Here’s what I think about your alumni magazine

I’ve been working in the field of print alumni magazines for a long time.

I’ve been on staff at three alumni magazines. Through Capstone, I’ve worked with more than 100 alumni magazine clients.

Every year, I receive hundreds of alumni magazines, and I review every single one. And I’ve been writing this newsletter for more than a decade, fielding thousands of reader questions and responses.

And I love it!

Along the way, I’ve developed a strong point of view about what alumni magazines can be and how they should work.

This is what I believe about alumni magazines.

1. Printed, mailed alumni magazines reach alumni more effectively than anything online

Most of your alumni probably have fond feelings about your institution.

But in their day-to-day lives, they don’t think about your school that much.

The vast majority of them don’t visit your website (let alone a specialized magazine site), or see your social media posts. They’re probably not listening to your podcasts, either.

But they do see your magazine! CASE research shows that your alumni magazine is tied with email as the most effective channel to reach your alumni.

And the research that dozens of individual clients have shared with me consistently shows that alumni are between 5 and 9 times more likely to read their school’s print magazine than even the most beautiful online publication on your website or hosted by a platform like Issuu.

Most of your audience will see the magazine you mailed to them. You determine when your readers get it, what it looks like, and what content is in it.

For most of your alumni, your print magazine will be the main — and perhaps only — way they hear about your school after they graduate.

2. Your magazine should offer a premium experience

Email is faster. Your website is more comprehensive. Your social media posts are more conversational and interactive.

But print is the best reading experience you can give your audience. It’s a beautiful object, and a carefully crafted and curated set of stories.

When alumni have your magazine, they expect that it will be the very best and most important material your institution can share.

Live up to those expectations.

3. There’s always another way to think about a story

Some of the most challenging stories you have to tell are institutional ones: the leadership transition, the campaign, the anniversary.

How do you tell those stories in ways that convey the importance of the topics to your institution and your readers?

Think beyond straight narrative formats! You can use clever concepts, smart packaging, and sharp design to draw readers in and hold their attention. (Use our storytelling toolkit!)

Print magazines offer so many creative ways to tell stories. Don’t constrain yourself unnecessarily.

4. You should take at least one “big swing” in every issue

A good magazine has plenty of structure: a certain set of departments, a handful of features, class notes, perhaps a few ads.

This approach makes sense!

You want some sense of predictability in a magazine. You want the reader to understand what they’re getting, not feel confused with every turn of the page.

But within that structure, you should find ways to take some big swings. What can that look like?

  • Develop an ambitious “24 hours at the university” photo essay.
  • Structure a beautiful story package on a big anniversary that you aim to make — gasp — fun.
  • Create and implement a survey to “take the temperature” of your print magazine’s health

While it’s true that not everything will work out flawlessly, a lot will end up working out better than you think!

You can take the lessons from those big swings and apply them to future projects. You’ll have those amazing pages in your portfolio — and in your institution’s printed history — forever.

5. You should learn from the best — and put your own spin on it

I’m always on the lookout for interesting ways to approach a project.

Years ago, I saw New York magazine’s “Reasons to love” issue and realized it was a perfect concept for a college.

A few years later, I had a chance to put together a “Reasons to love” package for Grinnell, and I wrote about the process.

Editors from magazines across the country found ways to adapt this larger idea, too:

They’re all AMAZING stories, and they’re all distinct to their institutions.

Get on the magazine mailing lists of other institutions and spend an hour a month flipping through their publications. I can guarantee you that you’ll come away with fresh ideas on telling your school’s stories.

You don’t have to start from scratch. Study the very best stuff out there.

Then make it your own.

6. You should sweat the details…

Your school isn’t generic.

Your print alumni magazine shouldn’t be, either. Here are two easy ways to make your publication feel distinct to your institution:

First, you can have department headers that are unique to your institution.

  • At Carleton, for example, the campus quad is known as “the bald spot” and campus news is “Around the bald spot.”
  • In the magazine for the brainy University of Chicago, class notes take on a decidedly academic twist, and are known as “peer review.”

Second, you can do accurate-to-the-centimeter “then and now” photos, showcasing the way that your school has changed — and stayed the same — over time.

There are a million subtle ways to personalize your publication, and these seemingly tiny details affect readers’ enjoyment of the magazine.

Sweat the details to make a magazine you are truly proud to send to your readers.

7. …but not the awards

Getting a stamp of approval from a local or national organization can be really rewarding!

But awards judges are not really the right judges for your magazine. The best judges of your magazine are your readers.

There are lots of stories that your readers might love because they’re steeped in your institution’s lore and values. Those stories and images that your audience loves might be things that judges simply might not “get,” because they’re not part of your community!

I include myself as one of those people who might not “get” your magazine, even though understanding alumni magazines is my whole job.

Recently, for example, I was warning a client against doing a cover story on AI. I could not count the number of magazines, I told her, that were telling the same boring AI stories.

But the reality is this: I may have hit my limit on AI stories because I get 20 alumni magazines a week, and half of them have AI covers. Your readers, unless they are absolute maniacs, are not.

Your readers don’t care if 10 other alumni magazines are using the same approach you’ve decided to use for some aspect of your magazine. They only care if the magazine is something they love.

Yes, awards can signal to your bosses that you’re doing good work. They’re fun to win, and I would never discourage someone from entering a magazine or a project that they’re proud to have worked really hard on.

