Brain Trust Recap: Managing Alumni Magazines During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On April 13, 2020 we convened nearly 30 colleagues from colleges and universities across the country to talk about alumni magazines in the wake of COVID-19 impacting us this spring.

On April 13, 2020 we convened nearly 30 colleagues from colleges and universities across the country to talk about alumni magazines in the wake of COVID-19 impacting us this spring. We invited three guests to share three different directions their universities are taking with their magazine and then had a rich discussion about the pros and cons and potential challenges with each solution.

COVID-19 Free or Focused Content

A significant point of discussion was about where on the spectrum of content coverage COVID-19 should be — from a fully dedicated issue, to a feature article or two, to a COVID-free issue. 

We aren’t sure what the level of interest in readers might be in the coming months as magazines are printed. Will they be burnt out from COVID news and prefer to read anything but that? Will they be intrigued at alumni connections to finding vaccines and being on the front lines as public health administrators and health care professionals? We recommend polling small groups of alumni to get a general sense, but also know that this feeling could change as months go by.

COVID-19 Special Edition Magazine

The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota is taking a different approach with a COVID-19 special edition. The team was hard at work on their spring edition and had planned on a story about coronavirus and their university’s response to it, along with a column from the president. 

“Our chief marketing officer approached our team about doing more,” said Patty Petersen, senior editor. “The end result will be a special COVID-19 edition instead of our spring issue.​ We'll hold our spring stories until fall.”

Adding a Wrap to a Just-Printed Issue

Susan Blystone, editor at Illinois State University, also joined us to share more details about their spring issue that had just come off the press when the pandemic hit.

“We put the brakes on before it was bound and are adding a wrap, which will be a letter from the president as the cover, promoting a COVID-19 response fund we created on another page, another with an empty shot on the quad,” she shared in a recent CASE CUE email. “The letter states that the issue was done in advance, where to go for updated info online, and that the August issue will be the campus response to the virus.” 

Planning Future Issues While Campus Is Closed

Stacey Greene, associate vice president for communications and marketing at Stevens Institute of Technology, shared that their university is planning on kicking off their 150th anniversary later this year, and a special double-issue of the magazine was planned for this fall. 

Photoshoots and other on-campus asset collection was planned for this spring, but their campus is closed. The result will likely be a postponement of the special issue into spring 2021.

Moving to an Online-Only Magazine

Tonya Oaks Smith, executive director of marketing and communications at Louisiana Tech, shared the decision to move their magazine— a two-time CASE award winner in recent years—-to an online-only edition starting this summer. 

“We go to press in the summer, usually,’ Smith explained.“The cost for production is so high we have decided to move all magazine operations to online-only this year.” 

This is one of many cost-saving measures we are seeing marketing offices take in an effort to make cuts due to loss revenue with room and board, as well as the uncertainty about fall enrollment. 

Some colleges reported having a robust web presence for their alumni magazines, launching the entire issue online simultaneously when print editions arrive in mailboxes. Others have select stories and online-only features. This situation is making many colleges rethink their alumni magazine web presence and ability to communicate with their readers via email. Again, some have robust email lists, while others have a hard time collecting email addresses and instead see more engagement on alumni social media channels. 

Georgy Cohen, director of digital strategy at OHO, talked about the need to continuously look at new ways to do things online. Magazines have always been print-centric and now that everything is being disrupted and digitized, how will this affect the alumni magazine? They are often hosted in a silo, with content trapped and not brought into the higher flow of storytelling on many university websites.

Additional Budget Savings

As many colleges are looking for ways to trim budgets this spring, some have decided not to mail their alumni magazines to international recipients, which will save significantly on postage. 

Another best practice to save money on alumni magazines is to create a multi-year contract with your print vendor. Knowing they can count on a certain number of issues from your university often enables them to lock-in current paper pricing and not have to fluctuate from issue-to-issue. 

In addition, moving one issue online will often save thousands of dollars in printing, postage and handling fees. Do keep in mind the same level of staff effort will be required even if it is not physically printed.

Class Notes

Readers surveys often reveal that one of their favorite features to read is the class notes section, where they learn about classmates marriages, births, deaths, and new jobs. One university wondered if they should still be publishing new jobs this spring/summer because of the concern the alum may have lost it amidst the highest unemployment rate in history. 

When alumni submit class notes, are they only expecting they will be published in print editions? Several colleges questioned whether they would even be allowed to publish this content if they go to an online-only edition. 

Having an alumni portal with login-only access to specific features such as class notes, transcript requests, and affinity groups is one approach some universities have employed. 

Can We Help?

These are uncertain times for higher ed and we'd like to offer a strategic 1:1 session with Rachel Reuben Senor, our VP of Account Strategy. We can discuss alumni magazine digital strategies, email communications, cost-saving measures, and brainstorm ways to further engage your alumni. Schedule a call today.