In the last post, I listed three key issues that alumni publications would have to address while exploring online options:
- the delivery format selected,
- the accessibility of popular content (which raises privacy issues), and
These are not the only issues they face, and the comments to my last post contain excellent points for all to consider. But I'll use the three points I made originally as a starting point for discussing some ways to move forward.
For now, to go portable, alumni magazine publishers must choose between
- a standalone program (an "app") and
- a mobile-optimized web site (although some may choose both).
Meanwhile, mobile-optimized web sites will face the same challenges as traditional web sites: generating traffic, and then generating repeat visits (ideally by inducing alumni to subscribe to updates, as one does with podcasts, for example). Mobile sites that simply load standard versions of web page frustrate their readers with tiny print, links that are too small to "click" with your finger, and microscopic images. For these sites, "optimized" is not a good description.
Furthermore, web developers who hitched their wagon to Adobe Flash will have to unhitch it and pair up with a different protocol (such as HTML5) if they want to be seen on the iPad. Apple's new device doesn't support the Flash format (which Apple CEO Steve Jobs called a "waning" technology).
Access to Popular Content (and related privacy questions)
Brown University is the alma mater of Brent Grinna, whose blog I quoted last week – and it's my alma mater too. Brown recently put class notes and obituaries behind a log in on its alumni magazine web site. I do read these items in the printed publication every time it arrives (it's an outstanding magazine, by the way). But personally, I wouldn't log in to read class notes and obits online unless the print version went away completely. Even then I would probably not click through; a log in, though critical from a privacy viewpoint, is an one obstacle too many for readers like me; I consume alumni content when it's relevant and convenient – not merely because it's relevant.
For comparison purposes, the majority of the Ivy Plus Group's ten schools' web sites seem to require a log in to read class notes. Dartmouth's, Penn's, and some of Columbia's alumni notes (e.g., the School of Social Work) are unprotected. But Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, MIT, and some of Columbia's schools (e.g., Law) require registration and a log in to read notes. Yale's online class notes, oddly, are temporarily "out of service."
Class notes are among the most popular items in alumni magazines, in part because class notes' content is most clearly unique to the institution itself. If you believe the feature articles in alumni magazines, every school has earnest students and alumni out to change the world, top-rank researchers pushing the frontiers of science, and bold, visionary leadership ensuring the future of the institution with the latest capital campaign. But only one college or university has your classmates' and school friends' personal updates.
Because of privacy concerns, the online version of this popular feature requires readers to do something they've never had to do with print: obtain, record, and enter a username and password when they want an update. This has serious implications for readership patterns in a post iPad era; will the rest of the content be compelling enough to bring readers back, time after time?
See links to related blog posts at the bottom of this article.
Assuming that online versions will be add-ons to printed alumni magazines for some time to come, the cost question is long-term. The additional cost of content conversion or development is a high hurdle for publishers, if their online and printed "versions" of magazines are to exist side by side. Last week I talked about the rationale for sticking with a tried and true magazine identity online, but I personally don't get excited by the online version of a printed publication – even if I like the printed version. Having online content slavishly follow a printed magazine's focus and style can prevent the risk-taking needed to invent a new way of communicating with alumni, a way that takes full advantage of new platforms' capabilities.
The Internet is not where printed content becomes immortal. It is, however, an increasingly interactive medium which points to new forms of alumni engagement.
The Bottom Line
For decades (more than a century for many), alumni magazines have trained alumni to love their printed pages and their quirky, niche content. But this content by itself won't drive more than a tiny fraction of alumni to consume it online as well. For better or worse, it will have to assume the interactive, dynamic and fast-changing form that more well-funded publications are already pushing to readers on new platforms and new devices. And that will come at a high financial cost, which means that advancement shops will have to find support from outside the existing print publication budget.
How is your institution supporting innovation and funding in the magazine business?
Leave a comment.
In a future post I'll look at Brown University's foray into iPhone applications via EverTrue Mobile.
Previous Alumni Futures posts on related topics:
Alumni Magazines: "Be Read or Don't Bother"
Status Updates: The New Class Notes
A Few Mobile Format Alumni Magazines & Student Newspapers: