Optimize your print alumni magazine’s mailing list

For years, I’ve subscribed to the Harvard Business Review.

I’ve always loved its gorgeous covers and illustrations, its silky, high-end paper, and the way it made me seem extremely smart when I pulled it out of my bag to read on airplanes. 🤓

So a few years ago, when I got a notice that starting immediately, I’d be getting half as many issues because the publication sought to offer me an “integrated print and digital experience,” this is how I felt:

Look, I get it: organizations want to save money. They want to be more sustainable. They want to offer integrated print and digital experiences.

But they aren’t always thinking as much as they should about the actual impact on the reader — including one like me, who loved the actual magazine when it showed up on my doorstep, but who also wasn’t scouring HBR websites or social feeds for the latest business insights.

Who are you focused on?

You can probably see that parallel I’m making with your print alumni magazine.

As costs continue to increase for print magazine essentials like paper and postage, plenty of communications offices are looking at ways to save.

Your mailing list is probably one of those line items that looks like an easy way to trim thousands from your budget.

After all, you can probably send these readers a note about how this decision shows that your institution is a careful steward of its resources. It’s making a smart, sustainable decision. You’re offering your readers an “integrated print and digital experience.”

I’ve seen it countless times. What segments go? Here are just a few groups who’ve gotten cut:

Maybe these alumni don’t get cut from every issue, but maybe they get one or two issues a year instead of three or four.

Unfortunately, the fury that it invokes in readers might be greater than the money that it saves. And the reality is that your magazine might benefit from having more people see it, not fewer.

How to see your mailing list as a valuable asset, rather than an expensive cost

Certainly, budgets are budgets and if you don’t have the money to send print magazines to everyone, you’ll have to make some difficult choices.

But instead of sending your magazine to an ever-shrinking pool of alumni, you might want to start making the case to expand your mailing list.

Who else might want to see your publication? Who else might value it? And what other offices at your institution might help you pay to get it to these groups if they understand the difference it might make?

After all, you and your team have worked hard to develop great stories, include beautiful photos, and tell the story of your institution and its people in ways that move readers.

Research shows that print is uniquely effective at reaching people in memorable and meaningful ways.

Your print magazine is also a social signifier — a way for your audience to show others who they are and what they value without saying a word (like that HBR that I hoped signaled my business acumen on the plane).

Tangible objects are subtle social signals. “Digital experiences” aren’t. (Read more about how this works with alumni magazines.)

Here’s exactly how institutions have expanded their mailing lists effectively

So what does expanding your mailing list look like? And what’s the actual impact?

Here are some examples of how this more expansive approach to mailing lists works — and how institutions that are able to think bigger about the value of their publication to a wide variety of audiences.

  • Send to admitted students. Milton Academy sends its Sibley-winning magazine to its admitted students each March. “Is it a marketing piece specifically? Not really, but we do use it as one way to attract students,” says editor Sarah Abrams.
  • Send to prospective students. Macalester sends the winter issue of its magazine to prospective students. I love this idea, because it helps prospective students (and their families) see beyond admissions promises to actual results. The alumni featured in the magazine are products of Mac’s stellar education. Prospective students can see not just the alums highlighted in profiles, but also the dozens and dozens of alums who self-select to tell the stories of their lives through class notes.
  • Send to parents and families. For many families, having their child attend your school is the culmination of some of their most fervent hopes — whether that student is the first in the family to attend college, or the most recent in what may be generations of family members who have attended. Sure, parents may show off their kid’s successes with their sweatshirts and bumper stickers, but they can also strengthen their connection with the school through your print magazine.
  • Send to a wider swath of engaged alumni. Not every school sends its magazine to all of its alums, but it might make sense to send the magazine to more alums, not fewer. For example, Rebekah Tilley at Tippie Magazine strategically tripled the school’s mailing list from about 5,000 to 15,000 alums — focusing on adding alums who had shown some sort of engagement in the institution, such as attending a webinar.The result? The institution saw a huge increase in giving.)
  • Expand and test.
    When Clemson’s Nancy Spitler partnered with her school’s annual giving team to strategically expand the school’s magazine’s mailing list, they tried a number of different experiments. One of them expanded their mailing list to include thousands of alums who had never given to the institution.The cost was a cool $40,000. Yet the results more than paid for themselves. “From October to December of that year, we had gifts from 191 “nevers” for a total of more than $52,000,” she says. “And it’s not just that first gift that matters. It’s the beginning of engagement with those alumni with whom we had lost touch.”

These strategies work!

Your print magazine is a unique and beautiful object that the people in your community — however expansively you want to define it — can receive a handful of times per year that will remind them of their connection to your institution and its enduring value in their lives.

My best advice for you is to stop thinking small — about your work, about your mailing list, about the value of your magazine to your community. Find ways to partner with other areas in your institution, find ways to make your case, and find ways to expand your publication’s impact.

Your magazine matters, and you can make sure that you’re doing everything you can to make the most of it.