Over the years, I’ve talked a lot about how to craft stories that are valuable for your institution.
I’ve shared details on writing stories for your publication on strategic plans, on campaigns, and on new leadership. I’ve talked about some of the ways to make those big-deal profiles — even the ones that you’re dreading — compelling.
These stories are critical to tell well in your print alumni magazine.
Your magazine, after all, is the communications vehicle that the widest swath of your alumni actually pays attention to.
They’re ideas that are important because they can help pave the way for greater prestige for your school, garner warm feelings from your school’s VIPs, and (perhaps!) lead to some significant gifts.
For your institution, those are the stories that many of your bosses and administrators will say make your publication a “million-dollar magazine.”
Do them well, and your administration will often maintain (or even expand) your budget without a second thought, because they see how your storytelling and design contribute to the institution’s larger goals.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
Today, I want to talk about what makes your publication a “million-dollar magazine” to your readers. What makes your audience love and value your magazine? What can you do in your magazine that makes them feel truly grateful to receive it — and would make them actually miss it if it were gone?
Often, but not always, those things look a little different.
The “vegetables and dessert” magazine philosophy
Years ago, I was talking to the late, great Shawn Presley, then the editor of Kenyon’s alumni magazine. We were chatting about creating a good mix of stories in an alumni magazine, and he said something that really stuck with me.
He said, “You can give alumni their vegetables, but you also have to give them some dessert.”
What he meant by that was this: Yes, your institution is going to want to use the magazine to share its big stories about strategy, campaigns, and successes. Those are the vegetables.
They’re important, but you’ve really got to be creative to find ways to make these stories palatable to the average reader.
But you can’t just give people vegetables!
You should also devote a good portion of the magazine to things that are truly delightful to your readers. If you don’t, you’re never going to get people to look at the stories they “should” read (or that your administration wants them to read).
They’re going to chuck those publications in the recycling bin before they ever crack the cover.
That doesn’t serve your readers, and it doesn’t serve your institutions.
You’ve got to include things that might feel a little less obviously strategic and brand-aligned and promotional. These stories might be a little bit lighter, a little bit funnier, a little less ‘institutional’ than many of your stories. They’re the dessert.
And your readers will gobble up every word. When you’ve got lots of pages in every magazine that are irresistible to your readers, they will keep coming back, issue after issue.
Yes, give your readers what they need. But also give them what they want.
What do your readers actually want?
So what constitutes “dessert” for your readers? You might already know. But let’s go over some of the main sections and story types that your alumni are most likely to gravitate to and enjoy.
1. Start with the obvious: class notes
Your class notes are the the much-loved-by-alumni, much-loathed-by-your-comms-team section.
CASE surveys routinely show that class notes are the first thing that readers flip to when they get their magazine.
And many of the best magazines already recognize this.
HBS Magazine, for example, goes all-in on its class notes. Bill Weber, the school’s director of alumni communications, says that if they ever tried to cut class notes from their publication, ‘it’d be World War III.’
Another magazine with a killer class notes section is Smith College — check out the 32 pages in this recent issue of Smith Alumnae Quarterly. (Whew.)
But you don’t have to have 30+ pages of class notes to make them a must-read.
Take, for example, the two-page spread that Nebraska Quarterly devotes to its class notes, or the three pages in Exchange magazine (head to pages 20-21 in the online version, 18-19 for print) for The Tippie College of Business’s Department of Finance.
Through beautiful design and clever packaging, these class notes sections make every line worth reading, regardless of the reader’s graduation year.
Now, look, I used to be a class notes editor. I know the unique pain of class notes. But remember: this magazine is for your readers, not you. And your readers love ’em.
They’ll pore through the section that includes their class years and overlapping years. They’ll squint to see the grainy images of their pals in wedding photos or alumni gatherings. And hopefully, you’ll get a few good story ideas out of that section, too.
And the people featured in the class notes? Well, for them, that’ll probably make their day.
Yes, your readers can promote themselves on LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram.
But if you’re an alum and you’re featured by your alma mater in a real print publication? That’s different and better. Tangible. Forever.
