In front of glowing rectangular screens—computers, tablets, smartphones, or other gadgets—we’re absorbing thousands of information snippets every day as we consume, create, and sort through content of all types. The sheer volume of digital information we interact with today would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. How can colleges and universities cut through this clutter with targeted, engaging, and strategic content for their various audiences?
We are drowning in content. We sift and process a steady stream of words, images, and messages quite literally from the moment we wake up until the light goes out at night (and oftentimes beyond that). If you’re like more than half of American adults, you own a smartphone or Internet-capable mobile device. Chances are your phone or tablet is the first thing you reach for in the morning, and the last item you place on your bedside table at night (51 percent of smartphone owners use their device for social media and email from their beds).
When it comes to the college-bound Millennials who will enroll in their college or university, higher education marketers often make ill-founded assumptions about the ability of prospective students to process the digital information that permeates their lives. While older generations (to which many higher education administrators belong) are understandably overwhelmed by the brave new information world in which we live, Millennials are wired for digital distraction and multitasking—or so the thinking goes. As digital natives who’ve never known a world without the Internet, teens and twenty-somethings are assumed to be more skilled at processing digital content and dealing with information overload.
Yet recent research suggests that Millennials are not nearly as good at multitasking as they (or we) believe. In fact, they are increasingly distracted and overwhelmed by the information that competes for their attention—particularly from social media platforms. Teens spend nearly 10 hours per day online, and 22 percent of teens check their Facebook accounts at least 10 times daily. Increasingly, experts are finding that teens are no better equipped to handle digital distractions than their older counterparts, and that hyper-connectivity is taking a toll. In a recent survey by Common Sense Media, 43 percent of teens agreed that they “wish they could unplug sometimes,” while more than a third agreed that they “sometimes wish they could go back to a time when there was no Facebook.” (Ahh, 2005. Those were the good old days!)
But we know there’s no going back, and that social media and 24/7 connectivity are here to stay. As higher education marketers and communicators, we only have to reflect on the tsunami of information in our own lives to realize the challenges we face in effectively sharing messages about our institutions with prospective students and their families. According to the Content Marketing Institute, the average American consumer is bombarded with 5,000 marketing messages per day. How do our messages stand a chance of resonating amid all that noise?
Earning Someone’s Interest the Smart Way
It stands to reason that with so much information competing for attention across news feeds and social networks, our content needs to be more unique and engaging than ever.
Indeed, in the social media era, killer content has gained new prominence over older marketing methods. Traditional “outbound” marketing efforts (such as advertising and direct mail) are increasingly ignored and overlooked—and are yielding fewer results. “Inbound” marketing (primarily focused on creating, promoting, and sharing useful content) helps to gain the attention and trust of prospective audiences in a noisy world. Content marketing is a bourgeoning field built for the new realities of the social economy: Our content needs to be correct, informative, and helpful; our content must stand out from the digital clamor that bombards our audiences; and our messages need to earn their interest and ultimately their trust.
When digital content (websites, e-newsletters, videos, social-media posts, etc.) is consistent, cohesive, and compelling, it gets shared. When our constituents share and engage with our content, we’ve earned their trust—without having to pay for it through traditional advertising. “Earned media” is more powerful than paid or owned media because where there is trust, there is implicit endorsement. And research shows that individuals are much more likely to trust and engage with content that is recommended by friends through their social graphs.
Increasingly, digital content needs to be strong enough to stand alone when stripped of its original context and no longer safely wrapped in desktop-friendly web pages. Content originally published on a website might be repurposed on any number of aggregate sites, reformatted for mobile devices, stripped of formatting in an RSS feed, shared on a social network, or broken down into 140-character sound bites. We are moving toward a “create once, publish everywhere” (COPE) model in which content will be entirely separated from presentation, so it can adapt fluidly to fill any container it’s dropped into.
How has higher education marketing adapted to screen and information proliferation? Are institutions moving away from the webpage-centric model and crafting content that can thrive in a myriad of formats and across a range of devices? Is the content ready to be curated, repurposed, and shared on social networks?
Naturally, the answers to these questions are mixed. Yet a realistic assessment of the higher education landscape reveals that many colleges and universities are struggling under the weight of their own digital content.
