You Can Reunite on Facebook, But You Can’t Have a Reunion

I wrote this tweet seven months ago, “Last night I caught up with old friends at a bar by passing around iPhone photos of kids and pets. It was like Facebook, but with germs.” As silly as it was, in many ways it was the truth. I found myself home in Cleveland, with my wife and some friends catching up—something that I don’t get to do very often—laughing and mixing stories from the past with current events, getting the details on a story or a photo that had been posted to Facebook with little explanation. We were getting, as Paul Harvey might say, “the rest of the story.” While the distinct advantage of Facebook allows us to keep in touch with a large number of people we might not otherwise keep up with, clicking a “Like” or writing short comments on one of their posts is a far cry from why we became friends with them in the first place.

That night was on my mind as I was composing an email to be sent to my fellow college alumni for our upcoming reunion. I’m on the reunion committee and I needed to motivate them to come back for a weekend to a place we loved so much fifteen years ago. I’ve had student loans longer than it’s been since I’ve seen some of my former classmates. My strategy was to remind people that face-to-face interaction is much more valuable than Facebook. Events like a class reunion or alumni weekend are really an exercise for schools to market nostalgia and using Facebook to leverage that concept is worth exploring for many organizations.

Interestingly, the email I drafted ultimately followed a more traditional direct-mail campaign route, once the university concluded that it would be more effective as a letter sent out to all my classmates. It was odd to see my own letter arrive in the mail last Saturday, but it was a compelling reminder that any good marketing campaign needs to rely on multiple channels to be successful. You can’t just send emails and you can’t only rely on Facebook. Instead, electronic and social media marketing can be greatly enhanced by traditional channels of communication. Indeed, given the sheer amount of electronic communications we get in an average day, going back to basics by sending out my missive as a letter through the mail was the best way to get it to stand out.

In thinking about how Facebook affects the communications I have with my classmates, I came across an interesting piece from Christopher Mims called, How Facebook Killed Your School Reunion. Mims looks at the myriad of articles about how Facebook is either promoting larger attendance at reunions or eliminating them altogether, depending on the year or the author. As he explains, “In 2009 the Facebook-is-killing-reunions trend story became an official part of the annual journalistic calendar, like stories about the war on Christmas or tips for singles on Valentine’s day.” It’s interesting because he argues that recently there has been a decline in reunions nation-wide and speculates that it may be caused by Facebook. Personally, I think the recession and the difficulty for younger folks to find permanent employment may also be implicated in the decline of reunions. The article is worth a read, if only to ponder your own thoughts on the matter.

To try to and get another perspective on the issue, I figured I’d go and ask the man who needed me to compose my letter in the first place, John Coyne, Director of Alumni Relations at Hiram College. In contrast to Mims, he believes Facebook has helped strengthen alumni bonds: “We’ve seen a steady increase in our annual alumni reunion weekend attendance over the past 5 years. Facebook connects people with others whom they might not have kept in touch with otherwise, and allows them to cast a broad net when sending messages that encourage attendance.” He also proposed an interesting side-effect, “I’ve also noticed that people find that they have more to talk about rather than just the past since they have been lightly keeping up with each other on Facebook.” Like the tweet in my introduction, the addition of Facebook and Twitter has actually helped to enhance the reunion experience and cannot be discounted as part of future school events like my upcoming Alumni Weekend.

The net is that any nostalgia driven event needs work within the context of social media applications like Facebook and Twitter, while still understanding that email and even more traditional direct mail are still important facets for driving attendance and ultimately donations.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go drop a few pounds so I can show up at my reunion at the same weight as my Facebook profile picture.

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