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 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).



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.


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 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.

13 Ways Of Looking At Your Magazine

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

Too obvious?


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.

Reducing your print mag’s frequency? Avoid the death spiral.

I’m hearing from a lot of people who are slashing the frequency of their print magazine: Four to three, three to two, two to (yikes) one.

Rising paper costs, trimmed budgets, and expanding workloads are among the many culprits for this change.

But if you still value print — and research shows that your alumni definitely do! — you’ve got to be especially thoughtful about the way you make those reductions. Because it turns out that a reduced frequency CAN work.

Two successful examples in the commercial magazine world are Harvard Business Review, which cut its frequency from 12 issues a year to 6, and New York Magazine, which went from weekly to every other week. Both magazines are thriving.

You don’t want a reduction to lead to a print magazine death spiral. I’m looking at you, Entertainment Weekly, which became Entertainment Weekly that came out monthly (!) and then became Entertainment Weekly that came out never.

When you cut frequency, resources, and page count, your magazine can easily become less valuable to your readers and to your institution.

So you cut again. You put the magazine on temporary hiatus. Then permanent hiatus.

And then, years later, you relaunch it at significant cost because it turns out alumni are pretty annoyed that you cut it in the first place.

If you want to make a reduced frequency work for your publication, here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.

1. Do an editorial overhaul

If you’ve had the same general content structure for years, you’ve likely got some bloat: departments that aren’t as effective as they used to be, or things that you’ve “always done” that made sense mostly because you had a bunch of pages to fill several times a year.

When you cut your magazine’s frequency, you’ve got to make sure every single word and image earns its way to the page.

2. Pour more resources into your cover

You’re got to be good enough to earn the coffee table, and for an even longer period of time: For four months instead of three. For six months instead of four. For TWELVE months instead of six. The front cover must be beautiful and immersive.

The back cover probably deserves a little more love, too.

3. Create a premium reader experience

Research shows that readers value physical objects 50 percent more valuable than digital versions of the same thing.

You can amp up that value even further by creating a beautiful, luxury object that people can keep in their lives for days, weeks, or longer: silky paper, perfect-bound spine, gorgeous photography and illustration, smart and surprising headlines, improved storytelling.

Your magazine should be the most premium expression of your team’s work.

It doesn’t have to be the first place a story appears! But it should be the best possible version of what your team can do, all bundled up in a compact, beautiful package.

4. Consider theme issues

First, before everyone gets mad at me, theme issues are not required! It’s part of my 57 alumni magazine rules.

But could a theme issue make your publication THREE TIMES times more valuable? Maybe!

Here’s one surprising example: In 2021, O, the Oprah Magazine switched from a monthly(ish) cadence to a quarterly cadence. In the interim they more than tripled the price, from $4.99 to $16.99 an issue.

Wow, right?

In many ways the magazine stayed roughly the same: a little bit longer, maybe. But to my eyes, the most visible change was creating a cover-worthy theme: The Beauty and Wisdom Issue. The Finding Joy Right Now issue. The Start Fresh issue.

A theme issue offers readers a meaningful (but complete-able) dive into a topic. Create an amazing theme and your readers will put it on the coffee table, pick it up, put it back, and pick it up again weeks later.

I have lots more to say about this topic, but suffice it to say: theme issues, when done well, have some serious staying power and value.

5. Look even further into the future

I recommend planning out at least three issues at a time — perhaps even four!

While it’s not uncommon for for editors to plan out a year of issues at a time, if you’ve got a couple issues a year, it may time to start thinking in terms of a few issues out, instead of a year out.

18-month plans can help you make sure you’re offering meaningful coverage to all of the areas that merit it.

Make your annual report unthrowawayable

For some schools, an annual report represents a frustrating, yawn-inducing, can’t-seem-to-get-it-right publication. For some, it’s literally the only major print publication their alumni and donors get each year. (For some, both of those things are true!)

