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.

Your “reasons to love” story roadmap

A couple months ago, I was in the market for a new bike.

After walking aimlessly around the local bicycle shop for a while, I nabbed a sales associate, described what I was looking for, and asked if he could help me narrow my choices.

He pulled a few bikes for me, highlighting features that would make my three-mile commute to the local co-working space faster and my occasional desire to haul a bag of groceries easier.

I tested them all out, thanked him, then left.

Then I went home and spent hours reading customer reviews for every bike he’d recommended. I wanted to know what real people who’d actually bought the bikes and put them to the test thought about them.

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe the sales associate; it’s just that I trusted the motivations of actual customers a little bit more.

By the time I’d finished my research, I couldn’t wait to buy one of the bikes the sales associate had initially recommended.

And recently, I added my own recommendation to the chorus of happy customer reviews.

Why am I telling you this story?

If you’re responsible for an alumni magazine, you know that many of your stories require you and your team to trumpet your institution’s best qualities and paper over the (very rare, I’m sure) flaws.

Research suggests that alumni readers probably *mostly* trust what you tell them about how great your school is.

But if you turned over the pages of your magazine to folks outside of your communications office — alumni, students, faculty, staff — your readers might trust their opinions about your school’s excellent qualities even more.

In other words, in this analogy, your alums might consider you and your team generally reliable sales associates.

But your school’s students, alums, and other community members are even more trustworthy. Their love and enthusiasm for your school make an even more meaningful impact.

That’s the idea behind this story that I did for Grinnell College, “20 reasons to love Grinnell.”

In it, Grinnellians share their own reasons that the school mean so much to them, in their own words.

If you’re interested in doing a story like this, I’ve shared my own processes so you can get off to a running start. Grinnell Magazine editor Linda Hirsch weighs in with additional insight on their internal processes to help guide you every step of the way.

See what you think — then steal it for your next issue.

The ‘TK reasons to love your institution’ process

Okay, let’s do this!

The story

“20 reasons to love Grinnell.” Read it online or in print.

💡 Start with a powerful premise

The right concept will build enthusiasm for the story even before the reporting begins.

Erin says
Here’s what we started with:

In their own words, students, alumni, faculty and staff share love letters to their school. From tiny (a beautiful path across campus) to vast (an inspiring mission), every reason in this list illuminates something unique and valuable about the institution.

I loved this premise from the moment I saw a similar one featured in New York magazine. I knew immediately if it was adapted for the right school, it was a sure-fire winner.

Learn more
Use the exact process and tools that I do to uncover, collect, and organize, smart story premises for your magazine.

👥 Source wisely — and widely

An inclusive source list will make or break this story.

Erin says
To build a killer source list, I recommended including a wide range of people — alumni and students, donors and other VIPs, beloved faculty and longtime staffers. I pulled names based on titles and roles that seemed most relevant. Grinnell’s team also threw the question out on social media channels.

I recommend “going big” with stories like this.

You’ll end up with a much better story if you contact 50 people to get 30 responses and print 20 of the best, tightly edited answers, rather than reach out to 20 people and realize you have to include some extremely mediocre responses just to round out the story.

Linda adds
I made it a point to brief several colleagues on the nature of the feature and asked them to make suggestions about individuals who maintained connection with the college and could authentically represent a diverse range of Grinnell experiences.

We tried to develop a subject list that reflected different ages, ethnicities, and academic interests. We did keep in mind that among current students in particular we consider those who would be game to speak to their personal feelings.

Our alumni relations colleagues were especially helpful in identifying alums who they thought would be thoughtful, willing participants.

In addition, we frequently include a prompt question in an issue to encourage alumni engagement and gauge interest in topics we might cover in a future issue. This story was seeded with the magazine’s back cover “Prompted” question, “What are your reasons to love Grinnell?” That generated several great contacts, several of which were incorporated into the final piece.

Learn more
Read more on inclusive sourcing by reviewing #3 on this post.

🎙️ Ask compelling questions

Once you’ve got a list of sources, smart questions lead to irresistible stories.

Erin says
I’ve spent years studying and testing smart questions that get meaningful responses.

I tried many different questions for this story. Some were total duds! That said, here are three questions that resonated and led to unique, interesting answers:

  • What is your favorite spot on Grinnell’s campus? Why?
  • What is a specific thing that makes you proud to be associated with Grinnell?
  • When you think about Grinnell and the very best parts of it, what comes to mind? If someone saw your face light up while you were talking about some aspect of Grinnell, what would it be?

Learn more
Here are a few more thoughts on interviewing.

✂️ Edit and curate with intention

It’s a fine balance: you must be both ruthless and generous.

Erin says
A magazine’s value comes from your editorial judgment: choosing the best answers, framing them appropriately, and sharpening them. Each page of your magazine has a literal cost in dollars and cents, so every word should earn its way onto the page.

I cut the word count of some responses by 85 percent, and that was before they reached Linda! To make sure that alumni weren’t surprised — and that I didn’t introduce any critical errors in my edits — I sent the final quotes to the alumni for their approval after Linda reviewed and edited the piece.

Source approval is a time-consuming process. But no one should ever feel surprised or upset by their appearance in your publication. Remember that you’re not just an editor. You’re an ambassador for your institution.

Learn more
Read more on source approvals, including my exact process and template.

🎨 Match the words with standout art and design

The choices you make will set the tone of the story as much as the words on the page.

Linda says
Illustration worked well for us. I think the right style of illustration can amp the fun factor and helps make it clear that this is a different type of story. It also alleviated some of the hassles of getting contributed images.

I think photographs could work but would need more lead time. It could be fun to ask subjects to get a photo booth type image or use some framing or sign device, but again, that would take more pre-planning and time.

