Hairy balls. I was convinced that was what I was looking at when I opened one of my favorite sections of The New York Times, “The New York Times for Kids.” And I was right. The article, “Stinky. Sweaty. Hairy. Pimply. Totally Normal,” was playfully illustrated by Super Freak and included hair, pimples, and more. It was a perfect creative decision and one that connected with its audience.
Audience is at the core of all our work, whether it is a reader of a magazine, a prospective student looking at admission materials, or a donor looking to invest. In all instances, we are looking to connect with them on a meaningful level. The better we understand them, the more defined we can be in the messages we develop and the more unique the work will be.
Last month I had the opportunity to attend Eagle Day at American University. At the end of the day, I wanted to package up the entire experience and share it with prospective families that could not be there. Why was it so successful? Because AU knows their students and families—it is a school for people that want to make an impact in the world. From the morning presentation “Making the Most of Your First Year” by Jessica Waters, Dean of Undergraduate Education and Vice Provost for Academic Services, and Shawn Chatmon, Interim Director, Residence Life, to the break-out session by Saul Newman, Associate Dean in the School of Public Affairs, the presentations felt real. They were humorous (where has the humor gone in admissions material?!) and at times unfiltered.
Jessica shared, “Whenever I’m thinking about speaking to prospective students and families, my goal is to help people figure out if our institution feels like it could be a ‘home’ for them. That requires that we, as institutions, be transparent about our values, opportunities, and the student experience. The goal is to help students find that ‘home’—for some, that will be AU, for others it won’t be. Helping a student figure that out—either way—is the goal.”
After touring numerous schools, listening to guides share very similar highlights despite where we were, and viewing hundreds of communications very few stood out. For the most part, they felt similar and lacked a unique story or understanding of how to differentiate themselves from a heavily saturated and competitive market. It was about selling the school instead of what Jessica notes being student-focused and helping individuals find the right place.
This homogenization is also present in alumni communications, specifically in magazines. It is important to look at other schools for best practices but even more important to reflect inwards to better understand what resonates for your audience. And how do you tell that story in a way that is unique your school?
As I think of my child heading off to college, I know that he is about to embark on the most transformative experience of his life. He will be focused on what he is passionate about, surrounded by like-minded peers, mentored by highly educated faculty, and living in a new city. When we look back on that time in someone’s life shouldn’t that be a core element in an alumni magazine? To be curious, intellectual, and take some risks?
Of course there are the stories that need to be told. But how can they be told in a way that is unique to the characteristics of the school and readership?
The cover story for the Spring 2023 issue of Bowdoin was a story that has been told many times, the transition of a President. But when it came to sharing that story on the cover, they took a unique approach. Interim Editor, Alison Bennie, looked beyond the surface of the story to consider what it was like for President Rose over the last 6 years and how he kept calm and steady during this challenging time. Art Director, Melissa Wells, worked with illustrator John Jay Cabuay to capture this theme for the cover.
“We knew that we didn’t want to show a portrait of President Rose on the cover because that isn’t our cover style. We also wanted to go deeper into his story. The final cover speaks to who we are as a college and community,” notes Alison.
Christina Barber-Just, editor of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly published Democracy in Distress: a special series on the threats facing democracy today over three consecutive issues (Summer 2022, Fall 2022, and Winter 2023). She shared her experience:
“We were interested in exploring the idea of democracy, but we didn’t want to give our readers the same news they could get anywhere else. Since Smithies themselves don’t shy away from the hottest of hot-button issues, we decided to wade right into the culture wars and focus on topics that are controversial but of critical importance to our alums. We did extensive research to find and identify alums making meaningful change in the areas of abortion rights, voting rights, transgender rights, book bans, disinformation, and more who could serve as sources for the stories in the series.
“The trans rights story was reported and written by a young alum, Oliver Haug ’20. After it was published, we heard from one of Haug’s sources. ‘I often felt invisible and unwanted by the college community while I was transitioning at Smith,’ the alum wrote, ‘so seeing my bearded face and he/him pronouns in the SAQ feels incredibly healing and powerful for me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for uplifting trans voices, trans joy, and trans Smithies during this stressful and polarizing time.’
“Democracy in Distress represents a big swing that took months to plan and almost a year to fully execute, but it shows that even a quarterly can engage with current events in a timely and relevant way that hits home with its unique readership. What truly makes the series distinctive is that it was told by the voices of people who have traditionally been marginalized and excluded from discussions around democracy: women, trans people, and people of color.”
In the recently launched podcast by Dog Ear Creative, “My Finest Work,” Maureen Harmon, co-founder and managing director, speaks with Notre Dame Magazine editor, Kerry Temple, about an issue from 2004 dedicated to religion and sexual orientation. What stood out to me was the time that he took with subjects and how well he understood Notre Dame and how to tell that story for the college.
As he notes in his editor’s letter in the issue, “We have done what we always do—report what's really happening on campus, let members of the Notre Dame family tell their stories, provide the forum for an engaging exchange of ideas, thoughts, beliefs and experiences in order to help us all understand our world, each other and ourselves better. Some issues divide us. Often these are the very ones that most deserve an airing. Often these are the very ones that come in shades of gray, defying black-and-white answers.
Sometimes it's okay to explore the questions without arriving at absolute certainty. Sometimes the hope is simply to get people to listen and think about things in a way they haven't before. Sometimes it's right to speak of a love that dares to discomfort us.”
Sometimes taking a deep look at your audience means rethinking how you even talk about your institution. When we first engaged with NativityMiguel Coalition they were diving deep into the organization’s history and mission to develop their strategic plan. As they revisited their original positioning they stepped back and asked the question: Are we serving the students as best as we can today? Not when we were founded 50 years ago. What they discovered was they needed to rethink their position to guide students to become their best authentic selves, which can happen in more pathways than just college.
“As we came up on our 50-year anniversary it was a perfect time to revisit our mission, vision, and positioning. It was also important to reflect current terminology of asset-framed language and investment over charity. This research guided the development of not just our strategic plan but also a new mission statement and positioning that clarifies who NMC is today and the value we bring to our member schools,” Danny Perez, Executive Director.
It was this deeper understanding of the organization, its member schools, and the students they served that is the foundation of their brand positioning and language.
The need to understand our audiences and a willingness to be unique is more important than ever—especially as AI becomes more and more prevalent in storytelling. Institutions need to connect authentically. This means taking time to research and understand what makes the community different, what stories convey that difference, and how to tell them as only we/you can.