From my perch, I see nothing but amazing opportunities to make them irresistible — and to make them good enough to earn the coffee table for a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months.

Here’s how.

1. Develop a brand-aligned concept with narrative movement

Too often, an annual report is a jumble of charts, graphs, letters from VIPs and a long list of donor names.

Do you need most of those things? MAYBE!

Do you also need something more than that?


Your print annual report is one of the small handful of publications you send out each year, and it’s a chance to earn space in your readers’ homes and in their minds.

It’s a way not just to show them your financial successes and stewardship (though it should do that). It should also connect those financial successes to meaning, to emotion, and to stories of your institution and its people at their best.

Find a way to tell a cohesive story about the ways you’re living out your mission in a meaningful way.

One example? This “How to make history” concept that Capstone did in partnership with Kent Place School in 2021:

The big concept: Strong financial stewardship helped the school make smart decisions during the pandemic that supported students’ education at a precarious moment. Everyone stepped up and made a difference.

2. Always remember the “you” in your report

In the most obvious ways, your annual report is about your institution: its financial health, its important accomplishments, and its most inspiring and important people.

But it is also about the readers who (presumably!) also played a role in the institution as a supporter in some way.

Whether they chipped in a few bucks to the annual fund, attended an event as an alum, or sent their child (and some serious tuition dollars) to your institution, the story you tell about your institution is also one that you should hope that your readers can see themselves in.

That can be a moment of literally seeing their name in your pages (like in those donor rolls), or it can be the emotional resonance the feel when they read your institution’s story and realize: I am proud of this institution, and their values align with mine.

You can see this idea in action in this “Because” annual report, in which Capstone partnered with the Blake School. (Click to see all of the pages.)

The story is (seemingly) all about Blake and its students and teachers and programs. Until it becomes about the readers holding the report in their hands.

Notice that this annual report concept also follows the first principle! There is literal narrative movement, since you can’t see the entire story without turning the pages.

3. Create a premium experience for your reader

Unlike magazines, where you might get two or three or four swings a year, you get ONE chance per year to make your annual report great.

While that can be daunting when you realize how many donor names you could possibly misspell or when you think about whether or not you can really make that endowment growth chart interesting, it’s also a call to think bigger about the experience you’re giving your reader.

That includes creating a beautiful cover the single most important page of your annual report. It means elevating the tactile experience for your reader by creating perfect-bound publication, testing unique print finishes, or using a silky paper that feels just a little more luxurious.

Your annual report is a major print publication. It’s difficult! But done right, it will tell your school’s story with numbers and emotion. It is more than just a publication to check off of your to-do list. You should aim to create something with a lasting impact.

3 ways to actually use your alumni magazine’s mission statement

For a long time, I thought magazine mission statements were a bunch of baloney.

They were just a few lofty but meaningless sentences created in conference rooms, posted on websites, and immediately forgotten.

Take, for example, the mission statement of a trade magazine I worked at not long after college. It was something along the lines of “We aim to constantly raise the bar while delivering proven results.”

But then I joined an alumni magazine where the publication’s mission actually mattered.

It had been thoughtfully crafted, it meant something, and it got referred to during the process of making the magazine.

The statement itself wasn’t magical.

I don’t remember it exactly, but it was about supporting the institution’s liberal arts aims, connecting alumni to the college, and demonstrating the college’s ongoing value to alumni.

In some ways, it was pretty straightforward.

But its implementation did feel a little magic.

For example, we had a great advisory board that met before we began working on each issue.

While our team provided a list of potential stories to the board long before the meeting, board members would occasionally ask us to include a truly wretched story. (“We should run a profile on an administrator who won an extremely niche award in their industry!”)

We’d pretend to think it over before we noted that the idea didn’t really mesh with the larger mission of the magazine.

Usually, we were able to find a better place to share the announcement.

Notice that we weren’t shooting down their idea because we thought it was dumb! We were returning to the mission of the magazine — which we’d all agreed was the correct one — and we were making sure that every story was taking us in the right direction.

