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The five top-thriving print magazines cannot be more different in mission – from gossip to home décor to natural science to aging to readership-generated stories and much in between, they differ in topics, but they all have made dramatic changes in their formats to keep their subscriptions flourishing. Here’s a summary of some of the changes made by People, Better Homes and Gardens, AARP, National Geographic and Readers Digest that alumni magazines should also consider:

While you might expect Better Homes to teach you how to improve your kitchen, National Geographic, the world’s top photographic world documentary periodical, turns over large portions of its print and digital lines to the readers. Your Shot gives everyone from all continents and walks of life to submit their photos. Imagine telling your mom that your photo was published in Nat Geo! Alumni magazines that include DIY tips (Dr. Engineer tells you how to help your child build a better Pinewood Derby car) and reader contribution sections get rave reviews.

Yale Alumni Magazine offers crossword puzzles. AARP offers quizzes and memory tests. Fun isn’t just photos from Homecoming. It’s quippy articles and short riddles and the occasional irreverent self-directed humor. It’s cartoons and sketches. It’s Nebraska’s Harvey Perlman with Perls of Knowledge. We sometimes take ourselves too seriously, and that gravity might lose audience.

Have you seen Readers Digest lately? 100-word story competitions! Did you know Nat Geo cut back on the length of its main features and added an extensive front section featuring briefs? Many of our magazines are still dominated by long form in a twitter-loving world. Think about this – if your alumni are at cocktail parties this holiday season, what three things do you want them to quickly recall and boast to their friends about their alma mater? Fill your magazine with quick, digestable tidbits they can use. Cut back on words and get more eyes and…

Take up more space with brilliant photos. Not ho-hum institutional shots, but use Nat Geo’s policy: every photo has to be able to tell you a story without captions. If not, don’t use it.

Build in Engagement
Drive the reader to your Web site to a competition or for more information. Use a product like Cerkl to repeat story themes through follow-up communications and draw in information about what your alumni want to read. Don’t just tell a story in the magazine, bring it alive in different words and images in social media, on your Web site, in video, audio (put the subject’s story quotes in their own voices online). If you take the time to explore and develop a magazine story, it should be redeveloped into different formats over and over again in other media. A good story is worth retelling.

Even a mass-produced magazine can add elements that speak to the individual. While AARP produces three different demographically-targeted editions of each issue, you can achieve the same in a variety of ways. Some magazines designate the centerfold as being changeable and delivering messaging to audience segments. A simple technique beyond printing is to ensure that you have a lens on your content to ensure you speak to Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X and Millenials. Consider printing the centerfold to speak differently to each generation while your outside content remains consistent. Think about covers – raising lots of money in Denver – maybe it’s worth it to print a Denver-specific cover to those alumni in that region.

Create an experience
At the end of reading People, readers believe they are up-to-date on the best and most credible celebrity gossip. When you enter this magazine, you know you are on a journey into other people’s lives. You want to discover secrets or inside information and you are not disappointed. What is the equivalent for your magazine? Alumni want to wander back in time to remember the good times of their student years. They want to exit believing that their degree has even more value because of the way you packaged your stories of excellence about the contemporary university you are today. Many magazine editors piece content together sometimes opportunistically, but today, we need to weave the pieces into a community and an experience. By starting with what you want your readers to remember and repeat and how you want to reconnect them back through their own good feelings, you change the approach from inform and educate, to engage and experience.

Rethink your toolkit
Are Facebook and LinkedIn the new Class Notes section of your magazine? Imagine running submitted alumni updates live in a feed on your Web site? What if alumni were able to submit :15 videos of their life event like a wedding or a work award that posted on your site instead of living in a static magazine page? Lots of possibilities for retooling your publication when you open your mind to the expansive tools we now have at our easy grasp.

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