But if you don’t win, that doesn’t mean you’re not putting out an amazing publication or doing valuable work. The accolades that matter most are the ones you get from your audience.

Awards are great, but they’re also less important than you might think.

8. You should talk to your readers — lots of them! — all the time

I’ve already said you should focus on doing great work for your readers. So it makes sense that you would spend time actually interacting with them and learning from them.

There are many ways to do this: through formal surveys, through prompts, through letters to the editor, through conversations prompted by a class notes entry.

Be curious about your readers!

Many of them will have valuable insights about what works in your magazine, what doesn’t work, and what could make it even better.

Listen to them. Have conversations with them. Be willing to consider the criticism you get from them. Save the praise you get from them to remind yourself of the value of your work. And respect the time they took to share their thoughts with you. They’re the reason you’re doing this work.

9. Your magazine should have a great personality

Your magazine goes into the homes of your alumni, and it should be like an incredible and charming guest. It shouldn’t be the equivalent of the person at the party who drones on endlessly about how great they are.

Unlike a braggy partygoer, your magazine can get tossed into the recycling bin the second it becomes boring and self-important.

Remember that you can occasionally tell stories that go beyond the next new building, the big donor, and the prestigious award. You can also tell stories that are human and relatable to the many thousands of regular, non-superhero alums in your ranks.

10. You should measure your magazine’s impact

Let me first acknowledge the obvious: measuring the impact of a print magazine is really hard and imperfect.

But you should do your best to try.

You can use CASE’s alumni magazine readership survey tool, or you can develop your own. (Here’s one I love.)

You can measure engagement through letters to the editor, class notes submissions, and nostalgia prompts, or entries from quizzes or contests. You can track giving through reply envelopes or conduct focus groups.

None of these, on their own, can give you the complete picture of your magazine’s impact. And the reality is that you can’t do everything on this list with all of your other responsibilities — especially not for every issue.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t start with one or two things on that list, and aim to make improvements over time.

Those numbers can help you see where you might need to make changes. They can help you build a case for more resources for your magazine. And they can help you show the value of the magazine you’ve worked so hard to create.

The Next Big Thing In Alumni Magazines: Superfeatures

Alumni magazines aren’t really part of the “move fast and break things” culture. And that’s great! Lots of things are designed for stability and endurance. Your institution is one of those things. Your print magazine is another.

Still, it’s likely that your magazine has changed quite a bit in recent years.

Your magazine might publish less frequently than you did five years ago. It might have fewer pages.

As digital connection points between you and your community ramp up, one thing is clear: Print is no longer primary.

Instead, it’s premium.

Print, once the primary way to reach alumni several times a year, has become a high-end offering that may go to alumni just couple of times a year.

In some ways, it might make sense to try to pack MORE into every page.

But that’s the wrong way to think about it.

Yes, your issue frequency may be down. Your total page count per year may be down. But if you think strategically, your impact can be bigger than you imagine.

That’s why now’s the time to create a superfeature.

What’s a superfeature?

A “superfeature” is a feature that is AT LEAST twice as long as a typical feature in your magazine. 12 pages, 16 pages, maybe even more.

It’s a truly deep dive into a single topic.

Consumer magazines have been doing versions of this work for a long time:

These are incredible, unforgettable stories designed to be noticed. Some of these stories are many years old, but they remain meaningful and memorable.

That’s impact.

Superfeatures and alumni magazines

It’s no secret that we live in a world chopped up into 140-character tweets, single-photo posts, and AI-generated articles featuring “3 easy tips.”

So when your magazine goes big on a topic —  a true immersion into an idea with the help of  beautiful design, thousands of words, dozens of images, and nuanced ideas and arguments — people take notice.

Plant your stake in the ground and spend a dozen pages on a single, captivating subject, and you’ll earn their attention not just for the time it takes to read the story, but for days, months, even years afterward.

One of my favorite recent examples of this idea is the University of Richmond’s “101 Things We Love about the University of Richmond.”

In 26 pages (30, if you count the behind-the-scenes introduction), the magazine dives into the finer details of Spider life, from gorgeous campus locations to life-changing professors.

Perfect.

The likelihood that a reader will sit down and read all 26 pages at once? Low. But that’s fine. A reader is far more likely to read a few items, set it on their coffee table for a few days, and pick it up again when they have a spare moment.

Hopefully, they’ll consider the entire issue a keepsake, so once it’s served its purpose as a coffee-table highlight, it’ll get tucked away as a meaningful object. (If you want to do a ‘reasons to love’ story like this for your own publication, editor Matt Dewald shared what he learned during the process. Thank you, Matt!)

A superfeature can be a fun romp through your school’s favorite things, but it can also be a comprehensive look at a topic that your school has deep expertise in, a list of achievements or achievers, or a complete explainer about a place, program, or idea.

Here are a couple more examples from the alumni magazine world:

At a time in which so much of what we consume just skims the surface, these are projects that are designed to let a reader sink into them.

Superfeatures are challenging! They require prioritization, because it means you won’t have space for other types of storytelling.

But done well, they can also help you earn — and keep — that valuable coffee table space in an alum’s home.

7 Ways I’ve Used Generative AI For Alumni Magazine Projects

Over the past year, I’ve been doing a lot — and I mean A LOT — of reporting on generative AI.

