Interview with Frannie Schneider by Shane Shanks

Dump the mag website? More schools could consider that option — but only if they’ve built the right content model.

During the CASE Editors Forum, my presentation with Frannie Schneider, editor and marketing consultant at St. Edward’s University, showcased a new content model for educational institutions.

Her team’s institution-wide content strategy redefines what editors traditionally think of as a “magazine story.” As a result, the quality storytelling created for the magazine is regularly seen by upwards of 90,000 people — before it’s ever in print.

How does it work? Magazine features also appear on the university homepage, and they’re sliced and diced for social media and other digital channels. At the same time, chunks of content initially created for digital tools are molded together to form feature-length articles for the print magazine.

When Zehno collaborated on a magazine redesign for St. Edward’s University in Austin, the challenge was to bring life to every story, regardless of where it appeared. The resulting print magazine ties closely to the university’s strategic direction, appeals to younger readers and takes content off coffee tables and directly to readers — wherever they may be.

Learn more about this project.

Q. At the Editors Forum, we walked into a roomful of magazine editors to tell them that they could consider dumping their magazine websites. Did you think you were being fed to the lions?

One of the most interesting things about working within higher ed is the diversity of institutions and places we’re all coming from — the structures, the stories, the school types, and so forth. So as we went into the conference, I knew there were going to be a lot of different perspectives and models out there. And I wanted to provide something that every editor could take back regardless of the place they were coming from.

Q. The St. Edward’s model is different: “magazine content” shows up on the university homepage, not just in the print magazine. Is that a fair way to describe your model?

The best way to sum it up is this: content first, channel second. And you can refine that even further by saying: right content, right person, right place, right time.

When you think in that way, you break through those false barriers about channels. It forces you to ask, “Why am I holding this article for the magazine? Is it really because that is the right place for it — and there’s value in holding it? Or am I going to gain more by putting it out in a different channel first?”

It really pushes you as an editor — or marketer, communicator, or whatever hat you’re wearing — to think about your audience and your goal first.

Q. In the St. Edward’s model, does the phrase “magazine content” still mean anything?

Not really. There’s certain content that is best told in a traditional magazine format, where you have large photos and longer-form text. There are a lot of stories that can be quickly and most effectively told in a traditional print format.

And there are other stories that may have one format in the print version, but then are broken apart or campaigned on social or re-packaged for a homepage story.

The challenge is to present each story in the strongest way possible for that particular channel — so that it’s a good experience for the reader. At the end of the day you still have to be serving your reader, wherever that reader is.

It’s also about being good stewards of the resources that we have at our institutions. You want to get as much life out of your content as you possibly can.

Q. You acknowledged that all universities are structured differently. How is St. Edward’s set up, and how can universities apply this mindset, regardless of how they’re set up?

I don’t think there’s one right way to be set up or any unicorn structure that holds all of the answers.

St. Edward’s has a centralized marketing team, and we exist to communicate the university’s story. As a team, we are digital first, with a strong focus on generating content engagements. Our university homepage is editorially driven — and our team creates its content. That’s a key factor in how our model functions.

We have done a lot of piloting, testing, measuring, reassessing and learning to get to our model. Every time we do something, we measure it and we refine based on the results.

The benefit of taking this iterative approach is you’re just continuing to refine. Instead of tearing down the house and rebuilding it really quickly, which is inherently challenging in higher ed, you can get to a better place by piloting and refining.

Q. What are you measuring or testing?

Digital is obviously easier to measure than print. We set KPIs for each channel, and we’re looking at how our content is performing against those KPIs. Beyond that, you can test headlines. You can test images. Over time, you start to see which types of images work better or which types of headlines work better. You’re always thinking about how people are engaging with the content.

When you dig deeper, you start to see where people go after they click through the content. Do they have a higher likelihood to convert after engaging with your content on social media? Or is that only happening if they engage via email? You can look at your month-over-month or year-over-year stats. You’ll start to form conclusions about what’s working and identify where you need to pivot.

There’s never a stopping place. You’re just always moving forward and refining. Sometimes you learn things don’t work — and that’s okay.

And then you adjust.

Q. What have you learned that works, as it relates to magazine content?

With our homepage specifically, we have seen — over time — that multi-student and group photos get significantly better engagement than portraits, which we tend to run a lot of in the magazine.

Q. Really? Magazine editors hate group photos (or at least the bad group photos).

Oh, yeah. Group photos are a real challenge in a print magazine, where they are often used too small or they’re of poor quality. But good, engaging, authentic group photos deliver online, so you have to figure out how to make them work for both sometimes.

Headlines are a little bit trickier. It’s not down to a science yet, but the more the headline is connected to a photo, the higher our click-through rate tends to be.

Q. At most schools, a magazine feature story looks fantastic in print. Then it gets posted on a magazine website, this little ‘magazine island’ that most readers never visit because they don’t know it exists. What’s wrong with this picture?

You’re potentially missing engagement opportunities with other valuable audiences. These magazine islands most often exist to reach the same people who are reading your print magazine. It’s just a different channel, which, yes, can be valuable if you can get them to follow your magazine on social and break through the algorithms.

But a broader, content-first approach is about expanding the reach to tell your story more effectively.

Q. What advice would you give a school trapped on a magazine island? How can those editors work smarter?

Continue to put the audience first. Think about your audience member not just as somebody who consumes the magazine, but as somebody who’s into content. Then ask: What do I want them to do?

Also think more broadly about your institution: Who are its high-value audiences? Does the content in the magazine have a place in front of any of those audiences? And if it does, how do you start breaking down the silo to get the content to them?

