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Virtual Viewbooks: Ready? Or Not?

Admissions officers go digital with their institutional introductions
University Business, September 2012

Millennials, the generation born between the late 1970s and early 2000s, speak a language all their own. A digital camera is a camera; a cell phone is a phone. They’ve grown up with the internet and are wholly immersed in technology with websites like Amazon and Zappos customized to their individual interests.
The question for higher education enrollment managers is this: Is the viewbook, the crown jewel of the admissions process, ready for a leap into the online world? The answer: A resounding maybe.

A few early adopters have replaced their print viewbooks with digital versions. They’ve seen an uptick in interest, applications, and yield rate and watched printing and postage bills plummet. However, new costs and challenges have emerged. Other higher ed institutions are taking a hybrid approach, clinging to print, but mixing the traditional print opus with a millennial-friendly digital product. A final group espouses a wait-and-see stance, citing admission departments’ notoriously cautious ethos and the lack of data showing the advantages of the digital model.

No matter what the approach, and action or inaction, it’s clear that the digital viewbook has emerged. Here’s what prospective students are finding when they spend time with these viewbooks and how campus admissions pros are adopting them.

From Traditional to Virtual

Traditions, such as viewbooks, endure for multiple reasons. Over the last decade, viewbooks have evolved, with many slimming down from a hefty volume crammed with details like a complete list of majors and minors to slimmer versions that focus on storytelling and photography. Escalating printing and postage costs, coupled with changes in the way information is consumed, have fueled the trend.

Institutions don’t need to include every basic fact in their viewbooks because that information is online, explains Bob Johnson, a Michigan-based higher education marketing consultant.

Prospective students want to picture themselves on campus, and most schools convey that message by providing stories and photos featuring current students, faculty, and programs. Higher education, as a whole, understands how to deliver these messages in a printed viewbook. Yet, for all its merits, print is not without downsides.

Once a printed viewbook is mailed to prospective students, it enters the teen vortex. It may be tossed in the trash, lost under a pile of chemistry homework, or visited and re-visited as the student makes plans for the future. Admissions departments have no data about what happens to each viewbook after it’s mailed. On top of the lack of feedback, costs  to produce and mail are substantial.

Rising costs spurred Siena College administrators (N.Y.) to replace its print viewbook with a digital version in 2010. “We carry an inquiry pool of 40,000 to 50,000 prospective students, but we could only mail viewbooks to about 60 percent of them because it was so costly,” explains Heather Renault, director of admissions. The college may have missed prospective students who were more passive about indicating their interest.

Indeed, the growing number of stealth candidates, lurkers whose first sign of interest in a school is the actual application, poses a growing problem. Salve Regina University (R.I.) realized more than 30 percent of its pool fell into that “secret shopper” category, says Laura McPhie-Oliveira, vice president for enrollment.

Salve Regina administrators seized the digital viewbook as an opportunity to track these secret shoppers while trimming the traditional viewbook’s 70 pages. The new digital version made its debut in September 2011. 

Similarly, Renault and colleagues questioned the necessity of print. Royall & Company, which offers enrollment consulting to the higher ed market, shared results of a poll that showed no difference in outcomes between students who had been exposed to a viewbook and those who had not. That’s when the Siena team realized there might be another way to engage prospective candidates.

Texas Christian University launched a digital project in 2010 with rising juniors as a cost-effective pilot project. The simple first generation e-zine used FlipViewer technology to convert the print viewbook into an online magazine. The link was shared with 16,000 prospects; 14,000 opened it and 600 interacted with it. The 4 percent interaction rate was higher than TCU’s typical rate of 2 percent to 3 percent, and “told us we should move forward,” shares Tracy Syler-Jones, vice chancellor for marketing and communication.

Breaking Tradition

Deciding to break tradition and go digital brings an array of new challenges. When Siena College administrators specified they did not want a print viewbook, two of the three marketing companies that responded to the request for proposal returned with proposals for print viewbooks.

The third, Albany, N.Y.-based Zone5, hit the mark. The end product, which went live in 2011, features 80 interactive squares designed to pull prospective students into digital stories with YouTube videos or Flickr photo sites. From there, students and parents can dive deeper into the sections of the main website that most interest them.

