Why your magazine should “go premium” in 2024

Every year, I encourage teams who work on alumni magazines to find new ways to make the most of their print publications.

In the past, I’ve encouraged people to take big swings, to develop more strategic approaches, and to use their magazine to create joy. I still believe you should do these things.

And this year, I want you to think about “going premium” with your magazine.

That’s right: instead of the usual frame of doing more with less. It’s time to rethink the equation.

Where can you strategically make your magazine bigger, more vibrant, and more irresistible? Can you pick an important moment for your school, a specific issue in the next year, or even a few key pages where you can go premium?

A premium magazine  — an amazing, covetable physical object — can keep your institution’s brand in some of the most prominent places in alumni and donors’ homes for weeks or months at a time.

Here’s exactly how I think about doing this.

Print isn’t dead. It’s just being misused.

I understand why many institutions have pulled back on print magazines in recent years.

There are many ways to reach your audience. Printing and mailing gets expensive. Measuring a publication’s impact is challenging. And recent(ish) paper shortages and price hikes seemed like they might put the final nails in the coffin for print magazines.

But the real problem, in my view, is that print magazines have been misused as a communications tool. The reasons are nuanced, but the reality is that print’s current, unique strengths are often misunderstood.

A few examples:

  • The best place to share faculty promotions isn’t your magazine. It’s your internal newsletter.
  • The best place to get signups for a niche reunion isn’t your magazine, it’s a targeted email with a link to the registration page.
  • The best place to have a conversation about your school’s run at this year’s national title isn’t your magazine, it’s on social media.

These are all jobs that might have been fine for print magazines in the past. But today, different communications tools do a better job accomplishing these tasks.

Still, I see alumni magazines wedging these kinds of topics into their pages all the time.

No wonder communications teams are thinking of pulling back on their print magazines! The material they’re sharing in their magazines isn’t right for a publication that comes out a few times a year, aimed primarily at alumni. As a result, readers are responding with a collective yawn — or a quizzical frown.

Instead, teams should use their print magazine to do the things that it continues to do far better than any other communications channel.

Flip the mindset: Print isn’t primary. It’s premium.

Print magazines are no longer your primary communication tool for alumni and donors. That’s fine!

Instead, they should be a premium one.

It’s easy to say — but it’s not easy to execute.

Thinking of print as “premium” instead of “primary” requires you to think differently about every aspect of your publication, from your planning process to the publication of a truly print-worthy story.

Here are a few ideas to help you reframe your approach to print.

1. Put it at the top of your “communication pyramid”

Consumer publications often provide useful insights that alumni magazines can follow.

For example, I’ve noticed that consumer publications often position their print magazines as one of the most valuable things a brand offers to its audience — a luxury purchase in the world of digital dross.

For example, consider New York magazine products:

  • Newsletters: Free
  • Podcasts: Free
  • Digital magazine subscription: $96
  • Print + digital magazine subscription: $207

WHOA. Their pricing model suggests that just adding a print component to a publication doubles its value to readers.

It helps that their print magazine is fantastic.

They’re signaling that print has a lot of value. That’s true even when you can literally get the same words and pictures in a digital format before a print magazine lands in readers’ homes.

Print should be at the top of your communications pyramid, too — a premium experience worth paying for, even if you never charge alumni a penny.

Going premium means:

  • Providing an incredible reading experience, with beautiful paper, typography, and design.
  • Adding details that delight.
  • Offering a “multi-touch” magazine experience: a publication so good that readers want to read a story, put it down and then come back to it later to read another one.

2. Develop every page with intention

A few months ago, I was listening to a podcast that featured an admissions marketer talking about his work with a new social media platform.

He and his team were basically throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. They were delighted to have one of their posts — which took just a few minutes to create — go viral, with hundreds of thousands of views.

This spontaneous, experimental approach is perfect for a new platform.

But your magazine is not that.

Print magazines are not a new platform. There’s not some mysterious alchemy for success that we still need to uncover. We know what works! It’s not a secret — but it does require approaching the work with intention and thoughtfulness.

Print magazines benefit from a methodical approach.

Your premium process might include:

  • Implementing a 30,000-foot planning schedule that goes out three or even four issues into the future.
  • Imagining a clean slate: if you had never had a print magazine, and had to create one from scratch, would the departments, features, and profiles you have now earn their way back into this new publication? Or would you do something different?
  • Creating plenty of opportunities for your creators — including writers, designers to photographers — to weigh in on different ways to tell a story.

3. Create a collectible

One of the strategies today’s publishers are using to create energy and excitement about their magazines is making them collectibles.

They aim to make them so beautiful and cohesive that readers can’t help but pick them up,  read them cover to cover, and keep them around.

There are many ways to do this.

It might be by creating a single topic issue, like one on Taylor Swift. (It’s an idea so popular that it seems to take up 75 percent of all newsstands right now, which I am absolutely not complaining about!)

It could be a theme issue about travel or happiness. Perhaps it’s a ranking or list, like “Top 100 innovators.”

Smart publishers also go big with beautiful covers, irresistible paper, perfect binding, and other signals that the publication that a reader is holding in their hands is different from a run-of-the-mill magazine in the grocery store checkout lane.

You can do the same: go big with your anniversary issue, your leadership transition, your annual report, or your new campus facility.

Your premium strategy can pay real dividends for your readers and your institution.