Originally scheduled for April 2020, Duke Law School Reunions were postponed until the fall. We didn’t want 2020 to end without marking the milestone reunions. When it became clear that an in-person event still would not be possible, plans for Virtual Reunions were launched. Class reunion volunteers usually have concurrent expectations to fundraise and to support programming and participation, but the class gift campaign for Reunions 2020 concluded successfully at the end of June. So, we asked all of our volunteers who had spent the last year planning an in-person celebration to extend their service through October, and to help us plan the virtual reunion.
Aside from fundraising, our reunion goals remained the same: to inform alumni about life at the law school and the university; to build community through meaningful social connections; and to cultivate affinity with Duke Law. To achieve these goals, we offered two different types of programs during Reunions 2020. We offered signature virtual programs, which were open to all, and then each class had their own private Zoom gathering.
How did you determine your format, schedule and content?
We wanted to maintain the impact of a celebration or an experience, but also be mindful of limited attention spans and availability. Instead of an intensive three days of virtual programming, we spread it out in smaller segments over the course of one week. We experimented with a variety of time slots, hoping to appeal to different time zones and alumni schedules.
We knew that content for an in-person reunion couldn’t always just be transplanted into a virtual format. Inspired by our original content, we considered the factors that would have made it successful, and thought critically about adapting it to the virtual space. Some of our signature in-person programs would have been site specific, such as tours of the Lemur Center or Duke Athletics facilities. Rather than literally try to replicate tours remotely, we developed original content around those venues that gave our alumni special insights and access. While in-person Lemur Center tours always book up quickly, the virtual program had increased capacity, and attendees were given exclusive access to lemur videos prior to the event in addition to the live lecture. “The ACC of Athletics” provided a behind-the-scenes look at the Duke student athlete experience with speakers discussing the topics of Academics, Compliance and Conditioning.
What elements did you incorporate in your virtual event to engage attendees?
Each class had the freedom to customize their virtual class parties, with classmate and faculty speakers, or special activities. One member of the Class of 2010 had been a popular fitness instructor during law school, and for their class party, she led a virtual workout, followed by a happy hour. Most class events ended up being relatively traditional Zoom meetings, with the greatest variables being length and size of breakouts. Some community building happened organically, like during the Class of 1990 party. One alum proudly described his personal wellness success with Peloton, and soon, attendees began sharing their own Peloton handles and making plans to work out together.
Even though alumni expectations were somewhat lower going into Reunions this fall, they were surprised at how fun it was to visit with classmates on Zoom. They may have missed coming back to campus, but they were able to connect in ways that were much more meaningful than expected. Rather than wait for a milestone year, the Class of 1963 joined in on Virtual Reunion. Fifty-seven years out of law school, they too pivoted to virtual and were the one class that had 100% attendance!
What resources, skills, and partners did you use in creating this virtual event?
Our reunion planning team is a cross-functional team that includes event planners, volunteer managers and fundraisers. I am grateful to be part of such a great team and to have had the chance to work with Kate Buchanan A.B.’92, Geoff Krouse A.B.’93, J.D.’97, Kenzie Brendle, Conner Cook, Chelsea Vohwinkel, Suzanne MacKinnon, Kelly Marcolini, Kate Shivar and Lauren Rice A.B.’00 throughout this process. It was a total team effort to plan and execute nineteen events and create a meaningful virtual experience for our alumni. In addition to the reunion planning team, the entire Law School Alumni & Development Office staff helped out during the week. Several faculty members also volunteered their time to participate in reunion events. We also worked closely with colleagues in the Dean’s Office and the Law School’s Communications, Events, and Media Services departments.
For Reunions 2020, we redesigned our reunions web pages so they would be tailored to the virtual experience. We also created an email campaign that included a combination of emails from the Alumni and Development Office and emails directly from reunion volunteers. This peer-to-peer outreach was critical in cultivating class enthusiasm and participation.
For a virtual reunion especially, the marketing strategy actually turned out to be a two-step campaign: the initial email campaign to publicize events and drive registration, as well as a social media and email campaign the week of reunions to encourage people to actually attend live, instead of just waiting for a recording afterward. Even the branding was customized for the virtual setting, because clearly, our existing reunion logo with the tagline “it was a very good year” was NOT going to work in 2020!
One of the most amazing resources I used was the run of show template, which Madeline Drewry shared in her Virtually Yours blog on the DAA Sendoff Parties. With that foundation, we built out our own run of show, and it was a lifesaver! Also particularly helpful was Madeline’s advice to establish standardized roles for event support. We have a pretty solid staffing plan for face to face reunions which we use each year, but the virtual format required a brand-new approach. Now we have a virtual reunion staffing plan which puts us in a strong position for Reunions 2021.
How did you measure the success of your virtual event?
Our peer institutions that went ahead with virtual reunions last spring had higher than expected participation. However, we predicted that by the fall, some of the excitement about virtual events would have worn off, and people would be missing in-person experiences. In fact, we ended up with almost exactly the same number of registrants for the virtual reunion as we had for the same cohort when they attended in person five years ago. Here is my reassurance to colleagues planning a virtual reunion for the first time: don’t panic when you open registration four weeks out and the numbers just trickle in! Our registration surge came later, in the last two weeks before the reunion.
The attrition rate for in person reunions is very low, given that once people register they also commit to travel plans and expenses. Knowing attrition for virtual events can be as high as 50%, we mitigated that with our communications strategy during Reunion week. We were quite pleased that the overall attrition was kept to 30%.
We also evaluated the number of events attended per person. We set a goal of two per person based on the class party and one signature event; we yielded 1.9 for reunion volunteers and 1.8 for non-volunteer attendees. Considering our three largest regions for Law Alumni are on the East Coast, it made sense that the session times convenient to the Eastern Time zone were well attended. Our best virtual window seems to be 1PM-2PM ET.
We sent a follow up survey to all reunion alumni, with some special questions for first time attendees and non-attendees. It wasn’t surprising to learn that the virtual format removed the obstacles of expense and time involved with travel. A little more surprising was the enthusiasm for future virtual gatherings, even once we return to face to face events. A class happy hour one month prior to a reunion on campus would give even those who can’t travel a chance to reconnect with their classmates.
What did you learn from planning this virtual event? How will that inform your next virtual event challenge?
Drivers of successful face to face events may not always have the same impact in virtual events. For instance, we have traditionally paired our Board of Visitors and Law Alumni Association Board meetings with Reunions to maximize participation in both. However, in the virtual format, that logic does not apply, and it really adds a lot of pressure to produce two big virtual programs back to back. Another example is speaker delivery and content. What often makes speakers so dynamic in person is their ability to involve the audience and play off that energy. In the virtual format, most of that gets stripped away, and the content has a much greater impact on a program’s success.
Plans are well underway for Reunions 2021, and we are using many of the lessons and data from our first experience to make this one even more successful. We have shortened the reunions schedule to three days instead of six. Our communications team has used data from the fall marketing efforts to inform this year’s strategy. Since they were especially effective, more of the communications will come from classmates, and we’re adding a print postcard to the rollout campaign. Since we now have a solid framework for virtual events, this spring we’ll be able to focus more energy on some special touches, going a little farther than virtual backgrounds and digital memory boards, to enhance the reunion experience.
While the entire process of Reunions 2020 was an ongoing learning experience, I’m really glad to have that foundation as we go into our second round of virtual reunions this spring. Most of all, I’m energized by the confidence of knowing that virtual reunions can be successful, and that we have the tools and the team to make it even better than before.
Director of Alumni Engagement
Duke Law School