Higher ed is facing a lot of challenges right now: demographic challenges, ongoing funding challenges. There are many forces shaking the public’s confidence in higher ed.

And so it’s up to us to tell our story. How do we get that story to our stakeholders in the most effective way?

Q. You’ve edited the magazine as a print magazine, then you started this model where magazine content isn’t only for the magazine. What’s the biggest adjustment you have to make to be a good editor?

You have to figure out how to walk that line between content first and channel first. In some ways you have to think about both, because you have to position the content for the channel.

You have to be willing to break down the silos and try new things. And be a little bit willing to fail, too — because not everything is going to work.

Q. Are typical award-winning print magazine editors equipped to make this change in thinking? Or are they set up to fail?

For me, the marketing piece comes more naturally than the editing piece. But marketing and editing aren’t mutually exclusive. As editors, it is our job to powerfully tell our institution’s story. Universities need to take control of our story. We can’t let the media or other people continue to do it for us.

We are responsible for communicating the value of higher education. And that’s something our magazines do really, really well. There’s a real opportunity for editors who carefully cultivate the school’s best stories — and many editors do it much, much, much better than me — to figure out how to get those stories to a broader audience.

“The challenge is to present each story in the strongest way possible for that particular channel — so that it’s a good experience for the reader. At the end of the day you still have to be serving your reader, wherever that reader is.”

Q. Good editors are already picking the right stories and they’re already telling them in a vivid way. They already have a marketing mindset. But if you say that they’re “marketers,” it might be considered an insult! Why does the whole editor vs. marketer issue exist?

The editorial role is cultivating the best stories and knowing how to tell them. That is what a good editor does. A good marketer gets those stories to the right people.

But these roles shouldn’t be thought about separately. We’re at a point in time when we don’t have that luxury. If we’re not telling our story effectively — to everybody who needs to know it — then we’re missing a critical opportunity.

I’ll be the first to say the print magazine is an integral part of the marketing mix. But if you break apart some of those print stories and put them on social — particularly for a younger audience, or parents — now you’re telling your story in a different way. You’re starting to take more control of your own narrative. And there’s a lot of value in that, particularly now.

Q. For many years, editors of print magazines held the content so it could make a splash in print. Were they wrong?

No. For many years there wasn’t another option. You held it because it made sense.

But think about how fast things are changing. What was true five years ago isn’t true today. And what was true three years ago isn’t true today. The things we’re figuring out today, we’re going to have to adjust and evolve next year. That’s an important mindset to have.

Q. What’s an example of when you don’t hold a story for print?

Our “17 in 2017” feature is a good example. It’s a compilation of mini-profiles about a new crop of grads.

Originally, we tied those individual profiles to graduation and rolled them out as a social campaign that performed really well. It went on our homepage around the same time, and I think that story might have been our top performer ever.

And then we ran that content in the magazine six months later, but grouped together and positioned differently. From a timing standpoint, it wouldn’t have made any sense to run that story in the magazine first. We would have missed a huge opportunity to nurture a really important audience with content that resonated with them.

Q. During our presentation, we walked through how a typical “story” gets published across various channels. By using social media and your university homepage to debut and promote the content, 90,000 people already would have seen the story before it ever appeared in print. How typical is that?

That number is pretty much only looking at reach — which is a simple measurement — but the story we used in that case study was actually one of our lower performers for feature stories.

Some of our content lends itself clearly to recruitment. If a piece of content ends up in our nurture stream for recruitment, for example, it gets more eyeballs. Because our admissions pool is a huge population, content packaged for those audience has the biggest reach.

Q. Working on your redesign project was intriguing because we needed to plan for content moving in both directions. Some traditional print features would be disassembled to live in the digital world. Meanwhile, we were taking some digital content chunks and combining them into feature stories. Which direction is more difficult?

It depends on the content, and it depends on the circumstances. I think it really demands a flexible approach. One of the things we’ve gotten from Zehno is that you’ve really been willing to embrace that — and go for it with us.

As an editor, I know I always want to have one or two features that are conceptualized specifically for the magazine. And the same thing for big-effort social campaigns: It’s fun and exciting to create the assets for Instagram or Facebook. I don’t want to do all-recycled content all the time.

Q. What do you think is the best aspect of your redesigned print magazine?

The whole thing. I could go on for days! There’s lots of things I’m excited about. One is that we’re now working more like the big media companies.

In many ways the redesign is still a very traditional magazine, but I think the quality is significantly higher than it was before. The recurring departments really lend themselves to this repurposing/republishing mindset. That’s something that we are definitely benefiting from.

And because of how our homepage is set up, and because the social media tools are visual mediums by nature, our photo-heavy redesign actually makes everything more efficient.

Q. Sometimes editors say, “Oh, the reader will have seen it before.” So they don’t work hard to get the content out through multiple channels. Is that a mistake?

First of all, people will not remember that they saw it before. Our attention is so fragmented. If you look at any mainstream consumer magazine, it is recycling content on social, in emails, all the time, multiple times a day.

So I think that’s not a real concern. And if you look at your data, you’re probably not reaching that many people to begin with. It’s not like you need to worry that millions of people have read it or watched it.

Television shows have been in syndication for years. Just because something aired one time, it doesn’t get shelved. It gets sold for a lot of money!

Q. So let’s turn St. Edward’s magazine into “Friends” or “Seinfeld.” Can it be something that people want to read over and over?

Exactly, exactly. People don’t expect to always see new things. That’s a falsely held belief that we’ve told ourselves. There’s so much you can do with positioning to keep things fresh. It’s a fun challenge to have.