Many years ago, when I was just starting out in alumni magazines, I was on campus to cover a few reunion activities for a story.
As I chatted with some of the attendees about the work I was doing, an alum mentioned that he thought alumni magazines were really valuable — for his high school aged daughter, who had not yet chosen a college.
When I expressed some confusion, he explained what he meant: she had gotten plenty of splashy admissions materials from many colleges, all promising her the moon. But alumni magazines were a way to showcase who students became after they left the school. Were alumni successful in ways her daughter might want to be successful? Did they seem interesting? Were the kind of people his daughter might be proud to know or befriend?
He called it a proof point: evidence that the pledges that the school had made in marketing material when she was 17 were the outcomes that they could actually deliver.
I left that conversation both surprised and delighted. I had always thought of the school’s alumni magazine as having a very specific audience: alumni (duh). But there were entirely different ways to think about the audiences and value of a school’s magazine.
In some ways, I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since: Who is a school’s magazine for? What makes it valuable? When does it make sense to expand that potential audience, and how does a magazine become more valuable, whatever that audience is?
Here, I’ll share just a few of the ways that magazines get used and experienced by different audiences.
As you read through this list, think about your own magazine:
- How is it currently used by your institution and your readers?
- How might you expand the ways you use it, even if you don’t make a single change?
- Are there audiences who would benefit from the magazine who don’t currently see it — and if so, might they be willing to support your efforts in some way?
- Are there small changes that might be worth making to expand your audience or think about it in new ways?
- Are there areas where it might make sense to de-prioritize certain audiences?
You might agree with some of the items on this list, and disagree vehemently with others. That’s great: it’s your job to have a strong perspective on who your magazine serves, in what ways, and why.
This list is one way to illuminate the many ways that college and university magazines are already being used right now.
You and your team can decide what priorities are important for your magazine, where you need to be placing more emphasis to support larger goals, and where it makes sense to pull back. You might decide that an audience that your magazine currently serves might be better served in other ways.
Be intentional about these choices!
Your magazine may be a way to:
1. Maintain connections between your alumni and your institution
This is a big one! When I worked at Carleton, one of the phrases that people often repeated was, “You’re a part of Carleton, and Carleton is part of you.” The school emphasized that being a Carl was an identity that didn’t fall away once you’d tossed your cap at commencement.
The magazine that dropped into their mailboxes once a quarter was a reminder to alumni that the college still cared about them — and hopefully, alums still cared about the college and wanted that relationship to stay strong.
2. Share important news and updates
If you’ve got a new building, departing president, surprising new partnership, or new strategic plan, those things are all probably pretty important to your institution.
For folks who aren’t in the day-to-day stream of information on campus, your alumni magazine may be the only place that they see these stories.
3. Act as a social signal
Years ago, I read a quote from an editor of the Economist who said that the publication’s print subscriptions were incredibly strong — despite their exorbitant price, relative to other magazines.
The reason, he guessed, was that subscribers liked the magazine as a social signal: a sign to others that they were smart and thoughtful (even if they didn’t actually read a single article.).
If your school has a strong brand — if people love it and are proud to have gone to your institution! — your magazine might sit on their coffee table as a social signal to others about their status as an alum. Read more about how this works here.
4. Show your best side to peer institutions
Your readers aren’t just alumni: they’re also leaders and administrators at other institutions who want to see how your school might be rolling out big news or keeping an eye on your institution to see how they might learn from your school.
For example, after Tippie’s knockout issue that featured its new dean on the cover, editor Rebekah Tilley learned that the dean of another business school held up the magazine during a Zoom call with other business deans and asked if the group had seen the issue. Then, the dean of yet another school piped up and said it was a great article.
Here’s what Rebekah said about that interaction: “It was a moment where my dean received accolades from her peers just as she was joining the gang and the issue gave her some solid street cred. I got an email shortly after that from a peer asking for a copy because her dean considered it a model for what he wanted coming out of his college.”
