Digital Storytelling 101

4 building blocks to creating a sustainable, member-driven digital publication.

I recently had the pleasure of writing an article for CASE Currents on digital publications (due out in July/August). This is not the first time I have covered this topic. In 2010, I wrote an article about publishing your association magazine online (published in AM+P’s Signature magazine as well as UCDA’s Designer). The surprising thing is that despite over 10 years since writing that original article, incredible progress in online technical capabilities, and increased online engagement, higher ed is slow to fully embrace online publications. Considering alumni magazines are at their core member magazines, it is time to think about the reader and design to meet them where they are. Here are four things to consider as you build your digital presence.

Know Your Publishing Capabilities. The beauty of the Web is that you can do anything—if you have the budget and people power. The first thing you need to understand is how much time you can put into maintaining your website. In-house communication teams are already overloaded with work, so being realistic about how frequently you can publish to the site is important. Hopefully, it is more than three times a year but if that’s what your team (or you, if you are the team) can realistically handle, your publishing schedule and content strategy need to be built around that. You also need to consider who is updating the website. Some publications are built with the school’s content management system and are more complex on the back-end. A blog format, like WordPress, has a more intuitive back end and therefore is easier for most people to use.

Put the Reader First. When developing your website, deconstruct your print magazine and look at content categorization. If you have completed the CASE Reader Survey then you have an idea of what topics your readers are interested in. Use that information to create the framework for your information architecture. 

Cindy Buccini at Bostonia notes, “We spent a lot of time thinking about the tags, categories, and subcategories. And there’s a standard form for someone writing a story with tags and categories to choose from so that everybody’s picking from the same list.” Print-specific terms like “feature” have a different meaning online. Don’t just move your print content online but really consider how someone is going to search for articles.

Build the Editorial Plan. A well thought-out magazine takes into consideration the stories that need to be told and the angles to tell them. Including different members of the team—the writer, editor, designer, photographer, videographer, and social media manager—early in the process brings in different perspectives on the best way to capture the story. This planning is even more important when considering digital assets. Recorded interviews allow for the addition of audio, photo shoots that include video add depth to the narrative, and illustrations with motion capture a reader’s attention. All of these need to be considered in early discussions in order to properly plan for content development.

Michelle Tedford at University of Dayton notes, “When we are creating stories, we are keeping both print and digital in mind. So if it is a digital-only edition, we think about those stories that will work best with multimedia. And if we’re thinking if it’s a print and digital edition, we think of, you know, what is the print story budget? And then what do we need to do differently to enhance what we’re doing digitally? What sound do we need to capture?”

Another consideration is the longevity of a digital issue. Tedford: “We always try to have a couple of [evergreen stories] in each issue. If a particular story has longevity, we have more opportunity for people to bounce around within the issue if they find a story.”

Publish, Share, and Promote. Unlike a popular consumer magazine or newspaper, your readers are probably not coming to your publication site directly. But one of the strengths of a member-based magazine is that you have a community—you just need to engage with them where they are. That means developing a strategic content strategy. 

According to Tiffany Harbrecht, freelance writer and content strategist, former co-managing editor and contributing writer for Washington Square Magazine: “Publishing the content online is just the beginning of the digital strategy for Washington Square. The team always considers how content should best be shared on each channel, so it best highlights the stories in snackable and engaging ways, and looks closely at both the magazine website’s analytics and real-time interactions and comments on social media to drive social and content strategies forward.”

Consider how you will tell the story in print, digital, and social. How can you roll out a content plan for a magazine that publishes two or three times a year? How can you leverage your audience to expand the narrative through social media? Will you do an e-newsletter takeover or spread out magazine content over multiple issues? How can you take advantage of member expertise?

At the end of the day we are storytellers—and the message is the medium.