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Mention your upcoming viewbook redesign to a colleague and witness an involuntary shudder. Nothing in higher education marketing is more universally dreaded. Redesigns are notoriously difficult, drawn-out processes with many stakeholders and much at stake.

But at the same time, nothing is more ubiquitous. Print has ebbed and flowed over the years, but the viewbook has remained a stalwart publication that, at the undergraduate level, still serves as a cornerstone in a college or university’s marketing mix. What makes it immune to the forces that have otherwise transformed our field?

A Brief History of Viewbooks

Just exactly how long viewbooks have been around is a little hard to pin down. A 2015 Carnegie Conference presentation makes an astute connection between the first direct marketing efforts made by the Sears Roebucks Company in the 1890's and the appearance of early college prospectuses. They would have certainly become more prevalent around the turn of the century as colleges began to receive more applications than they could accept, affording admissions offices the ability to shape their class like never before and accept certain kinds of students over others. A 1939 article in the Journal of Higher Education by the then president of Stephens College entitled "The Recruiting Problem" seems to be the first to reference the "selling" of education and the "evils" of competition among colleges for enrollment of a student and the use of "propaganda" to do so.

That cynical assessment notwithstanding, it's clear that viewbooks were our first attempt to differentiate ourselves. They weren't merely the how to apply; they were the why to apply, the why to choose us over the college down the road, which is of course, the role we hope they play today.

By the 1970s though, recruitment professionals are acknowledging that we are failing at this objective. In 1978, the first book is published on the topic of higher education marketing, Marketing Higher Education, and, in the concluding chapter, the editors sum up the pitfalls that plague higher education communications:

  • Trying to say too much in too little space.
  • Writing about what interests the institution while giving short shrift to what interests the reader.
  • Slapping in any available photography rather than carefully choosing photographs that illustrate the points the institution is trying to make.
  • Attempting to communicate the impression that the college is all things to all people rather than a specialized place for a special kind of person.

Sound familiar?

21st Century Viewbooks and Beyond

Fast forwarding thirty more years to 2008, two professors of education perform the first empirical study of viewbooks in “What's Being Sold and To What End: A Content Analysis of College Viewbooks” and they find that perhaps not much has changed. In their analysis of 48 viewbooks from a wide variety of higher education institutions, they discover that the thematic elements of the various books are nearly identical, and that institutions don’t stake out unique claims because there is risk in “seeming too different, which might cause others to question said organization’s legitimacy.”

They surmise, “It seems that many institutions are left in the paradoxical position of wanting to emphasize their special nature while remaining conventional—exciting and enticing but somehow familiar, unique but not weird… Viewbooks must differentiate, but do so in a legitimate fashion that doesn’t scare students away.”

I think that’s fair. The difficulty in true differentiation has been addressed in this blog and in other forums. Most higher education institutions share the same values, the same goals, and the same obstacles. But I’d like to put in a word in for the journey.

We recently emerged from a redesign process that my colleague compared to a stint in therapy. It was a lot of self-reflection where we embraced our strengths, faced the worst part of ourselves, and made it out the other side with a much clearer sense of who we are and where we want to be. In other words, it was a branding exercise with a physical deliverable attached to it, made special not by stark distinctions, but by our students, our campuses, and our mission.

It's safe to say that at some institutions the viewbook may be the last print standing. There's something special about holding a manifestation of your brand in your hands, something even prospective students, when presented with it at the right time, hold dear. When and how we get it into their hands is a topic worth exploration, but for now, I'm happy to have a beautiful new book that embodies the essence of my university in a fresh, bold way. Or so I think.

Donna Lehmann is the assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University in New York City.

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