Higher education websites are too often plagued by numerous disconnected contributors serving a range of ill-defined audiences without any common strategy. The content is often outdated and of inconsistent quality. Voice and tone differ so significantly from section to section that were the content to be removed from the context of the website, one would not know it came from the same institution. Overworked and under-resourced marketing and creative teams don’t always have the time or clout to rein in rogue pages or unqualified authors; they spend a disproportionate amount of time keeping the institution’s home page up and running, while much of the rest of the site remains an uneven mix of both useful and useless content.
Yet despite the significant challenges, there are encouraging signs across colleges and universities that the higher education profession is beginning to wake up to the importance of a more disciplined and strategic approach to content. Forward-thinking institutions are adapting to the new content-hungry landscape by treating content as an important business and brand asset. (One of these universities is profiled in the sidebar on p. 17.) The higher education institutions that are leading the way are eschewing old habits and embracing a broad set of disciplines that have been grouped under the label of “content strategy.”
What is Content Strategy?
Content strategy encompasses an array of practices, but is most commonly characterized as planning for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content—a definition established by Kristina Halvorson, author of the book Content Strategy for the Web.
Content strategists wear many hats and come from a variety of backgrounds—writers, editors, user experience specialists, and project managers, just to name a few. Content strategists occupy the gaps between information architects, designers, and copywriters, always advocating for content that is planned and purpose-driven.
In web development projects, content has typically taken a backseat to information architecture, design, and coding. This is particularly true in higher education, where most of the energy and planning goes into the design and development phases. Content developers are rarely at the table during early planning meetings, and authors across a range of departments are too often expected to “drop in the content” right before a website or interactive project goes live. Little thought, planning, or strategy goes into the content, which is unsurprisingly weak and poorly vetted as a result.
Content strategy turns that stale model on its head. Instead of tacking on content development at the end of a project cycle, content is not only part of the conversation from the early planning stages, but informs and shapes the site’s architecture and design. When content is embraced by the institution as a critical business and brand asset, it receives the attention and resources it deserves.
A Quick-Start Guide
So the question is, where do you start? How do you begin instilling a “content first” mindset at your institution?
In cautious and slow-moving university cultures, the best approach might be to look for small gains first. While rolling out a robust campus-wide content strategy is ideal, it’s also a tall task in most of higher education’s decentralized institutions. High-priority sections of the website, a standalone microsite, or a digital publication are great testing grounds for crafting and refining a content strategy.
When embarking on a content strategy project of any size, it’s important to first determine the content assets that the institution already has in place. Even a limited content audit can help enormously. An audit helps you locate outdated, redundant, and unhelpful content that can be eliminated; it uncovers good content that should be given more prominence or repurposed elsewhere; and it helps you identify content gaps that need to be filled. Automated software can aid in locating and indexing digital content, and a detailed Excel spreadsheet is typically ideal in cataloging content along with notes about each content element.
Once you’ve determined exactly what you have in terms of content assets, it’s time to shift into asking why. Why are you creating this particular content? What purpose does it serve? Who is the target audience? What are their needs? What are the project goals? What are the broader institutional goals that need to be met? Asking why ensures that content is in sync with broader strategies and in line with established goals—instead of being created to fill a box or populate a webpage.
After identifying what content you’re working with and why you’re embarking on the project (the goals you hope to accomplish), the next question that needs to be answered is how? How do you want to tell a particular story or convey critical information? The answers to this question should be rooted in your institution’s brand and messaging strategies. Every piece of content originating from within your institution is a potential asset. Yet in higher education our content is too often divorced from our overall brand and lacking a consistent voice and tone. And the point is not to use digital content to talk about your institution’s brand, but rather to demonstrate brand attributes. A shared voice and tone helps to establish brand consistency and differentiate institutional content that is repurposed to be consumed outside of the institutional website.
Long before a copywriter drafts copy, the content has been planned for and closely aligned with both micro and macro strategies and goals. This advanced preparation provides writers and contributors with a framework and clear guidelines from which to craft content, along with broader themes from which to draw. Yet a content strategist’s work is not finished when content is drafted and approved—in fact, that’s often when the most important work begins.
The next steps involve determining when and where content will be published. Who needs to review the content before it goes live? Does the content have an expiration date, or is it evergreen? Where should it be published and for how long? If you plan to share the content through social media, when and how often will you promote the content? When will the content be updated or removed? Who is tasked with refreshing or replacing the content? Your institution’s CMS workflow will likely provide a publishing mechanism for at least some of these decisions, and the workflow can be continually updated and improved as you hone your content strategy.
