What the Alumni Read (or Ignore)

The days when alumni eagerly turned to "class notes" sections of alumni magazines to find out about their old friends seem quaint in the era of Facebook. So the question for alumni magazines becomes: How do they stay relevant?

July 9, 2010

The days when alumni eagerly turned to "class notes" sections of alumni magazines to find out about their old friends seem quaint in the era of Facebook. So the question for alumni magazines becomes: How do they stay relevant?

In an effort to answer that question, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education has conducted the first-ever national survey of alumni magazine readers. The results show plenty of good news for the magazines in terms of loyal readers who read every issue, who in fact care about more than class notes -- and who link their readership to their connections to alma mater. But the survey also suggests that alumni magazines, long seen as a key part of the way institutions maintain close ties to graduates, are much less popular with younger alumni than with older alumni.

The findings could be significant. They come at a time when many colleges are worried about declines in giving rates by younger alumni, and when some colleges -- as part of budget-cutting moves -- have been cutting the number of issues of the magazine they publish each year.

The overall questions about engagement will cheer alumni magazine supporters. Of their readers, 58 percent agree and 30 percent strongly agree that the magazines strengthen their "personal connection" to their institutions.

But the role the magazines play clearly differs for younger alumni. For example, a majority of alumni 50 and older "generally" get information about their alma maters from their alumni magazines, but only 21 percent of alumni under the age of 25 say that. Younger alumni are much more likely than their older counterparts to visit a college Web site for information or to rely on word of mouth.

How Alumni Generally Get Information About Their Colleges

Age Magazine E-mail From Institutions Web Site Word of Mouth
Under 25 21% 43% 40% 37%
25-34 41% 34% 23% 22%
35-49 49% 30% 20% 11%
50 and up 54% 28% 17% 11%

An age gap was also evident in reading frequency, with older readers more likely than others to read every issue.

Reading Frequency of Alumni Magazines, by Age

Age Every Issue Most Issues Occasional Issues Never Read an Issue
Under 25 38% 27% 23% 12%
25-34 54% 27% 15% 4%
35-49 62% 25% 11% 2%
50 and up 70% 21% 8% 2%

Similar data suggest that older alumni are more likely to read more of the magazine and to spend more time with each issue. And that points to a key finding for those who hope that a quality alumni magazine will yield other positive results for a college or university: that alumni who spend more time with the magazine on average are more likely to do a number of things institutions want.

Among those who spend 10-29 minutes with an issue, only 29 percent said that they were encouraged to give more financial support and only 7 percent said that they were motivated by their reading to volunteer. In contrast, among those spending at least 60 minutes with the magazine each issue, 48 percent said that they were encouraged to give money and 15 percent said that they would try to volunteer.

The readers of alumni magazines also appear to think that there is some spin, but generally not an intolerable share, in the publications.

How Alumni Magazine Readers Rate Credibility of Publications

Consistently accurate and objective 24%
Some spin, but generally accurate and objective 41%
Usually portrays institution only in positive light 19%
Not good source of objective information 3%
No opinion 13%

While the data show several age-related splits among readers, there was general support -- across age groups -- for keeping alumni magazines in print, although younger readers are also interested in blends of print and online.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the alumni magazine at Swarthmore College, led the efforts to create the national survey, and said he hoped it would help his counterparts consider their own survey results in light of national trends.

Lott said that several of the trends identified in the survey did represent concerns. On the age issue, he said that it was important to recognize that the trend of younger alumni being less involved with a magazine is something he has seen throughout the 20 years he has edited an alumni magazine. "Loyalty to an institution builds up over time," he said. "For many people, when you first get out of college, you are happy to get out." At the same time, he said that he believed the age gaps evident in the survey results were real and likely were larger than they would have been in the past, had national surveys been conducted earlier.

Rae Goldsmith, vice president of advancement resources at CASE, said that concerns about young alumni engagement are much broader than for alumni magazines alone. "It is a major issue in that research on the younger graduates indicates that they are very interested in different types of causes" than their alma maters alone. "There is a real need for institutions to connect with their younger alumni."

While alumni magazines can be part of the process of building those connections, Goldsmith said she was concerned that colleges cutting back on the number of issues may be engaged in "penny-wise, pound foolish" decisions, in that it will be impossible for the magazines to become a regular part of the lives of alumni without enough issues per year.

Most alumni magazines don't come out that much to start with. Of those in the survey -- which Goldsmith said she thought was generally representative -- nearly half (48 percent) come out only twice a year, while 27 percent come out three times a year, and 21 percent come out 4 times a year.

Lott said that the results suggest to him that quality articles are going to be more effective in that they will encourage people to spend more time with the magazine, which in turn will have a range of positive results for the college, from making gifts to recommending the institution to high school students to volunteering. "I think our goal is connection, some kind of connection," and not just pitches for money.

Dale Keiger, associate editor of The Johns Hopkins Magazine, has been calling for more emphasis on good writing in alumni magazines, and he applauded the extent to which the CASE survey supports such a view. Keiger is the founder of UMagazinology, a blog with a credo that states, among other things, that "[t]he only people required to read our magazines are our life partners, and half of them duck out on us. For everyone else, reading a university magazine is voluntary" and "If your magazine is not being read, then every dollar that your school pours into it might as well be poured down a storm drain."

Keiger said that the results in the survey about age, and about the value of having readers who spend real time with the magazine, both point to a need for the publications to recognize that they are no longer delivering news. Younger alumni and, increasingly, all alumni "go online to check on classmates, to find out about lacrosse scores," he said, and aren't turning to the magazines for that. "I think [that] the news function has shifted to the Web, and that anybody who wants to know what's going on, they know that long before we come out."

The surveys Hopkins has done all suggest that the magazine's readers are most devoted to "features about big ideas and complex subjects," pieces that run 3,000-6,000 words and with which a reader will spend real time. That kind of writing, he said, can attract readers from all alumni age groups, but he thinks magazine editors won't get good results focused on "letting a reader just skim for a picture that makes you nostalgic."


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