Your magazine mission can help you create a better publication

Your mission statement really can matter! Here’s how:

1. Good mission statements make it easier for leaders to say YES to unorthodox (but still really great) ideas.

One of the goofiest things I ever pitched as a staff writer for an alumni magazine was a series of one-page, tongue-in-cheek interviews with the leaders of wacky student groups: a startup croquet or Quidditch team, or a fly-by-night pep band that insisted that its entire repertoire was different versions of “I’m a little teapot.”

While sometimes administrators got a little grouchy about it, it proved to be enormously popular with alums.

After all, for every Rhodes Scholar or fellowship winner, there were 100 other students who grinding away getting pretty regular grades — but maybe taking on a fun or experimental project in their spare time. In some ways, these extracurricular groups and projects were the whole point of a liberal arts college! And that was how we pitched it.

By recognizing those students, who were smart and interesting and pretty relatable, we really did help connect alumni to their alma mater.

By the end of my tenure at the magazine, these inventive but outside-the-box students (like this guy, who launched the school’s inner-tube water polo team) were landing cover stories. Alumni loved it. Judges loved it. Did I mention we won a Sibley? We won a Sibley.

2. Good mission statements make it easier for you to say NO to bad ideas.

Like the story I mentioned at the beginning, you’ll sometimes get requests to cover a story that is not relevant to your audience or your mission.

Often, you’ll want to figure out a way to make it work!

After all, the people making the request are probably nice and well intentioned (and maybe a lot more powerful than you are). And they probably think of the magazine first because it’s visible and high-status.

But saying yes to almost every request is how your publication ends up with eight pages of campus news with irrelevant stories about internal promotions and boring awards.

Those stories doesn’t serve your audience. And it probably doesn’t even serve the subjects of the story or people who requested the story it in the first place!

Your mission statement is a way to articulate what your magazine is for — and also, by default, what is not for.

3. Good mission statements make it easier to hone in on the right stories for your magazine

When I worked on staff at an alumni magazine, we were always spitballing ideas that we thought readers would find irresistible.

Sometimes we veered into NSFAM (not safe for alumni magazines) territory.

A roundup of alumni white collar criminals? The secret history of the biggest money pit of a building on campus? BOY DID WE HAVE STORIES.

But these stories, while delightful to us — and maybe in some cases interesting to our readers! — didn’t really help us achieve our mission.

By contrast, we might not have been thrilled to devote pages of the magazine to retiring faculty (for the millionth time). We might have secretly been plotting to kill the class notes, which were tedious to assemble and always included a typo that we saw only after print copies hit our desk. But the reality was that these were sections that did help us achieve our mission. And it was our job to figure out how to make those sections the best they could be.

A good mission statement kept our magazine team honest.

Even today, when I am writing up story assignments or pitches for clients, I have have a separate line item called “why” that I fill out. WHY are we doing this story? Why this topic, why this angle, why now? If I can’t make a compelling case for it at the point of the pitch or the assignment, it’s time for me to take a closer look at the value of the story.

Now what? Questions to ask yourself about a mission statement

Yes, your mission statement actually can make a difference to the magazine you put out into the world every few months! Here are three questions to ask yourself to see if you’re on right track:

  • Does your magazine have a mission statement?
  • Do you AND your leadership buy in to your magazine’s mission statement?
  • Does your mission statement help steer your story development?

A good magazine mission can serve as a north star, guiding your work.

It can help you say YES to the right ideas and NO to the wrong ones. It can help you stay on track to make a magazine that connects with your readers and helps you accomplish the larger goals of your institution.

Who is in your alumni magazine’s “secret audience?”

I was two years into my college running career, and I was at a crossroads.

Despite diligent training, I was shaping up to be a mediocre Division III athlete: a junior varsity runner who earned coaches awards for dedication, but who never broke out of the middle of the pack.

