In a recent newsletter, I linked to a summary from the CASE Alumni Magazine Reader Survey, which shared lots of data from the 192 institutions that had used the tool.
Among the numbers that caught my attention: 87 percent of alumni magazines have an online version of the magazine as well as a print magazine. (No word on those who had only an online magazine.)
To be honest: I think that number is way, way too high.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first.
Yes, it’s true that many of you guys have beautiful magazine websites.
Yes, it’s true that you probably have a modest percentage of alumni who insist that they will read your alumni magazine online (and only online).
And yes, there’s a sustainability argument to be made about having your magazine online. (Though the difference, according to one study, isn’t quite as big as you might imagine.)
But is that enough to merit the time, brainpower, and expense you’re devoting to it?
Maybe, maybe not.
Are alumni magazine websites really all they’re cracked up to be?
I’ve been asking alumni magazine editors for years to tell me how their magazine websites are performing, and their answers are typically something like this.
Most of the time, editors tell me that they don’t really keep track of the numbers, so they don’t know.
Sometimes they’ll acknowledge that they’re not getting a ton of traffic. And over the years, I’ve talked to people who have moved their magazines online (in an app and more generally), only to have the projects go bust in a pretty big way.
And almost always, when I go to the comments section of a story on an alumni magazine website, here’s what I see:
I hate to say it, but for many schools, their alumni magazine website is a ghost town. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone who’s suggested that their magazine’s website is absolutely crushing it.
But that’s okay! You’ve already got the most powerful tool in your arsenal for reaching alumni: a print alumni magazine.
Why your print alumni magazines are uniquely valuable (even if you can’t measure engagement in clicks)
I’ve written a lot about research that illustrates why print magazines are so valuable as a communications tool compared to their online counterparts. (tldr: Among other things, people are more likely to remember what they read in a physical publication, and they’re likely to value a print magazine more highly than a digital one.)
But beyond the value of the print magazine as an object itself, it’s important to understand the value of the way your print magazine is distributed — and what that means about who’s reading it, compared to who might be reading it online.
As much as your alumni may love your school (And I’m sure they do!) they probably aren’t seeking out official communications from your institution in the same way that they would if they were, say, prospective students.
They may still really appreciate their degree, the friendships they made at your school, and your ongoing work to maintain a connection with them.
But it’s unlikely that they’re going to decide, unprompted, to visit your website.
Sure, you can send out an email that funnels your alumni to your latest issue. But these email blasts can dwindle in effectiveness over time through things like list decay.
And let’s be honest: all of our email inboxes are crammed full. (I am the biggest possible champion of my own alma mater, for example, but discovered at one point that the emails they sent were being filed under my promotions tab — I’d been missing all sorts of cool stuff that my school had been sending for years!)
A print magazine — known as a “push communication” — literally lands in the mailboxes of your alumni. They don’t have to click anything. They don’t have to type in a website. They don’t have to track down a handle.
It goes directly into their hands.
And it’s in exactly the format you want! You tell the stories. You get to determine exactly what those stories look like on the page. And you pretty much guarantee that your alumni will at least give it a few seconds of their time — even if it’s just on the 15-second walk from the mailbox to the recycling bin.
But let’s be honest: if your alumni paid thousands of dollars to be at your school for two years or for years or (gulp) six years, they’re probably willing to give the things you send them a second look.
This push communication, with so many details that you control, is the power of a print alumni magazine. An online publication just can’t compete with that.
Still, you might reasonably ask: why not both? It couldn’t hurt, right?
Actually, yes it could. Here are just a couple of examples of what I mean.
How alumni magazine websites might negatively affect your print magazine storytelling
If a magazine website isn’t always the most effective way for you to get your stories into your readers’ brains, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless, right?
Of course not!
But the reality is that having a website actually does often factor into the kinds of storytelling you do — and not necessarily in a good way.
For example, I’ll sometimes propose unique packaging ideas for a beautifully designed print magazine, because I want the school to make the most of its print publication.
But more than once, I’ve had clients balk, because they couldn’t envision how a story with unique packaging might appear on the publication’s website. It just wouldn’t translate, they tell me.
They might be right! It might not look good on the website.
But cutting off print magazine opportunities at the knees because it won’t look good for a tiny number of hypothetical readers on the website? That’s doing a huge disservice to your print magazine readers.
On the flip side, I’ve seen some incredible print magazine stories get lackluster web treatment, making fantastic stories all but unreadable.