5. Offer a breather among waves of bad news
Want to read some depressing news about climate change, war, the economy, or politics? Look no further than your favorite news site’s front page, where you’ll get plenty of grim news on all fronts.
An alumni magazine, by contrast, is often engineered for optimism: it shares cool research breakthroughs, delightful alumni ventures and success stories, and incredible feats by young students.
So while the world has lots of problems, you probably have tens of thousands of folks in your community working hard to make it a better place in big and small ways, and a few dozen magazine pages every few months to showcase some of the most interesting stories within that community.
6. Serve as a “leave behind” for gift officers and other supporters
A few years ago, while I was chatting with a trustee about some of the work he was doing for a school, he mentioned how much he loved the school’s magazine. In fact, he told me, he had just been at the home of a family that he thought might eventually consider an eight-figure gift to the school. (!)
He left an issue of the magazine, which included a beautifully designed feature story on the school’s ambitious strategic plan, with the family.
Certainly, there would be many more conversations, documents, and plans before that gift could come to fruition! But it was a lovely starting point.
For many gift officers, a print magazine is part of the collateral that they love to leave with potential donors.
7. Inspire prospective and admitted students
The alum I met at reunion many years ago used alumni magazines as his part of his family’s college search tool. But some schools make this recruiting angle more explicit: they want prospective students and families — and admitted ones! — to receive the alumni magazine.
One of them is Macalester, which sends one issue of its magazine each year to prospective students, with content that is broadened to target that specific audience. Another is the Sibley-winning Milton magazine, which sends its publication to admitted students and families. (You can read about both of them here.)
Many other institutions make sure to have copies in their admissions office for students and their families to read when they visit.
8. Welcome new alumni
Commencement isn’t just the moment students enter the real world: it’s the moment they become alumni.
At some graduation events, new grads get an alumni magazine as part of a “welcome kit” to recognize their new role.
9. Act as a historical record
What happened at your school in 1978? You might check yearbooks or your alumni magazine.
What happened at your school in 2008? You might check yearbooks, your alumni magazine, or…uh…online press releases?
When you’re trying to track down information about your school in the recent-ish past, don’t be surprised if your searches lead you to something like this:
Technology and platforms will continue to evolve and expand, and some will turn into digital dust with relative speed. But ink on paper will continue to be accessible: years, decades and centuries into the future.
Your magazine is among the handful of sources that can tell your school’s story in a meaningful way, no matter how long ago (or how recently) it was published.
10. Reinforce the school’s brand
It’s true that most readers of your magazine probably feel that they already “get” your institution and its values — after all, they likely spent four years (if not more) on your campus, even if it was 50 years ago.
But as your institution’s brand evolves, the stories you highlight about your students, faculty, research, and priorities might change, too. Your magazine is one place you might be sharing stories that align with the larger identity of your school.
11. Impress “secret” audiences
Sometimes, we have audiences that we might not even admit to ourselves that we’re focused on. But they can utterly transform the magazine we’re developing.
You can read more about those secret audiences here.
12. Build a meaningful sense of community
Class notes, nostalgia prompts and responses, photos of alums together at events — these can all reinforce the idea that your readers shared something special at your institution that continues to resonate years after graduation.
I write about these things all the time and think they’re super valuable, so I won’t belabor the point here. But you can read more about the value of class notes and prompt-based storytelling.
13. Help connect alumni to other areas of your institution
Your class notes aren’t just valuable to you as a source for stories — they may also be valuable to many others at your institution:
- Career services, which might seek out alums from specific fields who might want to mentor current students;
- Global studies, which might want to connect with alums living abroad
- Academic departments who want to bring an alum to campus to speak about their life and work after graduation.
The alums you profile might be well known quantities to you, but not to many faculty and staff who might have many reasons to want to get in touch with them.
None of these ways of thinking about your magazine are inherently right or wrong. Your print magazine can serve many purposes to many audiences. But you should always have a clear picture of who you’re serving and why — so you can more carefully craft a publication that perfectly matches their needs.