Learn more
I loved the illustrations. But if you’re interested in learning how to make submitted photos work for you — for this story or any other — read #34 on this list and get the helpful PDF.

💯 Accept the kind words

Your magazine should inspire warm feelings and prompt enthusiastic responses. Here’s one story that all but guarantees it.

Linda says
The feedback to the story was all very positive.

People said it was nice to get an upbeat perspective in the subjects’ own words. The print story motivated some follow-up emails and letters from alums who wanted to share their own take on why they love their alma mater. A few people commented on the piece being very readable.

That level of response is always nice.

Erin adds
I was thrilled to hear that the feedback was so positive.

Remember, too, that for every note you receive from an alum, there are many others who will read a story like this, come up with their own reason to love your institution, and feel more warmly toward your school.

This is true even if they never share their response with you.

📈 Learn and improve

Spend time thinking about how you can use the lessons of this story to make other stories even better.

Linda says
I certainly would consider running another story like this sometime in the future. If so, I would weigh doing some of the alumni intake during a reunion or homecoming-type of event, especially if we already had plans for a photo booth. I might consider including brief bio text about the subjects.

Erin adds
Read through this story, see what you learn, and think about how you might adapt it. I definitely have!

  • Can you imagine ways you could do a story like this in your magazine and pull it apart to share pieces on social media?
  • Could you include those VIP alumni your leaders would love for you to include — but don’t seem “story worthy” on their own?
  • Could it go to prospective students and families who want to see the institution through the eyes of its community?

This story has so many cool opportunities embedded within it! If this story concept resonates with you, I hope you try it — and take it in the direction that’s perfect for your institution.

Optimize your print alumni magazine’s mailing list

For years, I’ve subscribed to the Harvard Business Review.

I’ve always loved its gorgeous covers and illustrations, its silky, high-end paper, and the way it made me seem extremely smart when I pulled it out of my bag to read on airplanes. 🤓

So a few years ago, when I got a notice that starting immediately, I’d be getting half as many issues because the publication sought to offer me an “integrated print and digital experience,” this is how I felt:

Look, I get it: organizations want to save money. They want to be more sustainable. They want to offer integrated print and digital experiences.

But they aren’t always thinking as much as they should about the actual impact on the reader — including one like me, who loved the actual magazine when it showed up on my doorstep, but who also wasn’t scouring HBR websites or social feeds for the latest business insights.

Who are you focused on?

You can probably see that parallel I’m making with your print alumni magazine.

As costs continue to increase for print magazine essentials like paper and postage, plenty of communications offices are looking at ways to save.

Your mailing list is probably one of those line items that looks like an easy way to trim thousands from your budget.

After all, you can probably send these readers a note about how this decision shows that your institution is a careful steward of its resources. It’s making a smart, sustainable decision. You’re offering your readers an “integrated print and digital experience.”

I’ve seen it countless times. What segments go? Here are just a few groups who’ve gotten cut:

Maybe these alumni don’t get cut from every issue, but maybe they get one or two issues a year instead of three or four.

Unfortunately, the fury that it invokes in readers might be greater than the money that it saves. And the reality is that your magazine might benefit from having more people see it, not fewer.

How to see your mailing list as a valuable asset, rather than an expensive cost

Certainly, budgets are budgets and if you don’t have the money to send print magazines to everyone, you’ll have to make some difficult choices.

But instead of sending your magazine to an ever-shrinking pool of alumni, you might want to start making the case to expand your mailing list.

Who else might want to see your publication? Who else might value it? And what other offices at your institution might help you pay to get it to these groups if they understand the difference it might make?

After all, you and your team have worked hard to develop great stories, include beautiful photos, and tell the story of your institution and its people in ways that move readers.

Research shows that print is uniquely effective at reaching people in memorable and meaningful ways.

Your print magazine is also a social signifier — a way for your audience to show others who they are and what they value without saying a word (like that HBR that I hoped signaled my business acumen on the plane).

Tangible objects are subtle social signals. “Digital experiences” aren’t. (Read more about how this works with alumni magazines.)

Here’s exactly how institutions have expanded their mailing lists effectively

So what does expanding your mailing list look like? And what’s the actual impact?

Here are some examples of how this more expansive approach to mailing lists works — and how institutions that are able to think bigger about the value of their publication to a wide variety of audiences.

  • Send to admitted students. Milton Academy sends its Sibley-winning magazine to its admitted students each March. “Is it a marketing piece specifically? Not really, but we do use it as one way to attract students,” says editor Sarah Abrams.
  • Send to prospective students. Macalester sends the winter issue of its magazine to prospective students. I love this idea, because it helps prospective students (and their families) see beyond admissions promises to actual results. The alumni featured in the magazine are products of Mac’s stellar education. Prospective students can see not just the alums highlighted in profiles, but also the dozens and dozens of alums who self-select to tell the stories of their lives through class notes.
  • Send to parents and families. For many families, having their child attend your school is the culmination of some of their most fervent hopes — whether that student is the first in the family to attend college, or the most recent in what may be generations of family members who have attended. Sure, parents may show off their kid’s successes with their sweatshirts and bumper stickers, but they can also strengthen their connection with the school through your print magazine.
  • Send to a wider swath of engaged alumni. Not every school sends its magazine to all of its alums, but it might make sense to send the magazine to more alums, not fewer. For example, Rebekah Tilley at Tippie Magazine strategically tripled the school’s mailing list from about 5,000 to 15,000 alums — focusing on adding alums who had shown some sort of engagement in the institution, such as attending a webinar.The result? The institution saw a huge increase in giving.)
  • Expand and test.
    When Clemson’s Nancy Spitler partnered with her school’s annual giving team to strategically expand the school’s magazine’s mailing list, they tried a number of different experiments. One of them expanded their mailing list to include thousands of alums who had never given to the institution.The cost was a cool $40,000. Yet the results more than paid for themselves. “From October to December of that year, we had gifts from 191 “nevers” for a total of more than $52,000,” she says. “And it’s not just that first gift that matters. It’s the beginning of engagement with those alumni with whom we had lost touch.”

