A couple months ago, I was in the market for a new bike.
After walking aimlessly around the local bicycle shop for a while, I nabbed a sales associate, described what I was looking for, and asked if he could help me narrow my choices.
He pulled a few bikes for me, highlighting features that would make my three-mile commute to the local co-working space faster and my occasional desire to haul a bag of groceries easier.
I tested them all out, thanked him, then left.
Then I went home and spent hours reading customer reviews for every bike he’d recommended. I wanted to know what real people who’d actually bought the bikes and put them to the test thought about them.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe the sales associate; it’s just that I trusted the motivations of actual customers a little bit more.
By the time I’d finished my research, I couldn’t wait to buy one of the bikes the sales associate had initially recommended.
And recently, I added my own recommendation to the chorus of happy customer reviews.
Why am I telling you this story?
If you’re responsible for an alumni magazine, you know that many of your stories require you and your team to trumpet your institution’s best qualities and paper over the (very rare, I’m sure) flaws.
Research suggests that alumni readers probably *mostly* trust what you tell them about how great your school is.
But if you turned over the pages of your magazine to folks outside of your communications office — alumni, students, faculty, staff — your readers might trust their opinions about your school’s excellent qualities even more.
In other words, in this analogy, your alums might consider you and your team generally reliable sales associates.
But your school’s students, alums, and other community members are even more trustworthy. Their love and enthusiasm for your school make an even more meaningful impact.
That’s the idea behind this story that I did for Grinnell College, “20 reasons to love Grinnell.”
In it, Grinnellians share their own reasons that the school mean so much to them, in their own words.
If you’re interested in doing a story like this, I’ve shared my own processes so you can get off to a running start. Grinnell Magazine editor Linda Hirsch weighs in with additional insight on their internal processes to help guide you every step of the way.
See what you think — then steal it for your next issue.
The ‘TK reasons to love your institution’ process
Okay, let’s do this!
💡 Start with a powerful premise
The right concept will build enthusiasm for the story even before the reporting begins.
Here’s what we started with:
In their own words, students, alumni, faculty and staff share love letters to their school. From tiny (a beautiful path across campus) to vast (an inspiring mission), every reason in this list illuminates something unique and valuable about the institution.
Use the exact process and tools that I do to uncover, collect, and organize, smart story premises for your magazine.
👥 Source wisely — and widely
An inclusive source list will make or break this story.
To build a killer source list, I recommended including a wide range of people — alumni and students, donors and other VIPs, beloved faculty and longtime staffers. I pulled names based on titles and roles that seemed most relevant. Grinnell’s team also threw the question out on social media channels.
I recommend “going big” with stories like this.
You’ll end up with a much better story if you contact 50 people to get 30 responses and print 20 of the best, tightly edited answers, rather than reach out to 20 people and realize you have to include some extremely mediocre responses just to round out the story.
I made it a point to brief several colleagues on the nature of the feature and asked them to make suggestions about individuals who maintained connection with the college and could authentically represent a diverse range of Grinnell experiences.
We tried to develop a subject list that reflected different ages, ethnicities, and academic interests. We did keep in mind that among current students in particular we consider those who would be game to speak to their personal feelings.
Our alumni relations colleagues were especially helpful in identifying alums who they thought would be thoughtful, willing participants.
In addition, we frequently include a prompt question in an issue to encourage alumni engagement and gauge interest in topics we might cover in a future issue. This story was seeded with the magazine’s back cover “Prompted” question, “What are your reasons to love Grinnell?” That generated several great contacts, several of which were incorporated into the final piece.
Read more on inclusive sourcing by reviewing #3 on this post.
🎙️ Ask compelling questions
Once you’ve got a list of sources, smart questions lead to irresistible stories.
I’ve spent years studying and testing smart questions that get meaningful responses.
I tried many different questions for this story. Some were total duds! That said, here are three questions that resonated and led to unique, interesting answers:
- What is your favorite spot on Grinnell’s campus? Why?
- What is a specific thing that makes you proud to be associated with Grinnell?
- When you think about Grinnell and the very best parts of it, what comes to mind? If someone saw your face light up while you were talking about some aspect of Grinnell, what would it be?
Here are a few more thoughts on interviewing.
✂️ Edit and curate with intention
It’s a fine balance: you must be both ruthless and generous.
A magazine’s value comes from your editorial judgment: choosing the best answers, framing them appropriately, and sharpening them. Each page of your magazine has a literal cost in dollars and cents, so every word should earn its way onto the page.
I cut the word count of some responses by 85 percent, and that was before they reached Linda! To make sure that alumni weren’t surprised — and that I didn’t introduce any critical errors in my edits — I sent the final quotes to the alumni for their approval after Linda reviewed and edited the piece.
Source approval is a time-consuming process. But no one should ever feel surprised or upset by their appearance in your publication. Remember that you’re not just an editor. You’re an ambassador for your institution.
Read more on source approvals, including my exact process and template.
🎨 Match the words with standout art and design
The choices you make will set the tone of the story as much as the words on the page.
Illustration worked well for us. I think the right style of illustration can amp the fun factor and helps make it clear that this is a different type of story. It also alleviated some of the hassles of getting contributed images.
I think photographs could work but would need more lead time. It could be fun to ask subjects to get a photo booth type image or use some framing or sign device, but again, that would take more pre-planning and time.
I loved the illustrations. But if you’re interested in learning how to make submitted photos work for you — for this story or any other — read #34 on this list and get the helpful PDF.
💯 Accept the kind words
Your magazine should inspire warm feelings and prompt enthusiastic responses. Here’s one story that all but guarantees it.
The feedback to the story was all very positive.
People said it was nice to get an upbeat perspective in the subjects’ own words. The print story motivated some follow-up emails and letters from alums who wanted to share their own take on why they love their alma mater. A few people commented on the piece being very readable.
That level of response is always nice.
I was thrilled to hear that the feedback was so positive.
Remember, too, that for every note you receive from an alum, there are many others who will read a story like this, come up with their own reason to love your institution, and feel more warmly toward your school.
This is true even if they never share their response with you.
📈 Learn and improve
Spend time thinking about how you can use the lessons of this story to make other stories even better.
I certainly would consider running another story like this sometime in the future. If so, I would weigh doing some of the alumni intake during a reunion or homecoming-type of event, especially if we already had plans for a photo booth. I might consider including brief bio text about the subjects.
Read through this story, see what you learn, and think about how you might adapt it. I definitely have!
- Can you imagine ways you could do a story like this in your magazine and pull it apart to share pieces on social media?
- Could you include those VIP alumni your leaders would love for you to include — but don’t seem “story worthy” on their own?
- Could it go to prospective students and families who want to see the institution through the eyes of its community?
This story has so many cool opportunities embedded within it! If this story concept resonates with you, I hope you try it — and take it in the direction that’s perfect for your institution.