The Honest Marketer

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Is the printed prospectus dead?

The subject of countless opinion pieces and conferences – rearing its head only yesterday at HEERA's Training Day – the debate about the future of the printed prospectus has been raging for well over a decade. And, given that over three-quarters of UK households now have internet access and with technological advances offering far cheaper, targeted and more sophisticated information solutions, I have for some time been championing the cause to move away from this expensive and inefficient medium (the printed content becomes out of date as soon as it hits the presses).

Back in 1999, while working at the University of Wolverhampton, I led the development – unique at that point – of a University Preview Guide and individual course leaflets, printing a full Course Handbook as a back-up for UCAS Fairs and school/college libraries. Designed to dramatically reduce print and postage costs and provide more tailored, in-depth course information, the Preview Guide and accompanying course leaflets were very well much so that eager prospective students rang us back and asked us to send them the full prospectus.

Thankfully, with a Course Handbook already prepared and waiting in the wings, the only thing damaged was my pride and the Department’s budgets, which took a slightly bigger hit than we’d anticipated from the postage. The market was clearly not ready to give up on the traditional prospectus; I was convinced we were simply ahead of our time.

I watched as the digital revolution, which had gathered pace following the public launch of the world wide web in 1992, opened up a major new channel of communication, full of increasing opportunity for the Higher Education sector. In 2004, UCAS ditched its paper-based systems for online applications for 2006 entry. In 2005, the Internet population reached one billion (it would double by 2010). The same year UCAS launched its web-based ‘Track’service for applicants to find out whether following results their university place was confirmed or they were eligible for Clearing. Within the first hour 60,000 applicants had used the service and by midnight on August 18, 2005, there had been 271,821 logins.

In 2006, now working at the University of Northampton, conscious of the spiralling costs of producing 75,000 prospectuses and mailing out 25,000 with postage costs then of over£50K, I decided to investigate the possibility of producing a mini guide supported by a CD-Rom/DVD alongside the website. The statistics seemed to back up my long-held convictions. The 2006 Hobsons’ School Leaver Review confirmed what was becoming clear, namely that university websites were gaining importance and influence. Websites were jointly favoured with prospectuses by the 12,300 sample as the most frequently used information resource for school-leavers. The number of British adults aged 15 and over using the Internet at home had just broken the 25 million barrier for the first time with the total number of people using the Internet from any location reaching almost 28m or 59% of the adult population.

However, once bitten, twice shy. The idea was soon put on hold when we tested it with our own prospective students – two-thirds of which still wanted to receive a printed prospectus…and a CD-Rom.

Roll forward another four years, the world and I had moved on yet again. Universities had begun investing heavily in their websites. In November 2010, the Telegraph highlighted eight universities – Hertfordshire, Cranfield, Robert Gordon, London Business School, University of Wales, Imperial College London and Leeds – who had each spent between £100K and 280K on one-off redesigns. Birmingham City University had re-launched its own website in 2010 at similar costs and visits to the home page rose 42% between 2009 and 2010.

In 2009, Birmingham City University had launched an ‘Essential Guide’ of information about the University supported by a series of subject prospectuses. This was based on research with prospective students conducted in 2008 who had indicated a strong desire for more subject-based information with lack of course information being the main criticism of the traditional prospectus approach.

Though effective, the subject prospectuses were very expensive – printing costs alone were almost double that of the traditional approach, the postage and fulfilment costs were also significantly higher. Feedback about the Essential Guide was very positive – it was seen as“parent friendly”, “academic yet vibrant and confident”. Further research with prospective students suggested that 45% believed it was ‘very important’ to have access to a printed prospectus, but 48% said it wasn’t essential, many viewing a traditional prospectus as “a waste of paper”. I felt my time had come at last.

So, in early 2011, BCU took the bold decision to do away with prospectuses, making do with the Essential Guide and diverting funds to invest more heavily in our website, social media and electronic communications. A decision reaffirmed by the findings of the 2010/11 Higher Expectations Report, which confirmed that university websites had now overtaken prospectuses to become the most popular source used by prospective students to find out information (cited by 79% compared with 63% for prospectus),

The appointment of a dedicated Social Media Officer and Web Marketing Manager resulted in a massive increase in online engagement. Twitter followers doubled to over 2,000 (we now have 4,921), facebook membership grew from 1,723 to over 3,000 (we now have 7,383) and visitors to the BCU website increased year on year from 1.8m in 2009 to 3.3m in 2011.

The popularity of the University continued to grow – our applications peaked at 28,559 in 2011 (from 13,854 in 2008 and 14% higher than 2010). We maintained our full-time home undergraduate student numbers, while growing postgraduate slightly.

But as the year progressed we noticed a marked decline in the number of requests for the Essential Guide – down 17.5%. Conscious of the smaller pool of prospective undergraduate students and the increasing competition facing us in September 2012, we decided to investigate this further by surveying over 200 prospective and current students.

Feedback about the Essential Guide remained very positive – 81% of current students and 87% of prospective students rated it as good/very good. So too was feedback about web content – 92% of prospective students and 91% of current students rated it as good/very good. However, when asked directly about whether or not they supported the strategy of having course information online views were mixed. While 62% of prospective students were happy to view course information on the web, 38% were not. In fact, a fifth of prospective students stated they had not gone on to view course information on the web.

For me, it was game over. My paper-based nemesis had forced me to swallow my pride once again and reverse a literature strategy I have spearheaded for the last 13 years.

The traditional print prospectus hit the UCAS Fairs in April – as well as enhanced e-communications. A revamped courses website (complete with commerce-style 'save' course feature) will go ‘live’ next month. We launched our enquiry management CRM system in November 2011 and are now sending prospective students and applicants 18 monthly subject-specific e-newsletters.

Pickle Jar Communications once questioned whether the on-going demand for the printed prospectus is down to the fact they are considered “the norm and therefore remain the core item in the student marketing process”. This may well be true. I can only hope that I will live to see the day when I no longer have to produce a printed prospectus, but for the time being I think it would be a very brave – or stupid – Director of Marketing to ignore the wishes (perceived or genuine) of almost two-fifths of their potential paying customers. But do you agree?