In the coming months, I’ll have several bylined stories in alumni magazines that illuminate the ways that faculty are using AI in their teaching and research, how alumni are using AI in their businesses and work, and the ways that students are thinking about AI’s impact on their learning. (Oh, and that “Ten years from now” story above includes plenty of AI-based insight, too!)

All that reporting made me realize that it was time for me to think about integrating generative AI to improve the ideas, processes, and writing that I do that’s linked to print magazines — and report those results to you.

So today, I’m excited to share some of the ways I’ve used generative AI, including some of the pitfalls I’ve experienced and the surprises I’ve encountered along the way.

If you’ve used generative AI in your print magazine work, I’d love to hear about it! Hit reply and tell me all about it.

Use case #1: Transcription

Service: Otter.ai

My current grade: A-

Analysis: I’ve been championing Otter’s transcription capabilities for years now, and I still think they’re top notch. I conduct dozens of interviews every single month, and Otter turns my recordings into (almost) polished transcripts in a matter of minutes.

While it’s always been an outstanding transcription tool, Otter now offers some great summary options, which can be an excellent way to pinpoint the exact areas of a conversation you want to focus on for a story or other projects.

I’ve also shared transcripts with clients who hope to use other quotes from conversations with faculty or alumni. The summary notes can be helpful so that in-house communicators don’t have to spend too much time reading through irrelevant information.

Pitfalls: Otter’s transcriptions are not perfect! For any quotes I intend to use, I always click on the files to listen to the audio itself to confirm its accuracy. (The transcript connects every word to its exact spot in the recording, so that work is easy.)

Use case #2: Interview preparation and idea expansion

Service: ChatGPT 4.0

My current grade: B-

Analysis: After I write a story pitch or a list of interview questions, I like to ask ChatGPT some version of the question, “What am I missing?” as a way to understand my blind spots or avoid any missed opportunities.

When there are specific questions I find promising, I ask ChatGPT to dive even deeper, providing nuances or new angles. This has helped me create more robust interview question lists that I use during my conversations with sources, and it’s helped me craft more useful pitches for clients.

Pitfalls: If I ask ChatGPT to list 10 areas worth exploring, I rarely read more than one that feels like a genuinely helpful suggestion. The other ideas I’ve typically covered in my initial work, or they’re too basic or irrelevant for the topic at hand.

Even the one promising suggestion might not be that helpful on its own! But it may point me in a useful direction.

I try to be really thoughtful when I use this specific process, because recent research shows that use of generative AI can siphon away more creative, outside-the-box ideas.

Use case #3: Headline generation

Service: ChatGPT 4.0

My current grade: B-

Analysis: From my perspective, headline writing is one of the most underutilized ways of increasing the impact of your magazine. Research shows that good headlines are at least 3x more engaging than mediocre ones.

That’s one reason I recommend that editors and writers create a LOT of headlines before choosing one.

While the results are almost always worth it, it’s definitely a time-consuming process. One way to speed that process up is to ask for some help from ChatGPT, which will generate an endless list of headlines on command.

Pitfalls: To be honest, the headlines are almost always mediocre. There is a certain artlessness to them that makes every option feel…fine, I guess. There’s no spark of joy or cleverness or creativity to them. That might be fine for a headline that has to align with SEO best practices, but not for a print publication, where headlines benefit from wit and cleverness.

Weirdly, generated headlines also almost always include colons, like the AI is writing a title for an academic paper. Sometimes, after I explicitly request headline ideas with no colons, 40 percent of the suggestions STILL have colons. Is Big Colon funding generative AI efforts? It’s truly egregious.

That said, there are almost always a couple that seem to offer a promising new direction.

They’ll use a specific word that might lead to an interesting hook or a turn of phrase I hadn’t thought of. If nothing else, it’s a great way to avoid the blank page syndrome.

One other note: You can also get my one-hour Headline Bootcamp course — by far the most popular course I’ve ever offered — to support your headline generation efforts.

Use case #4: Emails

Service: Google Gemini

My current grade: D-

Analysis: I send out a lot of emails as part of my print magazine work. I send out scheduling emails (the WORST), reminder emails, source review emails, you name it.

I have a handful of templates that I use for this often-perfunctory work, but could Google’s new assistant help make it even easier?

Whew, no.

At least, not yet. While there are options to “help me write,” to expand or shorten an email, or to formalize my writing, they haven’t made this work any easier, better, or less time-consuming.

That said, I’m not giving this a failing grade because it seems like it might ultimately have potential! If the service could pull in information from previous emails, for example, I can see how it might become more valuable.

Use case #5: From newsletter to social post

Service: ChatGPT 4.0

My current grade: B-

Analysis: First, let me acknowledge here that my experience is not technically related to print magazine work. However, because it has parallels to work that you might be doing for your institution, I’ll share it!

For a while, I experimented with posting on LinkedIn. I liked sharing helpful information in short posts, but I could tell I wasn’t getting the tone quite right. So I fed some of my newsletters into ChatGPT, asked it to generate a handful of LinkedIn posts, and reviewed the results.

In some ways, they were actually pretty good! It was clear that they were closer to the more standard, upbeat LinkedIn posts that seemed to get good engagement. They used emojis, bullet points, and calls to action.

Pitfalls: The posts also made me cringe a little bit, because they didn’t sound like me. I knew there was probably a way to thread the needle, but by that point, I realized I wasn’t willing to put in the time to make these posts as good as they needed to be. I ditched this experiment.

