 years old, ACS is considered a new international school. It started as the American school community with campuses in Wimbledon and Knightsbridge, and then moved over to Cobham. Now 50 plus years later we have 3 UK sites; Cobham, Egham, Hillingham, and a new school in Doha with students representing over 100 nations. Cobham is the largest of the 4 schools, with 1,400 students aged 2 to 18. It offers both the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma and an American curriculum, including the Advanced Placement.

Can you tell me bit about your alumni community?

We have between 30,000 and 40,000 records on our database, which we’re trying to narrow down and see how many are contactable. As our school is transitional, we’ll have students that leave at different phases throughout their schooling, so we may have students that leave when they are 12 or 13 years old, but we still have them on our records.

As they’re still alumni, once they get to 18, we could activate their accounts if they get in touch with us with their current details. There is a large contingency of alumni that left 30, 40, 50 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have school records as we have now, so we are in the process of  encouraging people to get back in touch. Therefore, getting our year 12s and historical alumni to sign up for our community was our primary reason for establishing our Community Builder platform.

How did you decide that you needed a platform?

It was always clear to me that the way forward in building our community was to have some sort of platform or CRM. At my previous schools, we used Potentiality. This had a number of features and was like a website/web front, where you could share news, events, etc. A bit more like a CRM. 

As we already had an alumni website, we found that instead of making things more efficient, we were duplicating our work. We updated things like alumni news and school stories onto one, and then duplicate these onto another. It was not user friendly. We implemented it before understanding the purpose of the solution or what problem we were trying to solve.

I also found that it lacked the features of a fully-fledged community platform, such as the networking features, so when I left my previous school I started looking into Graduway because before joining ACS, I had not heard of Aluminati and colleagues at IDPE were using it.

Global Connect Platform in Numbers

Why did you choose the Aluminati solution for your platform?

The platform has been up for about a year, and my colleague Alex and I have been here since January, so the decision was made before we started, probably based on professional advice from other schools and universities. When I was introduced to Aluminate, what I really liked was how alumni could link their LinkedIn profiles to their profile on the Community Builder platform. This meant that there was less admin work, as contact and work information is kept updated by users and it was easy to see who I wanted to connect with. 

If I’m fundraising, I can quickly identify  the people I need to reach out to on our platform and make that personal connection. 

It also means that I can promote opportunities for our students to find someone that works, or has been to a university, for example, Exeter, and reach out to them. It is a powerful networking tool for them.

How do you get students and Alumni to sign up to your Community Builder platform?

We are keen to bring our community together and really add value to the whole ACS community through this platform. So, we are saying things like, “come back and join our alumni community, you can get access to this global network where you can get in touch with old school friends, or network with other people, join events and local chapters, etc”. So, it’s a good motivation to join, and we are hearing from many people who have not been in touch before. It is super exciting!  

At the moment we have just over 2,500 users sign up.

Each month on average, we receive an average of 62 Alumni registering to the platform, and that’s done by posting on our social media channels and sending out a monthly newsletter.

There’s a wide variety of content that we share; from showcasing our alumni, sharing news on campus, taking images from the digital library. A picture of an old school bus created a fun engaging conversation online and brought a lot of traffic to the Community Builder, as did clips from our alumni events. Everything we share online is about the call to action and how can we increase sign-ups.

We reach out to our students by virtually attending leavers assemblies and graduations. The Alumni Relations team worked closely with the grade 12 careers councillors and Head of Year. Before COVID, we provided the councillors with iPads that allowed our students to sign the leavers form easily, and as a result we receive 75 students sign up to Global Connect every month.

How are you using the platform functionality to increase signups?

An example of one of the modules we use to increase engagement and sign-ups is the Digital Library where we can store, organise and share our content with platform users. Within that, we’ve got a couple of different sections. We’ve digitalised all our ACS publications; all the yearbooks from each campus are on there. Currently, we have 106 yearbooks scanned so far. We also have a magazine called The Dormitory, which we share through the platform and our newsletters. 

