8 Key Web Design Principles for Engaging Alumni Websites

By Andrew Davies

Your alumni are like family – an incredibly accomplished, geographically diverse family!  They deserve a central hub to stay connected, learn about alumni events and resources, and easily support the university they hold dear. That’s where a stellar alumni website comes in.

By designing a user-friendly online space that caters to their needs, you can keep your former students engaged for years to come, fostering a lifelong connection to their alma mater. It’s a win-win – they stay connected, and your institution thrives with their continued support.

Building an alumni website that fosters connections isn’t just about flashy web design! It’s a strategic mix of web design and content that keeps your alumni engaged. 

Let’s dive into the 8 key web design principles behind the best-performing alumni websites!

1. Choose the Right Content Management System (CMS)

An intuitive CMS will be the cornerstone of your alumni website operations. It’ll allow you to create, manage, and update content without needing a computer science degree. According to Jay Cooper of SchoolNow,

“It takes all of the “code” out of the process, so you don’t have to be a web guru to effectively manage or contribute to a website. A good CMS will also alleviate the technical load for your school’s IT team.”

This means less time deciphering code and more time crafting messages that resonate with your alumni. An easy-to-use CMS also ensures that your alumni relations team can quickly adapt to the dynamic nature of alumni programming, keeping content fresh and engagement high. In our digitally-enabled world, ease of use isn’t just a luxury; it’s essential for keeping your audience connected and engaged.

Media management: Your CMS should allow for easy management of all the content on the site, including the ability to upload, edit, and organize images, videos, and other multimedia content.

Scalability and flexibility: As your institution, and subsequently your alumni community grows, so will the amount of content you have on your website. Your CMS should be able to scale and handle more significant volumes and traffic without slowing down.

Multilingual: Your CMS should allow you to easily translate the content into multiple languages. Allowing you to connect with prospective international students in their native language.

Reports and analytics: Meaningful reports and analytics tools help track visitor behavior and engagement, which can help you see how your website is performing and which parts need improvement.

State-of-the-art security: Security is a critical objective for higher education institutions, and your chosen solution should have a strong security culture that can safeguard your installation and data against potential threats.

Integration with social media: Integration with social media is essential for alumni websites, as it allows users to share content and connect with the university on different platforms.

Some platforms that cater to the unique needs of alumni websites are Finalsite, Almabase, and Gravyty.

alumni engagement platform Almabase

2. Build an Accessible Alumni Website

When it comes to any institution’s websites, accessibility is not just a good practice—it’s a must. Imagine your website as a reunion event; you wouldn’t want any alumni to miss out because they couldn’t access the venue. Similarly, an accessible website ensures that all alumni, regardless of ability, can navigate, understand, and interact with your site.

Website accessibility includes features like text-to-speech capability, alternative text for images, and keyboard navigation, making digital alumni engagement inclusive. This not only broadens your reach but also demonstrates your commitment to alumni relations by valuing every member of the community. An accessible website is a beacon of inclusivity, shining the way toward a more engaged and connected alumni network.

Alt Text for Images: This is a description of an image that can be read out loud by screen readers, allowing visually impaired users to understand the content of the image.

Captions and Transcripts for Video and Audio Content: This allows users who are deaf or hard of hearing to access the content of videos and audio recordings.

Keyboard Navigation: This allows users who have difficulty using a mouse to navigate the website using only the keyboard.

Color Contrast: This ensures that text and images are easy to read for users with color blindness or other visual impairments.

Simplified Language: This makes the website more accessible to users with cognitive impairments or learning disabilities.

Clear and Consistent Navigation: This ensures that users can easily find the content they are looking for, regardless of their abilities.

Accessible Forms: This ensures that users can easily fill out forms on the website, even if they have motor impairments or other disabilities.

Compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): This ensures that the website meets industry standards for accessibility.

For more on web accessibility, check out our article below.

accessibility thumbnail

4 Accessibility Mistakes to Avoid

3. Structure the Alumni Website for Easy Navigation

This is easier said than done. With so many different subgroups in your alumni community, it’s hard to cater your alumni website’s content to suit everyone’s needs perfectly. Interests vary by graduation year, major, or career stage. So it might be good to get some professional help with this. 

Start with a clear, concise menu that echoes the familiar paths of your school grounds. Each section should be a destination, whether it’s the latest alumni news or the donation page. 

Bread crumbs, those little navigational aids, can help alumni track their journey, ensuring they know how to backtrack without any fuss. 

Search: It’s important to have a search function that works like a knowledgeable librarian, able to guide users to the exact content they need with a few keystrokes. 

FAQs: Include a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section to quickly address common queries, saving your alumni time and frustration. 

An Event Calendar: Event calendars should be up-to-date and interactive, much like a bulletin board in the student union. 

Lastly, ensure that contact information is easily accessible, offering a direct line to your alumni relations team. These elements create a user-friendly experience, inviting alumni to explore, engage, and stay connected.

Washington University in St. Louis Alumni website homepage

Washington University in St. Louis Alumni uses audience segmentation to cater to a variety of subgroups in their alumni community.

5. Optimize the Alumni Website for Mobile Users

Now that 58% of internet traffic happens on mobile devices when alumni access your site from their smartphones, they expect a seamless experience, especially younger digital savvy grads.  As Larry Bernstein of education technology platform Finalsite writes,

“younger alumni are often more comfortable and adapt with these changes, like being more likely to use their phone to donate, or engaging with their alma mater over Instagram.”

