Monday, October 29, 2007
Print 'Em and Ship 'Em
A new correspondent writes:
Why do community colleges mail catalogs to everyone? It seems like a lot of expense for something that's unlikely to generate a lot of new students.
This is a very live issue on my campus. It's a tough one, because beliefs are held strongly, and almost entirely without evidence.
Most community colleges that I know of produce several different types of publications for public consumption. The most common are
Catalogs usually cover multiple years (two seems to be the local standard), and they include full course descriptions, every imaginable policy, requirements for every major, campus maps, and just about everything except the actual days and times that classes meet. Catalogs take a full year to produce, since they're legally binding and remarkably comprehensive. That means, among other things, that they're already partially obsolete the minute they arrive on campus, and become progressively more so over their run. (Most colleges run up-to-date versions of the catalog on their websites.)
Course schedules typically cover a single semester or season (in the case of the summer, which may contain multiple sessions). They don't contain full course descriptions or major requirements, but they do include days, times, and locations of class meetings. There, too, the printed schedule is usually pretty buggy, and savvy students know that if they want the real information, they should look online.
(This is also where that mysterious creature, Professor STAFF, can be found. It's code for “adjunct.”)
Flyers are usually supersized postcards announcing a single event (an open house, say) or a new program. Flyers are much cheaper to produce and mail, but necessarily light on content.
There's a tension, really, between the need for marketing and the need for informing.
In classic conflict-avoidant fashion, we split the difference and mail the course schedule to every household in our service area, but only make the print catalog available on campus or by request. (Anybody can access it online.) The thinking is that the printing and shipping costs for that large a catalog run would be prohibitive, and it would be silly to re-mail the same thing every semester for two years. But the course schedule is smaller and it changes every semester, so we use that as a de facto marketing tool.
Of course, if you look at them, you'll notice that the catalog – which takes a little effort to find – is actually a much slicker marketing piece than the schedule, which is ugly, detailed, and everywhere.
My guess is that over time, we'll move away from thick paper publications and bulk mailings, and more towards online information. It's easier to update, the marginal cost of adding readers is close to zero, and the savings in printing and postage would be surprisingly substantial. I could envision a flyer each semester announcing that next semester's course schedule is online, giving the web address, and leaving it at that. A postcard is much cheaper to print and mail than a course schedule is, and much less likely to be riddled with errors.
We haven't tried it yet, though, since there's still no way of knowing what percentage of our target population won't look online. I suspect the percentage is small and shrinking, but when you're scraping for enrollment as it is, every little bit hurts. Given enough data, we could do a cost-benefit on it, but the cost of getting the data is itself prohibitive.
I'll ask my readers. Wise and worldly readers – has your college abandoned the detailed mailings in favor of putting the catalog and schedule entirely online? If so, has it worked? Did anything happen that nobody anticipated? Any real-world guidance you could offer would be much appreciated.
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We mail (and I, living in the service area, receive) two types of mailings about 4 times a year each (I'm not sure, but that seems to be how often I receive them). We do one that is sort-of a newsletter of what's happening at the college and seems to be a sort of sales piece for taxpayers ("don't complain about our levy! look at all the awesome stuff we do!"). The other advertises "community" classes -- craft classes, computer classes, etc. Both are about the size of a half-broadsheet, folded in thirds (and on heavier stock, obviously).
Both urge you to take a regular class, go online, enroll, etc. But the entire catalog or schedule isn't sent.
I don't know how effective they are as a general thing, but they were certainly effective at getting me to take a couple community classes when I first moved here.
I have always been of a mind that paper is a great reminder - it's portable and physical. You cna carry it around in your purse/bag and act on it when you see it. Sadly, I am less likely to do so with e-mails - just because there are so darn many of them. And I have to be in a certain mood/have time to go looking deep into websites.
I may just be a freak though, but I have a hunch not . . .
I did a survey this past summer to prepare the column. The main results can be found at www.higheredexperts.com/pubreport.
Course schedules are a crummy way to get the word out. They are not attractive and only are interesting to the usual suspects - people who would take courses anyway. You need to develop a real marketing strategy which includes targeted mailing and an RSS feed that people can subscribe to, so that when the college starts a new program or offers a class in an area that's popular you can get the word out in a less random way. I also think you could develop communities of interested people and pitch courses to them from the faculty before they make it into the schedule - get all the ameture astronomers on a listserv or subscribed to an RSS feed and then pitch "Life on other planets" or some other thing and see what their interest would be.
I know this would cost money but I wonder if you could get more enrollment and spend less on marketing if you targeted the right group - and of course, e-mail is almost free, I think that could be used to greater effect for most schools.
That was in 1981, and I'm a tenured prof at a community college today. The institution I teach at now abandoned mass mailings of the course schedule for a semester--enrollment went down and faculty complained mightily. It's back.
Personally I prefer to be able to hold it in my hands and look at it.
Once they are enrolled, however, the system is now almost entirely electronic. I think all financial aid notices will be managed electronically by the end of this year. Can you spell "portal"?
The catalog is printed and handed to every newly oriented student. This covers the basic policy that they graduate under the catalog they enter under unless they choose to fall under the requirements of a newer one. Those catalog requirements are reflected in the on-line electronic grad check, by the way. Paper catalogs, like paper syllabi, are for CYA legal reasons.
The thing about holding it in your hand, is that the information is delimited. It's all 'in the book' and it is much easier to overlook things online. I've discovered from going through other school's websites that a PDF catalog is probably the best online compromise, even if I hate the PDF format.
['Still slightly harder to use.']
At the school I most recently attended, when I first started, the materials describing the student health plan and enrollment were paper based. The brochure may have also been available as a .PDF downlad at that time, but I'm not sure. Perhaps the next year there was definitely a .PDF version and you could also enroll online as opposed to having to mail your enrollment back to the school.
Then, one year, they went to an entirely online process. Again I'm fuzzy on the exact details, but I think they may have only sent an email alerting you to the fact that it was time to enroll with a link to the site or they may have just sent a postcard to this effect, but the brochure and enrollment was entirely online.
I am guessing that there were problems with this approach, as the following year they reintroduced the choice of print and online formats.
I guess in the end it will depend on who you are trying to target and the particular preferences they have for receiving information.
I avoid them whenever possible.