As many of you know, I am currently pursuing my masters in public relations.  For a class this spring I was charged with writing a literature review based on any theory in public relations academia.  The catch: it had to relate to our current or proposed future career path.  As I have a personal and professional interest in both social media and alumni relations, I combined the two.  I chose to examine the body of research conducted on social identity theory and its potential applications to alumni relations and social media use in marketing.  Please read below for the text of my final paper.  I would love feedback if you have any!

The Social Alumnus: Implications of Social Identity Theory in the Digital Era

Social Identity Theory provides implications for the use of social media engagement with students and alumni to increase the quality of their relationships with a university and their participation and donation rates as alumni.  In this paper I will provide an examination of social identity theory.  Elements of the theory will be noted as particularly relevant to the development of strong connections between alumni and their alma mater.  Social media will be offered as a tool for strengthening these ties.

Social identity theory states that the way an individual defines his or her own identity depends both on their personal skills and traits and on their perceived group affiliations (Mael & Ashforth, 1992).  The crucial element here is “perceived” – the group affiliations must be recognized by the individual and by others (Ashforth & Mael, 1989).  Some argue that this affiliation with groups is a necessity for the individual, and that individuals require group affiliation in order to fulfill a need for self-definition (Marin & Ruiz, 2007).  Additionally, there must be perceived significance from a psychological standpoint for the individual.  The individual shares in the experiences of the victories and defeats of the group (Ashforth & Mael, 1989).  In fact, some alumni view university reviews, such as the Business Week university rankings, as a threat to their organizational identity, and their own identity as a result (Elsbach & Kramer, 1996).

The psychological ties between the individual and the group can be carried further when seeing organizations as groups to which the individual commits to.  This organizational commitment develops from an individual’s acceptance of the goals and values of the organization, their willingness to work on the organization’s behalf, and their wish to preserve their membership in the organization (Ashforth & Mael, 1989).

With developing technology there are implications of media that relate to these psychological issues of identity.  Some estimate that 90% of Americans will have internet access by 2014, and studies show that current college undergraduates are increasingly active in social media networks (Greenhow, Robelia, & Hughes, 2009).  A key use for social media is the development of self-presentation to peers and external audiences.  Social networks also often serve to extend real-world relationships already in existence (Hull & Stornaiuolo, 2010).  The psychology of self-identity finds an expressive outlet in the new digital era.

Organizations can rely on several mechanisms to increase an individual’s personal acceptance of their organizational social identity.  These include placing images representative of the organization in their communications, increasing the visibility of the organization’s stakeholder ties, and including stakeholders in the organization’s community itself, and encouraging interaction among stakeholders (Scott & Lane, 2000).  Social media can help the organization to meet these needs.  Social networks provide an outlet for customization of profiles, posting of pictures and brand marks, and unique communication messages.  The networking trait of social media means that a stakeholder who affiliates with the organization can display their affiliation for public view.  Social networks enable the development and strengthening of communities, and they facilitate interaction among members.

In order to increase participation of individuals in the group the organization can add benefits for members.  The benefits can be for the individual themselves, the society in general or for the greater selective in-group (Fowler & Kam, 2007).  By developing a system of benefits for alumni, universities can increase the self-expression of the organization ties by their alumni, their participation in the alumni association, in university-sponsored functions and in fundraising campaigns.  Some of these benefits can be facilitated through social media, such as the benefit of social interaction with other group members and the chance to reminisce about their college days in such forums.  Attachment and sentimentality can be used as variables in determining the likelihood of an individual to identify with groups and use group affiliation to construct self-identity (Mael & Ashforth, 1992).  Social media can foster these variables.

From an organization perspective, universities must remember that they are composed of several sub-level organizations, each of which can have a different influence on students.  This comes from the different academic environments that occur on campus, including realistic, investigative, social, enterprising, artistic and conventional environments, along with the various forms of diversity encountered by students (Umbach & Porter, 2002).  Social media provides two means of dealing with this element of the university-alumni relationship dynamic.  On the one hand, social media can be used to boost the university-level organizational identity and relationship, subjugating the college-level relationships.  On the other hand, a university might choose to embrace the strong ties between alumni and the college-level units, with unifying of the sub-groups through branding as an option.

The consumption of the organization’s identity (brand) “should enable consumers to define more clearly and completely who they are” (Marin & Ruiz, 2007).  Symbolic interactions, whether verbal or non-verbal, can assist the university and the individual with their self-definitions (Ashforth & Mael, 1989).  These interactions can take many forms, whether through social media, traditional communications, or in-person (such as at Homecoming events).  These relationship interactions go both ways.  Satisfied self-identified alumni are more likely to donate to universities, employ future alumni, and give positive unsolicited promotion for the university (Hartman & Schmidt, 1995).

Social Identity Theory offers one perspective on the way that individuals define their own identity, through their own characteristics and their associations with others.  The process through which these identities are created is currently in flux due to ever-changing technology that allows for increased self-expression and self-policing of others’ perceptions of one’s identity.  Organizations can utilize the new social media technologies to assist individuals in developing stronger ties to the organization, and thus ensuring that an organization is a part of the individual’s identity.  Universities should consider using social media in this way to strengthen their relationships with their alumni.  The benefits could far outweigh the costs.


Ashforth, B. E., & Mael, F. (1989). Social Identity and the Organization. The Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 20-39.

Elsbach, K. D., & Kramer, R. M. (1996). Members’ Responses to Organizational Identity Threats: Encountering and Countering the Business Week Rankings. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41, 442-476.

Fowler, J. H., & Kam, C. D. (2007). Beyond the Self: Social Identity, Altruism, and Political Participation. The Journal of Politics, 69(3), 813-827.

Greenhow, C., Robelia, B., & Hughes, J. E. (2009). Web 2.0 and Classroom Research: What Path Should We Take Now? Educational Researcher, 38(4), 246-259.

Hartman, D. E., & Schmidt, S. L. (1995). Understanding Student/Alumni Satisfaction from a Consumer’s Perspective: The Effects of Institutional Performance and Program Outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 36(2), 197-217.

Hull, G. A., & Stornaiuolo, A. (2010). Literate Arts in a Global World: Reframing Social Networking as Cosmopolitan Practice. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(2), 85-97.

Mael, F., & Ashforth, B. E. (1992). Alumni and Their Alma Mater: A Partial Test of the Reformulated Model of Organizational Identification. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13(2), 103-123.

Marin, L., & Ruiz, S. (2007). “I Need You Too!” Corporate Identity Attractiveness for Consumers and the Role of Social Responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics, 71(3), 245-260.

Scott, S. G., & Lane, V. R. (2000). A Stakeholder Approach to Organizational Identity. The Academy of Management Review, 25(1), 43-62.

Umbach, P. D., & Porter, S. R. (2002). How Do Academic Departments Impact Student Satisfaction? Understanding the Contextual Effects of Departments. Research in Higher Education, 43(2), 209-234.