These magic moments

Everyone, even the big kids, loves the Santa press conference.

Everyone, even the big kids, loves the Santa press conference.

I’ve been to many, many yearbook workshops over the past 15 years. Often, a workshop will open with “what is a yearbook?” Sometimes, a workshop will close with a commitment ceremony or something similarly stirring that inspires students to go out there and create the best yearbook they can for their school.

A yearbook is… a record, a public relations tool, a photo book, an educational experience, a reference book…

Author Pat Conroy wrote, “A yearbook is a love letter a school writes to itself.” I carry a tattered and torn copy of these words with me everywhere I go.

There are two things that “a yearbook is” that give me my greatest enjoyment in high school yearbook journalism.

A yearbook is a history book.

When my students are trying to meet deadlines or get a meaningful quote from somebody who does not know what to say, they do not realize right then how important it is that they record a complete and accurate history of the school year. This is only affirmed later when the truck arrives and distribution begins. It makes my heart full when students, seniors especially, hold their new yearbook in their hands and say out loud, “This is the best yearbook I’ve ever seen!”

When my staff hears the first comments students have to say about their yearbooks and when faculty members come up and say to my staff members, “Wow, you have so many stories in here!” it makes me smile and tear up. I get a little lump in my throat. I love seeing my students puff up with pride.

We have captured the year, for better, for worse. To oversee a group of students led by a student editor make the decisions of how to tell these stories is a blessing to me.

A yearbook is magic.

That day when we open the boxes I watch as my staff members get all quiet checking out their pages at first. Then they start exclaiming, “I helped do that page!” and “I had forgotten about that story I wrote!” Those are magic moments.

My yearbook students not only report on things that happen at our school and in our community, they also help make magic happen.

Magic happened when my students arranged a press conference with Santa Claus last December. With the help of our local newspaper editor, they arranged for two kindergarten classes from the elementary school next door to come visit Santa and ask him questions.

To break the ice, my students prepared questions as well. It’s a good thing, because the kindergarteners were too awestruck to say very much! As Santa told us his favorite type of cookie (oatmeal), and how exactly he manages to get to all those houses in one night (magic, of course), there was not a single person in the room who wanted that magical day to end.

We have hundreds of photos from when the kindergarteners each received a toy truck or a doll from Santa, which had been provided by the local police department.  Santa read his favorite story, ‘Twas the Night before Christmas, and every “kid” had an opportunity to sit on his lap. We were part of that magic, and we all felt it in our hearts.

In 2012, the Dunnellon Police Department was able to help us by providing a doll or truck for each child.

In 2012, the Dunnellon Police Department was able to help us by providing a doll or truck for each child.

The kindergarten students gazed at Santa in wide-eyed wonder.

The kindergarten students gazed at Santa in wide-eyed wonder.

My high school yearbook is magic to me. I know exactly where I am in it, even if the image is blurry or I am in the background. I remember the canned food drive that my club organized for Thanksgiving. I remember how stressed out I was when we discovered that one of the teachers had broken into another teacher’s room and stolen the cans! How were we going to decide which class won the breakfast? I remember all the back roads my friends and I drove as we delivered the boxes to needy families. There’s a story in the yearbook. Magic is made in every moment that is forever enshrined in the yearbook.

Last year, right before school ended, I sent a yearbook staff member to deliver a yearbook that had been purchased anonymously for a student. The student was so excited to receive it he came to me as soon as he could and asked to know who had given him the book. He said he wanted to thank that person. I told him if he wrote the note I would make sure it got to the right person. Later that day, he came back by to drop off his thank you note. The young man probably had an idea which teacher it was who made the yearbook magic for him, and that magic will remain in his heart forever.The kindergarten students gazed at Santa in wide-eyed wonder.

Sometimes when we are in the middle of deadlines we forget that we are making magic. Then, just when I start to wonder if it’s worth it, along comes another magical moment!

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The four P’s of marketing

One of the best marketing lessons I ever learned was so very much by accident that I just really must tell you the whole story.

