As economic pressures have squeezed college budgets, fund-raising offices have looked to the Internet to save money, using e-mail solicitations instead of pricier print materials or a thank-you video in place of a closing party. Now, colleges are experimenting with online campaign kickoffs.
Binghamton University plans to introduce its new campaign in cyberspace next Thursday night. Instead of throwing a traditional party with a sit-down meal and live music, the university, part of the State University of New York system, is inviting alumni and supporters to log on to a Web site for a virtual celebration.
Holding an online-oriented event allows colleges to save a lot of money—like the most lavish weddings, launch parties can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—and experiment with new ways of engaging younger or Web-savvy people who wouldn't normally attend a campaign kickoff. But in altering one of the main rallying moments of a campaign, colleges could run the risk of not inspiring potential donors.
MJ Herson, whose company designed the Binghamton event, calls it a calculated risk. A virtual event can't replicate the excitement of a live one (one Herson Group gathering, for Texas A&M University, featured 1,600 students, staff members, and alumni parading on a giant staircase), but because people are living more of their lives online, they might be more willing to participate in such a setting.
"Binghamton has got a lot of guts to do this," Mr. Herson says. His other clients are watching to see how well virtual events work, but Mr. Herson expects more colleges to try the online approach in the next several years.
Binghamton's event is designed to be interactive. People who log on to the site during the two hours it is live will be able to watch campaign videos, chat with faculty members, take virtual tours of the campus, or watch a live video feed from a small party in New York City for the university's biggest donors. At that event, the university will announce the size of its campaign.
People can also enter private chat rooms if they see someone online they want to talk to. And if they're inspired by what they see there, they can make an online gift. A scrolling Twitter feed at the bottom of the page will recognize their donations.
The university estimates the event will cost $115,000 to $135,000, compared with a more traditional campaign kickoff that could cost three or four times that much. (Events for the biggest university campaigns have cost $500,000 or more.)
Binghamton hopes the accessibility of the event—no travel required—and its novelty may attract more people than would a traditional party on the campus. Beckie Benner, the campaign's director, hopes 1,000 people will log on to the site and be impressed by the experience and the university.
"Our higher priority is to get them excited about Binghamton," she says.
A Different Approach
When Oklahoma State University announced its $1-billion campaign in February, it did so with a combination of a live event and streaming videos and social media, which helped generate interest among students and alumni who couldn't attend the on-campus festivities, says Becky Endicott, senior director of marketing and communication for the Oklahoma State Foundation.
The university had been planning to announce the campaign in October 2008 with a traditional black-tie dinner for top donors and supporters, a plan that would have cost the foundation $300,000 to $750,000. Because of the recession, Oklahoma State hit the pause button on the public phase of the campaign. The foundation then decided to move away from an expensive and exclusive event to one more suited to Oklahoma State's "boots, jeans, and cowboy hats" culture, Ms. Endicott says.
The university held its live event in the atrium of its student union, packing 1,600 people into the three levels of the building. It broadcast the 30-minute program—which included T. Boone Pickens announcing a $100-million gift—on the university's Web site and also on UStream. Officials also gave away 10 $1,000 scholarships to students who won an essay contest. And students in a public-relations class promoted the event through social media, with people sending Twitter and Facebook updates from the event.
Oklahoma State officials don't know how many people participated virtually, but its Web site drew 9,000 hits, and there were many more mentions on social media, Ms. Endicott says. The event also cost less than half of the lowest estimate for a traditional dinner.
Oklahoma State is likely to use those tools again, but won't have events entirely online. Ms. Endicott considers that approach too risky because not all alumni are comfortable in that environment.
"We'll always try to balance the Web piece with live events," she said. "You don't have to spend half a million dollars to launch something like this. You can still have the impact while doing it affordably and through broadband."