That said, If you’ve got a print magazine and want to transform longer stories into shorter, social-media friendly posts, I suspect there is real promise here. This is an area that is worth exploring.

Use case #6: Editing and proofreading

Service: ChatGPT 4.0

My current grade: C

Analysis: It’s tough to edit your own writing.  Getting a second set of eyes (AIs?) in the form of an industrious AI bot is, in theory, a dream. I send all of my drafted stories through ChatGPT to identify weak writing, typos, and grammatical errors before I submit them to an editor. What’s not to love?

Pitfalls: As an editor, ChatGPT leaves something to be desired. Its recommendations often drain a story of personality or add unnecessary formality.

Yes, it catches some typos and grammatical errors, but certainly not all of them.

I learned quickly that while this use case might provide me with a level of confidence about the quality of a story that I didn’t have before generative AI was available, it might be unearned confidence! It’s an improvement, but it’s never letter-perfect.

Use case #7: Images

Service: DALL-E

My current grade: D- for actual value, A+ for humor

Analysis: As is true with the social media post use case, image generation is not something I’ve seriously considered for any Capstone clients.

But for this newsletter? Well, maybe!

Every so often, I ask it to generate  alumni magazine-themed art, and it is always VERY BAD.

Actually, let me amend that: it’s actually not too bad if you plan to spend less than a single second looking at it. At a glance, it’s not the absolute worst.

However, if you spend more than one second looking at it, prepare to become increasingly horrified:

.

In summary: AI, from my experiments, has a real hit-or-miss quality to it at the moment. Nothing has felt like it’s quite lived up to the initial magic of that crazy 2022 rollout — but perhaps I’ll change my tune as I wade in further.

1-Hour Upgrades To Measurably Improve Your Print Magazine

Many marketing and communications teams tell me that their magazine is “fine.”

Maybe they acknowledge that it’s starting to feel a little stale, and suggest that at some point in the coming months or years, they’ll start looking at an overhaul or a redesign.

But really, they admit, they’d love for their magazine to have a little shot in the arm right now. An improvement that they could make that didn’t require months and months of work.

The good news: Yes, it’s possible!

Here are two changes you can make RIGHT NOW to improve your publication. They’re research-backed, proven out by successful publications, and ready for your finishing touches.

Here’s how.

1-hour upgrade #1: Organize a headline happy hour

Research has shown that a good headline is at least three times more engaging than a mediocre one.

So why are most of us spending such a tiny amount of time coming up with headlines for our stories?

If I see any more “Success story” “Leaving a legacy” or “Overcoming obstacles” headlines, I’m going to throw your magazine into the sea.

They’re vague. They’re boring. And they don’t give your designer anything to work with, either.

My recommendation to jettison those yawn-worthy headlines: collaborate with others to create arresting, irresistible headlines.

Start by organizing a “headline happy hour.”

Bring together your smartest, funniest colleagues. Make sure your designer is one of them, because they can often see visual potential in headline ideas. Maybe you even have some clever cross-campus pals who might like a chance to put their stamp on your print publication. Send them your feature drafts or story briefs, and get their ideas!

Have everyone bring a headline or two, pitch a few of your own, and see where it takes you.

Remember, your headlines don’t need to fit SEO formulas — and they can be designed for impact. Be witty, be smart, be surprising.

Make those headlines all but leap off the page to grab your reader’s attention.

Here’s one of my own all-time favorites, a story about a student croquet club.

1-hour upgrade #2: Add a “Where’s [your mascot]?” contest to your pages.

One of the most frustrating experiences of creating a magazine is working months and months to make it great — only to hear crickets when it hits readers’ mailboxes.

Did they receive your magazine? Are they actually reading it?

One simple way to find out: include a contest in your pages.

Tuck a tiny mascot, logo, or iconic image on a page. Let readers know they can win a little bit of swag, like a sweatshirt or bumper sticker, if they find it, submit their entry, and are selected at random.

Two publications I know — Nebraska Quarterly and UND Alumni Magazine do this and routinely see 100+ entries to their contests.

Those entries are valuable data points on their own.

But they’re also larger opportunities. Every message from a reader is an opportunity for you to respond, ask questions, and learn more about what they enjoy about (or would like to see in) your magazine.

Why your magazine should “go premium” in 2024

Every year, I encourage teams who work on alumni magazines to find new ways to make the most of their print publications.

In the past, I’ve encouraged people to take big swings, to develop more strategic approaches, and to use their magazine to create joy. I still believe you should do these things.

And this year, I want you to think about “going premium” with your magazine.

That’s right: instead of the usual frame of doing more with less. It’s time to rethink the equation.

Where can you strategically make your magazine bigger, more vibrant, and more irresistible? Can you pick an important moment for your school, a specific issue in the next year, or even a few key pages where you can go premium?

A premium magazine  — an amazing, covetable physical object — can keep your institution’s brand in some of the most prominent places in alumni and donors’ homes for weeks or months at a time.

Here’s exactly how I think about doing this.

Print isn’t dead. It’s just being misused.

I understand why many institutions have pulled back on print magazines in recent years.

There are many ways to reach your audience. Printing and mailing gets expensive. Measuring a publication’s impact is challenging. And recent(ish) paper shortages and price hikes seemed like they might put the final nails in the coffin for print magazines.

But the real problem, in my view, is that print magazines have been misused as a communications tool. The reasons are nuanced, but the reality is that print’s current, unique strengths are often misunderstood.

