Digital Magazines in Higher Ed: We expect a lot, maybe too much.

I was a judge for the digital magazine category of the 2014 CASE Circle of Excellence Awards. As always, the CASE judging activities were fascinating, inspiring, and a wonderful professional development experience. If you ever get the chance, say yes. I was blown away by many of the 2014 entries and, in case you haven’t seen them, here are the CASE Circle of Excellence Award winners in the digital magazine category:

Because I had the chance to judge print magazine categories in 2012 and 2013, reviewing the digital entries this year felt a bit like closing the loop. Still a wonderfully complex hybrid of the print and digital mediums, college and university magazines typically appear in print at least a couple of times a year. (Alumni have come to love and cherish the mailbox version.) In my consulting work, the teams responsible for magazines regularly talk about ways to use the digital space for magazine content. Magazine editors and writers I meet have both a gleam in their eye and a knot in their stomach. They fully understand the opportunity that a digital magazine presents and the challenge for meeting the ever-increasing expectations of sophisticated alumni readers. They can all tell the story of the well-intentioned senior administrator on their campus who made this casual aside, “I’ve been meaning to send you a link to the _____ College’s online magazine. It’s really awesome and I think we should do something like that for our magazine, don’t you?”

My participation in this year’s digital magazine judging was eye-opening for an unexpected reason. I began to think and worry about the pressure digital magazines create for small communications teams. As a former director of a campus creative services unit, I have enormous respect for those who publish a magazine. Mostly because I know firsthand what it takes to manage the design and production process and, as a former colleague of mine once said, “In the print world, the word publish really means something.” Print ain’t easy, people. (The web ain’t easy either but I maintain you have control for a longer period of time and more flexibility when something goes wrong.)

So how does a small college or a leanly staffed university get the time and money needed to even think about launching a digital version of their magazine? Especially now, when the easy solutions of the past are viewed as way below the bar. People want what they want. And they want the New York Times experience.

My advice? Keep in mind readers are expecting you to:

  • Provide a rich content experience.
    The best digital magazines make a commitment to producing lots of regular content within a rich experience that is interactive and sensory. They let go of a traditional magazine publishing model, instead using a different pattern that doesn’t mimic print and typically means publishing every day. Rich media has to be a part of the content mix and requires a commitment to high-impact photography and well-produced video. The magazine experience should also include sharable content, predictive content, and dynamic, taxonomy-based options. In other words, allow me to comment and let others know what I’m reading, show me what you know I like, let me filter, and tell me what’s popular.
  • Make it available everywhere.
    I understand more resources are needed when trying to meet device-agnostic expectations but magazine readers want your content everywhere — on any kind of phone, and on any kind of tablet. And although apps allow you to control the user experience, lengthy downloads for an app require a commitment some just aren’t willing to make.

What’s a small team to do?
If you don’t have the staff needed for a Bostonia experience, consider using WordPress for your digital magazine. A few examples:

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Author: susantevans

Susan T. Evans is director of corporate and foundations relations at the College of William & Mary. She is a proven strategic leader with deep expertise in advancement, communications, brand management, marketing, digital strategy, technology, administration and organizational development. She is known for creative and strategic approaches to challenges within higher education, nonprofits and business.

1 thought on “Digital Magazines in Higher Ed: We expect a lot, maybe too much.”

  1. Susan – good post and analysis. The question we consistently ask ourselves is what is the return on a digital magazine. We tried something a few years ago that was heavily designed, we promoted it well, but saw less visitors than a really good news story on our website. The last few years we have moved to a much simpler version as part of the news@gettysburg site and I have yet to see someone share a ROI that appears to match the time and effort it takes to go beyond our efforts. (Bostonia online is an exception) Do you have any ROI stats that you can share with the community?

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