That’s not much help, either.
But that’s not the only problem (or even the biggest one, honestly).
The trouble with online alumni magazines: feeding the beast
People expect websites to get updated with new stuff all the time.
In other words, that quarterly content dump ain’t gonna cut it.
For many, the solution to this problem — initially, at least — is to try to do more to attract eyeballs to the magazine website: more stories, more updates, more design firepower, more promotion.
GOTTA GET THOSE CLICKS.
As you map it all out, it can feel pretty exciting.
But the execution is an entirely different story.
Why your alumni magazine website ‘fixes’ might be making the situation worse.
The enthusiasm for producing vastly more content for a site rarely lasts.
Sometimes it’s because new priorities pop up, or your staff — already stretched thin — can’t handle the relentless requirement to generate new stories.
Sometimes the stories — no matter how good! — just don’t attract the attention you might have hoped for.
I’ve been a part of that problem, unfortunately. Years ago, I worked with a magazine that was launching a great new magazine website, and they wanted frequent updates to keep readers engaged.
I worked with their team to craft an ambitious plan with regularly updated and evergreen content. We put together many months’ worth of stories with my best possible ideas.
And the actual engagement?
My team and I threw absolutely everything I could think of into this work — our best ideas, our cleverest headlines, our smartest packaging. And it wasn’t nearly enough.
I was so disappointed.
But I was also determined to learn.
I kept my eyes open for what other schools were doing on their alumni magazine websites. What was working? Surely, someone had cracked the code.
There were some things that piqued my interest. Not long after I wrapped up the online magazine campaign I just mentioned, I heard about a buzzy launch for an online-only publication at a well resourced university. It was among the most beautiful I’d seen. The storytelling, art, and design was top-notch. If any school’s publication was designed to thrive online, this one might be it.
It published three issues — but interest apparently fizzled, because it’s been gathering digital dust for two years.
That result is less surprising than it might seem. Here’s what I mean.
The enthusiasm gap for an online alumni magazine
It’s really hard to put together something as ambitious as a magazine online — especially when the feedback and the readership numbers don’t seem to mirror the effort you’ve put into it.
I heard versions of this concern again and again when I surveyed 900+ of you for a report I published last year, “6 Insights on the Covid-19 Shift from Print to Digital Magazines.”
Many of you went digital for part or all of 2020 — and for most of the people who responded, it was a difficult and disappointing switch, even though there were really good reasons to go online-only.
Here are just a couple of comments from respondents:
“Our magazine staff probably felt more let down than any reader, you tend to feel ‘all that work for only online,’ and maybe we shouldn’t feel that way.”
“It was a great disappointment to put the summer issue, which was completely devoted to the university’s COVID response, online only.”
This type of emotional disconnection from an online publication might not be the most important factor to consider when you’re looking at the value of an online magazine, but it’s not nothing, either!
That lack of enthusiasm tends to translate into less ambitious stories and less creative energy for the publication itself. That benefits no one.
A print magazine, for many editors, feels real and important — it is the thing they are most proud to work on. I know many editors who ascended the career ladders at their institution but still kept a significant portion of their print magazine role because they felt such a strong connection to it.
So many editors have told me that they love their print magazine and wish they could devote more time to it.
Although I’m sure there are editors out there who love their online publications as much as their print ones, I haven’t actually met one who’s said so.
So what’s the answer?
Let’s summarize. So far, I’ve talked about why online alumni magazines are typically less effective than print alumni publications, why they’re so difficult to do well, and why many of us don’t even enjoy developing them.
I’m going to suggest something counterintuitive.
What if you decided — instead of piling more onto your to-do list to improve your alumni magazine website — you pulled back on it?
What if you put that time back into your print magazine?
What if you focused on making your print magazine — the thing that a larger percentage of your readers are actually likely to see — as good as it could possibly be?
You could focus on storytelling, on art and design, on unique ways to engage your readers.
Sure, you might keep something online — a page with downloadable PDFs of your publication for folks who want it, for example.
That will keep the beautiful design in the form that it’s intended to be, and it’s wise to have those archives available.
Pouring more of your energy into print wouldn’t preclude you from sharing one or more of your stories online, but that approach might not require the same type of commitment in time and resources. It might free you up to think more ambitiously about what is possible in print.
And in the end, your alumni — your readers — might be the ones who benefit most.