These strategies work!

Your print magazine is a unique and beautiful object that the people in your community — however expansively you want to define it — can receive a handful of times per year that will remind them of their connection to your institution and its enduring value in their lives.

My best advice for you is to stop thinking small — about your work, about your mailing list, about the value of your magazine to your community. Find ways to partner with other areas in your institution, find ways to make your case, and find ways to expand your publication’s impact.

Your magazine matters, and you can make sure that you’re doing everything you can to make the most of it.

57 rules that will make your alumni magazine better

Today I’m going to sum up 25 years of of my best alumni magazine advice in one post.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably are familiar with a lot of these ideas. And if not, I hope this will be a quick introduction to the best insights I’ve gleaned from reading thousands of alumni and university publications over the course of a quarter century. (!!!)

Without further ado, here are 57 of my best alumni magazine ideas:

  1. You can almost always add more reader entry points: headlines, deks, subheads, captions, sidebars.
  2. Spend more time on your story leads.
  3. No more faculty promotion announcements.
  4. No more sports season recaps.
  5. But you can never have too many class notes. (Really, never.)
  6. Stories readers always love #1: campus myths
  7. Stories readers always love #2: elaborate college pranks
  8. For stories you do every single year (graduation, reunion, retiring faculty), try to shake it up with new formats or approaches so you don’t get bored.
  9. Perfect-bound magazines communicate a premium experience.
  10. Take at least one big swing with a story in every issue.
  11. Don’t be afraid to have an advisory board.
  12. If you have an advisory board, set clear expectations and boundaries.
  13. Alliterative headlines are almost always terrible.
  14. Good headline format: a sharp quote from the story.
  15. Sweat the details.
  16. Good profile headline format: full name + sentence
  17. Start more conversations with your readers. They’ll help you create a better magazine.
  18. The best number of “letters from the desk of…” columns per issue is zero. The maximum number is one.
  19. Conduct a short reader survey at least annually. Make sure to include a question about what they love about the magazine. Save the answers so you remember that your work matters.
  20. Photo color correction can make a drab photo pop — and transform a page entirely.
  21. great cover helps win the coffee table.
  22. Two spreads of campus news is probably plenty. One might be better.
  23. Be funny (at least every once in a while.)
  24. Top four most important pages: front coverback cover, inside front cover, inside back cover. Make the most of them.
  25. Try more story packaging techniques: quizzes, lists, round tables, as-told-tos.
  26. Remember to treat your profile subjects as humans, not highlight reels.
  27. You can probably cut that story’s word count by 10 percent. Your designer will love you. Your readers will, too.
  28. To get a good headline, write at least 20 and choose the best one. After 15 is when things start to get interesting.
  29. If you have to have a president on a cover, at least make it interesting. Like this. Or this.
  30. Prioritize excellence over meeting an arbitrary deadline.
  31. Headlines should almost always be more than three words.
  32. Can’t get out of the boring institutional story? Get into it. Make it GREAT.
  33. Subscribe to at least three consumer magazines and see what you can adapt from them. My current top three: New York, Cosmopolitan, Fast Company.
  34. Create a one-page instruction template for anyone who needs to submit a photo. It’ll minimize the “can you send a bigger file” back and forth. Here’s one.
  35. Stories readers always love #3: campus concerts throughout history
  36. Fill in the blank to get a killer headline and story concept: “The secret history of ________”
  37. Mystery photos can encourage audience participation and can help your archivist identify images for posterity.
  38. Your magazine does not need to “compete” with consumer magazines or make “everyone” want to pick it up. Focus on your exact audience first.
  39. Build feature well categories to strengthen your magazine’s structure and improve story generation possibilities.
  40. You don’t need theme issues.
  41. But if you want to do a theme issue, start planning a year in advance to make it amazing.
  42. Two issues annually? Publish in March and September to maximize reader impact.
  43. Three issues annually? Publish in March, July, and November.
  44. Four issues annually? Publish in March, June, September and December.
  45. Your alumni magazine should not make people feel bad.
  46. Want faculty to share their best research and stories? Ask them. Here’s how.
  47. Add more illustrations and infographics to your magazine to make it visually interesting.
  48. For profiles of high level/celebrity clients who can contribute art, ask for it all: headshots, environmental, action, supplemental photography.
  49. Department headers should feel specific to your institution.
  50. Offer prompts to engage your readers. Ask about campus jobs, life-changing professors, favorite hangouts.
  51. Remember that in your role, you are more than an editor, you are an ambassador for your school.
  52. For stories you might do just once a decade (new leaders, major campaigns, new strategic plans) get advice from others who have recently been in your shoes.
  53. Quote your sources saying things that sound human, not things that make them sound like institutional robots.
  54. If you want to know how to pair your magazine with social media, use this research as your guide.
  55. Awards can help you make the case for the overall excellence of your publication, but the audience that you actually need to win over is your readers, not a handful of judges.
  56. Remember, YOU know your audience best. Add your own “alumni magazine rules” that make sense within the context of your institution.
  57. Make sure there is something in every magazine that makes you proud.

A history-making Sibley winner

Every year, I’m thrilled to be able to talk to the editor of CASE’s Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year, and this year is no exception.

Milton Academy’s Milton magazine, edited by Sarah Abrams, is 2022’s winner. It’s a beauty!

Every winning publication is a little different, and one particularly notable detail about Milton magazine is that it’s the first independent school to win the Sibley since the award started in 1943. (!!!) Check out the winning entry, entry materials, and judges’ comments.

