Insights

Storytelling Belongs Everywhere

Why Your Magazine Needs a Digital Presence

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Last week Erin Peterson/Capstone Communications, shared an article through her email, “Is it time to ditch your alumni magazine website?” I have the utmost respect for Erin—she is a thought leader for alumni magazines and a talented writer. But on this topic, I could not disagree with her more. 

Alumni editors must look at their audience, understand how their habits are changing, and strategize how best to engage with them. The goal is to connect with alumni, not to produce a print publication. It is all about the story and how to best tell it—and that means having a print and digital plan.

As someone who has been an editorial designer for over 30 years, I know it can be difficult to move beyond print—I love my print magazines! But our focus must be on the story and not the medium. Last year offered us a number of reasons why we can’t put all our resources into print, including distribution issues, reduced budgets, and external factors like the increased cost of paper and postage. 

Do we need more websites? 100%.

Erin notes that 89 percent of alumni magazines have websites and in her opinion “that number is way, way too high.” In my opinion, however, that number is too low—it should be 100 percent. That is not to say that all magazines need a stand alone website. 

Let’s take our client at Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and their publication Colloquy as an example. To best reach their alumni, the editors take a multi-prong approach. Articles from the publication are featured on the school’s homepage, and additional content is posted under a link to the magazine. Further stories are shared through their news channels, including social media and an e-newsletter. Or readers can download a PDF of Colloquy. The stories and channels work together to make the alumni connection accessible. 

Do I believe that alumni get up in the morning and go directly to their alma mater’s website? No. 

But they are picking up their phones and checking their feeds, streams, and notifications. And those channels should bring them to a website that is rich with storytelling. It is not about the magazine, it is about the institution; and while the print magazine is a very important tool to engage alumni, it is only one communication. We must think more broadly. 

We’re not dumping print, but the relationship is changing.

All things considered, the print magazine is important. It is the piece that arrives in someone’s house, as one editor I worked with said, “like an old friend.” But it needs to evolve with the times. It does not make sense to print news about faculty appointments, awards, sports updates, new buildings, in a quarterly or bi-quarterly publication. This information should have already been shared through digital channels—they are the perfect medium for such news.

Another change to consider is the approach. The print magazine is often vulnerable to budget cuts because it hasn’t changed. Editors need to connect with readers through storytelling, and not rely on a sole publication. This way, if the print magazine is cut, their job is not. Alumni print magazines have the unique advantage of being an object; we should explore different formats, size, printing and finishing techniques to make them unique. 

Planning makes progress. 

Further into her piece, Erin notes how an alumni magazine website might negatively affect storytelling when a story doesn’t translate digitally. I believe that with strategic planning, this needn’t be a concern. 

First, it’s important that a publication website be conceived as a storytelling device. Unlike an information-driven commercial site, a publication website serves a very different role of creating an experience through connection. A successful site considers the who and how of a site well before it’s built; it requires a well-conceived plan. (I like to use the following analogy: you wouldn’t construct a building before drafting and approving the architectural plan, right?)

Next, use the beginning of every issue as an opportunity to explore digital storytelling—photographers are shooting video, designers are exploring motion, editors and writers are developing linked content. Too often stories are shoehorned into existing formats and that usually leads to disappointment. When the elements are planned in advance, there is so much more room for creativity and connection.

Also, I recommend a deep audit of previous issues. Take a look at past stories and ask how they could have been told digitally. This practice not only makes you think strategically, it may also provide future story ideas.  For more inspiration, be sure to check out best practices in the publication world and not only alumni publications.

Communicate and Collaborate.

As Erin notes, “that quarterly dump ain’t gonna cut it.” I completely agree. Stories don’t always stay fresh until the next publication date. So that goal of creating a lively magazine that comes out three times a year? Not effective. Saving stories is not a strategy. 

Let’s address the elephant in the room: institution communications are siloed. You know how it goes—the alumni office is hosting events and posting content on social media, the news office is posting daily or weekly updates, advancement communications producing their own content, videographers and photographers being hired for one-off assignments, and sometimes the magazine is a completely separate entity...all this work without a point of continuity.

With tools like Slack or Basecamp there is no reason for the walls; there should be a central communications set-up with an overarching communication plan. The big-picture strategy has to consider how best to share the content with teams across campus. And plans have to move towards digital-first with evergreen stories in development for longform narrative and print. 

Again, it is not about the magazine, it is about the institution. 

A final note.

I strongly believe that storytelling is the glue that connects alumni to their alma mater, and this must come in whatever form is best suited to make that happen. The print magazine can’t be the end goal for an editor’s pride, and digital can’t be expected to do it all. Editors have to consider all channels. 

Look at magazines that are doing it well: The New York Times Magazine promotes their cover before it is published on Sunday adding a story about the story; New York Magazine stories appear on social media and the print distribution was cut in half; and MIT’s Technology Review has an entire events division along with their digital presence. They are all finding the right balance to engage with readers.

One final thought regarding Erin’s article: It isn’t about doing less, it is about being more strategic. Other industries have pivoted—look at the music and film industries—and now it is time for education to follow suit. We have to stop thinking in terms of print versus digital and start developing a plan for both.

To read Erin Peterson’s original email subscribe to her newsletter: click this link and sign up.