How Does A Print Magazine “Earn Its Keep” Right Now? Here Are 3 Ideas.

There’s no question that times are tough for higher ed these days. Some colleges are closing their doors for good. Others are mapping out layoffs, furloughs, and other drastic cuts. What happens this fall? It’s anybody’s guess.

In the midst of these big changes, your magazine might be on the chopping block. At the very least, you might be going all digital for one issue — and maybe more.

Yet I’d argue that your print magazine is your flagship communications tool for alumni. It’s likely getting into more hands than your digital communications. And certainly alumni are more likely to see your magazine than go to an event (at least for the moment) or get a visit from a development officer.

Right now, there’s no question that all of us will have to thoughtfully consider whether our print publications are worth the price — and if they’re not yet, how we can develop a plan to make their cost a no-brainer.

Your institution’s calculus will look different from others, but here are three ways your magazine might consider showing its unique value:

1. Double down on class notes.

CASE surveys have routinely shown that class notes, across all institutions, are the most-read sections of any alumni magazine. (As many of you already know, they’re also fertile ground for profiles and feature story ideas.)

Yes, people can keep up with their closest pals on Facebook or other social media. But with class notes, they don’t also have to put up with crackpot political theories, pyramid scheme sales pitches, or trolls. They don’t have to worry that some new algorithm is making it harder for them to see new information from people they care about.

There’s a reason Harvard Business School’s Director of Communications, Bill Weber, who oversees a magazine with 450 pages of class notes per issue (!!!!), says that if they ditched class notes for their institution’s magazine, it “would be World War III.

In a recent informal survey for my own alma mater, a full 84 percent of respondents said they wanted to see more class notes. (11 percent said the number was fine, 5 percent said they didn’t read class notes, and 0 percent said they wanted to see fewer class notes.)

And you know how many alumni want to see class notes behind a password-protected wall? NONE. ZERO. ZIP. ZILCH. NADA.

Class notes are something that are uniquely and dramatically better in a print publication.

Your people are what make your institution. A big part of your job is to help them continue to feel like a part of that community so that they continue to benefit from it, value it, and contribute to it.

Class notes are an essential part of that equation.

2. Measure what matters. (Then improve it.)

What really matters for your magazine? Is it encouraging alumni engagement? Is it featuring a lot of talented researchers? Connecting with parents? Making the case for your value to state legislators? Supporting your philanthropic priorities?

Every school has a mix of goals for their publication, and it might even be spelled out explicitly in the mission statement.

If you had to, how would you think about measuring whether or not you were succeeding?

Would you start counting the number of individual class notes, letters to the editor, responses to prompts and nostalgia questions? Would you count the number of stories featuring donors or researchers or specific institutional priorities?

As you think about where you are right now, would those numbers be where you want them to be?

What would you do if you had to double those numbers in the next four issues? What changes would you make?

Let’s be clear: in many ways, these numbers will be imperfect proxies for the larger goals you’re aiming at. But they are a starting point. And they can be a conversation starter with higher ups if you’re committed to showing your magazine’s value.

3. Add a giving envelope.

I get a lot of alumni magazines, and I’m surprised by the number that don’tinclude a giving envelope.

Years ago, I worked at a school that was consistently among the top five in the percentage of alumni who gave. This school had an enormous endowment, but alumni happily continued to give.

Yes, there is a lot that goes into that! But I will also say that the magazine had a giving envelope that went into every issue. No one was worried that it was overkill or that they were hammering alumni with too many requests. That envelope was paired with a note that made it clear that people could submit a gift, a class note, or both. And the school got a lot of both.

If people crack the cover of your magazine, it means they’re at least a little bit interested in your institution. If you are able to tell a story that moves them, that reminds them of a person they appreciated at your school, that helps them remember why they said “yes” to your school in the first place, why wouldn’t you give them the easiest possible way to help support the place that made that possible?

I have asked dozens of clients and non-clients if they include a giving envelope, and literally no one has said “Well, we tried it and it turned out that we didn’t even cover the costs.”

Now’s the time!

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