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I was part of the first wave of web communications professionals hired in higher education in the late 90s. Web communications wasn’t exactly a thing yet, but most of us brought writing and editing skills to the table along with technical skills (primarily HTML and Photoshop). We had titles like “web coordinator” and our positions represented an acknowledgement that the web was an increasingly important communications channel.

As the aughts progressed, our marketing responsibilities grew. There was online advertising to place, analytics to track, social media to manage, email marketing to deploy, and search engine optimization to master. Nearly twenty years later, those ancillary web activities have become primary marketing tactics. Subsequently, some people like me have moved out from under the “web” or “online” title to head marketing offices.

This is a very long-winded way of saying I know squat about print.

A Steep Learning Curve

I like print — in fact, I love some of it. I never subscribed to the Print is Dead mantra, even when I was waist deep in the transition to digital. But that’s not to say that I have much of an inkling of what goes into making print happen.

I’m blessed to have a very patient staff who walked me through the steep learning curve. Paper weights, fibers, and finishes. Color-builds and dye lots. Off-set printing, digital printing, and flocking. Gutters and bleeds. And I understand why higher education has moved away from print in lean times. In addition to the expense of paper, printing, and postage, it’s quite labor intensive. I can say with some experience now that a printed invitation to an event is easily 5x more work than an evite and a printed publication is 10x more work than an online one.

But I also learned the value of print.

Long Live Print

Recently, I spent a few pleasurable hours on a flight reading an issue of National Geographic. The breathtaking photography transported me to far-flung locales and the linear storytelling nudged me from one article to the next. Amazingly, the editors recreate this experience monthly. I still have that magazine at home near the couch. I showed it to my children. I don’t feel the same connection to online presentations, even ground-breaking ones such as Snowfall and What is Code that marry digital design and content in inspiring ways.

Print is tactile. Print invites you to linger. Print can be tucked away conveniently and pulled out again and again. Print can be framed and hung on your wall. And these sentiments don’t seem to be generational.

In a 2016 special report for the Columbia Journalism Review, “Print is dead. Long live print,” Washington Post reporter Michael Rosenwald highlights the research of Iris Chyi, a University of Texas associate professor, who has found that in news media, print still outperforms digital in every category, and, contrary to public opinion, young readers are still drawn to it. “Chyi’s findings show that among 18 to 24-year-old news readers, 19.9 percent had read the print edition of a newspaper during the past week. Less than 8 percent read it digitally.”

Rosenwald notes that not only has interest in digital news plateaued, but print is rebounding in other areas as well. “Sales of print books have risen every year since 2013, while e-books have leveled off and in some genres declined. University students prefer printed textbooks over electronic ones, according to surveys. And independent and used bookstores have made a comeback.” Similar observations have been made around digital versus print advertising.

Make it Special

I believe that most people reading this online blog, digital natives included, rejoice at this news. But because print is expensive and time consuming, how do higher ed marketers make the best use of it?

Avoid top-of-funnel use. Youth is wasted on the young? So are high-end unsolicited print pieces. The best slide in Michael Stoner and Gil Roger’s Mythbusting Admissions presentation is the one showing multiple LOL emojis in response to the assumption that prospective students appreciate the landslide of print materials they receive from colleges and universities. I’m not advocating for the demise of the viewbook, but there’s something to be said for waiting until prospective students ask for it. Once their curiosity is piqued, a beautiful print piece can help form an emotional connection. And great yield pieces can seal the deal.

• Save it for someone special. Our alumni and donors are already connected and primed to respond to well-done print. What about sharing the viewbook with them? They might welcome the opportunity to linger over photos of the campus they once knew and to learn more about their institution as it is today.

• Spare no expense. Relatively speaking. We can cut corners on utilitarian pieces like the administrative handbook and under-utilized course catalog (or not print it at all), but publications like our alumni magazines, which tend to remain in homes to be shared with family and pulled out among old classmates, deserve a design refresh, some sharp copy, stunning photography, and an uncoated stock.

Rosenwald, in thinking about gutted newsrooms and skeleton editorial staffs, wonders whether “the big decline in print readership has more to do with a lack of quality than a lack of interest?” We know that we’re inextricably connected to print, from the board books we gnawed on as babies to the posters we hung in our dorms to the meaningful documents — birth certificates, marriage licenses, deeds, and college degrees — that dot our lifetimes. Print isn’t quite a luxury, but it is a premium, and we should treat it as such.

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

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