I had just arrived at the hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina after a L-O-N-G bus ride from Florida that began at the crack of dawn. I was in Charlotte with a few yearbook students to tour the Charlotte Herff Jones yearbook plant.

We had about an hour before we were leaving to go to dinner and I was so tired! I thought I would take a little cat nap. When I am in a hotel, I almost always find that the Weather Channel is a great sleep-inducer. That Allman Brothers song that they play as they are showing the weather radar across the country is just very soothing to me. (Weather Channel and Allman Brothers, please do not take offense).

On this particular day, though, I never made it to the Weather Channel. I instead landed on PBS. At the time I had no idea what the name of the show was, but it seemed to be a kid’s show. And it was about marketing! Later I found out that the name of the show is Biz Kid$ (http://bizkids.com/show). I’ve watched many episodes since then, and many, many of the episodes provide valuable information that would benefit a yearbook staff.

This particular episode on marketing focused on the four Ps of marketing: Product, Price, Placement and Promotion.  To be honest, this is about all I really know about marketing. But it is also really about all anyone really NEEDS to know.

Product: Are you creating a yearbook your customers (the students) want to buy? If not, how can you make them want it? My answer to this is almost always coverage.

Price: Is the yearbook priced right? When you offer it on sale, is the difference in price significant enough to make customers act? We offer a coupon at the beginning of the year. These days, people go crazy for coupons. We sell nearly ALL of our books during our coupon sale.

Here's our 2014 coupon, just one part of our yearbook marketing strategy.

Placement: Do your customers know where to go to buy the yearbook? Establish a location and always offer it at that location. Make sure your yearbook is visible throughout the school though. The best “place” for the yearbook to really be is in the minds of everyone, every day.

Promotion: How are you letting your customers know about the yearbook? If you are only hanging signs, that is not enough. If you are only putting it on the morning announcements, that is not enough. Promote your yearbook everywhere you can. Make it visible, not only from the minute somebody walks onto your campus, but also in the community. Even if your staff is not allowed to have a Facebook, staff members can still post, Tweet and create a buzz on all the social media sites.

After the yearbook is finished and we have compiled a complete index, We create a sign with the names of all the students who are in the book three or more time and have yet to purchase it. The sign gets a lot of attention in the hallway.

After the yearbook is finished and we have compiled a complete index, We create a sign with the names of all the students who are in the book three or more time and have yet to purchase it. The sign gets a lot of attention in the hallway.

A yearbook can’t be successful unless people know it exists. It can be full of the most gorgeous images and the most awe-inspiring writing and design. Market it!

We then follow up with a postcard to let students know what pages they're on.

We then follow up with a postcard to let students know what pages they’re on.

The most important part of the marketing strategy

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We are adding a coverage editor to our leadership group this year. We will be surveying the entire school and calling students in for interviews. We will supervise as a “quote book” gets circulated among students who are tough customers when we try and get a story out of them. We will continue to think outside the box for unique stories.

Do you always have a page in your student life section on cars students drive? What about the ones who don’t drive? Do you have walkers, bicyclers, motorcyclers, bus riders? Find ways to tell their stories. Who has the longest bus ride to school? I bet that student isn’t in very many clubs or sports! His parents aren’t going to drive all that way to pick him up after practice.

How can you incorporate birthdays into your coverage? Who was born on a holiday? What is the most popular birth date on campus?

Are you doing a page on students’ favorite restaurants? This may also limit you to only covering students who are able to drive. What about a page on pizza instead? Almost everybody likes pizza. What’s everyone’s favorite pizza joint? Favorite topping? Weekly pizza intake? Who can’t eat pizza due to gluten or lactose intolerance?

Go out and find these stories and more. Think outside the box when you plan your pages. Ask yourself, “Is this page topic going to leave people out?” If it does, change it!

Coverage is the single most important marketing tool. It is the most important job of the yearbook staff.  If a student is in the book, then he or she will want to buy the book.