A few examples:

  • The best place to share faculty promotions isn’t your magazine. It’s your internal newsletter.
  • The best place to get signups for a niche reunion isn’t your magazine, it’s a targeted email with a link to the registration page.
  • The best place to have a conversation about your school’s run at this year’s national title isn’t your magazine, it’s on social media.

These are all jobs that might have been fine for print magazines in the past. But today, different communications tools do a better job accomplishing these tasks.

Still, I see alumni magazines wedging these kinds of topics into their pages all the time.

No wonder communications teams are thinking of pulling back on their print magazines! The material they’re sharing in their magazines isn’t right for a publication that comes out a few times a year, aimed primarily at alumni. As a result, readers are responding with a collective yawn — or a quizzical frown.

Instead, teams should use their print magazine to do the things that it continues to do far better than any other communications channel.

Flip the mindset: Print isn’t primary. It’s premium.

Print magazines are no longer your primary communication tool for alumni and donors. That’s fine!

Instead, they should be a premium one.

It’s easy to say — but it’s not easy to execute.

Thinking of print as “premium” instead of “primary” requires you to think differently about every aspect of your publication, from your planning process to the publication of a truly print-worthy story.

Here are a few ideas to help you reframe your approach to print.

1. Put it at the top of your “communication pyramid”

Consumer publications often provide useful insights that alumni magazines can follow.

For example, I’ve noticed that consumer publications often position their print magazines as one of the most valuable things a brand offers to its audience — a luxury purchase in the world of digital dross.

For example, consider New York magazine products:

  • Newsletters: Free
  • Podcasts: Free
  • Digital magazine subscription: $96
  • Print + digital magazine subscription: $207

WHOA. Their pricing model suggests that just adding a print component to a publication doubles its value to readers.

It helps that their print magazine is fantastic.

They’re signaling that print has a lot of value. That’s true even when you can literally get the same words and pictures in a digital format before a print magazine lands in readers’ homes.

Print should be at the top of your communications pyramid, too — a premium experience worth paying for, even if you never charge alumni a penny.

Going premium means:

  • Providing an incredible reading experience, with beautiful paper, typography, and design.
  • Adding details that delight.
  • Offering a “multi-touch” magazine experience: a publication so good that readers want to read a story, put it down and then come back to it later to read another one.

2. Develop every page with intention

A few months ago, I was listening to a podcast that featured an admissions marketer talking about his work with a new social media platform.

He and his team were basically throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. They were delighted to have one of their posts — which took just a few minutes to create — go viral, with hundreds of thousands of views.

This spontaneous, experimental approach is perfect for a new platform.

But your magazine is not that.

Print magazines are not a new platform. There’s not some mysterious alchemy for success that we still need to uncover. We know what works! It’s not a secret — but it does require approaching the work with intention and thoughtfulness.

Print magazines benefit from a methodical approach.

Your premium process might include:

  • Implementing a 30,000-foot planning schedule that goes out three or even four issues into the future.
  • Imagining a clean slate: if you had never had a print magazine, and had to create one from scratch, would the departments, features, and profiles you have now earn their way back into this new publication? Or would you do something different?
  • Creating plenty of opportunities for your creators — including writers, designers to photographers — to weigh in on different ways to tell a story.

3. Create a collectible

One of the strategies today’s publishers are using to create energy and excitement about their magazines is making them collectibles.

They aim to make them so beautiful and cohesive that readers can’t help but pick them up,  read them cover to cover, and keep them around.

There are many ways to do this.

It might be by creating a single topic issue, like one on Taylor Swift. (It’s an idea so popular that it seems to take up 75 percent of all newsstands right now, which I am absolutely not complaining about!)

It could be a theme issue about travel or happiness. Perhaps it’s a ranking or list, like “Top 100 innovators.”

Smart publishers also go big with beautiful covers, irresistible paper, perfect binding, and other signals that the publication that a reader is holding in their hands is different from a run-of-the-mill magazine in the grocery store checkout lane.

You can do the same: go big with your anniversary issue, your leadership transition, your annual report, or your new campus facility.

Your premium strategy can pay real dividends for your readers and your institution.

 

Fuel Alumni Magazine Reader Engagement With Games

One of the frustrating things about print publications is that it’s incredibly difficult to measure engagement directly. If someone picks up your publication and reads it — maybe even cover to cover! — how would you know? You might have tens of thousands of people reading your magazine. But without feedback, you’ll never know for sure.

If you’re surveying your audience regularly — a topic I cover in depth in my paid Alumni Magazine Insider pop-up newsletter — you can get a sense of how your readers think about your magazine.

But there are also other ways to “take the temperature” of reader engagement. One of them? Games.

Why do I love games as a reader engagement tool?

  • Positioned well, you may hear from dozens — if not hundreds! — of readers who might not otherwise have a specific reason to reach out to you
  • Your readers can feel connected to the institution, even if they’re not major donors or doing class notes–worthy or profile-worthy activities
  • They can help your magazine stay on the coffee table
  • You can use the responses you get as a launching pad: to start a conversation, request a class note, or get other meaningful feedback
  • The responses can be used as datapoints to show the value of your publication

Below are just a handful of the successful games that I’ve seen alumni magazines use in their pages.

1. Try a crossword

Based on what I’ve seen in magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, People, and New York, people go bonkers for crossword puzzles. Take a page from their…uh…pages and try one in your own magazine! Prizes can be gift cards, branded swag or just the glory of seeing their name in print.

