3 things your magazine does better than social media

It’s no secret that many of us spend a ton of time on social media.

Your school is likely investing serious resources to engineer posts that grab an audience’s attention while they’re there.


Me. :(

Social media’s speed and ubiquity give it big advantages over quarterly (or even less frequent) alumni magazines.

And yet.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably gotten frustrated with social media, even on official, moderated pages like those of your institution.

Among the many reasons:

  • Popular posts may get so many comments that the best ones get buried.
  • There are always a few alums who have an axe to grind with your institution.
  • There are folks who can turn even the most innocuous comments into a launching pad for their pet political issue.

Perhaps that’s why 68 percent of Americans have quit or taken breaks from social media this year.

But social media has also taught me a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of my favorite medium: magazines. And there are important lessons that alumni magazines can learn from social media.

There are ways to build on social media’s strengths to create alumni magazine features and sections that are far better than anything you might find on your official Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram pages.

Build “curated conversations” in your magazine

Social media is designed for a very specific kind of conversation. Pose a question and you can get immediate feedback, as well as a sense of how much a given question resonates with your audience.

What you won’t get?

  • You won’t see a reliably good method to sort good comments from ridiculous one
  • You won’t typically get measured, thoughtful commentary from experts (let alone stats or research!)
  • You won’t get a clear, cohesive structure to help organize the many different threads of a conversation

You know where you do get these things? Magazine stories. Magazines are structured in ways that can turn messy, free-flowing conversations into gripping stories, delightful sidebars, and worth-the-wait contests.

Here are three examples of how magazines — including your magazine — can take the raw material of social media posts and turn it into something worthy of the printed page.

1. Class notes questions

One of the trends I’ve noticed recently — executed particularly elegantly by Nebraska Quarterly — is the idea of real storytelling in class notes.

(Wait, what?)

Yes, your class notes may be the home for wedding, birth, and promotion announcements. But not everyone has that kind of news to report. Open up these pages to a greater swath of your community by asking inclusive questions that encourage fun anecdotes and storytelling.

For example, here’s a two-page spread where alumni answer the question “What is your best roommate story?” (See the page in greater detail here.)

A good question can transform your class notes pages.

Here’s how Nebraska Alumni Association’s director of publications Kirstin Wilder describes it: “If someone sends us a note, we follow up with the question for them to answer and then put it into the editorial mix. We put the question on FB and get responses that way as well when we are running light on copy. The question also is on our magazine microsite for folks to answer. You can see how that looks on our site (scroll down a little bit to find it).”

Wilder also shared a few of the other questions they’ve asked their alums for these pages:

  • What is your most vivid classroom memory?
  • What was your favorite summer job?
  • What advice do you have for incoming freshmen?
  • What is your most vivid game day memory?

Notice how you could be 25, 55, or 85 and still have a great answer to any of these questions. You don’t need to be a successful executive or world-changing volunteer to share a story that readers will love.

The two pages of responses in Nebraska Quarterly’s most recent issue were funny and poignant and refreshing. They were a joy to read. If I were an alum at that institution, that would be a page I would look for every time.

2. Feature story

Some social media conversations take off like a rocket.

For example, on my own alma mater’s pages, there have been robust conversations about how people selected their last names when they got married and posts about favorite college pranks.

Magazines can harness the popularity of these conversations and improve them.

As an editor, you can pinpoint great answers worth elaborating on, then add context such as useful statistics, quotes from faculty who have relevant expertise, and even archival material.

You can build a compelling, structured story in the magazine that improves on what is likely an energetic but disorganized social media conversation.

Want to see the stories that have resulted from knockout social media posts? Here’s the last name story for Grinnell, as well as the one about pranks. I’ve done similar stories for Macalester.

3. Contests

In the fascinating book Revenge of the Analog, author David Sax notes that for many folks, getting something published in a print magazine often feels more “legitimate” than getting something published online.

After all, the only thing required to post something online is an internet connection.

Print, with its physical presence in the world and its clear limitations on the amount of content that can be included, can feel like a real prize worth pursuing.

One (perhaps surprising) magazine that knows the value of print is Wired.

Every month, the magazine asks readers to write six-word stories that serve as a contest. (Click here to see the full-size page.) The question is printed in the magazine and also posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Six words that change everything.

The winning entrant gets bragging rights — and recognition in the print magazine. Outside of an illustration commissioned for the magazine, the winner’s name and entry in the print magazine is the only reward. There’s no cash prize, no cool swag, not even a framed illustration.

You can see from the honorable mentions that lots of people weighed in through social media — but the print recognition is what folks craved and received.

When a digital-focused brand like Wired recognizes the real significance that people attach to print, that’s worth noticing.

Are you treating your magazine with that type of reverence?

Are there ways that you could use integrate social media into your magazine while recognizing that print truly is your flagship communications tool?

Final thoughts

Unlike social media’s incessant hot-take culture, quarterly magazines are designed for big-picture approaches and thoughtful curation. They’re designed for conversations that matter.

Are you making the most of your magazine’s strengths? Shoot me an email and tell me how you do it.

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