The essential question to ask before making big magazine changes

First, let’s state the obvious: most schools made dramatic changes during the early weeks of the pandemic that weren’t based on in-depth analysis.

This isn’t a criticism! The changes were an immediate response to an unprecedented crisis.

Communications teams slashed costs, cut the number of issues in their magazine or trimmed pages. Some went entirely digital for the foreseeable future.

We aren’t out of the woods yet. But it’s time to start thinking strategically about how to move forward with your print magazine as the impact of the pandemic fades.

What will the days ahead look like for your publication?

As you map out the plan for your publication, there is one essential question that should guide those discussions. Here it is:

What are the things that my print magazine can do that nothing else can?

This question will illuminate the unique value of your print magazine — and can help you decide the value of investing more (or less!) in it.

So how do you answer that question? Certainly, on the surface, it may seem like your magazine offers very little that can’t be covered, in some way, by the other ways you communicate with your audience.

But let’s dig a little deeper.

Here are just a few of the things that I see as truly distinctive to print alumni magazines — features that simply can’t replicated through other methods:

1. Class notes

Yes, I know that some folks have experimented with putting class notes online, with or without a password-protected wall.

That’s just not the same.

Class notes aren’t just the most reliably popular section of your print magazine (just check CASE’s survey data). They’re also something that most folks don’t realize they’re eager to see until the magazine is actually in their hands.

Few people are going to seek out class notes on your website. Just searching for them is going to be a bear for folks who might visit your site once a year, if you’re lucky.

Class notes shrink your big institution to a more personal level to your alumni. Your alums might not know anyone you’re featuring in the major stories, but they might just know a handful of folks featured in the class notes. They might be the ones looking to see if their own promotion, wedding, new baby, or publication is included

2. Universally understood technology.

A magazine is one of those rare technologies that everyone — the 16-year-old prospective student, the recent grad, the 40-something prospective parent, the 94-year-old alum — knows how to use. They know where to start and they know how to find what they need. It never glitches. That’s not true of most of your other types of communication.

Here’s what one editor said after making the switch from a print magazine to a digital one in 2020.

“After our digital issue launched, I spent a full week acting as IT support for a handful of older alums who really just wanted me to print out the pages/columns they wanted to read and send them to them via USPS.”

3. Beautifully designed, non-linear storytelling

We’ve all been conditioned to scroll endlessly on our phones. But not every story is best told in straight narrative format! (And let’s be honest, that “must-do” story on the strategic plan or the new campaign might not hold most people’s interest if it demands a 2,000-word scroll.)

Consider this package on field research, which would be all but unreadable in straight narrative format, or this highly packaged story linked to strategic initiatives, like this one for St. Edward’s University.

Careful print design gives readers plenty of entry points. It doesn’t demand that readers start in one place and finish in another. Beautiful design can help tell stories that don’t have a specific beginning, middle, and end, but that have pieces that still fit together to tell a larger story

4. Scrapbook-able mementos 

Yes, I’m referring to those wedding photos, baby snapshots, and friend-packed images that you put into your class notes. Many of those folks featured will clip those out and slip them into memory books that they save for a lifetime.

But it’s not just class notes that make the cut! The 100-word profiles of students and young alumni and the beautifully photographed or illustrated stories of award-winning alumni are all things that your readers enjoy getting and will tuck away as important souvenirs of an accomplishment. I call this the “five-year value” of your magazine.

5. Social signaling

You don’t have to have a name-brand university for your alumni to feel proud to be associated with it. While we may not currently be visiting peoples’ homes or taking flights on which we can bring a stack of magazines, this reality won’t be forever. And in these cases — and many others — people often use things like alumni magazines to signal something about their status

Read more about this phenomenon in “The Surprising Hidden Value of Your Alumni Magazine.”

The important point is this: folks can’t do this kind of social signaling with apps, with direct mail, or with events. That print publication is essential.

6. A sense of scale among topics

Guys, I’ve spent countless hours scrolling through alumni magazine websites. And even though there may be a handful of stories called out as features with a hero images or other forms of hierarchy, I always struggle with understanding the scale of the story before I click on it.

Did I just spend a click on what is essentially a 50-word caption? Am I going to get mired in a 5,000-word behemoth when all I wanted was to grab a quick fact? 

I never have that problem while flipping through a magazine! If I’ve got 30 seconds before my next call or want to sink in to a 20-minute read, I know where to look for each. I’ll know if that new building on campus is a big deal based on the amount of space it takes in the magazine.

7. A sense of continuity.

Plenty of tech has come and gone over the years. 

But a magazine delivered to alumni doors a handful of times each year? That’s a touchstone that has lasted for decades. This continuity matters. It’s not just valuable for the history of your institution, but for your alumni as well, who may not be following your institution to every new technology.
Guys, this is just scratching the surface. There are so many different roles your alumni magazine can play in the lives of your readers and for your institution.

To be clear, you may decide that those things aren’t important, and that’s fine!

Print magazines are costly. If you don’t have the time or bandwidth to do them well, or if you don’t try to measure the real impact they have, they may end up feeling like an expensive waste of money. You don’t want to put something out into the world that represents your institution poorly. 

But if you do think your magazine is important, it may be worth investing in it even more deeply. You may want to make sure that it truly is an outstanding representation of your school, a connection point among the many people in your community, and a showcase of your very best work.

So as you and your team map out your plan for the year (or years) ahead, I encourage you to ask yourself: What are the things that your magazine can do that nothing else can?