Still, that spring, I’d gotten it into my head that if I just put in the kind of miles that the top-tier runners on my team put in — 50-mile weeks, instead of my usual 35 — I might be able to hang with the varsity squad.

It wasn’t just that I wanted to be a better runner (though I did).

It was because while the faster runners were all my pals in the dining hall and in the library after practice, I desperately wanted them to see me as a peer on the track and on the trails.

Erin’s self-created recipe for disaster

On our track team’s annual spring break trip, I saw my chance. If I just added a couple extra miles per day to my two-a-day practices, I had a shot at one of those magical 50-mile weeks.

And reader, let me tell you, I did it.

I ran 50.5 miles over seven days on that spring break. I compared notes with my teammates about the hills at the tail end of a 10-mile run and the agony of waking up the next morning for an “easy” five-miler. I had done it! I was in.

But if you’re a runner — and even if you’re not — you might be able to predict what happened after I upped my mileage by 50 percent: I got injured.

The shin splints that had been troubling me for weeks turned into stress fractures which turned into the end of my track season.

After returning from that trip, my teammates headed out for runs on gorgeous spring afternoons, and I glumly nursed myself back to health on a stationary bike in the stale gym air.

Lesson: Don’t get distracted from your real goal

As a runner, my main job was to finish ahead of the competitors standing right next to me on any given starting line. It was to do the best that I could do, given my admittedly minimal natural talent. That was what my coach was training me for!

But I was focused on a secret audience: my running peers. And in aiming to earn respect from that audience, I ended up failing to accomplish anything at all.

Who’s in your magazine’s secret audience?

For a lot of you, I suspect my story sounds ridiculous.

But if you’re responsible for your school’s alumni magazine, you might have a secret audience for your magazine just like I had a secret audience when I was running on my college team.

And just like I ended up sabotaging my season by focusing on that secret audience, your focus on your secret audience may be sabotaging your magazine’s chance to make a meaningful impact with its real audience.

Let me give you a few examples of the ways I’ve seen editors and comms teams focus on secret audiences:

  • Secret audience #1: your president/chancellor/dean
    While I probably don’t need to state the obvious here, you should never try to intentionally upset the top brass! But when your leadership insists on writing deadly boring letters on the opening pages of your magazine, this is not treating your real audience with the respect it deserves. (It’s also not doing any favors for the leaders who are featured.)

    Find another way to share your leader’s priorities in ways that make the most of your pages and make for compelling reading.

  • Secret audience #2: your internal colleagues
    When I see entire magazine sections devoted to recent promotions, faculty publications, and internal awards, I do not think: “Wow, what an accomplished group of individuals, I would be proud if I were an alum of this institution.”

    Instead, I think: “I am so mad that they think that I want to waste my time reading this boring irrelevant stuff that I would like to light this magazine on fire and throw it out the window.”

    Your magazine should not feel like a series of glorified LinkedIn promotional posts! It’s meaningless and often confusing to the thousands of readers who get your publication.

  • Secret audience #3: your advancement team
    When snoozeworthy donor profiles appear on the pages of magazines, it’s typically not because lots of readers are clamoring for them.

    Certainly, advancement officers may see them as a way to publicly thank these generous individuals, pave the way for future gifts from that person, or even subtly influence future donors.

    But your audience, while it may include that donor, is a whole lot more than that single person or even a handful of other potential donors who might see it. Make those profiles more interesting, make them more widely relevant, or make them go away.

  • Secret audience #4: your imagined detractors
    One of the things I often see in this field is editors who deeply want their magazine to be seen as “legitimate” — a smart and unbiased publication that happens to focus on a school. Journalism, not marketing.

    They resist telling any stories that have even a whiff of boosterism, because they imagine that their peers in journalism — or maybe even a particularly prickly alum —will call them out for their insincere propaganda.

    But here’s the truth: your actual audience — the tens of thousands of people who receive your magazine every few months — don’t actually expect traditional journalism.

    They understand that your publication is funded by your institution, so you’re probably not going to be spending a lot of time disparaging a strategic priority or promoting a rival institution.

