Branding Higher Education Online: Universities’ Websites and the Visualization of Alumni Experiences

By Suzanne Shenk
Communication, Culture and Technology Master's Program at Georgetown University

This research examines how universities attempt to engage and convert their alumni into an active audience through their alumni websites. Universities hope to engage alumni for a variety of reasons, including financial or social enrichment of the institution or increasing the brand equity by showcasing successful graduates. However, the tools they use, the words, images, and overall branding cohesiveness with the university homepage, tell a story about what is common to all of these institutions and how each university attempts to distinguish themselves in some way. Through this research, I attempt to answer the following questions: How do university alumni websites reach their audience and what messages are they trying to convey through the visual brands and engagement tools available on the site? What sustains the institution of educational branding for alumni? I assert that the alumni website is a visual representation—a branded spectacle—of the ideal university-alumni experience that is transmitted to the constituent audience by the institution and is validated by the alumni audience through their continued participation in the online platform.

Since the nostalgia of memories is the true repository of stored meaning that enables universities to engage their constituents, those memories need to be accessible through the experience of the websites. The visual, textual, and branding experience should both align with the greater institution and offer some unique “insider” phrases and images to give the appearance of the exclusivity of the in-crowd. However, for the most part, alumni websites are transactional—directing alumni to methods of interacting with the university through giving, finding classmates, signing up for events or publishing class notes. These are all aspects of community building that establish the base audience for the university’s marketing department.

Theory and Frameworks: Communication and Visuality

Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Debord, and Debray are the primary theoreticians that I consulted to identify the various desired outcomes of the alumni-university relationship. Debord, as part of the Situationist group, sees society and its visual manifestations as a spectacle, consumption as a form of domination. “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Baudrillard bases his theories on these principles, but takes it a step further, saying that there is no more basis in reality for the visual manifestations: “The object is converted into a mere sign of its use, now abstract and divorced from physical needs. The whole cycle of production, distribution, and consumption, Baudrillard claims, is transformed into a semiotic system of abstract signifiers with no relation to an objective world. In the imaginary world of sign value, one consumes power or prestige through driving a certain type of car or wearing designer clothes. This is a new stage of abstraction, a dematerialization of the world through semiological (re)processing in which images and signs take on a life of their own and provide new principles of social organization” (Best & Kellner).

In addition to the production of reception of communicative visual acts, Debray discusses the transmission of the institutions themselves, as communicated ideas that have accumulated value and meaning through time: “Whether configuring the present to a luminous past or to a salvific future […] a transmission arranges the effective force of the actual with reference to the virtual” (Debray, Transmitting Culture, 3) Debray says that the transmission excels by prolonging, “even if it must condense its ample forms of expression into the emblematic currencies of the motto, the logo, the apologue, the parable, and so on. Religion, art, ideology: these variegated categories of transmission all aim to thwart the ephemeral by the ploy of drawing out, particularly in the Western context, with its grand undertakings of constructions built to last” (3). Higher education is another one of the cultural institutions that is seem as a stepping stone to success, and it’s a large one: In 2004, Twitchell said that “Counting everything but its huge endowment holdings, Higher Ed, Inc., is a $250 to $270 billion business—bigger than religion, much bigger than art” (Twitchell, 46). And since media is a product of the “cultural materiality and political/social institutions,” the “[m]ateriality of media [is] already culturally encoded prior to specific content being transmitted” (Irvine). Web media are part of institutions’ transmission of culture that is already preexisting and predetermining our understanding of the world. While the immediate communication of the university website is one piece of the institution-to-user compendium, the transmission of our cultural understanding of the university and the iconography used is part of our larger reception of the ideas.
Orangeoplogy from Accessed May 5, 2011.

The concepts that are inculcated in our democratic, capitalist society about college-level education as a step towards financial and societal fulfillment have been reinforced and developed over a long enough period of time that they are almost incontrovertible. “Unquestionably, university education is the key component in a meritocracy, the sine qua non of an open market. A university degree is the stamp that says—whether it’s true or not—this kid is educated, qualified, smart. The more prestigious the university, in theory, the smarter the kid. And increased access to university life has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectation” (Twitchell, 46). Not only that, but there is a reinforcing sample of people who are a part of the narrative (as students) and after graduation continue to transmit that narrative of their self-enrichment through the university to validate their own degree as exclusive and prestigious.