First, a few details about Milton Academy and their magazine: Milton is an independent boarding and day school in Massachusetts with a total K-12 enrollment of just under 1,000 students, about two-thirds of which are at the upper school (grades 9-12).

Milton’s 80-page + cover magazine is perfect bound and published twice a year. It is sent to 13,500 alumni and families; it is also sent each spring with acceptance letters.

Sarah is a contract editor; the magazine also has a freelance designer. All of the writing, meanwhile, is done in-house (with the exception of the stories written by Sarah).

Sarah and I had a wide-ranging conversation, so instead of doing a typical Q&A, I’ll share some of the most illuminating insights from a longer discussion.

On Sarah’s background in higher ed communications.
I’ve worked as an editor of alumni magazines for many years — I started at Harvard in 1987, and I edited an alumni magazine for the School of Public Health and then for the Harvard Kennedy School. I had just retired when I was asked if I’d be interested in doing this as a freelance job. I’ve been doing this now for three years.

On the difference between higher ed and independent school magazines.
Well, parents are involved — that doesn’t usually happen at universities! So you’ve got to consider that, particularly when you’re writing about young students. You’ve got to check to make sure it’s okay to use their names, for example. There are privacy issues.

An independent school is a very small, very loyal community — there’s a sense that everyone knows one another and that your readers are definitely paying attention. Their time here was during a very formative stage in their lives. The coverage at this level feels much more personal.

On how the magazine is used as a tool beyond the alumni audience.
When admission letters go out in March, the magazine goes out with it. Is it a marketing piece specifically? Not really, but we do use it as one way to attract students. It doesn’t currently go out to parents, but I would like it to! We find that there’s tremendous loyalty among the parents and families; they’re very involved. And while there are different online newsletters and letters that go out, I think the magazine is it, in terms of printed pieces.

On the push to move from print to digital.
I know a lot of places are asking why they should be printing a magazine — why they shouldn’t just be putting it online. But at Milton they seem to value print. I haven’t had to make a case for it.

I think they get it: sending it to people’s homes and putting the magazine on the coffee table or the nightstand is very valuable.

With an exclusively online alumni magazine, the alum needs to make the effort to go online and I just don’t think that happens as often. A print magazine serves a very important purpose.

A story she is particularly proud of.
“Climate science” (part of the larger “A generation looks ahead” package).

It was ambitious. I included several alums who all worked under the larger umbrella of the environment. It was a lot of work to pull it all together, and I think this is a topic that we’ll continue to write about.

On editorial and design collaboration.
At the production stage, there’s a continuous back and forth with the designer around multiple issues—from photos, illustration, and typography choices to what goes on the cover — and you want to be working with someone you feel comfortable around — someone with whom you have a good rapport.

It’s so important to form a strong partnership with a good designer — whether the designer is in-house or a freelancer — someone whose work you respect and with whom you’re comfortable working. They play a huge part in the success of a magazine.

On what she still wishes she could improve.
The news section, which doesn’t quite have the right balance of school news to alumni news. I think readers would like to know more about what the students are up to.

Also, I want readers to be able to pick up information about the school in a variety of ways — maybe shorten some of the stories. I’d like it to have more energy.

On thinking about your audience.
When you’re putting together a magazine, you always want to keep the reader in mind.

Most people don’t have a lot of time. You want to offer them good, substantive feature-length stories, but also offer shorter pieces, strong headlines, informative subheads and pull-out quotes, and good photos with captions.

I’m always pushing to have more entries in class notes, with vibrant photos. Being aware of the reader — standing up for your readers — is really important.

On working with administrators.
We do send stories by our senior administration. They’re great at pointing out potential issues, which you need to respect. But you also want to help them see the magazine from the point of view of the reader. What will entice a reader to pick up the magazine and spend time with it? Administrators are deep into running a school and sometimes need reminding about what all of us look for when we pick up something to read.

On building trust through methodical advance work.
We always make a case for why we’ve chosen a specific theme, and the stories we want to tell. It’s not an off-handed conversation.

A lot of the trust we’ve built has come from what we’ve produced, and the fact that administrators are receiving good feedback. When they hear people like the magazine, that builds trust.

Inspiration.
I do look at other magazines. Some of the small, private colleges do beautiful work: Kenyon does a great jobDenison does too. Those magazines are both beautiful. Johns Hopkins. I’m impressed by the quality and depth of the stories they choose to cover.

Other magazines that stand out to me include Middlebury Magazine and Harvard’s School of Education alumni magazine, Ed.

They’re all inspirational and something to work toward.

On what she misses about in-person work.
It was nice to be right next door to the magazine team because there’s so much back and forth when you’re putting a magazine together.

 

Your magazine is not a kitchen sink

There’s no question that alumni magazines are facing a lot of headwinds these days.

I won’t enumerate all of the paper and staffing challenges many teams are seeing right now, since you likely know them viscerally.

Often, these challenges lead to publications with fewer pages that are published less frequently.

These trends make what I see in some of today’s magazines so surprising.

Let me back up a bit first.

I’ve often talked about the idea of every story in your publication EARNING its way into print. One of the greatest strengths of print publications is the focus they inspire. Print demands hard limits to your storytelling. You’ve got to curate and share the very best and most vibrant stories from your school.

You might think this limitation would become even more clarifying as page counts dwindle and issue frequency diminishes.

But that’s not always what I see happening. Instead, I see magazines that trot out the same boring, unread sections issue after issue.

Let me give a few examples:

Faculty promotions

Yes, these ambitious and hardworking individuals deserve their due. Celebrate with an event or a cake or a raise or a letter they can save as a keepsake. Maybe all these things, I have no idea how faculty celebrate getting tenure!