    But if you do thoughtful and interesting work issue after issue, they will trust the stories you tell. When you have bad news to share about your institution, they will be open to hearing the ways that your school is addressing it and trying to remedy it, and they won’t automatically distrust your publication’s motives. And they will be open to the stories that share how great your school is, and why it’s worth it to continue supporting it.

  • Secret audience #5: award judges
    Look, I get it: it’s nice to be recognized. I’ve happily touted Capstone’s many awards over the years, including a Sibley and a gold award from CASE in 2022.

    But remember that award judges are not actually your magazine’s audience.

    Here’s one example that sticks with me: years ago, I talked to an editor who had devoted an entire issue of her magazine to a beloved coach who had recently retired.

    Her readers adored it, showering her with more letters of gratitude than she had ever gotten, as well as anecdotes and photos about the coach that she could use in future issues. Alumni kept the issues in their home for months, then years. They sent in gifts to recognize the coach’s impact on their lives.

    It was a huge success, and it accomplished every goal their institution could have wanted.

    But when that issue didn’t win a single award at a statewide competition, she was crestfallen.

    Yet in many ways, that snub makes sense: the story was so specific to her school’s audience that a more general audience didn’t appreciate it.

    And that’s fine! In some ways, the best stories for your audience will be so specific that they will seem almost bizarre to an outsider.

Don’t let secret audiences sabotage your magazine.

Understand who your true audience is. Understand what makes them sit up and take notice. And focus relentlessly on serving their needs.

Make this year the best yet for your print alumni magazine

Over the past few years, I’ve learned it’s a fool’s errand to make predictions for the coming year. At the end of 2019, for example, I shared everything I felt certain the following months would hold for print alumni magazines.

But 2020 had a few other ideas.

Then 2021 and 2022 added their own unique twists, as paper supply chain issues and dramatic cost increases upended plans for many institutions’ alumni magazines.

Fortunately, I feel confident that absolutely nothing bad or unexpected will happen in 2023!

If there is one thing that I’ve learned from all of this chaos — and if there’s one thing I do think you can take forward from these past few years, regardless of what the next year holds — it’s this: you’ve got to have a strategy.

Your print alumni magazine must have a rock-solid strategy

I get thousands of alumni magazines in my mailbox every year, and thousands of emails from the editors of these magazines.

What I’ve noticed is that the magazines that struggled most have been the ones that swung wildly to react to the moment — pivoting online, going on hiatus, upending decades of steady work to pursue shiny tech that turned out to be more misfire than miracle.

It’s true that the Covid era may have been a “move fast and break things” moment. But turns out that when many of us moved fast to transform what we offered to our readers…we really did break a lot of stuff, too!

It may just be time to return to what most academic institutions are designed to do best: thoughtful, methodical work that’s improves steadily over time.

That’s why I predict that the magazines that make the biggest impact this year will make sure that they have — and relentlessly execute on — a solid strategy. Those that do will see good results: more meaningful engagement, helpful feedback, more recognition, and more significant return on investment.

Those that don’t will likely see cuts: fewer issues each year, fewer pages each issue, fewer people on the mailing list, and most worryingly: dwindling impact.

Do you have a smart strategy for your print alumni magazine?

Every institution will have a different strategy for their alumni magazine, but if you to see if yours is on track, review the questions below to see if you can answer them clearly and purposefully.

  • Who are your primary readers — and how are you devoting your time and resources to giving them what they most want and need from your magazine?
  • How do your magazine’s mission statement and values guide your decision-making from issue to issue — even story to story?
  • What boundaries have you set? What do you say ‘no’ to — and why?
  • What are you tracking to determine if your publication is on course?

If you can answer these questions about your publication, you’re probably in great shape! And if not — you’re not alone.

I’ll be talking a lot more about your print alumni magazine strategy, including the specific tactics that work IN PRINT to achieve your institution’s goals, whatever they are.