The more people who reinforce their graduate affiliation, the larger the field of advocates and the stronger the brand. In this way, network effects are also a very important concept for alumni websites in that the more people that use a resource, the more value the resource has to those that use it. Universities usually do not encourage public commentary on their sites—which is discussed further in the research, so they direct users to the “exclusive content” available to the community through a login, or to an outside social media platform such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Structures, Institutions, and Motives

The university experience is an intangible resource that relies on positive brand identity. Bourdieu says, “[a]s everyone knows, priceless things have their price, and the extreme difficulty of converting certain practices and certain objects into money is only due to the fact that this conversion is refused in the very intention that produces them, which is nothing other than the denial (Verneinung) of the economy.” (Bourdieu).” Yet while education is seen as a right, as expected for entrance into middle–upper class society, it is still a kind of commodity. “What used to be the knowledge business has become the business of selling an experience, an affiliation, a commodity that can be manufactured, packaged, bought, and sold. Don’t misunderstand. The intellectual work of universities is still going on and has never been stronger. […] But the experience of higher education, all the accessories, the amenities, the aura, has been commercialized, outsourced, franchised, branded.” (Twitchell, p. 50). This brand is established in many ways and to many audiences, but the graduates who connect with the alma mater to keep the shared memory of the university alive are an important piece of the overall brand of the university—the more prestigious the alumni, the better the implied value for potential students.

Ohio University Credit Card from Accessed May 4, 2011.

Ranking is also an important piece of the student and alumni experience. Prospective students use rankings such as U.S. News & World Report as well as The Princeton Review to compare the value of the education—measured through graduation rates, ratio of students to professors, etc.—against the investment in tuition. That identification value in relation to peer institutions continues into the alumni phase in a more disembodied state. Instead of valuing a potential good, alumni have acquired what Bourdieu calls institutionalized capital: “With the academic qualification, a certificate of cultural competence which confers on its holder a conventional, constant, legally guaranteed value with respect to culture, social alchemy produces a form of cultural capital which has a relative autonomy vis-à-vis its bearer and even vis-à-vis the cultural capital he effectively possesses at a given moment in time. It institutes cultural capital by collective magic […]” (Bourdieu). The act of ‘instituting’ someone is a performative act of recognition.

Alumni choose to engage or not engage with their alma mater for many reasons—many want to connect with their colleagues and reminisce about past experiences. Others hope for recognition or a legacy. Some hope to provide future students with the same experience they had. For alumni, it is not just a selfless act of preserving the school for posterity; it is also a self-interested act. Individuals hope to be recognized by their alma mater in a way commensurate with the size of the gift—often they hope to use a naming opportunity to make their gift. In a discussion about university funding, Twitchell says that in his university’s state, residents have “wads of money to fund bits and pieces of the campus in exchange for good feelings and occasional naming rights” (50). However, the relationship is often more nuanced than that—the exchange of capital—social and cultural—is important to both institutions and alumni as well, outside of the financial sphere.

The Medium and the Message: The Alumni Website Platform

The alumni website represents a specific kind of spectacle designed primarily as an portal for alumni to connect into, but also is a content aggregator, “In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption. The spectacle’s form and content are identically the total justification of the existing system’s conditions and goals. The spectacle is also the permanent presence of this justification, since it occupies the main part of the time lived outside of modern production” (Debord). Best & Kellner say that we are more interactive due to the media forms – computers, smartphones, TV shows that encourage audience participation– yet still have gatekeepers and monitoring functions that limit free interactivity. The fact that an alumni website is a ubiquitous offering and the investments made in the technology, resources, and customization reveals that many universities place a high value on branding themselves to a specific audience. But no matter the range of options, the “look and feel” of the site allows for the primal reaction that occurs in what Debord calls the spectacle: “The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible.
Cleveland State University Young Alumni website at Accessed May 4, 2011.
It says nothing more than “that which appears is good, that which is good appears. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance” (Debord). Again, Baudrillard goes further in saying that electronic or digitized images are simulations, replacing the “real” with “virtual” or simulated events (Best & Kellner). University websites become not just the abstract representation of something positive by virtue of display, they also become stand-ins for the real experience, according to the implications of Baudrillard’s theories. Yet they are also created through the media culture. Kellner says that "media spectacles are those phenomena of media culture which embody contemporary society's basic values, serve to enculturate individuals into its way of life..." (Kellner). The inherently positive experience of being a receiver of the website display displaces the real experiences—or even supersedes them by virtue of the venerated visuality.