Telling the Stories
This brief overview of some basic aspects of content strategy demonstrates the radical shift in thinking about content that higher education institutions need to adopt. They cannot afford to cling to the old model of creating and publishing content in departmental silos, with no oversight and little planning. Their content is a vital business asset that requires proactive planning, strategic creation, and consistent governance.
Although institutions face significant challenges in adjusting to the new demands of the social era, higher education has one distinct advantage over other industries when it comes to producing compelling content: They have an endless supply of great stories to tell.
Institutional brands come to life through the tales of faculty, students, and alumni who are doing great work and, in many cases, literally changing the world. So while decentralized structures make it harder to implement sweeping strategies, and while limited resources constrain efforts, colleges and universities still have the piece of the puzzle that matters the most: the stories. The job of higher education communicators and marketers is to uncover these powerful, true stories—and then turn them into irresistible content.
Case Study: The University of Denver
When the University of Denver (Colorado) began working on a home page redesign in 2012, a cross-departmental leadership team made sure that content strategy was a key component of the project from the outset.
“Our previous home page had been designed by an outside firm,” explains Kate Johnson, senior content strategist. “We had received great feedback about the visual experience of the home page, but we felt it wasn’t being used to push up the stories that were being produced around campus.”
As is the case at most institutions, there was no shortage of compelling stories at the University of Denver. Quality content was being produced from a broad swath of departments and divisions—yet these stories were not being published and promoted sufficiently on the DU website.
“We wanted to raise the visibility of our content,” says Johnson. “Content is produced on a decentralized basis— something that’s true of higher ed in general. We have lots of great new stories, newsletters, and websites being developed all across the University. Content strategy looks at that content as an asset and a resource. So we began to think about how we could make some of that content more available and prominent.”
The communications team, including senior leadership, also invested time into considering the fundamental question of why they wanted to feature any particular piece of content on the home page. “We thought about what purpose our content serves, and it comes down to communicating our brand in a consistent way. We laid out what our brand strategy was, and then we made sure our content was systematically hitting key brand points.”
What resulted from these strategy sessions was a new home page (www.du.edu) that features four prominent content columns in an otherwise sparse design. Two columns are dedicated to current news and events, while the other two feature “brand pillar” stories that emphasize and demonstrate key brand attributes of the University. New content is regularly rotated into these columns, and the featured content is chosen for its demonstrated link to a specific brand pillar.
This represents a more deliberate and planned effort to tell the University’s story and reinforce its brand with featured content, says Johnson. “Our content didn’t necessarily speak to our brand in a direct way previously. Now we link stories with specific brand pillars very intentionally.”
Decisions about other home page content and links were informed by website analytics and user feedback—not internal politics or territorial squabbles. The content-first approach helped them to avoid some of the turf battles that often arise over valued home page real estate. “We determined the ‘why we’ve picked those stories’ criteria ahead of time,” explains Johnson, “which helps us with those conflicts about prominent space that happen in higher ed.”
The home page is the first step in an integrated content strategy rollout that will ultimately impact content and publishing decisions across the University. Johnson and her colleagues in the marketing office have begun the time-consuming process of cataloging and indexing key content assets that span the entire institution. Ultimately, they want to track each piece of content so that they know where it has been published and shared—and measure its effectiveness and level of engagement. The marketing office also recently released a centralized style guide and is in the process of introducing voice and tone guidelines to the campus community.
Over in the University of Denver’s admissions office, the unified content strategy efforts are being met with enthusiasm. “We are excited about the direction the University is taking in focusing on the content first and foremost in all of our communications,” says Emily Forbes, director of enrollment communication. “After undergoing an extensive discovery and research phase, I believe our brand pillars truly capture the essence and excitement of the University of Denver. We are eager to see what happens with our prospective students as our entire campus community begins sharing stories that reinforce the same message.”
Reflecting on their content strategy efforts, Johnson pinpoints the key to the success the University has had thus far: “Our website has taken great strides toward a structure driven more by our goals and by creating a great user experience than by just presenting a compelling visual. Content strategy has been a terrific tool for us, building a foundation for a site that’s effective now and that can grow sustainably in the future.”