Coverage Matters

We began to really make an effort to cover everyone in our 2011 yearbook. Even on the first page, we got lots of people!

We began to really make an effort to cover everyone in our 2011 yearbook. Even on the first page, we got lots of people!

A few years back, a yearbook adviser contacted me about her concerns about being able to pay her bill at the end of the year. It seems that, with just a few weeks to go, she still had quite a lot of money she has to raise. “How much?” I asked. “Oh, about $8,000,” she answered.

Wait, what?

As a yearbook adviser for 15 years, there have been some tough years, but NEVER should you get within weeks of the end of the year with that much debt to tackle.

There are a million ways to be successful with your yearbook marketing. I’m a firm believer in NOT doing any fundraiser that does not directly relate to the class objectives. In other words, no candy sales, bake sales or car washes. Just book sales, ad sales and photography.

But the very BEST advice I offer that should guarantee financial success is one I came to understand as our school population began to grow:

You must cover EVERYONE in that yearbook.

Over the 15 years I’ve advised, our school has grown from about 850 students to 1500 and then back down to 1100.

When I first started advising, digital photography had not yet taken the world by storm. If a student wanted to remember the school year, that student needed a yearbook. Somehow we managed to get just about everybody into the book without even trying. I guess it’s not that hard with 850 students and 200-some pages. Do the math. That’s just four or five students per page.

We attempted to get one "group"-type image on each page.

We attempted to get one “group”-type image on each page.

Our tough lesson came not with the post 9/11 economic collapse, but after a bookkeeping incident wiped out our coffers in 2005. Suddenly we were struggling to make ends meet. Had we not had the issue with the bookkeeper, we would have had a nice little nest egg to cushion us and we might not have noticed…

These pages were not winners when it came to design, but we sure managed to get a lot of people on them, and that's what sells yearbooks.

These pages were not winners when it came to design, but we sure managed to get a lot of people on them, and that’s what sells yearbooks.

As our school grew, our coverage was not improving. Suddenly, we had over 1,000 students, but we were selling fewer books.

It took time for me to change my opinion on how we should do things. But then I realized if we did not change, we would fail!

My old opinion was that students should join clubs and plays sports. If they would only get involved, then they would get into those pages.

My new opinion is that some students are not ever going to join anything at school, but we have to find a way to include them anyway.

If we fail to include everyone, then how can we expect everyone to want a yearbook?

How do you get everyone in the book? Well, trust me, there will be those who make a huge effort to remain anonymous. However, most students are just wishing your yearbook staff will make the effort.

Even our opening pages had lots of people on them.

Even our opening pages had lots of people on them.

Why I Yearbook

As most of you know, I’m a yearbook adviser. It’s definitely not the easiest job in the world. There are always going to be two main worries: 1) that you’ll never be able to pay the bill; and 2) that nobody will like the yearbook (and nobody will buy it, and you won’t be able to pay the bill). Certainly the yearbook has become less of a priority for many students, even as my journalism students strive to make a product that everyone should cherish.

A couple of months ago, Herff Jones sent out information about a contest called Power of a Yearbook. They were seeking schools that had done a community service page and were willing to share the page. A panel of judges would evaluate the entries and the winning school would be announced in May.

I never did hear anything about who won the contest (apparently not us), but I saw some really great entries. The one that I was most drawn to, because of the emotion that it evoked, was one about the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. The school that submitted it was an Aurora school, so the story was written on a very personal level.

I came across this picture recently of my first yearbook editor, Rikki, and the cover of my first yearbook. This photo was probably taken around October of 1998.

I came across this picture recently of my first yearbook editor, Rikki, and the cover of my first yearbook. This photo was probably taken around October of 1998.

It had been a long time since a yearbook had given me a lump in my throat. Prior to seeing that Aurora page, it had been years. I had attended a workshop where a young man was talking about how the yearbook was a history book. As he held the yearbook from the Manzanar Japanese internment camp, he went on to explain how important it had been that those young people had been permitted to document their world. His voice cracked as her showed us his aunt’s photo in those pages.

