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8 Ideas to Stir the Feature Planning Pot - 4/19/2011 -

Do your magazine’s feature stories tend to stick within certain well-established parameters? Here are some interesting ways to shake things up.

By Lisa Junker, CAE, IOM

I’m a big fan of The Penn Stater, Penn State’s alumni magazine. There are so many things to love about it, but one thing that’s always stood out to me is the variety packed into its feature well.

Instead of a clump of journalistic-style features, you’ll find a profile, followed by a photo essay, followed by something else entirely. As a reader, you stay on your toes and engaged every time you finish an article and turn to the next.

Do your magazine’s feature stories tend to stick within certain well-established parameters? It may be time to shake things up. Add a little spice to your feature planning with some of these ideas:

1. Vignettes. Invite three or four people to contribute short essays that provide contrasting perspectives around a topic. (It helps if you have a sense of each writer’s stance on the subject to ensure differentiation among the essays.) Alternatively, write a collection of three or four mini case studies around a related theme—companies undergoing significant change, members who dedicate significant time to interesting pro bono work.

2. Personal profiles. Instead of finding multiple sources to discuss a trend in your industry, focus on a single person who personifies that trend. Write a strong anecdotal lead to draw readers into this individual’s story. (The same idea can be applied to an organization instead of a person.)

3. Photo essays. Get inside your readers’ right brains and take a visual approach to a story. Be sure to spend plenty of time crafting captions to give each image context.

4. Tips, tips, tips. Ever notice how the magazines in the supermarket checkout line all seem to promise 88 tips on losing weight or 124 ways to find more time for your family? Those numbers are there because they work: Readers are frequently drawn to numbered lists. Try putting together a big collection of short, practical tips or ideas for readers to try on the job.

5. Top 5 or Top 10 stories. Top-10 stories and similar award articles can be tricky. If you go about them without proper thought, you leave yourself open to charges of unfairness. But if you develop a transparent and defensible process for picking your award winners, you can create a signature article your members will look forward to each year—consider Fast Company’s annual Masters of Design issue, or Fortune’s Best Places to Work.

6. Open letters. Is there a constituency your members need to hear from but rarely do (young members, members in an unusual specialty area, customers)? Invite an individual from that constituency to write an open letter to your readers.

7. Roundtables. Get a group of opinionated members in a room together and facilitate a live discussion. Even in Q&A format, roundtables are typically far longer than a feature story can be (unless you have an unlimited paper and postage budget), so plan to mine the transcript for additional value—follow-up articles, blog posts, tweets, and more. Live roundtables are also great opportunities to shoot informal video.

8. Timelines. Articles that have a strong sense of time (first this happened, then that happened) are excellent candidates for a timeline treatment. Rather than writing a detailed narrative, break the story down into pithy statements organized by date, and have your designer get creative with the layout.

These are just a few ideas; smart editors are coming up with new ones every day. The next time you visit a bookstore or newsstand, keep an eye out for feature formats you could adapt for your publication.

Even better, most of these formats are no more expensive to produce than any other feature article would be. The key is to plan for a creative approach right from the start. As you build your editorial calendar for the year, take the time to consider the balance of feature formats in each issue as well as the balance of topics to cover.

Lisa Junker, CAE, IOM, is director of publishing & custom media for Stratton Publishing & Marketing, a provider of custom media, research, and strategic consultation to associations and other organizations. Junker is also a member of the Association Media & Publishing board of directors.


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