It’s a reminder to your alumni that even after they graduate, their institution cares about their success and progress.
So keep your class notes section! Find ways to jam in as many as you can into the pages allotted. Promote them, ask for more, encourage folks to share their funny, quirky, human stories.
And remember that as a whole, those class notes can say great things about your institution, too. Yes, it says all the obvious things. Those promotions mean your alumni are smart and those published books are milestones of success.
Taken together, class notes also say something more about your alumni — they can show that they’re engaged and they’re thoughtful and they’re beautifully human. They show the many things your alumni value.
2. Ask nostalgia questions
Call them icebreaker questions, call them prompts, call them whatever you want: when you ask your alumni to reminisce about their college experiences, you’ll open the floodgates.
Ask your alumni about their campus jobs, their favorite concert, or the professors who changed everything for them. Ask about great advice they got as a student or their favorite place on campus.
Why do these questions work? Just test them on yourself and see.
Can you answer all of these questions above? Did thinking about them make you smile as you recalled memorable moments from years ago?
The answer is probably yes. And the same is likely to be true of your alumni.
These prompts will remind them of the joys of your school in the best possible way.
Many will spend real time composing responses, which will be its own separate joy. And the folks whose responses get published? Well, that’ll be a different kind of day-making moment.
To see an example of exactly how this works, head to #9 on this list, which shows how Bradley University made these nostalgia prompts a cornerstone of their publication.
The small vignettes you get from people on their own may be witty or poignant or thought-provoking.
In aggregate, they also illuminate your school and its values. A story like this might not seem to be “valuable” to your institution in the same way that a campaign launch story is valuable, but the right questions and the stories that they inspire can showing a different side of what your institution is and aspires to be.
3. Add joyful, quirky stories that only you can do
One of the worst ideas I ever got in my head about alumni magazines was that they “had to compete” with every other magazine out there.
Worse, they had to compete with everything on the planet that might compete for a reader’s attention. The New York Times. Netflix. Candy Crush.
But your school’s three-person communications team cannot compete with the 4,700 employees at the New York Times.
Still, you can tell stories that your alumni and community (and only your community) will want to read. That’s the real job of your publication. Not “competing” with the latest season of Ted Lasso.
There are lots of stories that your alumni want to read that only your publication can do. For example, you might tell stories about your school’s common campus myths or outrageous campus pranks. You might write about your school’s haunted past or its biggest fans.
These are stories that your alumni actually want to read.
And your readers won’t find those stories anywhere else. It’s a unique vantage point that gives you an edge with your community.
4. Zero in on the little guy
One of the things I love about alumni magazines is that generally, they’re not covering people who already get tons of media attention — politicians and celebrities and professional athletes.
Instead, as part of your magazine, you might get to cover a first-time author or a researcher on a niche topic or a student who took on a cool leadership role.
This may be the first time that these folks have gotten attention for projects that they may have been working on for their whole lives. It may be the only time they get noticed.
I promise you that they’ll remember that, and they’ll value it.
Here’s one example of exactly this idea, from Longform podcast host Aaron Lammer, who talks about the five-year value of appearing in his alumni magazine before he’d truly established himself.
The people whose stories you choose to tell here matter, too, because they say a lot about what and who your school values.
That doesn’t mean you have to overthink every single story! Sometimes a story about a Quidditch team captain is just a story about a Quidditch team captain. But add them all up and these profiles tell a certain kind of story about your school, too.
5. Don’t stop there
The things I mentioned above are just a start. There are a thousand little things that you can do that make your magazine valuable to your readers. Beautiful campus photos. Stories of beloved professors and staffers. Deep dives on legendary sports teams. You know your institution well, so you can probably list off plenty of different ideas here.
The point is that you need to be thinking about both your institution and your readers on every page. If you’ve got an institutional story, what can you do to make it a joy to read? If you’ve got a fun story for your readers, how can you position it in ways that makes it say something meaningful about your school?
I believe your magazine should be a million dollar magazine to your institution and it should be a million-dollar magazine to your readers. You can do both. You should do both. What actions do you need to take today to make your magazine better?