But you definitely don’t need to be carving out a column in your campus news section just to announce that a handful of professors have been bumped up a rank. As a whole, your alumni probably don’t even understand why tenure is such a huge milestone, and it’s unlikely that the names will mean much to them.

Sports results

Your readers either are sports fans of your school’s teams or they aren’t.

If they’re sports fans, the best way to keep tabs on their favorite teams is not a three-times-a-year publication that shares the results of a months-ago dual meet or regional matchup.

And if they’re not sports fans? Well, your four-sentence writeup of a middling finish to a sports season won’t change their minds. If you want to do a knockout profile of an athlete who’s tearing it up on the field, you definitely should! Paired with a unique portrait or other images, you can go beyond the scores and the standings to tell a meaningful story about a student.

But roundups of the recent(ish) results are a waste of space.

Letter from the desk of [fill in the blank]

Letters from the president or head of school are dicey at best. If that person is a gifted writer or you’ve got a brilliant strategy, you can maybe (and that’s a big maybe) make a case for including them in your magazine.

But a letter from the alum who heads up the alumni association? The chair of your board of trustees? No thank you!

Most of these folks don’t want to write these letters, absolutely nobody wants to read them, and they’re taking up valuable space in your publication.

This is page space that costs real money, and that could be used to do more interesting and strategic storytelling.

The three things I’ve listed above are just starters. I could go on: most new hires, grants, lists of alumni boards and boards of trustees. You can probably come up with a list twice as long as the one I’ve already created.

Most of these things never belonged in a print alumni magazine.

It’s true that decades ago, there were fewer ways to reach alumni with this sometimes-relevant-to-a-tiny-audience material, so these inclusions are occasionally the result of editorial inertia.

But it’s time to cut these sections.

Your magazine reaches your audience just a handful of times per year. It’s a big investment for your institution! And it should feel like a gift to your readers. Lists of alumni board members (even if the reader of your publication is an alumni board member!) do not feel like a gift to readers, I promise you.

Your magazine should be as strategic and irresistible as possible — not a kitchen sink where anything and everything shows up, needed or not.

Interview “code words” — and what they really mean

Over the course of my career, I’ve done thousands of interviews. I’ve talked to people who have never been interviewed for a story to folks who spend many of their days talking to the media.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a handful of questions and requests again and again (and again) during these interviews. If you’ve been doing interviews, you’ve probably heard them, too.

At first, I responded only to what they actually said.

But over time, I realized that there is often a request behind the question or the statement. And I needed to answer that question — the one that they didn’t even really ask — before I could get the best possible interview.

Today, I want to share three of those coded requests.

I’ll share what people are really asking about when they say these things. And I’ll also share how to respond to interviewees in ways that give them not just the answer to what they actually said out loud, but also to the hidden request.

I hope this is helpful as you do interviews for your own projects.

Code words: “Can you send me the questions in advance?”

What they’re really asking: I’m feeling a little nervous about this interview. Can you reassure me that I won’t feel blindsided or unprepared for this conversation?

The background: I know a lot of folks — especially those who come from traditional journalism backgrounds — who bristle at the idea of offering questions to sources in advance. They don’t want to get overly rehearsed, PR-engineered responses. (It’s also a pain to have to come up with questions days in advance if you haven’t completed the research for the topic.)

But alumni magazines aren’t traditional journalism. And for the most part, you want people to feel prepared and comfortable going into an interview.

How to respond: “Yes, I’m happy to send a few questions in advance to get us started. I’ll make sure you have them by [date, time]. I should also add that you’ll have a chance to review the story before it’s published.”

Why it works: First, when you agree to their request, that will set them at ease. (Notice that in my response, I didn’t say that I’d provide a full list of questions — just a starting point!)

Next, when you create a deadline for myself and the interviewee and then meet it, you build additional trust before the interview has even started. When you share the process — that they’ll have a chance to review the copy before publication — they can let their guard down and not worry that a misstatement will make it into print.

This response — and the work that goes into it — will give your interviewees the confidence they need to be open and honest with you, because you have signaled that you will not let them fail.

I’ll add one more thing here: many people come very prepared to these interviews. Often, when I ask my final question of the interview — “Is there anything you wanted to add that we didn’t discuss?” — they will often refer to their notes. Occasionally, they will provide the best story or quote of the entire interview from their prepared notes! Everyone, including the reader, can benefit from this approach.

Code words: “Make me sound smart!”

What they’re really saying: I’m a little anxious about being quoted verbatim; I’d rather see a polished quote that captures my ideas accurately, rather than an exact one that makes me sound inarticulate.

The background: In your work, you’re likely talking to lots of folks who don’t consider themselves exceptional interviewers or haven’t spoken extensively about the topic you’re interviewing them about. They may understand that interviewees aren’t typically granted access to pre-publication drafts. They want to signal that it’s important they’re a bit flexible on their quotes as long as the larger ideas they’re trying to convey are correct.

How to respond: “I’m sure you’ll be great! If it helps to understand the process, you’ll have a chance to review all of your quotes before publication, which I expect will happen [WHEN]. It’s important to us that everyone is happy with the story before it’s published.”

Why it works: I like to give everyone a little nudge of encouragement before I get down to brass tacks: we want this story to succeed, and we’ll give them a bit of control over their words.

Even if I don’t promise that they can change their quotes (sometimes this makes sense, sometimes not!), they know that we’re all aiming at the same thing: a story that everybody’s happy with. This reassurance can help them be a bit more open and vulnerable in the interview than they might be otherwise.

Code words: “I’d be happy to take a look at this after you’ve written it.”

What they’re really saying: I’m not sure I trust that this story will be accurate, but I want to be diplomatic about my request. I need to know how carefully I need to speak during this interview. (A more direct version of this concern is “Will I have a chance to see this before it’s published?”)

