You asked. We’ve got answers.
Following our “Super-Strategic Magazine Makeovers” webinar, where Shane Shanks showed you inspiring school magazines that are getting their content right and explained the strategy driving them — your questions flooded in.
The content is so good that we’re sharing our responses with everyone.
Still have questions? Let’s talk.
Q: As soon as we finish one issue of our magazine, we start right away on the next issue. How do you make time for a redesign?
A: Cranking out the magazine on time is a full-time job, and adding on a redesign at the same time is a challenge.
So how can you make time for the redesign? We recommend that schools consider skipping an issue. You can use the time gained — and resources saved — to focus on the redesign, upgrade your imagery or bring in outside magazine experts.
If you’re doing four issues, maybe you cut down to three. Then you can invest that time wisely — thinking through the prototype, mapping out your new stories and really getting the recipes worked out — so that the new magazine is a definite hit when it comes out.
It can also be a good way to save some money if your magazine is short on resources. If you need to invest in better photography or you need to bring in outside help to get your redesign going, that’s another smart thing to do.
A lot of schools bring in outside firms like Zehno to help with redesigns. That approach gives you a temporary boost of expertise, as well as more hands working on the project. Even more valuable, the outsider perspective can help you think of — and write about — your institution’s strengths in new ways.
Q: How long does the whole redesign process usually take?
A: Most schools need from six months to a year.
Can a redesign be done faster? Of course. But remember to leave enough time to write the stories, plan the photos and assign the illustrations. And if you’re one of the schools with lengthy approval processes — or a tendency to go through round after round of proofs — you probably can’t squeeze the timeline at the end.
Here’s a typical timeline:
- Two or three months for research/assessment — a readership survey, focus groups and defining your goals and editorial strategy.
- Three months to design a prototype and start on editorial — planning, interviewing and writing for that first redesigned issue. This is the phase when you define your content types and styles, and then prototype the key pages.
- Four to six months for implementing the full redesigned issue. This covers additional writing, editing, creative concepts for features and covers, art direction of photo shoots and illustration, proofing, press checking, printing, mailing and cross-promotion through your other communication channels.
Q: How often should we do a readership survey?
A: Every couple of years seems right. You probably won’t see big jumps in the numbers if you run the survey every year.
If you’ve recently completed a redesign, a follow-up survey is a nice way to see if you have moved the needle in any noticeable ways.
But realize that the survey results won’t always fly up right off the bat. Readers need some time to get acquainted with your new magazine (this is especially true if you only do a couple of issues a year or if the magazine has remained the same for 10+ years).
Some schools take some additional steps for feedback:
- Hold focus groups after a redesign. As we mentioned in the webinar, focus groups can unearth a different quality of information. For example, if your new class notes score lower than the old ones, your focus group may reveal something very personal: they don’t like the background color, they couldn’t find the contact info (even if you made it bigger and bolder), or they didn’t like the shorter obits style, etc. Knowing the specific criticisms helps you decide if any changes are needed.
- Run a mini-survey after each issue to a small sampling of readers. These surveys ask things like: What do you remember reading? What was your favorite story? What story ideas do you have for the next issue? This insta-feedback adds another dimension to a full CASE Readership Survey or focus groups.
- Poll readers in a separate survey about digital improvements. If your redesign included a big expansion in digital delivery — mag website, university website, social media, email, digital ad campaigns, etc. — you may need a separate survey (since the CASE Readership Survey focuses on the print magazine). And spend time with your analytics to see how you’re expanding the reach of your content and where your stories get the most traction.
Q: Who should be part of our focus groups before the redesign?
A: Choose the mix that matters to you most.
We like to talk to key stakeholders in admissions, alumni, development and campus life — sometimes others — to learn how they interact with the magazine, if there are ways the magazine could support their success, or if there are content changes they’d recommend.
We like to hear from all types of readers. It’s usually easier to get a roomful of retirees to show up, but it’s important to get an age range.
Students and parents are great to hear from, if they’re part of your distribution.
Try not to take the easy way out on the focus groups by recruiting alums and readers who work on campus. They’ll have a far different take than typical readers who aren’t as closely aligned with campus.
Q: What platform is best for a magazine website?
A: There is no one platform that we have found is best. Several of our recent clients have used WordPress or Drupal for their magazine websites.
In most cases we think it’s smart to stay in the same CMS as the rest of the institution. That offers more opportunities to share content easily and efficiently in the future.
Q: Is a separate magazine website the way to go? What’s the best content strategy for an online magazine?
A. We believe the best strategy is to do what St. Ed’s is doing and what Shane talked about during the webinar. Develop a content strategy around your magazine so that you can populate content for the entire institution — and let the magazine be a key driver in prioritizing content for the institution. It will elevate what you do, and it will make your job more important as an editor.
We’re trying to encourage schools to not let their magazines be such an island. Even for some schools that might have a great online presence for the magazine, the stories usually exist only on those magazine pages. They’re not very well connected throughout the rest of the institutional websites.
You’re doing all this great work. You’ve got the best stories on campus. So get them shared with as many people as you can.
Q: Bryn Mawr’s magazine has a lot of “go online” prompts in it. Do they have info/analytics on whether readers follow those prompts?
A: “Go online” prompts in print are usually low performers. We mainly use them to telegraph that more info is available online (or to reinforce the idea that there is a magazine website). We also use them when there is a call to action.
The analytics usually show that more people get to online content by clicking on a link in email or social than by typing an address from a print piece. That’s another incentive to distribute your “magazine content” across multiple channels.
Q: What are the dimensions of Swarthmore Magazine? Did you change its size during the redesign?
A: We took it up slightly in size to 9” x 10.75”. The finished size is an issue of practicality, price and preference.
Larger sizes seem flashier and more visual. Oversize pages give you more real estate for words and images — and especially white space.
Smaller sizes can seem more intimate and portable. And there’s definitely been a trend toward smaller page sizes in the past few years.
Unusual sizes — large or small or atypically proportioned — can cost you more to mail. And they can cost you more to print and assemble if the finished size isn’t efficient on your printer’s equipment.
Your printer and post office can help you estimate the real costs.
Q: For magazines such as Swarthmore or Bryn Mawr, do you maintain the same color palette (accent colors, headlines, etc.) issue to issue, or does it change?
A: We usually stick with a limited color palette for the type and graphic elements. Other colors come through in the photos and illustrations.
And we don’t subscribe to decorating around the images with your school’s mascot colors. That is typically the best way to kill a magazine feature.
If your magazine only comes out a few times per year, we’d probably advise against changing the color palette much from issue to issue.
You want readers to get to know your magazine — to recognize it easily when it hits the mailbox, to know its content signatures, to be able to flip through to find their favorite sections, etc. Making too many changes — especially if they’re not strategy-driven — slows this process.