Although Siena abandoned its print viewbook, the college did not completely forego paper. In fact, data gathered via Google Analytics in the digital site informs print messaging. The admissions department budgeted for four postcards to help push prospective students and parents to the digital viewbook. Each postcard highlighted a specific message in the viewbook.

Google Analytics can provide data about how many users are in the viewbook, the zip code and county where users reside, average time spent in the viewbook, and where people go into and out of the viewbook.

One major difference between print and online is the analytics capabilities. Google Analytics can provide data about how many users are in the viewbook, the zip code and county where those users reside, the average time spent in the viewbook, and where people go into and out of the viewbook.

Renault noticed a slight bump in traffic after Siena sent its first postcard promoting the viewbook and another blip after the second, which emphasized study abroad and social connections. After mailing the third, which focused on affordability, the spike in traffic was apparent. “We had planned to focus on alumni and careers in the final postcard, but we realized how the money message resonated and added another postcard about alumni scholarships.”

Other institutions combine print and digital in different ways. Salve Regina administrators decided on a hybrid digital/print viewbook, with digital as the lead. McPhie-Oliveira and her team re-positioned the viewbook budget and contracted with Maryland-based Creosote Affects to develop the digital product. It balanced the increased costs of additional photography, videography, and interactive development with reduced printing costs to stay budget-neutral. The slimmer print version “fell out” of the digital project, and counselors direct students who want more information to the digital version, which includes highlights such as an underwater video shot from the bow of one of the school’s championship sailing boats. The project was a win, as applications, the conversion rate, and yield increased.

Not every institution finds the digital realm is best. Three years ago, Pepperdine University (Calif.) launched a digital viewbook that allowed prospective students to enter their interests to see a customized book.

But the approach did not produce the expected leads and content became dated, says Taylor Becket, associate director for admission marketing. The university has shifted course, and halted the high-tech, customizable endeavor in favor of an old-fashioned print version and an online link to request a print viewbook.

Best Viewing

The transition to digital viewbooks is likely to take time, and simply leaping into the virtual without a solid strategy is unlikely to produce success. At the same time, best practices for these tools have not yet been established. “We all knew how print worked and what to do. Digital brings new opportunities almost every week, so we’re in flux, which makes it hard to establish best practices,” says Susan Evans, senior strategist with mStoner. However, a few rules of thumb should help steer the process.

    • Be ready for an ongoing investment of staff time and resources. It’s a myth that digital is easier, says Renault, who describes the online viewbook as a machine with a bottomless appetite. Smart schools continue to update the digital viewbook, so it looks fresh for repeat visitors. That means new photos, new stories, new videos. On the plus side, if a spectacular event occurs on campus, it can be highlighted in the viewbook fairly quickly, unlike print, which may not be updated for a year or two.
  • Set up and then regularly monitor Google Analytics. “Digital is a great marketing research opportunity. Schools can see which links are popular, which provides substantive information that can be used to change the viewbook in the future,” says Johnson. A weekly peek at traffic is smart, but early adopters caution against making changes based on weekly whims. Assess three-, six-, or nine-month patterns.
  • Emphasize usability. Test the viewbook on a variety of devices. Some animation technologies won’t play on the iPad, while viewbooks optimized for the iPad may leave out prospective students who don’t own that device. Programs that require users to enlarge print to read the page are another no-no. Salve Regina’s viewbook is available in Flash and HTML5 versions and is viewable on iPads, tablets, and desktops. TCU’s vendor employed responsive design, so students can interact with the viewbook on smartphones, iPads, tablets, and desktops.
  • Leverage campus experts. It’s not uncommon to see a team of 30- to 40-somethings discussing what will appeal to 16- to 18-year-olds, observes Evans. “College freshmen are as close to prospective students as we can get. Show them the model and get their feedback. They’ll often select something 100 percent opposed to what the team would.”
  • Check the links—weekly. The viewbook should draw prospective students further into the main website. Links should be live and cast the school in the best light.  
  • Be true to your school. The viewbook should reflect the campus. Siena College’s admissions team chose to feature a face in every square because the school emphasizes personal relationships.
  • Don’t overlook parents. They may be more enamored of print than their children. In year two, Siena plans to make its digital viewbook more parent-friendly by adding labels to tell visitors what to expect when they click each link.

Although the digital viewbook story isn’t complete, many signs predict it will have a happy ending.