The background: While anyone can ask a version of this question, you’ll probably hear it most often when you’re working with people who have expertise in technical areas (hard sciences, tech, etc.).

Why? They’ve probably been burned in the past. They may have been been misquoted or misinterpreted in some way. They may be wary, but they also know that they may not have much control over the process.

How to respond: “Oh, I’m so happy you brought this up. Let me share the process with you: after we talk, I’ll write up a draft, and my editor will take a crack at it. Once my editor has taken a look, you’ll also have a chance to review it for accuracy and to make sure your quotes are conveying what you intended. Because this is an alumni publication, it’s very important to us that everyone is happy with the finished story.”

Why it works: A clear explanation of a process can assure interviewees that you know what you’re doing — and that they will get a chance to weigh in on the story at the right time. Your response can help emphasize that everyone’s on the same page.

Do these alumni magazine myths trip you up?

A few years ago, I published a newsletter about three common alumni magazine myths that you should ignore.

But there aren’t just three.

I continue to collect them and categorize them, because I’m interested in why we end up believing certain things about our publications that aren’t true. Sometimes, our beliefs are actively harmful to the broader work we’re trying to do.

So today I want to share a few more alumni magazine myths — and how you might rethink your approach to your publication as a result.

If you haven’t read the first three myths, you can find them here.

Here are three more:

Myth: You should minimize (or eliminate) class notes

First, let me just spend a moment here empathizing with your plight. I started my alumni magazine career as a class notes editor, and I know that they are painful.

They’re time-consuming to create and a bear to design. There are a million and one things that can go wrong.

During my time as a class notes editor, I misspelled alumni names (and heard about it). I accidentally included prank entries (and heard about it). And occasionally I didn’t include a wedding photo (and BOY did I hear about it).

The thing you should notice here is not that I was a terrible class notes editor, although you can make your own judgments about that. The important thing is what I noted in those parenthetical phrases.

I heard about these things because PEOPLE WERE READING THE CLASS NOTES.

Were they reading the profiles and features I spent hours crafting?

I don’t know, I hope so. I didn’t usually hear too much about them.

But I definitely heard from alums who were apparently going through every single class notes entry with a fine-tooth comb.

Surveys consistently show that class notes are among the most-read sections of your magazine. They are something only your magazine can do. (Often, because of privacy concerns, they’re something only your print magazine can do.)

Don’t minimize them. Make the most of them.

Myth: “Ambition” = Taking on Important Stories of the Time

Man, I know I’m going to be walking into the lion’s den with this one.

But I think too often, we conflate “ambition” in our magazines with Having a Take on Today’s Serious Issues.

You don’t have to do this!

Sure, if one of your alums is Anthony Fauci, it’s definitely okay to write a huge feature on him. And if your magazine’s entire focus is public health, of course you should take a big swing on the pandemic.

But just because everyone’s talking about the economy or our dystopian technological future — well, that doesn’t mean you have to, too.

If your story about one of these topics is going to be a significantly watered down version of what readers might find in The Atlantic or Wired, it might not be a great story for your institution.

You can still be incredibly ambitious with your magazine, even on lighter topics. Here are just a few examples.

These are stories that only alumni magazines are well positioned to do.

Do them! And do them well.

Hungry to take on more serious stories? Consider stories that your institution might be uniquely positioned to take on — like the idea of testing-optional admissions, the dogfights about “wokeness” on college campuses, or the transformation of education during the pandemic.

These are huge, important issues, and they’re topics for which your magazine potentially has a front-row seat — deep expertise within your institution to address.

Myth: You can easily transform great print magazine stories into great stories for other media

For a while, I was obsessed with the idea of making modular, multipurpose stories.

Tell an amazing story in your print magazine, chop it up, then repurpose it for social media or your magazine website.

Or take that crazy popular social media post and turn it into a magazine story.

Copy, paste, done. Right?

Wrong.

I tried so many different experiments. My go-to storytelling technique is pretty modular and packaged, so I figured there was definitely a code I could crack.

But after spending years on this work, I don’t think there is a secret hack!

You can definitely create a great print story and an amazing social media post and a fun web story and an incredible podcast on the same topic. But they’re all going to require different things: a distinct tone. A unique approach that fits both the medium and the audience.

The problem of trying to create something that is easily translatable from one medium to another is that you’re going to create something that is mediocre in every medium. Not terrible! But I truly hope that you’re aiming higher than “not terrible.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t scavenge your other work for parts. You’re probably not going to have to start from scratch.

But when you’re thinking about your print magazine, think about your print magazine.

Your print magazine is how the vast majority of your alumni audience will get information about your school and its community. It’s worth spending the time to get it right.

Your magazine is not the place to see how many ways you can easily repurpose other content for this medium. (If you want to know the why behind print mags for your audiences, grab my report, The Case for Print. I know that several institutions have used the research in it to get more resources for their own print publications.)

Your print alumni magazine has a uniquely valuable audience and a distinctive, powerful impact. When you create multitasking stories, you dilute their impact in every medium.

Your 5-step plan for crowdsourced alumni magazine storytelling

Let’s talk about crowdsourced storytelling.

The premise is simple: you throw a question or a prompt to your readers. You wait for some incredible responses to roll in, throw them all together, and voila, an instant, free story.

Right?

If you’ve ever done a crowdsourced story, you know the promise that I’ve described above is…not reality.

I’ve helped create a lot of crowdsourced feature stories over the years, and I’ve learned both from the successes and the failures of these projects. And now I want to give you my playbook if you’re ready to try one.

Step 1: Understand the big picture benefits and drawbacks of crowdsourced storytelling

Before you get started with a crowdsourced story idea, it’s important to get crystal clear on what they can do, what they can’t do, and when it makes sense to do them.

