The old joke about college and university alumni magazines is that everyone browses through the class notes to find ex-classmates, then dumps the magazine in the recycle bin or the trash can.
I have to admit that when I do open my alma mater’s alumni magazine that is precisely what I do. In all the years I have been receiving the publication I haven’t found anything else in there worth my reading time.
Over the years I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of alumni magazines because every president I have worked for has quickly shipped them to me to get rid of them. They’ve tragically been on the mailing list to receive these puff pieces from colleges and universities around the country. I guess the hope is that by sending these slick magazines to the heads of other colleges and universities we will be influencing their perception of our institutions.
It is a meaningless exercise. Most presidents, including all of those smart guys I have worked for, never open them. This is no shocking revelation. What is shocking is that public relations people and alumni director at colleges and universities just keep sending them.
This is illustrative of a fundamental problem with almost all of the alumni magazines I have seen. They are written with the sender in mind, not the receiver. We learned in PR 101, of course, that communication does not occur unless the message sent is received on the other end. It seems a lot of institutions crank their quarterlies out year after year without a thought about whether they are engaging their audience, only a concern for hyping their schools and making sure donors and supporters get all of the recognition they deserve.
Besides thoughtless selection of feature stories, most of the alumni magazines I have seen feature turgid writing, mind-numbing photos, including a plethora of classic grip-and-grin photos, and pedestrian and outdated design. Many of them carry the obligatory story about the alum who is a major donor, whether he or she has an interesting story to tell or not. And don’t forget the family photo somewhere in that profile. Sometime during the year you can count on many of these magazines to run the president on the cover, typically posed in his or her office or demonstrating his or her affinity for students with a cordial group photo at some campus landmark.
Not only is this inept communications, it is a huge waste of money because almost all alumni magazines today are four-color publications on coated stock. Add in the cost of mailing to college and university presidents who ignore them, as well as others who will never open them, and we’re talking significant dollars.
All this is to say it is time for publications and alumni directors to pause and think about actually communicating with their institutions’ alumni. We are competing for their reading time with much more interesting magazines than ours and with more information channels in our alums’ homes than we have ever before had to contend with for their time and attention.
And, sad as it is to accept, most of our alums are largely disconnected from our colleges and universities. We are not central to their lives any more so the name on the magazine flag isn’t going to be met with breathless anticipation when they open the mailbox.
In an era when Facebook and other social media have diminished the value of and interest in class notes we no longer have the lode star of our alumni magazine to fall back on. Is it time to change our self-serving perspective and start thinking more creatively about actually communicating with our alumni readers? You bet it is.