New offering for alumni and academic magazines: content/design audits

By Ron Reason

Dear editors of alumni and other academic publications:

Are you making the most of your storytelling tools to reach the audiences most important to your school’s mission? Beyond alumni in general, is your content seriously reaching out to those who are also donors (or should be), those who help recruit potential applicants, and others who are most critical to keeping your mission going? Do your peers at other schools look to your publication as a standard bearer in your field?

Each year around this time I try to do something to give back to the publishing industry. Now through Jan. 7, 2018, I’m offering free detailed critiques to the first 10 alumni or other college publications that respond. (More below on how to reach me and what else I need.) Here’s what I’ll be looking for:

Overall audience engagement and affinity: Does your magazine look and feel like a press release (a collection of class notes, handout photos and random features), or is it an editorially robust conversation that makes readers yearn to remain connected to your school? Does it compel alumni to want to learn more about how your program and students are evolving with the world? Does it speak directly to donors to show them how their money is being put to good use – and how you can use more money to keep doing great work? I study your content and voice, and suggest ways to rethink how you package it to speak to these audiences more powerfully. (For a look at how we created a more editorially robust format and spirit for Capital Ideas, the magazine of economics research and ideas at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, see this link.)

Design tools: I won’t suggest new fonts, necessarily, but I’ll comment on how you use type, color, grid and navigation. Do you have a professional, disciplined mix of just a few great typefaces, well organized and readable, or are you using gimmicky fonts just because it’s fun for the designer? Are your colors random, or do you have a palette that reflects your voice and the authority of your institution? Is your use of logos and other brand elements consistent? Is your grid a monotonous 2-column layout from front to back? If so, maybe time to mix that up. (For a look at how we rethought page architecture and flow at Athletic Business, which covers college and commercial athletic facilities, see this link.)

Content strategies: More important than your use of basic design tools, I’ll critique how you package your content. (I’m a storyteller by training, an art director/teacher/marketer/consultant secondarily, and by necessity.) I’ll examine headlines and even rewrite some of them to show how they can be more compelling. If your visuals are mostly mug shots provided by the faculty HR department, or grip-and-grin photos of students or faculty receiving awards, I’ll help you rethink that, and perhaps move toward a more documentary approach.

I’ll read your stories, and if they are long gray blocks of text, I’ll suggest ways to segment them, including possible new formats for anchored features that make for a more visually dynamic read. If you are stuck in the old rut of using pull quotes as “art elements” (they aren’t) or lack even simple infographics or sidebars that have more power to pull in scanning readers, I’ll call you out on that – in a diplomatic way, of course – and suggest alternatives. (For a look at how such alternative story forms help anchor the NCAA’s dynamic Champion magazine, where I helped guide redesign process and strategy, see this link. For a more detailed look at their rethinking process, including a greater role for graphics and illustration, see this link.) If your content lacks diversity in gender or race or age? Get ready for a prompt to do better. (More on that topic, also from Champion.)

Digital and social media: I recently critiqued an alumni magazine that had little to no presence on digital or social media. They had been comfortable being “old school” but knew they had to ramp up those efforts. I detailed for them how, even with existing content, they had lots of potential for creating supplemental material for YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I identified specific videos, captions, calls to action, and social content to give them a louder voice. (Don’t have a staff to do this? Perfect opportunity for you to bring on some interns. If you’re a school of journalism, marketing or media? This should be a standard opportunity for your students.) Digital and social helps drive interest back to the magazine, and helps you preview upcoming work or make sure audiences haven’t overlooked great content. It’s all about casting your net as wide as possible.

What next? If feedback like this sounds like a good way for your crew to start your new year, email me at with “Academic Magazine Critique” and the name of your school in the subject line. Send 3 PDFs (or links to same) of your most recent issues. If there’s anything special to share with me about your mission, strategy, history, staff structure, process or plans for the future, include that in the text of your email. If you have a YouTube channel, Twitter feed, Facebook or Instagram that is a big part of your publishing and outreach strategy, send those links along. Typically I can return a critique in 2-3 weeks. Happy holidays!

Please note: This offer is primarily for university staff and administration who produce professional publications for alumni or other program outreach, and not for the student press at this time. Watch for a possible critique offer for them in the future!

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