This is a story about a viewbook. About a viewbook doing its job.

I have been helping nonprofit institutions create marketing and communications materials for some time. I like to think I know my way around that block.

But recently I witnessed—up close and personal—the magic that a well-written, beautifully designed viewbook can create for a university.

This spring my husband and I piled our two teenage boys in the family car and drove four hours to visit the University of Pittsburgh, one of many schools on my 17-year-old’s list of possible universities to apply to.

My high school junior had already visited four other campuses, promptly rejecting two nearly before our car was parked and the engine had cooled.

But he fell in love with Pitt. He loved the city, he loved the campus, and he loved touring the engineering school while listening to jokes told by the engineering students/tour guides, that only a fellow engineering kid would find funny.

He saw himself at Pitt.

Weeks rolled by. There was studying to do, rowing to practice, regattas to compete in, summer programs to apply to, and the Pitt effect started to fade. Pitt likely was sending him email (but trust me, he never reads it) and it certainly was mailing him postcards (but he wasn’t paying much attention). Like most traditional high school students in good standing, he receives admissions letters and postcards from all over on a daily basis.

One day, perhaps three months following our visit, Pitt’s44–page, 8.75” x 10.75,” perfect bound viewbook landed in our mailbox with a thud. “Oh yeah,” my son mused, starting to flip through the 100# pages. “I liked it there.”

Its text was sparse. There were lots of half- and full-page, visually arresting photos. (One of a student getting a pie in the face.) Headlines were in VERY large type, as were many of the infographics.

It drew my screenophile millennial right in. He slowed down.He dug into the narrative. He poured over the images. He started calling out facts to me about the university. He excitedly reported that Pitt has a robust international program. (This was not news to me; I learned it in the information session we both attended during our visit.)

The viewbook was doing its job.

I watched him consume that viewbook and saw him transported back to Oakland. He was once again excited, once again energized, once again in love.

Well played Panthers, well played.

The Lessons

So for those of you who have a hand in creating a school, college, or university viewbook, I have a few suggestions from my “mom-cam”experience:

First, don’t give upon print. I am certain that Pitt has a digital viewbook. I haven’t seen it, but I know it is there. Fine. For some kids, that’s enough. But for my teen, print has gravitas. Plus, he won’t open your emails inviting him to view the digital version anyway.

Sure printing and mailing is expensive. So only send it if a prospective student shows interest.  And what’s more expensive than losing a prospect because his or her visit has faded a bit over time? The cost starts to look reasonable in that light.

Second, don’t overwrite it. Catch prospects’ attention, grab their interest, turn their heads. They won’t read every carefully crafted word. (Well, mine won’t anyway.)They won’t recall every compelling fact. You’re setting a tone, evoking a feeling, or sending a reminder.

That’s the job of your viewbook.

Get their attention and rekindle (or ignite)that flame bright enough to gain a coveted spot on that prospective student’s application list.