The Logistics of Making the Connection

In integrating a public relations campaign into a website, Kent and Taylor (1998) identify several important principles to successfully connect with an audience. They include the option for the public to ask questions of the organizations and for organizations to respond; provide content that is useful for the constituent and is not solely focused on what the organization wants; the website should inspire users to return to the page again; and the website should be easy to navigate. Gordon and Berhow (2009) discovered that the first principle of the “dialogic loop” was the least apparent in their survey of university websites, where users could respond on only 38% of the sampled sites. The public relations damage that could occur through a comment forum overweighs the positive option of an open feedback loop, and universities above all need to be able to monitor their image to their most important consumers.

In 2008, Gordon and Berhow did a quantitative study of the website content of half of the institutions on two sublists of U.S. News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges 2006. They found that the most frequently displayed information on the homepages were pictures of students/campus and contact information. In contrast, “[t]he two least frequently observed features associated with this principle were streaming video (26%) and streaming audio (7%)” (2009). The fact that the static visual images and an appearance of accessibility are the two most common features of the homepages plays into the idea that tradition and the accepted iconography of higher education, as well as the need to encourage participation to retain users. However, a cursory glance at many university homepages today shows that moving content may be more popular as more institutions websites have streaming video available to draw users back for repeat visits. According to the study, the other top features were a search option and links organized by audience. This ease of categorization, where users can immediately find what they’re looking for by identifying and perhaps defining their relationship with the university, is a valuable concept for how universities organize and demarcate their subcategories throughout their web presence.

Case Studies: Encoding and Decoding University Websites

I examined the visual branding and the engagement portals of several private university websites including Brown, Duke, Georgetown, George Washington, Purdue, Rice, and Syracuse. I looked at what images were displayed, what kinds of content were available and featured prominently, what terms were used as far as navigation and how alumni were able to connect and contact the university. Bitler et al. says that “[r]egardless of the aesthetic presentation, the best websites will offer ease in navigation, regular update information, and an abundance of contact information” (2000). Because universities do not compete for their alumni customers in most cases (unless the alumnus has multiple degrees), they can use the same terminology and often, the same "look and feel": “Look at the websites for the most selective schools, and you’ll see almost exactly the same images irrespective of place, supposed mission, etc. True, they may attempt to slide in some attention-getting fact (‘If you use our library, you may notice our Gutenberg Bible,’ or ‘The nuclear accelerator is buried beneath the butterfly collection’), but by and large the websites are like the soap aisle at Safeway” (Twitchell, 56). That universality of visual content also helps universities identify laterally with each other.

All universities essentially offer the same interaction on their alumni page—there is overt university-to-alumni communication by virtue of the outward-facing platform. “Each institution should of course design a website to reflect its unique character, history, and atmosphere. The homepage is not merely a modern marketing strategy, however, but rather a technological emblem of the institution and an invaluable informational resource” (Bitler et al). In all cases, there is potential for alumni-to-university communication through the contact page or Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn software offsite. However, this is limited—every alumni website homepage surveyed did not offer open comments to feature stories or items. While this could be a limitation of the content management system, it seems more likely that university websites are not in the market of opening their site up to criticism. The alumni site is an extension of the university site and bad press from its most trusted customers can taint the water for all constituents by displacing attention from positive memories to current problems.

Brown University

Brown University is an example of a website that provides a cohesive branding for the homepage, alumni page and alumni association page. The latter, using the phrase “A Lifelong Connection” offers options for alumni to log in to the online services portal, view upcoming events, read about alumni in the news and Brown in the news through RSS feeds, view a rotator with spotlights on signature events and videos of faculty talks, as well as connect to outside links to Facebook and LinkedIn. “After you leave campus, the BAA is your link to the worldwide alumni community, resources, and more” is the caption of one of the images in the rotator. The “worldwide” aspect of the graduate community helps bring in increasingly more users, as network effects reinforce the network. The alumni page uses two techniques to reach out to alumni: the first is through such terminology that is featured in the Annual Giving box: "Your gift helps Brown continue to offer one of the best educational experiences in the world." The other tactic is to focus on the hyperlocal, as seen in the events calendar and the box Alumni Connections: "Thinking about checking out your local alumni club?" While presenting the university as a global institution with ties around the world, alumni can not only feel connected to their alma mater from afar, they are also told that there are many of them and they are everywhere. The implied network effects as well as the easily accessible medium of the internet make the case that Brown is much more than it's campus alone and that it is worth connecting to—as well as through—the university. As the one Ivy League school that I looked at, Brown seems to have a comprehensive vision for their brand, which is translated into the medium of the website.
Brown University homepage at Accessed April 30, 2011.

Link to Alumni page at Accessed on April 30, 2011.

Brown Alumni Association page at Accessed on April 30, 2011.