Know what crowdsourced storytelling is not

Done well, crowdsourced storytelling is rarely easy or fast — even if you craft a question quickly and end up with lots of responses from your audience!

In fact, in some cases, storytelling that relies on crowdsourced responses can be more time-consuming than a regular, reported story. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! It just means you should go in knowing what to expect.

Understand the actual benefits of crowdsourced storytelling

The real benefits of crowdsourced storytelling are nuanced.

If done well, you will hear from alumni and other members of your community who you might not otherwise have considered contacting. It can bring unexpected and delightful stories to the surface.

A good question or prompt can also offer a reason for people in your alumni or advancement offices to reach out to folks in your community that you’d like to contact.

As an example, I’ve been working on a story for a client called “Reasons to Love Grinnell.” As part of the project, we included a prompt on the back page of one issue of the magazine. We also put the request out on social media.

At one point in the process, I learned that someone in the development office used the prompt as a way to connect to an alum. The alum shared her story about the reason she loved the institution. It was a great way for that development officer to connect with the alum in a meaningful way and build on that relationship.

Step 2: Build a question that’s designed to get many strong responses

If you’re going to devote space in your print magazine to a prompt — or if you’re going to try to nab people’s attention as they scroll through their social media feeds — you want to make sure you’ve got the best possible question!

Developing a question that leads to a large number of interesting responses isn’t easy.

Here are a few ways to develop a question designed to succeed.

Do a pre-test

How do you know if you’ve got a good question? One way is to test it before you send it out into the world.

To start, create a question and then answer it yourself. Ask your colleagues to share their answers, too.

Can you think of a variety of different ways you might answer the question, or are there just one or two obvious good answers? Is it a question that seems good, but somehow only generates generic responses?

Here are a few questions that I’ve seen schools use to generate lots of feedback:

What makes these questions work?

They often evoke memories, strong feelings, or interesting stories. They’re also the kinds of stories that can be unique to your publication. No one else is going to ask your readers about their campus jobs or first concerts! These are meaningful questions for your readers that they may not have thought about before.

Use the question to show people what you want

In some cases, it’s fairly easy to craft a question that people will respond to with a huge variety of stories. For example, I’ve done a story for many clients about whether or not alumni changed their names when they got married (here’s one in Macalester’s magazine).

This is a topic that many people start thinking about more seriously during college, and because so much has changed over time, the generational perspectives are fascinating! In general, getting responses to this question isn’t exactly like pulling teeth, so a simple, “Did you change your name when you got married? What led you to your decision?” is sufficient.

But for other kinds of questions, it can be helpful to provide guidance about answers within the question itself. Here’s one example of a question that generated lots of feedback:

“Sometimes a place deserves a love letter as much as a person, and we want your help writing one. What are your reasons to love Grinnell? Share the very tiny (a specific snack from the JRC?) to the very large (a Grinnell pal gave me a kidney!) things that make Grinnell amazing for you.”

We worried that a more general question would generate more general responses (I loved my professors and friends), and we wanted to make sure that respondents got specific.

They did! They shared what made them proud of the school’s history, specific walking paths on campus, exact residence hall lounges they loved, and moments that epitomized the best of their college experience.

A good question often offers a handful of examples so people can see the range that is possible — and come up with answers that are uniquely their own.

Seed wisely

Social media is a tricky animal. On the one hand, a good question can generate dozens — sometimes hundreds — of responses.

Still, someone’s gotta be the first person to respond. When you post on Facebook or Instagram, a question with zero comments can lead otherwise eager respondents to hold back.

When I’ve done stories for my own alma mater, I’ve tried to start the comments section with a relevant story or comment. When I’ve worked with clients, I sometimes asked them to do the same, or to recruit an alum who’s happy to weigh in early.

This approach can make sure you’re giving your prompt the best possible chance to succeed.

Step 3: Decide on your next steps

Hopefully, after you’ve thrown your question to your audience, responses have rolled in. Maybe the question has been as successful as you’ve hoped, maybe you’d like a few more responses, maybe it’s nothing but tumbleweeds. Now what?

Collect and — this is important — CURATE

To craft a truly meaningful story from a prompt, it’s necessary for you to be both a collector of responses and a curator of them.

When people make time to read a magazine, they want to feel like they’re getting the best of the best — not a firehose of both the good and bad responses that they could easily get in any social media comments section.

Cut the mediocre responses, edit the rambling ones, and reach out to folks whose responses need a bit more context or detail.

I know that for many of us, it’s fairly rare to hear from lots of people, so it can feel painful to leave anything at all on the cutting room floor.

While you should definitely thank people for responding, you don’t have to give every respondent space in your print magazine.

Start with the crowd, but don’t end there

As an editor, you should view the responses that you get from a request as a starting point, not an ending one.

Analyze the best responses, then think about what you’re missing: are you hearing from folks from a variety of class years? Does it truly represent the demographics of your alumni or institution?

If not, who can you reach out to in order to get a more representative response? What kinds of answers would be helpful to fill out your list, and who could you contact to get them?

For example, in this story for Macalester Today, “The Professor Who Changed My Life,” social media requests generated strong responses from alumni who shared stories about the professors who had made a lasting impact on them.

But what we needed to create a story for the magazine was additional insight from professors. We used the alumni responses as a starting point to decide which professors to contact for the story.

If you want to create a story from your prompts that truly feels like it earns the right to be in your print magazine, be as thoughtful about your sourcing as you are from a more traditional story.

Know when to fold ’em

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t collect enough responses to move forward. This is true even if you’ve asked a great question, even if you’ve tested it, and even if the exact same prompt worked for another school just like yours.

I recently worked with a client where I confidently suggested a crowdsourced story that I’d seen work at at least four other institutions. And with her institution, it flopped!

Maybe her school was just a little different. Maybe the story idea no longer felt relevant. Who knows?

