TO PRINT OR NOT TO PRINT? That is the question more and more institutions are contemplating when budgeting for their publications targeted to prospective or current students. Whether they are called digital natives or members of the Net Generation, there is no question that teens and young adults are superusers of the internet.
While most of their free time is spent surfing the web, exchanging instant messages, and networking with their friends on Facebook or MySpace, are they going to spend enough time flipping through all the heavy-stock viewbooks, brochures, and magazines inundating their mailboxes?
Most college publications are now offered in an electronic format.
Take the case of the prospective students Howard and Matthew Greene mentioned in their column "Wading through the Viewbooks," published in this magazine's June issue. Last spring during the final college selection process, these independent education consultants asked graduating seniors what had and hadn't mattered in their searches. "What did not matter included fancy, fancier, and fanciest college mailings," wrote the Greenes after highlighting the efforts, the creativity, and the tons of paper going directly from the mailbox to the recycling bin.
Think this example is merely anecdotal? The Noel-Levitz report "E-Expectations: The Class of 2007" published in October 2006 confirms these observations. The national survey of 1,018 high school juniors conducted by phone in 2006 found that 56 percent would rather look at a website than read brochures sent in the mail.
However, this survey didn't sign the death sentence of printed pieces either: 64 percent reported their preference for receiving information from a school on their list via mail over e-mail. Although an e-mail message and a website are totally different animals from the student recipient's point of view, these apparently contradictory results demonstrate the lack of a definitive answer to the print versus electronic question.
Completed by 218 professionals working mainly in the marketing and communication office of their institutions, the online survey about the state of print and electronic publications in higher education I created for this column aimed to shed some light on this topic. Although this survey was filled out on a voluntary basis from July 9 to July 25, 2007, and can't pretend to be statistically representative, it uncovers some emerging trends:
Respondents were asked which format (print only, electronic only, and print with an electronic version) their institution uses for the following publications: academic program brochure, admissions brochure, annual report, calendar of events, course catalog, application package, campus news, student handbook, financial aid handbook, fundraising material, magazine, newsletter, press kits, and viewbook. With the exception of the viewbook (47 percent in print only), these publications are offered in an electronic format most of the time.
News-oriented publications are the most likely to be available in an electronic format only, whether they are packaged as campus news (46 percent electronic only), calendars of events (59 percent electronic), or newsletters (29 percent).
Tighter budgets and audience preferences are shifting efforts from print to electronic. More than three quarters (77 percent) of the respondents confirmed they started to or were planning to rely more on electronic publications (web, blog, e-mail, PDF, RSS, etc.) to reduce their print budget. Only 36 percent reported an increasing print budget over the past two years, against 44 percent for an electronic budget.
When asked which printed publications couldn't be replaced by an electronic version, the majority of survey respondents agreed that magazines, fundraising materials, admissions brochures, and viewbooks should still be printed. Surprisingly, there was a tie between the pro-print and the proelectronic camps for annual reports.
More than 70 percent of respondents think course catalogs, student handbooks, newsletters, campus news, and calendars of events should be offered electronically only. With universal access to the internet on campuses, the leap to electronic publications targeted to current students and other internal audiences is in progress.
Now that you know more about the state of the print and electronic publications in higher education, what should you do with yours?
While it still relies heavily on printed publications, the University of Dallas uses the electronic version of its viewbook to provide immediate feedback to 12th-graders inquiring electronically. "We also embed the link to this viewbook in the communications to our alumni as a part of our 'refer a well-qualified high school senior' program," says Curt Eley, dean of Enrollment Management.
Even your faculty members might embrace your push for online publications. After doing a quick survey, the University of Missouri-Columbia Graduate School found that more than half of faculty, staff , and students had no preference on whether they accessed the graduate course catalog online or in print. Mizzou's graduate course catalog is now available both as a PDF file and a collection of web pages. "It saves us $12,000 or so every two years, and countless hours in editorial time," says Steven Craig Richardson, communications coordinator.
By introducing the new format and delivery method in the column of your print publication, you will increase your chances of keeping your readers engaged after the transition. The University of Texas Medical School at Houston followed the advice with its 15-year-old print newsletter, Scoop. They started announcing the change in the print publication about a month before it occurred. They even printed the online version to show to readers how it was going to look. "When it debuted we got several good comments both from our internal audience and external audience who sign up to this listserv. We have not received any negative feedback about people missing the hard copy," says Darla Brown, director of the Office of Communications at the Medical School.
Blogs, RSS feeds, and web pages are great platforms for electronic publications.
With the marked increase in spam, e-mail might not always be the best way to deliver your publication electronically. And it's definitely not the only one anymore. Blogs, RSS feeds, or even regular web pages can all be great platforms for your electronic publications.
Develop synergies between your glossy publications and your website by pointing to more resources online in your printed articles. Longer interviews, photo galleries, video reports, latest news, and recently submitted class notes can make great web extras and pull your readers to your website. At the University of Florida, the College of Education introduced last summer ET Extras, an online supplement to its magazine, Education Times. Featured on page 3 of the printed summer issue, ET Extras included photos and teasers for four more articles available online.
Some universities have already started to use print-on-demand (POD) to customize their communications to target audiences. Others plan to use POD to reduce paper consumption and printing costs. However, POD technologies could soon be used to offer the final choice between print and electronic to your readers. The future has already arrived for some public companies.
Since July 1, 2007, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) lifted the rule enforcing the mandatory mailing of annual reports to shareholders. Now the SEC requires public companies to offer these publications online and mail printed copies only when they are requested by shareholders. Dix & Eaton, a recognized investor relations firm based in Cleveland, has even launched a new product, ar360?, offering design, production, and delivery options of publications in both formats. "We believe the ar360? offers public companies a unique opportunity to maximize their annual report budgets, as it will allow them to print as few or as many annual reports as they need-when they need them," said Rob Berick, a Dix & Eaton managing director quoted in the company press release announcing the launch last June. Similar kinds of POD products could be the answer to the current "print vs. electronic" dilemma facing more and more institutions of higher education.