We’ve all been there. A looming magazine deadline and the end is nowhere in sight. Frustration ensues, and we end up either compromising on quality or simply delaying the project. While it may seem like an inevitable cycle of mediocracy and missed deadlines at times, this all-too-common situation is, fortunately, one that can be combatted. Find out how we took an outdated and disorganized magazine and created an award-winning publication.
The Struggle is Real
After inheriting a magazine, I found myself struggling to maintain focus on the content, keep folks on track, and determine what goes and when. The first issue went fairly smoothly, partly because we were short-staffed and limited in what we could accomplish. But, the second issue felt like a trainwreck. There were more players in the game, more ideas, more suggestions, more work. First, we were delayed by a few weeks, which slowly crept into a month, and finally multiple months. We were stuck in a cycle where content was created, edited, finalized, but then new content was added late in the game. This resulted in delays, which meant outdated content was removed, new content added and then pulled again because of the constantly changing deadlines. Finally, I had to pull the plug completely.
But not all was lost. I took this opportunity to speak with the head of school and pitch the idea of completely redoing the magazine. He was on board.
We started with some simple questions. Why do we have a magazine? Who is our primary target audience? What does that audience want to read?
We delved into data and details and realized that the audience receiving it was mostly alumni — not unexpected for a school of its size and age (225+ years old) — but the content was more geared to current parents. We also came to accept that the magazine was school-centric; it was what the administration wanted the magazine to be, and not what our target audience wanted to read. If we were a subscription-based model, we would be in trouble. We knew that we needed to start fresh.
So, over the course of about one year, we carefully deconstructed the previous magazine, looked at where it thrived and where it fell short and researched what our primary audience – alumni – wanted out of a regular publication. We approached the magazine with one goal in mind: re-establish ourselves with alumni by promoting shared values and building relationships.
Too many schools engage in less-than-meaningful work simply because it’s what they have always done or because that’s what we feel like we are supposed to do. But, if you take the time to assess why you’re doing the work you’re doing, you might be surprised by what you can accomplish.
Going into a magazine redesign, we wanted to more effectively engage our constituents, but we needed to figure out how. The best thing we could do was conduct a survey of our alumni; we learned that while 71% of respondents would prefer to see photos of campus and 74% of respondents would prefer to see photos of old classmates, only 33% wanted to see videos of faculty and current students and 44% wanted to see current campus events. Of the responders, 65% wanted news and updates on old classmates, and several alumni wrote in a preference for seeing sports results, and 63% were interested in seeing photos from the archives. This did not align with the content of previous magazines.
As a direct result, we decided to start fresh and choose a new identity for the magazine, previously called “Cheshire Magazine.” Many readers noted the title was confusing, as it could refer to the town of Cheshire, where the school is located. After brainstorming sessions, requesting submissions from readers, and conducting surveys, we decided to capitalize on the community’s interest in the legacy of our school, which was founded in 1794. Thus, “1794” was formed as the new magazine of Cheshire Academy.
After months of research, design, and development, we successfully launched an ambitious magazine project for the private boarding school, changing the publication’s look, scope, and schedule, and even added a microsite.
As a direct result of what our constituents wanted, we restructured “1794” to feature three sections: Academy Archives, On Campus, and Alumni. We moved away from what many call “the adult yearbook” style of magazine with lots of photos and news briefs about the Academy’s current happenings in favor of embracing our past, celebrating the school’s innovative endeavors, and honoring our alumni.
Our Academy Archives section leads with a photo from the archives and serves to strengthen the shared values of the Academy, which have been lost or forgotten. The three stories in this section focus on the history of the school that provoke memories and nostalgia for alumni, such as former leaders of the school, traditions, and even historic buildings.
The On Campus section features a full-width campus photo as a lead-in, followed by three feature stories to keep alumni apprised of major happenings on campus. These were not the same as the news articles that were published several times a week on our website; the articles were written to serve as unique content for the magazine, delving deeper into the inner workings of the school and accomplishments of the people there.
Finally, the Alumni section was designed to serve as a place for the school to reach out and provide value to our alumni base by writing three interesting, informative pieces about alumni each issue. Our goal was to provide relationship building articles that our alumni could share and be excited about.
Of course, each issue would include Class Notes, event promotions, and a letter from the editor. When we chose to limit photos within the printed version, it wasn’t in the spirit of eliminating them, but rather in favor of having an enhanced digital magazine with online-only content. Finally, in the spirit of fun, we include a game in every edition. Our initial issues contained a crossword, word search, word jumble, maze, and a “spot the differences” game.
One exciting aspect of the “1794” redesign was the introduction of themes. It was decided that provided clear themes would aid in appropriate content development and keep the scope of each issue purposeful. Within each section, feature stories are written towards the overall magazine theme.
The first issue of “1794” – The Education Issue – was met with rave reviews, and we were excited to build off the success. We moved on to produce The Arts Issue and The Athletics Issue before deciding to take more risks with our themes. Chosen purposefully to coincide with the Presidential Elections, we published The Political Issue, and finished up year two with a fun and light-hearted magazine, “The Food Issue.”
We saw an incredible response from our alumni, with letters to the editors being submitted for the first time in years, and an increase in alumni giving, including several large gifts. One alumnus called the head of school and specifically noted that receiving the first issue of the new magazine renewed his confidence in the progress of the school, and he increased his annual gift from $1,000 to $10,000 without being asked to do so. Additional unsolicited gifts were also received from alumni as a result of the new magazine. Donations from the first two issues of the new magazine combined nearly matched the cost for the production of an entire issue.
The redesign was a lengthy and time-consuming labor of love. Not every aspect went smoothly, but in the end, we produced a high-quality publication that met our goals of reconnecting with alumni.
We submitted “1794” to the 2016 InspirED School Marketers’ Brilliance Awards and walked away with the Gold Award. One thing we loved the most were the judges’ comments, whose feedback aligned with our goals and objectives. One judge shared, “Visuals are stunning, and the art is moving. This is more than an informational magazine, it allows us to dive in the soul of the school itself… simply excellent.”
Our internal designer and photographer received great kudos for her work from the judges, who said, “Gorgeous layout and photography, even the class notes are well laid out, you just want to spend time with this …” and “Unusual size, nice choice of paper, well-printed, beautiful images, nice use of typography, nice variety of subjects given it’s the Arts Issue, this magazine is attractive to anyone — not just people associated with Cheshire. Sophisticated.”
I’ve since moved on to a new school and am sad to leave behind such a powerful publication. But, I am proud of the work that my team and I did to create such a wonderful magazine, and we hope that it continues on at Cheshire Academy for years to come.
Take a Look
Browse the print version of the first four magazines here: