First Impressions

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How print is strengthening higher ed connections

A couple years ago, the marketing and communications department at Concordia College decided to scale back on its print initiatives in order to meet budget objectives. And then something interesting happened. Before long, they noticed that the university’s enrollment funnel was lagging at all points through the enrollment cycle.

After significant analysis of its marketing mix and an introspective analysis of the numbers compared to previous years, the Concordia team found the performance of its other marketing materials to be in-line with previous years. The next year, they decided to bring print back into the fold, immediately reporting an impact throughout their enrollment funnel.

EDgage | First Impressions

Josh Lysne, Associate VP and CMO, says that the decision practically made itself, even if there was some internal investigated work involved. With students spending so much time in digital spaces—be it email, social media or messaging platforms—providing a marketing message outside of those channels tends to be more of a personal engagement. “Parents play a significant role in college decisions for many students, and for the most part, students are not sharing email communications with their parents. We have found that a constant beat of email mixed with strong direct mail, which the parents see, tends to get the best response.”

Concordia College’s marketing strategy involves a countless number of channels, including print, email, digital display, outdoor, social media and radio. Each and every touchpoint—depending on which audience it is intended to reach—must be reinforced with key messaging throughout the entire enrollment cycle. When it comes to print, parents continue to be the main target audience; more specifically, self-mailers, postcards and other print pieces that have a strong key message visibly stand out when they get the mail. Catching their eye against a crowded mailbox is paramount.

EDgage | First Impressions

Like many colleges and universities across the country, Concordia had to practically reinvent its approach due to the pandemic. Pre-COVID, the small, private four-year liberal arts college in Moorhead, Minnesota had very few online offerings. “At the top of the enrollment funnel, our marketing mix did not change significantly in terms of marketing channels,” Lysne says. “But the mid and low end of the funnel saw significant changes since we could not allow students interested in Concordia to visit in-person. Video and virtual events became the norm.”

As Concordia—and the country—slowly eases its way in and around the pandemic, some of its enrollment strategies used pre-pandemic will return, especially those aforementioned video and virtual events. “We saw success with many of our virtual offerings and we will continue to offer and enhance those for the upcoming year,” Lysne says.

EDgage | First Impressions

And, as its research pre-pandemic began to show, print will continue to be a vital part of its strategy to build connections with prospective students and their parents. During a time when students and visitors were not allowed on campus, print became a critical communications tool.

“Print has played a valuable role in providing a look into the life of the college during a time when they are not able to experience it themselves.”
— Josh Lysne, Associate VP & CMO, Concordia College

“Even today, we are only allowed a limited number of visitors each day,” Lysne says. “Print has played a valuable role in providing a look into the life of the college during a time when they are not able to experience it themselves. While video has filled the largest void of providing a virtual campus experience, we have put critical thought into the content and visuals of our print material to support the campus experience as well.”

Print by any other name…

Located on 115 acres of hilly, wooded land in Rock Island, Illinois, Augustana College’s enrollment is around 2,500 students. The private Lutheran liberal arts and sciences college ranks among the Top 40 in the sciences based on the number of graduates earning doctorate degrees.

EDgage | First Impressions

Along with a healthy dose of digital communication, the Augustana marketing and communications team employs an annual piece that is a bit different than the norm. The flying disc—yes, it’s a Frisbee—features a printed message about summer visits and dates for other special events. Printed on recyclable paper, the discs are sent via mail. The content is always complemented by matching messages on its web pages and via email reminders (think an animated gif of a flying disc).

“Print has always worked in partnership with other media to attract prospective students,” says Beth Roberts, Editorial Director at Augustana. “It helps welcome them to campus to visit, share our story, introduce people who together present a sense of our community’s personality, and share information and data they need or want to know to see how our college stands apart from others.”

EDgage | First Impressions

Because the Augustana team values print and what it can do, they also print a high-quality viewbook—a tactic many colleges and universities no longer use. Roberts says the personal touch the viewbook offers cannot be matched. “There is something about the arrival of a beautiful piece of print into the hands of a student or parent by mail that shows a certain kind of care, focus and intention to reach out.”

This has been especially true during the pandemic, where students have been experiencing so much more of their lives on-screen. The physical communication a printed piece offers when it arrives at their doorstep can feel special and personal. “One thing print can do is present imagery and text that can be read into,” Roberts says. “A gorgeous photo can draw a viewer into that world immediately and, because it’s static, the viewer can return to it over and over again, and put themselves in that place. The imagination can take over, and that creates more of a partnership with the viewer/reader. And when a student or parent has a number of print pieces from a variety of colleges, you’d better look good, sound good, even feel good on that dining room table.”

In a time when the higher education landscape is seeing a drop in enrollment numbers, the competition for prospective students seeking next level learning is increasing. That means crafting a message that sets a higher premium on the value proposition higher education holds in expanding future opportunities. “Wellbeings have been challenged, financial resources diminished or disappeared, and learning methods changed,” Roberts says. “Perhaps even students’ confidence in the ability of the education system to support their futures has been shaken.”

“There is something about the arrival of a beautiful piece of print into the hands of a student or parent by mail that shows a certain kind of care, focus and intention to reach out.”
— Beth Roberts, Editorial Director, Augustana College

So, as the race to attract prospective students shifts into hyperdrive, every strategy maneuver matters. “This past year and for the year to come, we’re altering the message to suit our variety of virtual options,” Roberts says. “That’s why we think it’s nice to get a tactile, playful, useful Frisbee directly from Augustana amid all of those virtual communications. It speaks of more surprise and joy to come.”

By using the power of print, you also give your branding efforts a strategy that other higher education marketing teams are thinking about in today’s digital world. It’s a first impression that matters.