Fuel Alumni Magazine Reader Engagement With Games

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

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

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

Why do I love games as a reader engagement tool?

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

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

1. Try a crossword

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

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

2. Find a hidden object

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

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


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

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

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

3. Identify the location

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

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

4. Quiz your readers

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

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

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

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

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

Love it.

6. Go big with games

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

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

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


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