Below is a (uniquely English) example of a crossword from the University of Cambridge’s alumni magazine. I’ve also seen crosswords in magazines for Kenyon and Brown. Have you done one for your publication? Let me know!

2. Find a hidden object

Slip a tiny mascot or a well-loved campus icon into the pages of your magazine and ask your eagle-eyed readers to track it down. I’ve seen it work well for multiple institutions.

Here’s what Nebraska Quarterly’s Kirstin Wilder told me about the hidden object in her magazine’s pages: “We have a ‘find Archie’ contest in each issue,” she told me a few years ago, noting that Archie is a much-loved mammoth in the University’s museum. In one of her issues, she said, “we had over 300 responses.”

Wow!

In the top right corner of the page below, you can see the note she includes in the publication to alert readers to the current contest and recognize previous winners.

Another example is from UND Alumni Magazine (also a Capstone client). They use a fun variation on this theme called “find the flame.” In each issue, the designer hides a tiny version of the flame logo on the front cover. (No, not the one in the nameplate.)

Finding it is no easy task — yet more than 100 people in one recent issue wrote in to share their success, as you can see in the note below the cover.

3. Identify the location

NC State has a cool “Good Find” department that features a photo with an unusual perspective of a place on campus.

I like this idea! It gives readers a chance to test their knowledge while very specifically requiring them to call up memories of the time they spent on campus. While the magazine shares the answer on the bottom of the page, I can easily imagine ways this could be adapted to encourage readers to write in.

4. Quiz your readers

On Wisconsin did a full quiz feature — complete with Trivial Pursuit-like graphics and categories. It’s a beautifully robust package with answers that provide additional details and context for each question.

Could you do something like this? Maybe! Could you shorten it and ask folks to write in with their responses, with perfect scores earning an entry into a drawing for a school sweatshirt? Sure!

5. Use a diner placemat/back of the cereal box approach

TCNJ took a delightful approach to a games spread.  “Brain Break” is a combo pack of different activities that encourages readers to recall parts of their college years in unique ways.

There are lots of ways to have “right” answers, and also ways for folks to be truly expressive about their experiences.

Love it.

6. Go big with games

Here’s what I heard from UT Journal’s Jane Bianchi about her magazine’s Game On! feature.

“In one issue, Erin Dixon (art director) and I used a games theme to celebrate the University’s 90th anniversary. Our cover story includes a custom-made puzzle that was photographed, a custom-made crossword (we hired Brendan Emmett Quigley, who was recommended in the CASE CUE), a jumble (I created), a photo quiz (Erin created) and a word search (I created). All the games had a UT theme. At the end, we encouraged readers to submit their answers for a chance to win UT prizes.”

Jane wrote me very shortly after the issue had dropped, noting, “We’ve gotten a few dozen responses so far.”

Amazing!

Have you used games or contests to encourage reader engagement? What have your results been?

Use QR Codes More Effectively In Your Print Alumni Magazine

When this issue of Esquire landed in my mailbox in 2009, it was weird enough and special enough that I stashed it with a stack of my favorite magazines.

The QR code that Robert Downey Jr. was drawing attention to was so foreign to most people’s experiences at that point that Esquire included a five-step set of instructions on how to bring it to life. The list started with “Make sure your computer is equipped with a working webcam.”  (!!)

Fourteen years and one pandemic later, most of us have a love-hate relationship with QR codes.

While I generally loathe QR codes as much as I did back in 2009, QR code integration in print magazines has improved in the intervening years, and I’m genuinely excited about some of the ways I’ve seen them used recently.

Although I still see lots of alumni magazines using QR codes badly (no, I absolutely DO NOT want to scan your QR code to “learn more” about a story topic), there are also some really great models in the consumer magazine world that I’m excited to share.

You can learn what’s worked there and adapt for your own uses.

Plus, read all the way to the end to see the primary principle you should apply before using a QR code.

So when should you use a QR code? When you want to…

1. Give your reader answers

The Atlantic has started running a crossword puzzle on its inside back spread. (Spoiler: I’m terrible at them, as you can see, but I try!)

If you want to get hints or all of the answers, you don’t flip the magazine upside down or go to a different page: you can snap the QR code, and it’ll take you to the puzzle in an online format, where you can fill it in, get the right word for an individual clue, or see the full answer grid. (The page also has links to other stories.)

How could you use this idea? I can see it as an option for a quiz you might run in your pages, for example.

2. Make it easy to respond to a prompt

Real Simple runs an advice column every month. On the first page of the two-page spread, advice-seeking readers can use the QR code to link to an email address where they can share their own conundrum with the columnist.

I like this direct-to-email option! If you use prompts on your back page or in your class notes section, this may be a useful approach to try out.

3. Switch channels

I was absorbed by the review of Emma Cline’s The Guest in New York magazine earlier this summer. By the time I got to the end of the review, I was so intrigued that I immediately bought the book.

And when I saw that I could receive the publication’s four-part book club email series by scanning the QR code, I couldn’t sign up fast enough.

VERY SMART, New York magazine! I love the print magazine, but the email book club would have been impractical to add to the pages itself. It also worked better as a weekly email series, and it added another way for the brand to get in touch with me.

While this approach is a tricky needle to thread, I can absolutely see it working in other ways. For example, with the appropriate lead in, it might be a way to encourage readers to watch specific webinars or sign up for newsletters.

