4 predictions for alumni magazines in 2021

I made my first set of annual predictions last year. Were they good? Were they terrible? I mean, the assumptions didn’t include a pandemic, that’s for sure.

Will 2021 bring the same kind of chaos? There’s still plenty of uncertainty, but based on what I’m hearing from clients and newsletter subscribers, here are some of the things I see coming in the new year.

1. There will be a print/digital magazine bifurcation.

I have heard about a small handful of magazines shuttering or going on indefinite hiatus. But for the most part, schools are sticking with some form of alumni publication for now, in either print or online form.

My suspicion is that the vast majority of financially stable institutions will keep their print publications, and the institutions that are getting hit hardest will see those publications move online as a cost-cutting measure.

Those who make the shift to primarily digital will have an entirely new set of challenges! And I do think that those who stay the course with print (even if they make some changes or reduce frequency) will have an advantage over their digital magazine peers.

Some of that benefit is the result of differences between “push” communications that arrive at your doorstep rain or shine vs. “pull” communications that demand that you click a link, visit a website, or download an app.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of benefits to digital publications. But those who move from print to digital-only will have to be thoughtful about how they’ll replace some of the advantages that come naturally through print publications.

2. A publication’s ROI will see increased scrutiny.

At many schools, editors have not had to think strategically about a magazine’s return on investment. They’re focused on pulling together great, compelling stories on a wide range of topics, issue after issue.

But as alumni and communications offices make difficult decisions about what communications will and won’t get funded, alumni magazines will have to earn their keep.

ROI is an admittedly tough thing to measure in something like a print publication.

CASE surveys are commonly used as a way to measure engagement, and there are other types of surveys that can provide insight on readers feel about or value a publication. Other numbers — contributions to letters to the editor, class notes, and nostalgia prompts — can also provide a sense of how alumni feel about the publications they receive.

There’s lots more to say about this! But if you’re not already considering tracking the ways your magazine is making an impact, it’s time to start. Alumni magazines will be under the microscope.

3. VIPs will be more visible in many magazines.

With larger on- and off-campus gatherings scuttled for months to come, it will be harder for schools to use many of their traditional methods to recognize successful alumni, donors, faculty, and volunteers.

One option that may still be available to schools? A profile or feature in the alumni magazine. I’ve already worked with multiple clients to come up with creative ways to package stories that recognize groups of alumni award winners, campaign donors, and community supporters.

Alumni magazine editors will want to have their own sense of what they will and won’t do to support these efforts — including some creative ways to package stories that might otherwise just be boring lists of bios.

4. Editors will make a shift to more evergreen storytelling.

We’ve all been battered in 2020, and many of us have had to work overtime after story lineups we carefully planned got decimated by a pandemic, social unrest, and an economic downturn.

Yes, there may be more to come. But when the acute phase of the pandemic has passed, editors may try to take on stories that feel more timeless. The fact that many magazines have reduced their publication frequency will accelerate this trend.

For years, trend stories have allowed alumni magazines to include stories that feel a little newsier. But we’ve all spent tons of time making last-minute changes to…just about everything, so editors may just decide to play it a little safer for a few issues.

Instead of focusing on being as timely as possible, editors will seek out ways to tell evergreen stories that matter: history pieces, nostalgia-based packages, and stories that make sense in any issue.

These stories have the secondary benefit of being able to live online successfully almost indefinitely, offering the sort of “long tail” life that former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson predicted well over a decade ago.