A high-level college administrator once said to me that the institution’s most important publication was not the alumni magazine but the president’s annual report. From their point of view, the print version of the magazine was an expensive, outdated, and perhaps even an expendable form of outreach. The presidential state-of-the-state report, they argued, was by far the most important key constituent communiqué’ we published.
I felt (and still find) that opinion to be fraught with flaws and an innate lack of understanding about the critical role alumni magazines play in informing, engaging, deepening pride, and ultimately, setting the development table for the “ask”. I sensed a desire to hop on the digital-only bandwagon but without the necessary research and data to do so with confidence. And, given the recent turnover at the top-level of the administration, I also understood why the insistence the articulation of a new president’s vision was paramount to all else. There was a great push afoot to make sure the president’s voice was amplified in as many ways as possible.
As higher education marketers, we must be ready and able to articulate the costs and benefits of all forms and channels of communication, including alumni magazines. It’s incumbent upon us create a product that is written for our audience and is reflective of the institution’s authentic brand both via content and visual representation. Given my longtime background in niche consumer magazines, I approach alumni magazines the same way I approached a consumer title. Why? Because just like those publications, colleges and universities have a passionate and loyal audience that want to see themselves reflected in the magazine, read stories that evoke their emotions (particularly pride), want to be informed, and yes, even want to be entertained. I often say alumni magazines are really lifestyle magazines~ as opposed to what, in many cases, resemble institutional newsletters on steroids.
If you find yourself in a similar situation and or with an opportunity to relaunch your alumni magazine, here are the seven steps I recommend you take to optimize audience engagement:
1. Sector Research
Recent CASE market research continues to support the importance of alumni magazines (print and digital) as the primary source of alma mater news and information. Make sure your administration is well aware of this fact.
2. Institution-Specific Reader Research
Producing current, data-driven evidence of the need and impact of a magazine relaunch is critical on two fronts; obtaining administration buy-in/resource support and providing empirical data on which you will base many of your editorial, design and platform decisions.
3. Brand Integration/Amplification
If your brand is current, authentic, and in alignment with the institution’s vision and mission, let it lead your design and editorial strategy refresh. Incorporate visuals, voice, personality, and message pillars into your magazine. Learn to create inspirational, compelling, provocative, and even fun “brand stories”.
4. Visual Engagement
An alumni magazine’s greatest competition is time. Given the daily bombardment of news and information, alumni magazines must immediately visually engage their audience or risk living in the discard pile. If you want the pages to turn, the cover and cover lines must be compelling and clever. And once inside the magazine, your design aesthetics must be visually pleasing, well organized, and properly paced.
5. Advancement Messaging and Advertising
You must find the right balance of “ask” messaging, or you will risk of turning off your reader. If balanced properly, your alumni magazine will “set the table” for the harder asks by putting alumni in the right state of mind (proud!).
6. Digital Magazine Strategy
Digital versions and alumni magazine websites with social media integration provide opportunities to broaden content and deepen engagement. It’s not an either-or, it’s both. Mobile viewing, consumption and interaction is critical for younger alumni engagement but don’t be fooled, Boomers are also looking at digital channels as a means to delve deeper into topics of interest and are avid consumers of online content.
Do the math, and you’ll likely find there is no more effective and efficient way to reach and fully engage your constituents. Don’t forget to include statistics on reach, time spent reading, pass-along readership, likelihood to engage with the university, likelihood to give et al. At somewhere around $2 a copy, I would challenge anyone to find a better means to connect.
Sarah Marshall Elliott is the Founder and CEO of Capstone Brand Partners and a SimpsonScarborough marketing partner. She has a passion for marketing, branding, strategy, publishing and all things higher ed. The Capstone team of consultants, advisors and marketing partners help colleges and universities strengthen their brands, increase competitive performance and meet strategic growth outcomes. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804.301.3453. To learn more about Capstone Brand Partners, visit www.capstonebrandpartners.com.