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A relic of the past? Is there a future for the printed prospectus?

In these days of all things social (in media terms), is there still a place for the printed college prospectus? At one time, there was no question that this was the major annual piece of college publicity, aimed at meeting the needs of all the college’s target audiences. Thousands were printed and distributed without much thought, except to spread them as widely as possible. But now, some colleges have dispensed with a printed prospectus completely – are they at the cutting edge or have they gone too far?

It may be tempting to go for the online option – budgets are being cut and we’re always told these days that young people spend all their time on their smartphones. Companies producing Apps and mobile websites tell us this is the future – and maybe it is, but the key as with everything in marketing is to know your community.

A recent discussion amongst marketing managers from across the country illustrated the point neatly. One college in a leafy suburb attracting aspirational students has moved entirely online, because research has identified that its potential students – and their families – have no problem accessing the prospectus from the website or via mobile. Part of the attraction of the college is that it is seen as being ahead of the game in its use of technology and the web.

Another college, in Greater London, has a very different community to serve: not very well off and very diverse with many of its students speaking languages other than English as their first language. Here instead of going for a completely online prospectus, the marketing team have developed a “build your own” approach, where potential students can choose the pages they want online, then have their personalised product either emailed to them, or even have it printed and posted to them.

Yet another reported that they had gone for an online version two years ago, but had had to bring a printed version back this year after an outcry from local schools and stakeholders. And a fourth had moved to a general short booklet that highlights the college experience, without listing all of the courses available, which are only available from the website.

We also have to remember that prospectuses aren’t just for the students – research always shows how important parents are in the decision-making process, and another colleague reported how often she sees parents coming to open evenings with a prospectus already dog-eared and marked up with questions they want to ask. This is when you really see the value of handing out prospectuses at careers events – it’s not just going to the student, but to the influencers as well, who don’t always have the time, patience or desire to spend hours online.

There’s also the value of browsing that you don’t always get online – years of experience tell us that many students only find the perfect course for them this way, because they may not even know it exists, or that it’s available nearby. Online browsing is of course possible, but you usually have to know what you’re looking for first – you don’t get the serendipity of flicking through the pages, especially if you’re less expert with the internet.

There are lots of pressures to go online – from budgets, competitors and IT-literate college colleagues. Marketers like most people are excited by the possibilities of new technologies and want to be ahead of the competition. But we must be sure that what individual colleges are doing meet the needs of their local communities, researching what’s required and justifying this in budget discussions. We were told a long time ago that the printed book and the newspaper were dead, but they are still stubbornly alive and vital, so it’s my guess that the printed prospectus isn’t going to completely disappear just yet – just change its form and aim.

Rachel Smith is chief executive of the College Marketing Network

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