Segmentation and journey planning for university advancement – a model (part 1)


I’d like to propose for discussion a simple model for segmentation that would allow a certain degree of proactive journey planning. This has been tough to crack, and something that still needs refining – but putting this concept together has allowed me to start having conversations with colleagues about how the brave new world might look and feel. Until now, we’ve only been speaking about how ‘segmentation and journey planning’ is the solution to a lot of our communications, workload planning and supporter experience problems.

I believe that it is a solution, and I also think it can be more. I think it’s the beginning of a shift in mindset and culture, treating alumni as individuals capable of both growing and losing interest, and ultimately in need of communications that mean something to them.

What I don’t mean by ‘segmentation’

I’m interested in segmentation for a purpose: delivering targeted and integrated programmes, especially communications and events.

This is not a ‘ladder’ of engagement that assumes email-opening is the first sign of engagement and volunteering on an advisory board is the last. Nor a recency, frequency, value model that is entirely removed from the needs and wants of the audience in terms of the information they desire. That kind of segmentation would be for institutional success-reporting-type purposes (look at how busy we are, engaging with all these people!), and assumes our alumni are sausages moving through a factory floor of engagement.

I’m not talking about superficial personalisation – cheap tricks  with data and merge-fields to seem as though we’re speaking to individuals. This kind of ‘segmentation’ is not usually decided on while considering the expectations and desired response of the person receiving a communication, but rather determined on an activity by activity basis – often the covering text ‘apology’ to a far more generic communication.

And the kind of segmentation I’m after is not just a model solely for trying to ‘predict’ behaviour. These are often complex calculations based on market research or ‘big data’ insights into what set factors predict the likelihood of a person taking a specific action. These are often applied, again, to  one-off activity such as a telethon or direct mail appeal – and are based on past behaviours, assuming that future behaviour cannot be influenced by the institution. They are also doomed to fail if not constantly refreshed and altered, as they a liable to become self-fulfilling prophecies (our donors all live in London, so we solicit all alumni in London, so more of our donors end up living in London – look how clever we are!).

What I mean by ‘segmentation and journey planning’

There are many ways to do this, but segmentation for communication with donors and volunteers could be, at its most basic level, deciding whether content, frequency or channel is the most important determinant of alumni engagement and satisfaction with your programmes. Whichever is chosen, this is the primary factor that is considered to split the audience.

For the remainder of this post, I’m going to make the assumption that regardless of channel preferences, what’s most important is that donors and volunteers receive information about the impact of their specific contribution. Because I’m assuming that delivering cause-specific updates is what’s critical to the supporter experience and donor retention – ‘content’ is my primary factor for segmentation.

Segmentation for non-donors and non-volunteers (i.e. the rest of our alumni), given our advancement mission, could be underpinned by how we would ideally like them to contribute. This is where I believe journeys come in (and the same thinking can be applied to further segment some alumni within the donor and volunteer group too -more on that in my next post).

We are using the word ‘journey’ more in the industry to differentiate staccato, overlapping and ad-hoc interactions with our alumni from those that have a wider purpose and meaning – in other words, interactions that will inspire them towards a goal. I think ‘journey’ also evokes a sense of time – to me, a journey means more than one or two steps, and that the finish line may not be visible from the starting blocks.


These are the parameters I’ve given myself:

  • Scalable: elements of the model should be able to be implemented by a team of 3, and equally it should be able to be built upon to meet the ambition of a team of 100 or more.
  • Flexible: it should allow for both the institution to anticipate audience need and preference, and for the alumna to override it or set it themselves. This alumna or institutional ‘tweaking’ or re-adjusting should be able to happen before, during or after a particular journey.
  • Simple: any segmentation should be determined by something that can easily be calculated or selected – not a complex algorithm that requires constant adjustment by an advanced statistician. It has to be meaningful to both the institution and the alumna.

The model

Active contributors

Firstly, the highest value group to the university (or active contributors) is a good place to start – and could simply be split into segments by type, i.e. donors, volunteers, legacy pledgers, community fundraisers etc.

Then, as we’re assuming content is important for stewarding and engaging this group, they could be split further into cause or volunteer role where resource permits. As an example, donors could be split by:

  • Scholarship donors
  • Cancer research donors
  • Library donors

From a delivery perspective, the above sub-groups will need to be split further into at least preferred channel (electronic/postal) and frequency (say, high or low). What you end up with is the number of sub-groups that will each require a custom stewardship journey devised at least every year.

No communications, event invitations or solicitations would be sent to this group that are not part of this journey plan. That isn’t to say that as opportunities arise throughout the year you can’t incorporate them – but you’d only incorporate those that make sense to the journey. So as not to confuse the segmentation further, these opportunities would ideally align to the entire group as opposed to one sub-section.


It’s generally accepted that it’s important to stay in touch with as many alumni as possible. We have data protection obligations to keep contact data up to date, and the unpredictable nature of our work means that any of our alumni could help our mission in some way in the future. It’s also the right thing to do given the strong connection and interest many alumni have with their alma mater.

Potential contributor journeys

I propose though that as far as this group goes, effort and resource is concentrated on the sub-groups most likely (or who we would most like) to contribute. This begins with deciding what contributions/outcomes you’d like – being as specific as you can afford to be. An example could be becoming an e-mentor, being a guest speaker or making a donation to dementia research

When determining the audience that will take each journey, you may need to impose a hierarchy to avoid individuals ending up on more than one track. But the attributes for selection for the groups can be as simple as age, profession or known charitable interest – things that align strongly to their likelihood to contribute and interest in certain causes or roles.

The journeys for these groups should include predominantly engagement and cultivation-type elements, not just well-devised solicitations (in fact I’d anticipate these should be few and expertly timed).

As a bonus, because each journey will have a specific outcome, and the journeys will be protected, it will be easier to tell exactly who the journey had engaged (or is engaging) successfully and those who it didn’t – allowing you to really investigate the whys and the wherefores.

As always, options for alumni to remove themselves from any journey should be available.

Everyone else

This is your group for whom you may not change much of what it is you do currently. Magazines, e-newsletters and general event invitations may be appropriate. Decisions around channel and frequency for this group could be advantageous and protect warmth, if not create active engagement – it shouldn’t become a dumping ground of non-strategic communication.

The goal here from the institution’s perspective is to ensure opportunities to contribute are given to this group very subtly and where appropriate – but these are not as important as keeping in touch and gathering the information needed to eventually move them into a potential contributor group.

In my next blog, I’ll put forward how a model like this could be refreshed and maintained, and how you could approach designing the journeys. I’ll also create a visualisation to describe the segmentation and possible journeys in more detail – addressing scenarios such as donors who give to many causes or who are also volunteers.

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