There is also a section called ‘Alumni and Friends’ where we profile alumni, and instead of putting things on our website like we used to, we put them on the platform. This is because before, with our site, after 3 or 4 stories, that story would disappear from the feed but with the platform, it stays visible. With the Digital Library, you can scroll through them, and read all the alumni profiles or former staff that are linked. Additionally, things like the virtual Zoom events that we ran are on there, and members can watch the recordings.

Can you tell me about some of the events you ran?

One that has worked really well is a series called Tea with a Teacher.

The first one was with our former Athletic Director, where he talked to the students about his time teaching at ACS and what he’s done since. He collaborated with one of his former students, and they’ve created a sort of running app. In the session, they talked about how they got the business going, developed the product, plans etc. It was great, we had about 15 alumni sign up for that one. 

The second event was with the former high school principal, Mr Baker who was with the school for over 30 years. Being with the school for a long period,  he had a big following that had many generations attending, and between 30 – 40 people signed up. Attendees were signing in from Australia to New York to the West Coast, Thailand, Dubai etc. 

I was strategically trying to organise time differences to accommodate everyone. It’s always a bit difficult when you’ve got the west coast of America and then say, Sydney, Australia…and organising everything from the UK!

We learned from the first one, knowing this time we were going to record sessions, and structured them so that we could create sound bites. With this in mind, we did the first 45 minutes of Mr Baker talking about his school experience and how education changed over the years, then students got to ask him questions. After this, we went around to each alumnus and asked them one-on-one how ACS benefited them and shaped them. 

So, we’ve got this wonderful video of people sharing their stories about ACS making great case studies, so we’ve been able to share that really effectively.

We also did a virtual event with our younger alumni at the university. They presented to our high school students, and we invited all high school students from the four campuses…I think about 50 to 60 over the two days attended, plus 14 alumni. It was a mixture of presentations, Q&A, and breakout sessions so everyone could mingle and discuss ideas.

This was an opportunity for the students to hear first-hand from our alumni about what to expect when they attend university, as well as for our alumni students to have experience presenting to a group of people talking about their own experiences.  

Daniel Watts, MD of Aluminati was our keynote speaker. He did a brilliant talk on the benefits of forming connections for professional and personal growth entitled ‘Talk to Strangers’ which was well-received by students and alumni.  I think his angle, talking to strangers, don’t talk to strangers…now you can do this within a safe platform… was really important. 

It’s a good message for ACS as well because you’ll have a student from Hillingdon and a student from Cobham – they don’t know one another, but they both go into ACS and have that mutual connection. They will be in the same graduating year and could end up being at the same university or working in the same company one day, so the relationship could be really beneficial.

What I did not realise is that we had some parents listening in the background, and we had some really positive feedback from them.

At the end of the event, each one of those alumni said,  “Here’s my email address, please get in touch with us!”  

So, it was them learning that they can help and network with other students. That’s how we want to build that relationship with our young alumni; that if they need any help, they’re going to come to us, especially via the Aluminate Community Builder, to get the networking and mentoring help that they need.

It is the sort of event that, beyond the current situation, we plan to continue doing, because our alumni are across the world, and this is a great way of supporting them and bringing them together!

We have recruited chapter presidents to promote these events in their cities as well as fundraising initiatives. 

You mentioned local chapters. Can you give me an example of how you are building those local groups and how your alumni are helping with fundraising initiatives?

Yes, sure. So, what we have done up until recently, is wait for people to join the chapters, but nobody willingly joined. So Alex spoke to Rebecca, your Client Projects and Service Manager who told us something we hadn’t realised we could do; automatically migrate people into the chapters, which is what we’ve done. Alex pulled a report from Aluminate, saw where people’s addresses are, and put them in regional chapters based on location. 

Now that we’ve done that we expect to see more interaction on those groups, and this is where it’s up to those chapter leaders to post things and to encourage more sign-ups.

