Ampersandbox Makes the News

We here at mStoner are quite pleased that the Ampersandbox, the viewbook and website project we recently helped the College of William & Mary develop, was mentioned in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and a recent blog post in the Washington Post.

And we find it telling that the Chronicle’s recent article on viewbooks refers to them as “courtship materials,” because that’s really what they are — a college or university’s best attempt at romancing a prospective student, at beginning a relationship that will last a lifetime. Ideally.

But I think the biggest problem with these courtship materials is not their cost or their web-induced obsolescence but the fact that most of them aren’t terribly romantic. They’re often treated, in Richard Hesel’s words, as “wristwatches,” that is, symbols more concerned with tradition and prestige, when they should be treated as love letters. They should delight as well as inform. And especially since a website is much better suited than a print piece to storing and updating factual information, delight assumes even greater importance.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with two of the institutions mentioned in the Chronicle article. Back when we still worked at Lipman Hearne, Voltaire Miran and I helped Knox College develop a new website and enrollment publications as a unified set of communications, all based on the same positioning, messaging and design. Last summer, we worked with The College of William & Mary to develop Ampersandbox.

Both projects were successful, as were similar projects we’ve done at mStoner. And for two reasons. One is that they were planned in a way that lets each medium work to maximum effect. A website can be as big as you need it to be, and, if you have a decent content management system, can be endlessly and immediately updated. That makes it much more suited to lists of courses or faculty and other important but changeable information. With the web carrying the heavy information load, the viewbook can finally cut itself loose from its beginnings as an illustrated catalog and spend more of its increasingly expensive page count romancing a prospect, using culture and people to differentiate an institution from its competitors. In the case of William & Mary’s Ampersandbox, each card became a freestanding message delivered in the college’s indelible voice. Love letters, as it were. And the corresponding website allowed alumni and current and prospective students to deliver their own love letters back to the college.

Which brings me to the other reason the Knox and William & Mary projects were successful: both institutions were willing to use both print and web to express themselves in an authentic and compelling way, and were willing to live with the likelihood that that expression might not appeal to every prospective student. In other words, by using their culture as a differentiator, both institutions were able to cut through the clutter and reach more students that were the right fit.

Which is not to disagree with the Chronicle’s observation that colleges and universities need to make smart decisions as they balance their investments in print, web and even their campus tours. It’s more to emphasize the point that no matter what medium you choose, you must have something to say, and you must say it persuasively and authentically.

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Mark Sheehy