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College Viewbooks: Alive and Kicking

University Business, April 2012

The Millennial generation: they wear flip-flops on their feet, place headphones connected to iPods in their ears, maintain social media profiles, and value the balance between work and life. In terms of learning about higher education options, they go online to find out more about the colleges and universities that are actively recruiting them.

But, how are colleges and universities reaching them? Our nation’s higher education institutions are utilizing a number of creative and interesting ways, ranging from social media to NPR advertising. While the digital and electronic channels have increased, one must wonder if the college viewbook has become a thing of the past. Actually, viewbooks are still alive and well.

Working in higher education marketing for the past 15 years, I have had the pleasure of engaging with a number of colleges and universities on strategic multi-channel communications and brand programs, as well as interviewing hundreds of prospective students, current students, and parents regarding their perceptions of institutional communications during the college selection process.

This past year, I had the chance to review dozens of college viewbooks that were submitted for a competition. Gazing at the pile of viewbooks on my coffee table, I felt like I was 18 again as I analyzed and compared a plethora of styles, images, brands, sizes, messages, and formats. The process was a lot of fun.

Based on my review of several institution’s viewbooks (36 total), I am excited to provide you with some key facts and takeaways that can help marketers in higher education get a sense of current trends related to these publications.

How many pages should a viewbook be?

The answer to this question depends largely on how the viewbook fits into your overall communication sequence, as well as what types of information you want the viewbook to convey. Here are some statistics related to the 36 viewbooks I reviewed:

  • Most pages: 112
  • Least pages: 20
  • Mean number of pages: 41

Are schools using recycled paper and is it important to place the mark on the viewbook?

  • Many schools are using recycled paper and making it a printing requirement
  • 15 of the 36 schools placed the recycled paper mark on their viewbooks.

Is the magazine style in or out?

Viewbook magazine style has evolved during the past decade, moving from the glossy fashion magazine style to one that is content-driven. Of the publications reviewed:

  • Three of the 36 utilized the glossy, fashion magazine-style and employed the similar approach of trying to engage the student with eye-catching content from spread-to-spread.

What type of bindings are schools using?

The viewbooks reviewed used a variety of paper stocks, treatments, and bindings. Are we trending away from more expensive printing and binding methods? Of the publications reviewed:

  • 58 percent were saddle-stitched (regular staple)
  • 36 percent were perfect-bound (flat spine; does not use a staple and is more expensive than saddle stitching)
  • 6 percent used a spiral binding (more expensive than perfect-bound)

Heavy or Light Copy?

Over the past few years, there has been a trend to move toward lighter copy (with an emphasis on more photos). This trend also encompasses the use of bulleted content that is easy to read, pull-out graphics, and text that is highlighted via call-outs/factoids.

  • 42 percent of the publications reviewed included called-out facts and figures ranging topically from placement rates to faculty/staff ratio.

Does Size Matter?

We defined 8.5 x 11 inches as the average size of viewbooks.

  • 10 viewbooks were 8.5 x 11 size
  • 16 viewbooks were larger
  • 10 viewbooks were smaller
  • The largest viewbook measured 12 x 12
  • The smallest viewbook measured 6 x 6

Is there social media integration?

  • 58 percent of printed viewbooks included at least one social media icon
  • Of those that included social media icons, Facebook was the most popular application that was referenced graphically
  • Most social media icons were positioned on the inside back or back cover

When social media icons were present, there was typically no mention of how navigating to these sites would actually help the student (receiving updates on the admissions process, deadlines, campus news, etc.). Emphasizing the benefits of engagement would be wise for content developers to include.

Are they printing QR codes?

  • 31 percent of the viewbooks included QR codes

Are they using testimonials?

  • All of the viewbooks included testimonials/short stories  

The testimonials have evolved from solely describing why people did something and what the impact was to discussing how the testimonials and stories are related to future hopes, dreams, and ambitions.

How are they using full-page photos?

  • There were many full-page photos throughout all of the viewbooks that were stunning and engaging.
  • The photograph often functioned as a stand-alone story, but was occasionally a backdrop for the display of text-based information.
  • Many photos included copy placed over them or in sidebars of the page.

And now, the age-old question: How in the world can you encapsulate all of the viewbook contents in a single cover image?

Covers included:

  • Images of nature and animals
  • Illustrations
  • An absence of text
  • Images of traditional campus buildings

However, there were fewer stereotypical “campus building shots with students throwing Frisbees on the quad” than I expected.

  • Five showed a graphic with no text
  • Nine showed a building, students, or the campus
  • Eight featured text only
  • Five showed students indoors
  • Four showed a building only
  • Four featured a montage
  • One showed the city where the campus is located


As you assess the effectiveness of your viewbook (and overall print) strategy, I recommend the following:

  • Be strategic: Use your viewbook as a part of the admissions funnel to share pertinent information in a timely way.
  • Integrate: Integrate the web and mobile and social media throughout pieces to engage the reader to take the next step of the process that you want them to follow.
  • Assess: Analyze your competitors and your communications (for tone, message, design, clarity, and brand consistency).
  • Conduct research: Test concepts and messaging via focus groups, conduct A/B testing, use feedback from the ASQ, add several questions to your campus visit survey, ask questions online, etc.
  • Make your efforts measurable: Attach useful metrics to your communications efforts so that you can gauge their effectiveness. Use QR codes, PURLs, and other mechanisms on printed materials to drive people to the web so that they complete desired actions in ways that you can assess quantitatively.

Remember, choosing the right college is life-changing, so make sure that your viewbook allows you to tell your story. Overall, I was quite impressed with the quality and strategy behind most of these viewbooks. To see examples of several of the viewbooks reviewed, visit

Ann Oleson is chief visionary officer at Converge Consulting, a multi-channel marketing firm for higher education professionals who want to better understand their target audience's motivations. She can be reached at

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