The larger idea is this: the most successful QR codes focus relentlessly on WHAT’S IN IT FOR THE READER. Not what’s in it for the publication or the larger brand.

Always, always, always keep your reader in mind.

Should this be in print? A handy guide.

It’s no secret that I love print alumni magazines. But your team communicates with your school’s alums and larger community in lots of different ways. New platforms and opportunities — Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon — are popping up all the time.

So is your print magazine really necessary? And if so, how should it do things differently than these other channels to maximize its impact?

To see how print might fit within the larger scope of your communications plans, let’s go through a brief list of each channel’s major strengths.

When you understand where print shines compared to other options, you can use it in ways that make the most sense.

Social media

While each platform has different capabilities, social media platforms offer institutions the ability to share information quickly and often more informally than other channels. Social media feels more conversational and offers participants opportunities to connect more directly and personally to people at the institution and engage with the stories an institution shares.

As new platforms pop up, there are many opportunities to try new approaches and connect with an audience in unique ways. Social media rewards speed and direct connection.

Social media is a FAST, INFORMAL, DIRECT, and EXPERIMENTAL channel.

Email

Email is a “lean forward” experience. When you’re emailing, you’re probably getting stuff done! Those actions might be clicking to sign up for a reunion,  donate for a giving day, or send in an address change or a class note. Many of these actions end at your website, but they start with email.

Yes, you might share fun profiles or newsy updates in your emails. But email is where alumni typically take action, and it’s why it’s tied as the #1 channel for your alumni (note, you’ll need to be a CASE member to get access to this research).

Email is a INFORMATIONAL, ACTION-ORIENTED channel

Website

This is often “the everything store” for an institution. It’s very likely a beautifully designed tool for prospective students. For alumni who are willing to do a little digging, there’s usually plenty of stuff for them, too.

You can throw it all on here: audio, video, text, photos. Your website can help you sell branded sweatshirts or help alumni find a long-lost roommate.

Your website is part treasure chest, part jam-packed attic.

A website is a COMPREHENSIVE, MULTIMEDIA channel.

Print

Your print magazine, along with email, is tied as your #1 communications channel for alumni. 

It often ends up reaching the widest swath of alumni because it doesn’t require readers to click a link, follow your school’s handle, subscribe to updates, or whitelist an email address. It literally arrives at readers’ homes, and it is your institution’s chance to put its best foot forward, because you — not an algorithm — controls exactly who receives it and when it arrives.

Of the many tools you have to reach your alumni, this one is tangible: readers can hold it in their hands and put it on their coffee table as a beautiful object or a subtle signaling brag. They can tear out a page for their fridge or scrapbook.

Because of the time, effort, and cost of developing a print publication, you must be especially thoughtful about what earns its way onto your pages. Print is where you should be showcasing your school’s biggest and best stories in compelling ways through strategic storytelling. Yes, it should be fun and delightful. But it should never feel haphazard: it should feel beautifully curated from the perspective of readers and wisely strategic from the perspective of your institution.

Print isn’t the fastest, the most comprehensive, or action-oriented channel. It isn’t supposed to be! It’s a gift that you can send to your alums a few times a year that helps remind them why they appreciate the education they received — and why they can be proud of their alma mater.

Print is a PREMIUM,  CURATED, CONTROLLABLE, and METHODICALLY STRATEGIC channel.

Print is an incredibly versatile tool. Harness its strengths to make the most of very page.

What’s On Your Alumni Magazine’s “Not-To-Do” List?

I admit it: I’m a magazine maximalist. I love figuring out ways to take a good magazine all the way up to 11.

 

I obsess about this stuff! I always think it’s worth it to spend the extra time to make every word, every image, and every story earn its way into your magazine’s pages. Your magazine is your flagship publication for your alumni and donors, and you should treat it like the valuable communications channel that it is.

Still: you’re probably part a pretty small team, and you can’t do everything.

So for this issue, instead of focusing on all the things you can add to your magazine to-do list, I’ll talk about some of the things the you can add to you NOT-to-do list. These pages, processes, and approaches often require a lot of time. They can feel important or productive! But they often don’t actually lead to a better or more engaging magazine.

In many ways, your not-to-do list is as important (sometimes even more important!) than your to-do list. When you can avoid or minimize the time you spend on things that don’t meaningfully affect the impact of your magazine, you’ll have more time to focus on what does.

What’s on your not-to-do list?

The things that are worth putting on your not-to-do list will depend on your institution, your resources, and any relevant data you can collect. But there’s almost always something that magazine teams do that takes up way more time than it’s actually worth.

Here are some (but definitely not all) of the things that might make your list:

  • Lists.I’ve talked about this many times before: Board of trustees lists. Donor lists. Award-winner lists. These are pages that can lead you to spend hours of time compiling and proofreading information — but that readers often don’t care about, and are included in your magazine for no clear reason.
  • Elaborate content categorization.I appreciate spreadsheets and Airtable databases as much as anyone — maybe you do, too! But if you’re putting every story into a database, cross-referenced 13 ways, even when you feel confident that 50-word campus news piece on an inner-tube water polo team won’t need to be featured in another publication or channel in the future, there’s probably an element of overkill in your process.
  • A separate magazine website.I know I’m a heretic here! But your dedicated magazine website might not be as valuable as you think it is.
  • Convoluted approval processes.Do your stories get reviewed by what seems like everyone on campus, from a proofreader to your entire advancement team to the president’s office? Could you eliminate, say, ONE layer of approvals?