Duke University

Duke is one of the universities I surveyed that did not have an obvious navigation link on the homepage to alumni content “above the fold” of the site; rather, it was below the rotator of images. In addition, the Alumni link led directly to the Alumni Association page, while other univeristies added a layer between the two. As far as iconography on the alumni sites, universities’ websites feature presumably iconic images of campus—either buildings or architectural details which are a direct representation of their represented idea, or celebrated events, faculty, students or alumni. Duke's alumni page displays images of alumni celebrating at reunion, a university-sponsored event. All of these images are‘choreographed’ and carefully selected for their semiotic value. They represent a hyperreal, which appears more real and desirable than contemporary life. “Baudrillard insists that hyperreality is the transmogrification of "reality" within the conditions of simulation and social reproduction” (Best & Kellner). Images like the one on Duke’s page illustrate this hyperreal ideal, that is mass-marketed through our transmission channels. Duke's alumni page also presents both concrete navigation directives such as: "Give us Feedback" and "Volunteer with Alumni Admissions" but then includes "Duke Alums Engage" and "The Duke Idea," which are much more abstract, mission-oriented lingo. The balance between maintaining usability and accomodating university directives is often a tricky one and while the top navigation bar seems to give clear and concise link titles, the left sidebar has a mixture of the practical and the theoretical.

Duke University homepage at Accessed May 17, 2011.

Duke Alumni page at Accessed April 28, 2011

Georgetown University

Georgetown University’s homepage offers several navigation menus, with the alumni link falling in the menu with "Events Calendar; Directory; Athletics; Alumni; and Libraries." The alumni link connects to a site Georgetown Alumni Online, which mirrors the seal and colors of the homepage and also offers scrolling flash content. There is news and events and visual representations of what is happening on campus. There’s also a section that allows users to Login or Register, for “full access to exclusive content and tools.” Several universities market this next level of login as “exclusive” because that is part of the branding of private schools—a sense of exclusivity is part of the brand and the privilege of having access to the community is part of the website’s draw for consumers. One way to encourage users to make repeat visits is to offer calls to action. The alumni site news items encourage users to "Follow Georgetown Alumni on Twitter" and "Vote now in the Board of Governors Elections," while many navigation bars offer ways for alumni to both find what they're looking for and let the university push out the content that not only reflects alumni interests but also the university's directives.

Georgetown Univeristy homepage at Accessed May 5, 2011.

Georgetown Alumni Online page at Accessed May 5, 2011.

The George Washington University

The George Washington University alumni page differs from the homepage in that the brand is in the center of the page and has a special designed heading "GW Alumni Continuing the GW Experience." The university homepage offers navigation to “Explore; Apply; Learn; Discover; Connect; and Give,” with the Connect tab delineating that it is for “Alumni & Friends.” This use of the word “friends” is often used in nonprofit organizations to mean individuals who have expressed interest philanthropically or as a volunteer, but are not directly tied to the institution as a member, but it is often a prescribed name that is applied by the university and needs to be validated through the person’s involvement. On the alumni subpage, the top tier portals of the alumni site are: “Connect & Share; Benefits & Services; Programs & Events; Volunteer & Give; News & Info.” They also had a sidebar menu that includes “Regional Programs; Career Services; Volunteer; Make a Gift.” Their main featured story, “Where’s George,” encourages alumni to take a picture with a cardboard cutout of the mascot in their travels. The incentive is for alumni to win an iPad, but what exactly is the ‘payoff’ for the university? The disclaimer states that the winner must have signed up for reunion weekend and attended at least one event.

The Georgetown Washington Univeristy homepage at Accessed May 5, 2011.

The Georgetown Washington University Alumni Homepage at Accessed April 30, 2011.

This sort of game draws heavily on the idea of network effects and the community as the bargaining tool; the more people that attend their reunion, the better the reunion experience, the more positive associations the alumnus will have about the university and will be more inclined to participate in some way in the future. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Debord). This simple photo incentive encourages a potential lifetime of positive gains for the university, but also for the alumnus who finds connectivity with peers to be personally enriching.

