The lessons of a print alumni magazine hiatus — with numbers

In the spring of 2020, many print alumni mags came to a screeching halt.

Colleges cut and combined issues. Some moved their publications exclusively to digital platforms.

What was the impact?

Recently, I talked to Lindsay Sherman, senior editor and writer at McDaniel College, a small private liberal arts college in Westminster, Md.

She and her team didn’t just speculate about the impact — they measured it.

This is an incredibly insightful, detailed look at the ripple effects of putting a print magazine on hiatus and moving to a completely digital format.

No matter what the status is for your own magazine, McDaniel’s experience is worth reading. I’ve shared my own thoughts at the end.

The context

The Hill is a 60-page publication (including cover) that’s typically published three times a year and goes to about 30,000 alumni, parents, faculty and staff, and donors.

More than half of the book is devoted to the class notes, which are produced in collaboration with volunteer class reporters. Lindsay describes the class notes section as “an institution in itself.”


The Covid Pivot

When Covid hit, McDaniel eliminated its print issues for 2020 and went digital-only with its magazine. They digitally published a spring issue and a combined summer/autumn issue. They cut the budget for their freelance designer and brought the design in-house.

To promote the spring issue, they used a physical postcard, as well as email, web, and social media outreach. They did the same for summer/autumn, but ditched the print postcard.

The numbers

Lindsay shared key numbers for the first 28 days of each issue:

A. Visits

  • Spring: 2,232 (social media, email, + postcard promotion)
  • Summer/autumn: 1,351 (social media and email promotion only)

Difference: Visits down 39.5 percent

B. Time spent per visit

  • Spring: 10:41
  • Summer/autumn: 10:24

Difference: Down 2.6 percent

Lindsay adds: “My contact at Nxtbook says their average for all clients is only about 7 minutes.”

C. Page views

  • Spring: 59,354 views (nearly nearly 49k of that was in the first seven days)
  • Summer/autumn: 35,163 views (nearly 31k of that was in the first seven days)

Difference: Page views down 40.8%

D. Email launch day visits

  • Spring issue: 1,129
  • Summer/autumn issue: 741

Difference: Visits down 34.4 percent

E. Difference in sources of traffic

  • Direct traffic down 52.5% between spring and summer/autumn
  • Search engine visits down 69.4% between spring and summer/autumn

F. Email analytics (sent to about 18k recipients)

  • Spring issue open rate was 22.51%; click rate was 6.46%
  • Summer/autumn issue open rate was 19.13%; click rate was 4.91%

Difference: Open rate down 15 percent; click rate down 24 percent

What happened next — and key lessons

The magazine returned to print in spring 2021, but McDaniel cut about 11,000 addresses from its rolls — primarily graduate-level alumni who have not maintained a giving or volunteer relationship with the institution during the past three years.

Going forward, says Lindsay, “the print quantity and mailing list will continue to be a point of discussion.”

Here are a few of the takeaways Lindsay shared from her experience:

1. Digital wasn’t a big win.

“We got many, many upset emails from alumni about not printing the spring issue. (It’s worth noting that we did receive a couple from younger alumni saying they preferred the digital version and do not need to receive print anymore.) I only got two notes about the summer/autumn issue.

We also usually have a contest of some sort — a quiz, trivia question, nostalgia prompt, etc. — and typically receive upwards of 20 submissions. The spring issue garnered about 10, but the summer/autumn only led to two.”

2. Budget and alumni emotion, rather than exact numbers, led the decision to bring back print.

“The analytics from our web platform did not actually play a role in the decision to return to print.

Instead, it was a better-than-projected budget situation when the college’s budget was finalized by the board, as well as the passionate response from alumni to the print magazine being taken away. My VP did ask to see the letters we received.”

3. Digital brings its own headaches (and opportunities).

“Creating a digital publication is a whole different beast.

Pieces that we may design for print just don’t translate to digital sometimes, or may lose their impact when they’re made accessible. And vice versa! Some of the bonus content we were able to embed in or link to on our digital edition is not going to work in a print magazine because it requires extra steps of our reader, like going to a computer or mobile device and typing in a URL or searching for a video.

Ultimately, I see our digital platform as a supplement to our print publication, rather than a replacement.”

4. There’s just something about print.

“I’m thrilled that we are back to print and know that our alumni are, too. However, I am sad that what I consider to be some of the best writing of my career in those last two issues has gone so under the radar because nothing was printed.

I have learned that print is really where my passion is. While I am thrilled that our online-only platform was ready to roll for us in the interim, I really missed a lot of things about the print publication:

  • The deadlines are much harder to push back, as much as that is sometimes a headache;
  • The thrill of the advance shipment and knowing that my ‘baby’ has been delivered;
  • The feel and smell of that book that I labored over;
  • The longevity of a relationship with a reader when it’s in print;
  • The tangible connection to a place you love.

My own alma mater continued to print, and I got so excited when that ‘happy mail’ appeared in my mailbox.”

Erin’s additions

I agree with everything that Lindsay said.

Lindsay’s experience over the past year also aligns with what I’ve long suspected: digital publications for alumni publications may lead to an initial pop of interest from readers, but it can be a struggle to maintain that momentum.

For years, I’ve been quietly monitoring alumni magazine websites, and I see the pattern frequently: a big launch and big ambitions — followed by a slide into digital dust.

Far more schools have experimented with digital over the past year, and I suspect many that moved exclusively to digital for a few issues will end up returning to print when they measure the results.

But this past year has been anything but a wash. It’s led many schools to zero in on the real purpose of their alumni magazine — and think deeply about whether their publication is achieving it. It has led people to re-evaluate the best audience for their magazine, the frequency of its publication, and the best mix of stories, class notes, advertising, and other content.

This is great, and I love to see it! The right mix will be a little different for every school, but this analysis is essential, and for many, long overdue.