Who is in your alumni magazine’s “secret audience?”

I was two years into my college running career, and I was at a crossroads.

Despite diligent training, I was shaping up to be a mediocre Division III athlete: a junior varsity runner who earned coaches awards for dedication, but who never broke out of the middle of the pack.

Still, that spring, I’d gotten it into my head that if I just put in the kind of miles that the top-tier runners on my team put in — 50-mile weeks, instead of my usual 35 — I might be able to hang with the varsity squad.

It wasn’t just that I wanted to be a better runner (though I did).

It was because while the faster runners were all my pals in the dining hall and in the library after practice, I desperately wanted them to see me as a peer on the track and on the trails.

Erin’s self-created recipe for disaster

On our track team’s annual spring break trip, I saw my chance. If I just added a couple extra miles per day to my two-a-day practices, I had a shot at one of those magical 50-mile weeks.

And reader, let me tell you, I did it.

I ran 50.5 miles over seven days on that spring break. I compared notes with my teammates about the hills at the tail end of a 10-mile run and the agony of waking up the next morning for an “easy” five-miler. I had done it! I was in.

But if you’re a runner — and even if you’re not — you might be able to predict what happened after I upped my mileage by 50 percent: I got injured.

The shin splints that had been troubling me for weeks turned into stress fractures which turned into the end of my track season.

After returning from that trip, my teammates headed out for runs on gorgeous spring afternoons, and I glumly nursed myself back to health on a stationary bike in the stale gym air.

Lesson: Don’t get distracted from your real goal

As a runner, my main job was to finish ahead of the competitors standing right next to me on any given starting line. It was to do the best that I could do, given my admittedly minimal natural talent. That was what my coach was training me for!

But I was focused on a secret audience: my running peers. And in aiming to earn respect from that audience, I ended up failing to accomplish anything at all.

Who’s in your magazine’s secret audience?

For a lot of you, I suspect my story sounds ridiculous.

But if you’re responsible for your school’s alumni magazine, you might have a secret audience for your magazine just like I had a secret audience when I was running on my college team.

And just like I ended up sabotaging my season by focusing on that secret audience, your focus on your secret audience may be sabotaging your magazine’s chance to make a meaningful impact with its real audience.

Let me give you a few examples of the ways I’ve seen editors and comms teams focus on secret audiences:

  • Secret audience #1: your president/chancellor/dean
    While I probably don’t need to state the obvious here, you should never try to intentionally upset the top brass! But when your leadership insists on writing deadly boring letters on the opening pages of your magazine, this is not treating your real audience with the respect it deserves. (It’s also not doing any favors for the leaders who are featured.)

    Find another way to share your leader’s priorities in ways that make the most of your pages and make for compelling reading.

  • Secret audience #2: your internal colleagues
    When I see entire magazine sections devoted to recent promotions, faculty publications, and internal awards, I do not think: “Wow, what an accomplished group of individuals, I would be proud if I were an alum of this institution.”

    Instead, I think: “I am so mad that they think that I want to waste my time reading this boring irrelevant stuff that I would like to light this magazine on fire and throw it out the window.”

    Your magazine should not feel like a series of glorified LinkedIn promotional posts! It’s meaningless and often confusing to the thousands of readers who get your publication.

  • Secret audience #3: your advancement team
    When snoozeworthy donor profiles appear on the pages of magazines, it’s typically not because lots of readers are clamoring for them.

    Certainly, advancement officers may see them as a way to publicly thank these generous individuals, pave the way for future gifts from that person, or even subtly influence future donors.

    But your audience, while it may include that donor, is a whole lot more than that single person or even a handful of other potential donors who might see it. Make those profiles more interesting, make them more widely relevant, or make them go away.

  • Secret audience #4: your imagined detractors
    One of the things I often see in this field is editors who deeply want their magazine to be seen as “legitimate” — a smart and unbiased publication that happens to focus on a school. Journalism, not marketing.

    They resist telling any stories that have even a whiff of boosterism, because they imagine that their peers in journalism — or maybe even a particularly prickly alum —will call them out for their insincere propaganda.

    But here’s the truth: your actual audience — the tens of thousands of people who receive your magazine every few months — don’t actually expect traditional journalism.

    They understand that your publication is funded by your institution, so you’re probably not going to be spending a lot of time disparaging a strategic priority or promoting a rival institution.

    But if you do thoughtful and interesting work issue after issue, they will trust the stories you tell. When you have bad news to share about your institution, they will be open to hearing the ways that your school is addressing it and trying to remedy it, and they won’t automatically distrust your publication’s motives. And they will be open to the stories that share how great your school is, and why it’s worth it to continue supporting it.

  • Secret audience #5: award judges
    Look, I get it: it’s nice to be recognized. I’ve happily touted Capstone’s many awards over the years, including a Sibley and a gold award from CASE in 2022.

    But remember that award judges are not actually your magazine’s audience.

    Here’s one example that sticks with me: years ago, I talked to an editor who had devoted an entire issue of her magazine to a beloved coach who had recently retired.

    Her readers adored it, showering her with more letters of gratitude than she had ever gotten, as well as anecdotes and photos about the coach that she could use in future issues. Alumni kept the issues in their home for months, then years. They sent in gifts to recognize the coach’s impact on their lives.

    It was a huge success, and it accomplished every goal their institution could have wanted.

    But when that issue didn’t win a single award at a statewide competition, she was crestfallen.

    Yet in many ways, that snub makes sense: the story was so specific to her school’s audience that a more general audience didn’t appreciate it.

    And that’s fine! In some ways, the best stories for your audience will be so specific that they will seem almost bizarre to an outsider.

Don’t let secret audiences sabotage your magazine.

Understand who your true audience is. Understand what makes them sit up and take notice. And focus relentlessly on serving their needs.