Purdue University

Interestingly, two of the earliest registered educational domains—purchased by Purdue University and Rice University in 1985 according to Bitler—had the least developed cohesive brand for an alumni site that mirrored the respective university’s homepages. Purdue University’s navigation titles included: "Students; Parents & Families; Outreach & Engagment; Alumni; and Faculty, Staff Retirees." While the background colors and images are more in keeping with the overall branding colors of Purdue, the site primarily functions as a navigation tool. The main image on the alumni site is a building effusing light into a cobalt sky. The picture’s caption is “Come home the Dauch Alumni Center,” the authors having unknowingly left out the preposition. There is a new term unique to Purdue, “Boilersphere,” which is described on the site as an online community and after clicking on the link it is further described as “exclusive to Purdue people.” Following this link leads to a new design that has no iconography to mimic the experience of the homepage, and makes the page feel disjointed. The color themes and name of the university are expected to serve as anchoring devices for alumni, but the experience dilutes the visceral experience of alumni to their alma mater and does away with the visual opportunities for web content. Clicking on the Alumni Association button leads to yet another entirely new design--one the incorporates the Purdue "P" as its primary identifier. These different

Purdue University homepage at Accessed on April 30, 2011.

Alumni Link from Purdue Homepage at Accessed May 3, 2011.
Purdue's Boilersphere website at Accessed May 5, 2011.

Rice University

Rice University had a similar layout for the homepage—which reinforces the idea that there is a cohesive visual language that brands universities. The homepage featured the school brand—a shield with owls and upward angled lines as well as the phrase “Unconventional Wisdom.” The site had a flash-enabled rotator screen that further animated the mascot of the owl and the top navigation bar showed links for "Undergraduates; Grad Students; Faculty & Researchers; Staff; and Alumni." Interestingly, clicking on all of the links other than Alumni connect to the same frame (with the brand at the top), just changing the content. The Alumni page redirected to a separate page which seemed very minimalistic, with no flash content, no real color scheme and seemed to mainly serve as a secondary navigation site with little unique content. While providing a range of connectivity options, this site did not provide a simulation of the experience of alumni in a visual manner—nor did it seem cohesive with the homepage in any way.

Rice University homepage at Accessed May 4, 2011.

Rice Alumni page at Accessed May 4, 2011.

Syracuse University

Syracuse uses the same frame for the alumni site that they use for the main website, however the background image of the alumni site is a grandiose view of campus--creating an almost mythic quality to the photograph. The alumni dropdown menu on the left offers an emphasis on alumni-centered interactive events. A frame on the bottom right encourages alumni to give by focusing on the community of donors that already exist, a kind of in-group: “People give to Syracuse University for many reasons. But regardless of the reason, at the heart of each gift is the desire to make a difference—to provide the SU community with the means to change lives, communities, and the world for the better.” In general universities’ main capital is their alumni—they are the audience who have already invested in the university and are also a “product” of the university. Yet, the reality of how well the alumni have done is irrelevant: the main desire is to encourage the perception that alumni “change the world,” “make a difference in the lives of others” –these altruistic captions cater to the ongoing meta-narrative that the next generation will always supersede the last; otherwise, the university must not be spending their resources valuably and does not have a vision to attract a more competitive student base (and increase their rankings). It is essential that universities tell this story to alumni, because alumni have come to expect it. No matter how vague the promises of a “brighter future,” the terminology and language must be in the same family as other educational brand institutions in order to be a part of the greater institutional discourse community.

Syracuse alumni website at Accessed May 2, 2011.


The visual experience of the alumni website provides an interactive sphere of the idealized conduit of capital-sharing between institution and alumni. As the constituents’ role changes from student to alumni, there is a fluid transmission of capital—from financial to cultural, which the university hopes will then alchemize back into a trifecta of financial, cultural and social capital. While “the element of surprise” may be a value to traditional marketing operations, the alumni-university relationship is based on one of expected language and shared experiences. In such a relationship, marketing depends more on entering into the semiotic system that has been transmitted as a culture in higher education—one that currently focuses on aspirational language, place-based iconography and symbols of peer involvement to engage alumni through their websites. In higher education, the alumni website implies insider access to an extended family of elite professors, talented students and successful peers, while also offering the university as a gateway to career opportunities, legacy opportunities (through the giving portal) and entertainment (events, receptions, etc).

However, this is not solely a university agenda that is promoted through the site; with their investment in the university from the time they were a student (or even earlier if they are a legacy candidate), most alumni remember their student experience as a positive one, and
Marshall University License Plate from Pennsylvania DMV
their nostalgia and attachment to the community that they experienced during college drives many to want to participate in events and philanthropic activities. The website is the most accessible way for alumni to connect with the university, and the insider access—created by adding content that is only accessible to users who log in—gives an additional layer of prestige to the experience. The most comprehensive alumni websites, from a visual culture standpoint, seem to create an experience for their constituents that is visual, textual, social and interactive and reflects the mutual aspirations for the university and the alumni to share their successes with each other in order to mutually benefit from their respective investments.


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First published Dec 28, 2012 10:24 am
Last revised Dec 28, 2012 10:25 am