Our American chapter presidents are there to drive and promote fundraising, and they are leaders and donors themselves. They will hold events, and try to encourage alumni to allow other scholars and students to have the same experiences and opportunities as them.

This week alone, we created 3 more chapters in the Gulf and South-East Asia regions.

If all your content is on the private platform, how do those who are not signed up see it?

We put snippets or reduced versions on social media. If readers or viewers want to read the full story or to watch the full video, they have to join the platform to do so. That way it’s driving traffic to our platform, and getting people to sign up. This way we can measure engagement on social media and correlate this with our sign-ups. 

It also means that members are notified when new stories are published.

We use the same method with our newsletter which goes out to around 5,000 alumni and friends, where again we will put those stories, but they will stop at a certain point, and to read the full story or watch the video, they have to go to the platform. 

How do you manage and validate the sign-ups?

Since the beginning of lockdown, and with the combination of the social media posts and mentions of the Platform, we are getting more people coming to us through word of mouth, and either signing up directly or sending an enquiry via email or other communication. So, if they sign up via our portal we get their consent and their email addresses, then validate and approve it. If they email or call we will validate them first and then send the link to sign up.

This is working really well.

What are your goals with the platform?

We want to increase the signup to an additional 500 students per year.

Our target is to get an 89% sign up rate from our grade 12 students from across the 4 campuses. As I mentioned, over the last year, we had around 72%, so we have a bit of work to do, but bear in mind COVID-19 happened and has been a bit more difficult. 

What we really want to see more of is interactivity on the platform. We set up the digital library, regional chapters, and have posted in there, but so far there is little interaction. I want this to become a platform where alumni are going to use it and I want it to be alumni-led, with people saying things like, I’m from the New York chapter, let’s meet for a virtual coffee etc

I realise that this needs more work, we need to build awareness, and as a team, this is what Alex and I are busy working on.

Beyond your student alumni, who else are you inviting to join your platform?

This summer, we are going to be inviting our former parent community on to the platform

This is because their journey with the school is probably just as important as that of their children. Parents have formed friendships amongst themselves as well as professional networking. 

We are setting up regional chapters, especially in America. New York, Houston and Chicago are our biggest chapters which will help a lot with our philanthropic giving. 

If we can encourage our former parent community to join these chapters, they can become involved in events, or even host events for us. This will really help us with our end goal. 

When and how are you launching the parent initiative?

That’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks where we will open it up to parents, probably starting with our grade 12 graduating class parents. We are testing it out with 200 parents, and then opening it up more widely over the summer if there is an interest. 

Why is getting parents involved important to you?

I think it’s very important to involve parents because, if you have those working for some of the top banks, or big engineering firms, and you’ve got a young student at university wanting to network or speak to somebody within a very similar industry, they are an invaluable resource! With that common connection through ACS schools, I hope those parents would want to give another student, who’s had a similar education to their child, that opportunity. 

But also, for parents themselves it is super valuable. We have incredible stories of people bumping into each other all over the world, complete strangers who, through random conversation, found they have that mutual connection through our schools. That bond has led to friendships and opportunities that would have not otherwise existed.

That is incredibly powerful.

Are you going to open the platform up to your wider community? 

At the moment we are still trialling our approach. We are not quite ready to roll this out to current parents, but certainly to former ones because they fall within our alumni and friends community. Then we will start thinking about whether we’re going to open it up to staff, so that  alumni can reach out to former teachers. Regardless, if we decide to do that or not, this platform gives us the flexibility and control to set up these various user groups and create personalised experiences for them.

Finally, how has your experience of working with Rebecca and the Aluminati team been?

Oh…fantastic! I know that Alex interacts mainly through with your team, and I mean the responses are immediate. We get requests for information answered really quickly!

Having your MD Daniel on board with our event the other week was just fantastic, and being able to work with a company that really appreciates what we’re trying to do and get the message we try to promote with our students is amazing. You guys are happy to be collaborative, so I couldn’t ask for a better working relationship!


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