A mobile-optimized site adjusts content to fit smaller screens, loads quickly, and has touch-friendly navigation, essential for tapping into the alumni engagement program on the go. This convenience means alumni are more likely to read updates, register for events, and respond to calls to action, whether in line for coffee or on a train commute. 

Start with responsive design: which ensures that your website adjusts gracefully to any screen size, be it a phone, tablet, or desktop. 

Compress images and streamline code: to speed up load times, because nothing tests patience like a slow-loading page. 

Simplify navigation with a hamburger menu that tucks away neatly, offering a clean, clutter-free experience. 

Touch-Friendly Buttons: Use buttons and other interactive elements that are large enough to be easily tapped on a touchscreen. This can help reduce frustration and improve the user experience. Use clear and prominent calls-to-action, such as “Donate Now” or “Sign Up for Events,” that are easy to tap on a mobile device.

Prioritize content so that the most important information is front and center, allowing alumni to find what they need without endless scrolling. 

And of course, don’t forget to test your site on various devices to ensure consistency across platforms. 

RISD alumni website

RISD uses a minimal design aesthetic as well as a responsive design to help their alumni site load easily on mobile.

6. Consistently Create Compelling Content 

Whew, say that five times fast. 

When building your alumni website, your content should be as irresistible as pizza at a college party. Compelling content includes alumni spotlights, news articles, alumni directories, event calendars, and fundraising campaigns. These elements give your alumni a reason to visit and keep coming back.

Spotlight Your Stars: Alumni spotlights highlight alumni who are making waves in their field, serving their communities, or excelling in some other way. This not only celebrates achievements but also showcases the value of an education at your school. After all, who doesn’t love to see a familiar face on the cover of the magazine?

Share the Scoop: Alumni news articles keep your community informed about recent events, notable achievements, and upcoming activities. The juicier the news, the better. Make your alumni feel like insiders with the latest updates and developments.

Build Your Alumni Directory: An alumni directory, full of familiar faces and contact information, is a tool for networking, reconnecting with old friends, and building professional connections. 

Host Your Event Calendar: An event calendar is your announcement bulletin that everyone checks in the morning. It’s the place where alumni find out about upcoming reunions, webinars, guest lectures, and fundraising events. Make sure it’s always up-to-date and full of interesting activities that even the most apathetic alumnus can’t resist.

Drive Your Fundraising Campaigns: Fundraising campaigns are your pep rallies—full of school spirit, enthusiasm, and a clear goal. They are the call to action that compels alumni to invest in their alma mater’s future. Just remember, even a pledge of a few dollars can be a game-changer when everyone contributes.

Princeton alumni website

Princeton University Alumni website does a great job of spotlighting alumni achievements.

7. Use Storytelling to Amp up the Nostalgia and Boost Alumni Engagement

Don’t tell your director but boasting about your institution’s impressive stats isn’t going to be enough to engage your alumni. Honestly, it’s storytelling that serves as the glue that binds your alumni community together. It brings to life the shared experiences and values of your institution. Through storytelling, you can showcase the successes, adventures, and even the everyday moments of alumni life, as a tapestry of narratives that resonate on a personal level. So think about transforming your content, statistics, and events into stories that stir emotions and spark memories. When alumni see themselves reflected in these stories, the connection to their alma mater strengthens.

To embed storytelling into your alumni website, think of it like curating an exhibit in a museum. Each piece tells part of a larger story. Start with a dedicated section for alumni stories, showcasing a variety of experiences from triumphs to transformative moments on campus. As Daniel Clauser of the creative agency Stauffer puts it

“An institution’s story is more than the history of its growth, it is an anthology of the lives of their graduates, taking time to memorialise those stories is an opportunity not to be taken lightly.”

Use a mix of formats—articles, videos, and podcasts—to cater to different preferences, just like a museum offers tours, lectures, and interactive displays. Include a submission form for alumni to share their own stories, turning the monologue into a dialogue. Highlighting milestones, such as career achievements or community impact, can inspire current students and fellow graduates alike. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words, so use images liberally to add color and emotion to your narratives. By implementing these storytelling elements, your website becomes a living archive, celebrating the past and inspiring the future.

Stanford alumni website

Stanford alumni website highlights a stories section as well as all the content they already create for their alumni magazine.

8. Review Website Metrics for Continuous Improvement

Website metrics are the compass that guides your alumni website’s course toward greater engagement. They are the critical indicators that reveal how well your content resonates with your audience. Analyzing metrics such as page views, average session duration, and conversion rates helps you understand what’s winning over your alumni. These insights allow you to fine-tune your digital strategy, ensuring that your website remains a dynamic and appealing hub for alumni activity. Tracking the performance of specific content can also spotlight the topics that captivate your audience, much like a hit song on the radio. By paying attention to these metrics, you’re committing to an ongoing process of enhancement, ensuring that your alumni engagement program evolves to meet the needs and interests of your community.

Conclusion: The Blend of Web Design Principles for an Engaging Alumni Website

To wrap up, when building an alumni website, remember that it’s more than just a platform; it’s a living community space. So start by selecting an intuitive CMS that makes content management a breeze and ensures your website is easily updatable. Prioritize accessibility to make sure that every member of your alumni community feels welcomed and valued. Maintain consistent branding to evoke a sense of pride and belonging, and structure your website for effortless navigation to keep alumni engaged and returning. Don’t forget to optimize for mobile users, who are often your most frequent visitors. Incorporate storytelling to celebrate achievements and foster connections, and use clear CTAs to guide alumni toward meaningful actions. Regularly review your website metrics to understand what works and evolve your strategy. By blending these principles, you set the stage for a vibrant, engaging alumni website that resonates with graduates old and new.