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Marketing

What alumni magazines should be about

They can sell better to both past and future customers
University Business, May 2016

Alumni. That’s what alumni association magazines should, to a much greater extent, be about. At least they should if we want them to do better at marketing the university.

Marketing is not the only purpose of these publications, of course. But the alumni magazine can be a powerful marketing tool that doesn’t conflict with its other objectives.

Every company and organization that does marketing talks about its product. Along with the new knowledge coming out of research on some campuses, alums are the university’s product.

Classes, professors, student activities and intervarsity sports are all just raw materials. The end product is valuable, educated, successful people. High school seniors and others matriculate because that’s the product they want—the product they want to be.

For example, Ford Motors’ marketing doesn’t focus on the quality of the steel, glass, plastic and rubber they use. It talks about how desirable the end product is—its comfort, performance, handling and fuel economy. 

Outputs, not inputs.

Unfortunately, many alumni publications talk a lot about inputs.

Selling the future

Alumni magazines sell colleges and universities to their past customers. They doubtless encourage legacy applications. But their prime marketing function is to keep strong the ties to the alma mater in order to raise money from people who made their last tuition payment years ago.

Their secondary marketing task should be to sell the school to future customers: prospective students. And especially with today’s high costs and distance learning alternatives, students are buying the end product, not the raw materials. Where can they best find out about a university’s end product? Why not from the alumni magazine?

University advertising often talks—usually much too vaguely—about the kind of person their institution promises to make you. Lots of profiles of alums in alumni magazines can back up these claims—and in the more credible context of factual journalism, not hype-heavy advertising. In marketing, specifics are always more persuasive than generalities.

One entire issue of a weekly paper from my native Borough of Queens in New York City celebrated the considerable, if not-widely-known accomplishments of a veteran civic executive. I took it to a career event for University of Chicago students interested in public administration. “This could be you,” I said, “30 years from now.” Presenting “you, years from now” to prospective students is the kind of job alumni magazines could do so well.

Historical footnotes

Marketers recognize that even we successful, enlightened alumni are, like everyone else, most interested in ourselves and, secondarily, in people like us. That’s who we most want to read about. Few of us, after all, ever become the professors, deans, researchers or football players alumni publications celebrate.

But alumni magazines too often put alums in the back of the bus. Brief, small-type end notes about our children, marriages, job changes, travels, retirements and passings occupy their very last pages. The feature stories with the four-color photos are about the faculty, the research, the students, the teams, the building projects—the “now” of the campus. Alums appear as historical footnotes.

Why not more feature articles about alumni? Not just the Nobel Prize winners, but the rest of us. We’ve all had some worthy if not earth-shaking accomplishments as well as a few failures we’ve learned from.

Alumni are one of a university’s most valuable resources. Putting them—the university’s end product—more often in the spotlight can benefit alums, prospective students and the school itself.

John L. Gann is president of Chicago-area-based Gann Associates. He consults, trains and writes on marketing. He is author of The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns.

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