A few months ago, I did an interview with Skidmore’s Mary Monigan, who shared what happened when her institution (mostly) ditched its print alumni magazine.
In the interview, she said something that stuck with me, even though (at the time) I didn’t fully understand why.
She told me that when she spoke with alumni about eliminating the magazine, the alumni would specifically tell her “I want to have something to put on my coffee table…when my friends come over, we talk about it.”
What was going on there? Was ‘having something on the coffee table’ really so important? Couldn’t alumni simply read the magazine online?
But a few months later, I read a story that helped illuminate what was really going on when Monigan’s alumni told her they wanted a physical copy of the magazine.
Your magazine is more than a magazine
In the amazing book Revenge of the Analog, author David Sax talks to Tom Standage, an editor at The Economist. The Economist has nearly one million print subscribers and a jaw-dropping $152 annual price tag.
Yes, the highbrow magazine consistently provides readers outstanding reporting and insight in its pages.
But the magazine’s print popularity — particularly among the millennial subset, which makes up a huge proportion of its subscriber base — is also about something more subtle.
“We assume younger people want [the print] The Economist as a social signifier,” says The Economist‘s deputy editor. “You can’t show others you’re reading it with the digital edition. You can’t leave your iPad lying around to show how smart you are.”
In different ways, we’re all showoffs.
In other words, these print magazine subscribers wanted to put something on their coffee table that said something about who they were — or at least, who they wanted other people to think they were.
Check out a similar phenomenon with the New Yorker here.
And now let’s bring this back to your alumni magazine.
Your alumni magazine sends a social signal
As humans, we’re constantly sending subtle social signals about who we are.
The Instagram image of finishing a half marathon we’ve trained for is designed to signal something to others. (I’m fit and disciplined!) That Facebook friend count signals something to others. (I’m popular!)
And your print alumni magazine that folks set out on their coffee table before friends or neighbors come over helps your alums send a social signal about their intelligence and skills. Depending on your institution, your magazine might also send signals about their religious or political leanings, too.
Social signaling offers a different way to think about the value of your institution’s magazine. Your magazine isn’t just something that your school uses to share information with far-flung alumni. It’s also a physical object that helps alumni signal something to others in their lives.
This isn’t likely the primary reason alumni keep your magazine around. But it is a real one and a significant one.
How to make the most of your magazine as a social signal
So how do you create a magazine that alumni want to use as a way to signal their intelligence, their thoughtfulness, and their views on the world that align with your school’s? Read on for just a couple ideas.
1. Make. That. Cover. Beautiful. I’ve talked about how the cover is the billboard for your magazine. Get that right, and you’ll capture their attention at least from the mailbox to the recycling bin. A couple good cover lines, and you might just persuade a skeptic to keep it around. A beautiful magazine on an alum’s table can help showcase their excellent taste.
2. Don’t be afraid to put your school’s name on the cover! I’ve worked at more than one school that has made the decision to minimize — or even eliminate! — the school’s name from the cover of the magazine. They’ve come up with some other name that they believe represents the brand of the institution — like Discoveries or Pursuit or Bold Ventures. (Apologies if this is the name of your magazine! I made all of these up.)
But to my mind, there’s no good reason to make your magazine’s title too subtle. If your alums are proud to have attended and graduated from your institution, they’ll be happy to have a magazine with your alma mater’s name on the cover.
Before I wrap this up, there’s a remarkable coda to Skidmore’s story, which I learned only recently.
After deciding to radically reduce the number and content of its alumni magazines, Skidmore later reversed course.
The school has since decided to ramp back up to two magazines per year. Every six months, Skidmore’s alumni have a great magazine in their hands — and something beautiful to put on their coffee table to show the world who they are and what’s important to them.
Monigan calls it “a huge win for alumni.”
I do, too.