This is just the beginning. As you think about this list, there might be some things that make you say, “Nope, Erin, you’re wrong, we spend a lot of time on these things, and there’s a reason, and it’s worth it.”

GREAT! You don’t need to put these things on your not-to-do list. You’ve made the choice deliberately because it works for your institution or your readers.

Perhaps there are some things that you see on this list and you think: Yes, it’s time to ditch this thing. It’s not that useful for our institution or our readers.

ALSO GREAT! Move it over to your not-to-do list, or make a case to the folks who can help you put it on your not-to-do list.

The point is to be intentional about the time you’re spending on your publication in ways that help it become as valuable as possible to your audience.

The Unintentional Process That Is Devaluing Your Magazine

Let’s start with the stat: CASE research published in 2020 found that print magazines are tied with email as the most effective channel for reaching alumni and donors.

Alums value it more than social media, more than in-person events, and more than your website.

Good job, print! Not bad for a medium that everyone says is dead.

So why are so many alumni and communications team taking aim at this valuable communications tool?

Why aren’t communications and alumni offices finding ways to plow more resources into their flagship publications, rather than fewer?

As I dug into the details — into the work and processes of offices at institutions across the country — I realized that while print might have the potential to be an incredibly effective tool, many were not harnessing it as well as they could.

Let me share one example of what I mean.

Are you playing defense with your magazine?

Recently, I was chatting with an editor about her magazine, and I asked her what she had planned for an upcoming issue.

She laughed. “I won’t have time to think about that until I get the one I’m working on out the door,” she said.

I laughed too, because I know how all-consuming the tail end of the magazine production process is.

But I also felt worried for her.

I worried for her because the kinds of frustrations that she’d expressed about her magazine process were the exact kinds of problems that were exacerbated by that somewhat haphazard approach:

  • She was disappointed by reader feedback (zip) and a lukewarm on-campus reception.
  • She was constantly scrambling: stories would fall through because sources weren’t available, because a featured program had gotten delayed, or an ambitious idea turned out to be too difficult to execute in the given time frame. No one — not the writers, not the photographers, not the designers — could do their best possible work.
  • She felt stuck in a rut: as she and her team struggled to meet increasingly urgent deadlines, they ended up relying on familiar but stale approaches, reliable but too-often-leaned-on sources, and whatever photos happened to be on hand, rather than captivating images that were intentionally created.
  • Her designers were exasperated with her! Their timelines also got crunched considerably, and they couldn’t do great work with mediocre images, copy that was 20 percent too long for the allotted space, and few opportunities to think expansively about their work.

In not so many words, she admitted to me that her magazine felt slapped together, not crafted. When it was published, she didn’t see bright spots, she saw missed opportunities.

The magazine was one of her most significant responsibilities, but the end product was not something she, her bosses, or her readers liked all that much.

The cost of reactivity

If you recognize parts of your own magazine process and results in this story, I promise that you are far from alone! And it’s very likely that you’re doing the best you can within the constraints of your resources and other responsibilities.

Still, this reactive approach can significantly reduce value (and the joy!) of one of the most powerful publications your school produces for one of its most important audiences.

It robs your alumni of having a tangible connection to your institution. It diminishes their emotional engagement. And that has serious, long-term implications.

If your print magazine isn’t as good as it can be — more “eh, it’s fine” than excellent — the solution is not to diminish the importance of a publication that your alumni consistently say they want! It’s not to trim its budget, its mailing list, or its frequency.

The solution is to take a step back and figure out a way to increase its impact and value. It’s time to stop playing defense, and instead play offense.

One way to play offense with your magazine

Here’s a simple exercise that you can try to tame some of the chaos that you and your team may be feeling — and maximize the impact of your flagship publication for alumni and donors.

Carve out an hour to adapt and fill out the simple content planning tool below for the next year or so of your magazine’s issues (h/t to Macalester’s Julie Hessler and Rebecca DeJarlais Ortiz, who developed and shared theirs).

This grid gives you the opportunity to see how your magazine works from 30,000 feet — not from ground level (with an oncoming train speeding toward you).

Do you have to know every last detail and story? OF COURSE NOT. You’re not setting this in stone, you’re developing a draft.

This roadmap will absolutely change, but you will also gain insights that can help guide you in the very next issue (and maybe the next one or two after that).

Here’s what you might discover:

  • There are stories that you might not be running for a year that you and your team could do some legwork on now: shooting photos, chatting with a faculty member who’s going to be on sabbatical, working with folks outside your office to identify unique sources.
  • You might be over or underweighting specific topics or areas — and you can fix that now, before you hear from grumbling department heads who want to know why they’re not getting as much coverage as their peers. (It might also give you an opportunity to point out that you’ll be covering a relevant topic an issue or two in the future.) In short, there are ways to create balance not just within issues, but across issues.
  • You can start collecting samples to build the case for a creative approach (and maybe request additional funding to help make it as good as it can be).

While this planning tool won’t magically fix every detail of your magazine, it can help you think bigger about its role, and can help you take advantage of a range of different opportunities.

Creating a year-long (or even 18-month long!) roadmap for your magazine can help you truly go on offense with your publication. It can help you ensure that your magazine makes the most of every page, delights your readers, and becomes as valuable and beloved as it deserves to be.