When I started out in alumni magazines, I learned lots of smart things about writing good profiles, creating packaged features, and making a magazine that was beautiful and compelling.
But I also internalized a few truly terrible ideas that it took me years to unlearn.
I was not smart.
In fairness, one of the big reasons I hung on to those bad ideas was that so many other people seemed to live by these unwritten rules!
But you don’t have to.
Read on to find out some of the pervasive myths of the alumni magazine world — and why it’s time to ditch them in favor of something better.
Myth 1: Your publication competes with major media for your audience’s attention.
Backstory: I remember going to a conference more than a decade ago in which a speaker made the case that your alumni magazine had to be as good as anything else on your coffee table: The New Yorker, People, Real Simple — major powerhouses.
If your magazine was sitting on a coffee table with those magazines, would someone in your audience pick it up?
Then you better aim higher.
Later, that idea expanded beyond magazines to anything that could capture a person’s attention. Would your audience choose your magazine? Or would they choose the latest episode of the Real Housewives? What about that ridiculous “Yeah” Tik Tok video?
According to these experts, your magazine — with a half-time staffer and a freelance designer — has to compete with billion-dollar behemoths that are churning out endless hours of clickbaity content, guided straight to your eyeballs thanks to sophisticated artificial intelligence.
Reality: While I appreciate the idea that alumni magazines should always be looking for ways to improve their writing, design, and art, to suggest that people think of your magazine in the same way they think about a Netflix show or story in the New York Times is…absurd.
How do I know?
Consider your own media habits.
I’ll share some of mine: I love the Hollywood Reporter and The Good Place and a dozen different high-profile podcasts. These are big, expensive ventures!
But I also religiously read the magazines produced by a couple of the nonprofit organizations I support. I read my neighborhood newsletter seconds after it lands on my doorstep.
Why? Is that four-page monthly neighborhood newsletter — which features grainy photos and clip art — “as good” as the latest season of Serial?
It’s the wrong question.
That newsletter is amazing not because it has tons of resources, goes viral, or has world-changing ambitions. It’s amazing because it’s relevant and useful to its very specific audience.
And creating a publication that is relevant and useful to your very specific audience? That’s your job for your publication, too.
You can’t do what BuzzFeed is doing. You’re not supposed to!
But you can do work for your alumni and donors that is fascinating to them. It’s the work that only you can do, by virtue of the fact that you know your school and you know your alumni.
Don’t focus on what everyone else is doing. Focus on doing great, relevant work FOR YOUR AUDIENCE.
Myth #2 You should be laser-focused on featuring successful alumni.
Backstory: It’s pretty standard to use an alumni magazine as a way to share the stories of successful alumni. That’s the way you help your readers feel proud of their alma mater, right? All those smart, high-achieving alumni, straight from your campus to the top of the wooooorld!
Sometimes, this superstar-focused philosophy of storytelling is even baked into the magazine’s mission statement.
I definitely saw that reasoning guiding the work at some of the magazines I worked at years ago.
But the mission statement didn’t always align with what our audiences wanted. And that misalignment bubbled up in a number of different ways.
As one example, when I was on staff at an alumni magazine, I was constantly floored by the “stories” alumni would ask us to write about.
They wanted us to write about the four generations of alumni from a single family. They wanted us to write about alumni who’d randomly run into each other halfway around the world. They wanted us to write about the alum who’d put a note on another alum’s windshield in a grocery store parking lot 500 miles from campus.
In a word: uggggggggggggh.
Did they not know that our alumni base featured Academy Award winners, surgeons saving lives, and CEOs of billion-dollar companies? Sorry, guys, your dumb windshield alumni encounter doesn’t count as a “story.”
When I had the chance to see, in real-time, what alumni from my own alma mater appreciated on the college’s unofficial Facebook page, I realized that *I* was the dumb one.
Take a look:
The exact thing that I thought was the dumbest story in the world got hundreds of likes and dozens of comments.
Just because I’d taken some journalism classes and spent time writing for newspapers, I assumed that I knew what readers wanted.
But I wasn’t listening to what actual readers were telling me they wanted!
The reality was this: I learned that alumni wanted to read things that helped them feel connected to fellow alumni. They wanted stories about real humans, and failure, and the unexpected twists and turns that had been hurled at them since they’d graduated.
At the magazines I’d been working at, we’d been sharing highlight reels of superheroes. Readers liked some of that. But they also wanted more than that.
You don’t have to spend pages talking about failure or little moments like the one I’ve noted above. In fact, your alumni might want something totally different!
But the only way to know for sure is to listen to what alumni are telling you what they want, in both direct and indirect ways.
Find ways to deliver that to them.
Yes, you should share the things that your institution needs you to share with your readers. But give your audience the things that they actually want, too.
Myth #3: Awards are the correct standard to measure the success of your magazine.
Backstory: Maaaaaaaan, I love awards. Early on in my alumni magazine career, I was part of the editorial team that took home a Sibley. Since then, profiles and features I’ve written for a handful of schools have landed many awards.
I’m really proud of the work I’ve done, and I’m so grateful for everyone who was focused on making the work as good as it could possibly be.
There’s no question that awards can help you bolster your case for your magazine’s value with your bosses. And I’m not gonna lie: it’s nice to have some hardware.
But along the way, I noticed something interesting about the stories that didn’tcatch the eyes of judges.
Reality: The stories I’ve done that have landed awards showcase big-deal alumni or real progress on a vexing problem. They’ve definitely resonated with judges! But judges aren’t your audience.
I have done a lot of stories that haven’t won a thing — but they’ve generated a dozen letters to the editor, or sparked a conversation on Facebook, or led to actual gifts.
I’m incredibly proud of those stories, too. Those stories might be more valuable in some ways than the ones that won awards. It’s not just about dollars and cents. (Though that can be a part of the equation.) It’s about the way those stories put the school on their audience’s radar in a meaningful and positive way.
Here’s another example: I’ve seen schools make incredible investments in class notes. I’ve also seen colleges collect dozens and dozens of alumni memories to develop a feature package honoring a beloved, retiring coach. These things don’t feel flashy! But they’re an incredible amount of work, and alumni love it.
To an outsider — to a judge, even! — this work looks…really boring, honestly.
But to the people whose voices are amplified? Well, it can feel like a small miracle.
It’s fun for alumni to see their names in print. It’s cool to feel recognized and validated by your alma mater, even if — especially if! — you’re not next in line for a Nobel Prize.
Few judges are going to hand out awards for a raft of class notes or feature story built around alumni memories! Certainly, editors I’ve talked to about these labor-intensive projects haven’t received the kind of significant recognition that they probably deserve.
Yet if your larger goal is to make your school feel more like a community, to remind people of the value of your institution, and to engage with people where they’re at, this is the correct work to be doing.
Awards are great, and you probably deserve them! But your focus should stay, unwaveringly, on your audience. Serve them as well as you possibly can.
What myths do you think it’s time to reconsider? Shoot me an email.