In the seven years that Kat Braz had worked at the Purdue Alumni Association, she’d made big moves.
After overhauling the alumni magazine, Purdue Alumnus, she and her team landed a silver medal in CASE’s magazine publication improvement category. Her eye as an art director had led her to become a popular presenter at conferences across the country, where she shared her approaches to innovative photography and illustration.
When she was promoted to senior director of creative communications in 2016, she realized in her new role as editor, she faced challenges with the magazine that she couldn’t quite solve.
One of them was the university president’s VIP list — an Excel sheet of dozens of high profile alumni, current donors, and major prospects that Purdue’s president hoped would eventually turn up in the magazine’s pages.
It wasn’t a mandate, exactly, but Braz knew it would make her life easier if she could include a few of them in every issue. “The alumni association is independent of the university and I wanted to retain our editorial control over content,,” she says. “At the same time, the association exists to support the university and I wanted to showcase that it’s possible to write about people without glorifying their life story like a development officer would (and should!) when they are trying to secure a huge donation.”
That goal led her to the Capstone Pitch Subscription.
Capstone Pitch Subscription: Stitch Fix for perfectly targeted story ideas
The Capstone Pitch Subscription works a bit like Stitch Fix for story ideas. But in this case, subscribers don’t work with a stylist who sends a selection of clothes that they can buy or return; Instead, Capstone sends subscribers perfectly tailored story ideas for higher ed publications. Subscribers assign only the ones they love.
To make sure the ideas Capstone sent to Braz were a good fit from the start, we first created custom document of the organization’s goals and priorities, based on a questionnaire and additional research. We used that document — which also included details on the publication’s strengths and areas for improvement — as a road map to develop story concepts we thought her readers and her team would love.
For any stories she opted to assign, Capstone also helped select the perfect, inclusive set of sources.
Story concepts designed for connection
With the VIP challenge a top issue for Braz, Capstone zeroed in on “conversational story concepts” for the first set of pitches. These story concepts help elicit meaningful, reader-friendly stories from anyone — whether they’re 20 or 80, student or high-powered CEO.
These story concepts, a bit like advanced ice-breakers, are designed to do more than just serve as superhero highlights reels, common in university magazine storytelling. They encourage sources to share their mistakes along with their triumphs — in other words, to illustrate their real humanity.
While Braz was intrigued by more than one of the conversational story concepts developed by the Capstone team, she settled on the “Bigger Life” concept. Here’s a portion of the pitch:
The story concept had other benefits, too. The idea of “choosing a bigger life” was something embedded in the idea of a Purdue education itself. The whole point of a university education is to offer students a chance to live a life that is “bigger” than the one that might be possible otherwise.
A headache-free process for busy editors, directors, and VPs
Braz made a few suggestions, and the Capstone machinery got into gear.
We identified great sources for Braz’s approval, including multiple alumni from the VIP list.
- We assigned the story to a top writer, who contacted sources, conducted interviews, and wrote a draft.
- One of our editors made tweaks to the draft to ensure it was in great shape before Braz reviewed it.
- Our technical and research assistant sent out the story to every source for their approval.
Braz, an outstanding art director, was happy to tackle the illustration component of the story, but if not, Capstone would have collected headshots or even tracked down the perfect illustrator for the story.
The finished piece included stories about breaking aviation records, leaping into the entrepreneurial unknown, and leaving home to pursue big opportunities.
Braz praises the “flexible and responsive” Capstone approach and process. ”I appreciate [your team] being proactive and not making me chase down information,” Braz says.
Since the publication of that story, Braz has worked with the Capstone team on new feature stories linked to faculty research and to Purdue’s sesquicentennial Ideas Festival.
With the help of post-story questionnaires, the team has learned from each story, and offered increasingly targeted pitches perfect for Purdue readers.