Whatever the case, we got nothing but crickets when we sent the request. It happens! It was disappointing, but we both agreed it wasn’t working and we moved on. We’ll try again with another prompt in the future.

4. Craft your story

By now, you have a sense of the range and number of responses, and you can build from there. Here are some ways to think about it.

Go small but beautiful

For years, TCNJ Magazine ran a two-page spread of crowdsourced stories in each issue. It required just a few responses to work perfectly.

Go minimal

With a sharp intro, subheads, and thoughtful design, you can pull together a few pages of responses for a simple, easy-to-read feature, like this best advice piece for Grinnell Magazine.

Use responses as a starting point for a traditional feature

This Smith Alumnae Quarterly story about last names, for example, started with crowdsourcing and ran as a narrative feature.

The editor got so many responses to the prompt that we also pulled together a sidebar to showcase the wide range of unique stories from alums.

Consider a themed roundup

In this piece I did for Grinnell on career changes, “The Great Awakening,” we crowdsourced the best stories and then conducted follow-up interviews with a handful of respondents.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that this was a crowdsourced story — but we couldn’t have found our sources any other way.

5. Continue the conversation

Once you’ve posted your request, collected responses, written and designed a story, and sent it out to the world, you may feel done with that project.

Yet for many alumni, the story they read in your magazine may be the first time they’ve seen anything about the topic! Your story will likely prompt many ideas, memories, and stories from your readers. Create a call to action so they can share those stories with you.

You can see that we did just that at the end of “The Great Awakening.”

If you hear from your readers, you can simply collect the responses and thank those who wrote in, or you can run some in the letters to the editor section.

The point of this last step is not necessarily to create additional stories for your magazine, but to give your readers an outlet to share their experiences and feel heard. This is one of the incredibly valuable (but often overlooked) roles of an alumni magazine.

Improve alumni magazine engagement with this mystery photo playbook

A few months ago, I was flipping through a stack of alumni magazines and I came across an arresting two-page photo spread in Holy Cross Magazine.

The mystery photo had a caption that asked alumni to help identify the people in the image and share any additional relevant details. (Side note: Am I getting your magazine? If not, put me on your mailing list!)

I checked in with editor Melissa Shaw, and here’s what she said about the spread, which is a regular department in the magazine:

Mystery Photo was added to Holy Cross Magazine in its latest redesign (7 years ago) by our Art Director and Designer Stephen Albano.

He notes he picked up the idea from another alumni publication (he can’t remember which).

He found a stack of photos in College Archives for which the archivists had no info or IDs, and went from there. That makes the quarterly feature fun for alumni (especially if they solve it – or are in the photo) and it helps College Archives ID these pictures for posterity.

In the following issue, we run a Solved Photo brief where we share what info people sent in. It’s a great way to get more alumni names in every issue and especially engage whatever class year(s) are pictured.

We get a few dozen emails per issue, which doesn’t sound like a lot given our 45,000 circulation, but it’s a popular feature with readers. They definitely stop, look and read each issue. It’s one way to get uniquely Holy Cross content in the magazine that readers would not find in any other publication.

It’s also an easy lift with great ROI: All you need for the Mystery Photo is a cutline soliciting responses, and the Solved Photo followup in the next issue is a couple hundred words, mostly quoting people who wrote in with the answer or their memories.

Okay, this is Erin again: I love it!

If you like think you might want to incorporate something like this in your magazine, read on.

Melissa shares a ton of extremely practical, tactical tips that you can use to add this department to the magazine immediately — and make sure that you hit the ground running.

Take it away, Melissa!

What has (and hasn’t) worked for us

Here are a few useful ways to think about this department.

1. Don’t use photos that have outlived everyone.

Why? No one is around to identify it.

This is the only photo in my tenure to not receive even a single email, which makes me think we picked too old a photo. It’s cool — and we still have no idea what this is all about — but useless if no one can identify it.

2. Run them big

We run the photo across a spread to open up the Alumni News section. The bigger the photo, the easier to ID, especially if there are many people in the photo, like below.

I was surprised this photo did as well as it did with responses, as we were pretty sure it was not taken on campus (it wasn’t). And even with poor lighting, we got IDs of not only the place (a long-defunct Jesuit seminary about 200 miles away), but also of many students in the pews.

We double checked the location guesses with the national Jesuit archives, who confirmed the location. And, the Jesuit archives had only one other picture of this small chapel — now they have two.

3. Group photos (with identifiable people) are great

You’ll get more replies, and the more people, the more likely you will ID everyone.

Emailers (several in the photo) ID’d everyone in this shot and shared the fun story behind it.

4. Odd photos = good engagement

We had no idea what was going on here. Why was a city bus on campus? Why were all these nattily attired men on top of the bus? The men knew: It was dorm room picture day for the yearbook and emailers told us that year each floor tried to outdo the other with odd locations.

Many on the roof wrote in and they were able to ID every person (and share their regret that they made the dangerous climb up).

5. Use more than one photo per issue, in another location

While Mystery Photo traditionally opens up Alumni News, we’ve used them in the table of contents when we were short on pictures or Stephen felt he wanted to get another one in.

This photo got excellent engagement in this spot and shook up the traditional design of our table of contents.

6. Work with an incredible art director/designer

I’m lucky in that Stephen knows our audience so well, he chooses fantastic photos for this staple because he understands the readership and the College intimately.

That also translates into the work he does throughout each issue. It’s his authentic understanding of Holy Cross and its alumni — and his skills — that translate into the magazine being popular and well-received with the readership.

_______________________________

Okay, it’s Erin again: Thank you, Melissa!

If you’re looking for a way to get a bump in engagement, consider this approach. It’s fun, it’s repeatable, and it’s something that will keep your readers checking in issue after issue.