Here’s what I think about your alumni magazine

I’ve been working in the field of print alumni magazines for a long time.

I’ve been on staff at three alumni magazines. Through Capstone, I’ve worked with more than 100 alumni magazine clients.

Every year, I receive hundreds of alumni magazines, and I review every single one. And I’ve been writing this newsletter for more than a decade, fielding thousands of reader questions and responses.

And I love it!

Along the way, I’ve developed a strong point of view about what alumni magazines can be and how they should work.

This is what I believe about alumni magazines.

1. Printed, mailed alumni magazines reach alumni more effectively than anything online

Most of your alumni probably have fond feelings about your institution.

But in their day-to-day lives, they don’t think about your school that much.

The vast majority of them don’t visit your website (let alone a specialized magazine site), or see your social media posts. They’re probably not listening to your podcasts, either.

But they do see your magazine! CASE research shows that your alumni magazine is tied with email as the most effective channel to reach your alumni.

And the research that dozens of individual clients have shared with me consistently shows that alumni are between 5 and 9 times more likely to read their school’s print magazine than even the most beautiful online publication on your website or hosted by a platform like Issuu.

Most of your audience will see the magazine you mailed to them. You determine when your readers get it, what it looks like, and what content is in it.

For most of your alumni, your print magazine will be the main — and perhaps only — way they hear about your school after they graduate.

2. Your magazine should offer a premium experience

Email is faster. Your website is more comprehensive. Your social media posts are more conversational and interactive.

But print is the best reading experience you can give your audience. It’s a beautiful object, and a carefully crafted and curated set of stories.

When alumni have your magazine, they expect that it will be the very best and most important material your institution can share.

Live up to those expectations.

3. There’s always another way to think about a story

Some of the most challenging stories you have to tell are institutional ones: the leadership transition, the campaign, the anniversary.

How do you tell those stories in ways that convey the importance of the topics to your institution and your readers?

Think beyond straight narrative formats! You can use clever concepts, smart packaging, and sharp design to draw readers in and hold their attention. (Use our storytelling toolkit!)

Print magazines offer so many creative ways to tell stories. Don’t constrain yourself unnecessarily.

4. You should take at least one “big swing” in every issue

A good magazine has plenty of structure: a certain set of departments, a handful of features, class notes, perhaps a few ads.

This approach makes sense!

You want some sense of predictability in a magazine. You want the reader to understand what they’re getting, not feel confused with every turn of the page.

But within that structure, you should find ways to take some big swings. What can that look like?

  • Develop an ambitious “24 hours at the university” photo essay.
  • Structure a beautiful story package on a big anniversary that you aim to make — gasp — fun.
  • Create and implement a survey to “take the temperature” of your print magazine’s health

While it’s true that not everything will work out flawlessly, a lot will end up working out better than you think!

You can take the lessons from those big swings and apply them to future projects. You’ll have those amazing pages in your portfolio — and in your institution’s printed history — forever.

5. You should learn from the best — and put your own spin on it

I’m always on the lookout for interesting ways to approach a project.

Years ago, I saw New York magazine’s “Reasons to love” issue and realized it was a perfect concept for a college.

A few years later, I had a chance to put together a “Reasons to love” package for Grinnell, and I wrote about the process.

Editors from magazines across the country found ways to adapt this larger idea, too:

They’re all AMAZING stories, and they’re all distinct to their institutions.

Get on the magazine mailing lists of other institutions and spend an hour a month flipping through their publications. I can guarantee you that you’ll come away with fresh ideas on telling your school’s stories.

You don’t have to start from scratch. Study the very best stuff out there.

Then make it your own.

6. You should sweat the details…

Your school isn’t generic.

Your print alumni magazine shouldn’t be, either. Here are two easy ways to make your publication feel distinct to your institution:

First, you can have department headers that are unique to your institution.

  • At Carleton, for example, the campus quad is known as “the bald spot” and campus news is “Around the bald spot.”
  • In the magazine for the brainy University of Chicago, class notes take on a decidedly academic twist, and are known as “peer review.”

Second, you can do accurate-to-the-centimeter “then and now” photos, showcasing the way that your school has changed — and stayed the same — over time.

There are a million subtle ways to personalize your publication, and these seemingly tiny details affect readers’ enjoyment of the magazine.

Sweat the details to make a magazine you are truly proud to send to your readers.

7. …but not the awards

Getting a stamp of approval from a local or national organization can be really rewarding!

But awards judges are not really the right judges for your magazine. The best judges of your magazine are your readers.

There are lots of stories that your readers might love because they’re steeped in your institution’s lore and values. Those stories and images that your audience loves might be things that judges simply might not “get,” because they’re not part of your community!

I include myself as one of those people who might not “get” your magazine, even though understanding alumni magazines is my whole job.

Recently, for example, I was warning a client against doing a cover story on AI. I could not count the number of magazines, I told her, that were telling the same boring AI stories.

But the reality is this: I may have hit my limit on AI stories because I get 20 alumni magazines a week, and half of them have AI covers. Your readers, unless they are absolute maniacs, are not.

Your readers don’t care if 10 other alumni magazines are using the same approach you’ve decided to use for some aspect of your magazine. They only care if the magazine is something they love.

Yes, awards can signal to your bosses that you’re doing good work. They’re fun to win, and I would never discourage someone from entering a magazine or a project that they’re proud to have worked really hard on.

But if you don’t win, that doesn’t mean you’re not putting out an amazing publication or doing valuable work. The accolades that matter most are the ones you get from your audience.

Awards are great, but they’re also less important than you might think.

8. You should talk to your readers — lots of them! — all the time

I’ve already said you should focus on doing great work for your readers. So it makes sense that you would spend time actually interacting with them and learning from them.

There are many ways to do this: through formal surveys, through prompts, through letters to the editor, through conversations prompted by a class notes entry.

Be curious about your readers!

Many of them will have valuable insights about what works in your magazine, what doesn’t work, and what could make it even better.

Listen to them. Have conversations with them. Be willing to consider the criticism you get from them. Save the praise you get from them to remind yourself of the value of your work. And respect the time they took to share their thoughts with you. They’re the reason you’re doing this work.

9. Your magazine should have a great personality

Your magazine goes into the homes of your alumni, and it should be like an incredible and charming guest. It shouldn’t be the equivalent of the person at the party who drones on endlessly about how great they are.

Unlike a braggy partygoer, your magazine can get tossed into the recycling bin the second it becomes boring and self-important.

Remember that you can occasionally tell stories that go beyond the next new building, the big donor, and the prestigious award. You can also tell stories that are human and relatable to the many thousands of regular, non-superhero alums in your ranks.

10. You should measure your magazine’s impact

Let me first acknowledge the obvious: measuring the impact of a print magazine is really hard and imperfect.

But you should do your best to try.

You can use CASE’s alumni magazine readership survey tool, or you can develop your own. (Here’s one I love.)

You can measure engagement through letters to the editor, class notes submissions, and nostalgia prompts, or entries from quizzes or contests. You can track giving through reply envelopes or conduct focus groups.

None of these, on their own, can give you the complete picture of your magazine’s impact. And the reality is that you can’t do everything on this list with all of your other responsibilities — especially not for every issue.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t start with one or two things on that list, and aim to make improvements over time.

Those numbers can help you see where you might need to make changes. They can help you build a case for more resources for your magazine. And they can help you show the value of the magazine you’ve worked so hard to create.