Tonight (June 8, 2013), I had the opportunity to see how a yearbook that my students and I produced had made a difference in someone’s life.

In my 18 years of teaching, I would estimate by now I have taught at least 2,000 students. Some I will never forget because they were just that good. (Others I can’t block out because they were just that bad, but it’s true that times heals all wounds so I rarely dwell on these). In all seriousness, a student does not have to be super special to be memorable, and some relatively average students tend to be the ones who make a lasting impression.

But tonight belonged to Eva Bellon, a 2004 DHS grad who spent just one year, her senior year, in my journalism class and made a lasting impression for several reasons. First, she was the niece of one of my best friends, Lisa. Second, she was great at selling ads (a big plus). And third, because she was just a great young lady all around, academically focused and super-involved in school.

When Eva Bellon told you she was going to do something, she was going to do it. She told her teachers she was going to become a doctor. And here I was tonight, at a party with her huge family, celebrating her degree in medicine. As if it was not enough just to succeed against the odds to complete med school, Eva had also survived a near death experience in her first year. Her tenacity is commendable.

It is tough to describe how proud of her I am. I know I had very little to do with her success, but I still am over the moon that she was able to succeed at such a huge challenge and under adverse circumstances. At the start of the party tonight, her mom Jeanie told a sweet story about a 4th of July long ago and how Eva had always cared for others. And then Eva’s grandmother, Lela Mae Evers, got up and spoke.

Lela Mae Evers has always loved to tell stories. And for as long as I have known her (since the 1980s), I have always loved to hear these stories. Dunnellon has a rich history, and I absolutely love to hear about that history. Tonight I was treated to stories about how her son and his friend had gone to dig for old bottles in the woods and had found old tokens that had been used for money in the Boomtown Days of Dunnellon. The boys thought they had discovered gold treasure. She also told me about how she has become a cheerleader along with a handful of other grads from the 1940s at the annual “old school” reunion in Dunnellon. Back in the 40s, spirited Dunnellon students cheered on a 6 man football team. They remembered all the old fights songs.

Although she is getting older, Lela Mae Evers is a self proclaimed storyteller, but she told me tonight that I’m the one who really knows how to put things down on paper. And this is where the story involves the 2005 Dunnellon High School yearbook.

There was not any real reason we decided to call the 2005 yearbook “Reflections of the Past, Faces of the Future” except that we wanted to have this really cool mirror that reflected the “20” into an “05” and we just could not resist the fact that when you looked straight into the mirror you would see yourself, the “face of the future.”

When I saw that Evers had the 2005 yearbook at Eva’s party, I was perplexed at first because Eva had graduated in 2004. Then I remembered that because of the theme we had done a “past” section in that book where we had created a section on Dunnellon history, decade-by-decade. Although my students quickly tired of researching, I had a really great time researching for the history section, and I solicited information from Dunnellon old-timers. Evers was the first to respond, providing me with pictures, stories and other valuable items.

How about that? We had created a 16-page section of a yearbook with the help of Lela Mae Evers, about 60 years after Evers had graduated from Dunnellon, and she was so proud of it that she had brought it to her granddaughter’s graduation party. What’s more, she had bookmarked the pages where she had contributed. And what made that yearbook even more valuable was that Eva was in that yearbook too, on the spring page because she had been named prom queen the spring before, and Evers’ grandson was also in the book, selling FFA peanuts at a football game. Evers had these pages marked as well. We had invited the alumni to meet us and tell their stories at the Homecoming football game that fall, and Evers had her name tag we had made her tucked into the book as well.

Tonight reaffirmed my purpose. As hard as it is to raise the money every year, we have to keep on striving to produce a yearbook that someday will put that lump in someone’s throat. As I reflect on the book we did this year, I can think of a few stories that can evoke that sort of emotion. As we go forward, I hope that we continue to seek out and record more stories that make our yearbook priceless!