How we learnt to write the print prospectus

Posted in: Content design, Copywriting

In the oh-so-innocent days of 2019, when A.I. was a sci-fi concept, X was still Twitter, and Corona was just a beer, we were asked to write the copy for the upcoming undergraduate prospectus, which would be printed and delivered to eager students-to-be who were planning to start their studies in 2022.

As the Digital Content team ('Digital' being the key word), we were a bit uncertain about this new direction, but we took a step back, thought about our skills, and approached the task with the same attention to detail we offer all our projects.

Since then we've written two prospectuses a year - one for prospective undergraduate students and one for prospective master's students. Each time, we've learned a lot, adjusted our approach, and looked to improve what came before. This is the story of that process.

The age of discovery

Having never written a print prospectus before, we knew we needed to learn a few things before we put fingers to keys.

We started with a discovery phase - a period of work where we gather information and test theories about the best way to deliver on the brief we've been given. Rather than rushing headfirst into a project, this gives us the chance to take a step back, collect data, see how other people do it, and make informed decisions about our processes and what we want to create.

Here's what we discovered during the discovery phase for that first prospectus...

The purpose of the university prospectus

This sounds obvious, but it's always worth checking your preconceptions and what people expect from a product.

What we found didn't exactly blow our tiny minds - most sources just confirmed what we already knew, that it's a profile of a university, that it provides information about courses and student life, and so on.

One point of interest that did come out of this was from a now-removed article called 'How should a university prospectus behave: Questioning convention and avoiding stagnation' by Bond & Coyne, a London-based creative and strategic brand agency that works in the education sector.

Bond & Coyne said:

Today’s students are heavily influenced by authenticity, citing open days and student reviews as the biggest factors in their HE decision making. Having grown up in an always-on, digital world, they are more attuned to the frequency with which brands exaggerate the truth. As a result, nothing will lose a student’s trust more than finding a mismatch between what the prospectus tells them and what they find when they turn up at an open day.

This attitude to marketing content fits nicely with our approach to web content. We've always been about discarding the woolly bits of copy and keeping things clear and simple for our users. But marketing copy often seems to go the other way, bigging up mediocre aspects of a product, or hiding a brand's insecurities behind buzzwords and bumf.

From the outset, we wanted to write prospectus copy that potential Bath students could understand and trust.

How young people read print copy

A prospectus is not a website (and vice versa).

Again, that's obvious, but as a team, we were used to writing web copy, not print copy. We already knew how people read, or more often scan, web copy. We needed to find out how people, particularly young people, read words in print. If they do at all, with their new-fangled iPods and electronic mail...

Turns out they do, according to the National Literacy Trust, and those who read for fun (mostly fiction) do so primarily in print. Good start!

When it comes to non-fiction though, says the BBC, young 'uns are more likely to read digitally.

Digging deeper, the New Yorker suggested that teenagers might read more words these days than in the pre-internet age, but in the form of headlines, excerpts, scraps of articles, and comments.

So, we reasoned, if you're going to put a printed document in front of the youth of today, it's important to set yourself some guidelines:

  • break sections up using subheadings
  • avoid big blocks of text
  • use bullet points instead of long sentences
  • highlight important information with text boxes
  • use graphics to explain things where possible

Once again, lucky us, our research supported the approach we already used when writing copy for the website. Namely, that nobody wants a wall of words to climb over.

What other universities do for their prospectuses

A staple of our discovery phases, benchmarking is when we compare how we do things with how some of our competitors do them. The idea isn't to copy other people's work but to build a consensus on best practice (and worst) so we can see where we can make improvements.

We looked at prospectuses from the Russell Group and other recruiting universities (Coventry, Loughborough, De Montfort, and Bournemouth) and assessed the tone of voice and style of their copy.

Most of the prospectuses we looked at were text-heavy and felt busy, making them difficult to read. We found similar results in our own prospectuses, going back to 2017, so saw this as our opportunity to create something clearer, less wordy, and ultimately more useful than many of our competitors.

What students think of our prospectus

No discovery would be complete without some user data. When it comes to the prospectuses, we get feedback about each one from potential Bath students who've read it (and our competitors'). The feedback comes from a survey managed by the Business Insight team. That year, we also had some feedback from 'widening participation' students.

The feedback told us we'd do well to say more about:

  • the student experience at Bath
  • accommodation options
  • the application process
  • diversity and inclusion at Bath
  • our sustainability initiatives
  • scholarships and bursaries

Planning phase

Before we start working on the copy for any prospectus, we write a content plan, based on the overall project brief we get from the Marketing team.

The content plan gives us a chance to summarise our intentions for the content. It's a blueprint, something for us and others to refer to while we're structuring the content.

When we started to plan for last year's master's prospectus (aimed at students starting in 2024), we shared our content plan with all the stakeholders (subject experts in other departments) before working on the prospectus copy.

This was the first time we'd done that. The brief for that prospectus asked us to reduce the page count (from 86 to 60 pages) by cutting down the copy. Sharing the content plan first was the best way to prepare stakeholders for the changes to come. By giving details about the specific bits of copy we were going to remove, stakeholders knew what to expect and we were able to avoid a lot of potential back and forth later in the process.

We've since done the same thing with our content plan for the 2025 undergraduate prospectus and will keep doing it as long as prospectuses are ours to write.

Writing the thing

For every prospectus, our job is to make sure the content is up-to-date and clear.

Going back to our first prospectus in 2019 (aimed at students starting in 2022), many of the previous prospectus' section headings started with the word 'Be' to create an echo of the tagline 'Belong at Bath' throughout. We were fine with continuing to use this device, but not if it meant people couldn't understand what the section was about. As we said in our original discovery report, the 'function of the page should be more important than the marketing techniques used'.

To keep to the brief and help readers find the information they needed, we rewrote some of the section headings, for example, replacing 'Be inspired' with 'Be inspired to learn' and 'Be ahead of the game' with 'Be ready for your career'.

Since then, different Marketing briefs have called for different heading styles, so we've been back and forth a bit, but we've always advocated for clarity over sizzle.

In the early days, we'd go through the copy from the previous year and update any factual information we could, at the same time refining the words to make sure they were as clear as possible (it's surprising how much you can see to improve when you haven't looked at something for a year). We'd then send the edited content to stakeholders, ask them to check the facts, and then integrate any more updates into the copy.

The last few times, though, we've taken a more streamlined approach, sending the stakeholders unedited text first and asking them to provide their factual updates for us to work with. This has proved to be more efficient and allowed us to focus more on refining the copy without having to worry about whether factual information is correct or out of date.

Rinse, refine, repeat

After our first attempt at prospectus writing, we were satisfied we'd ended up with a clearer, simpler, easier-to-read publication that highlighted the key things prospective students wanted to know and directed them to more information on the website.

The feedback survey results backed this up. Prospectus readers were asked to rate how much they liked each of the content sections in the prospectus. All but two of the content sections had a higher percentage of 'I really liked it' replies than the same sections in the previous prospectus.

Over the last few years, we've continually refined our processes and looked for ways to improve the prospectus, and the feedback surveys have continued to support our work.

Each prospectus brings with it new challenges. Page counts are cut (quite rightly, in the name of sustainability) and marketing priorities change, but our experience from the last few years means we're able to adapt each time and continue to produce a prospectus that helps people make an important and informed decision.

Posted in: Content design, Copywriting


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