How—And Why—To Develop Your College’s Content Marketing Strategy
When I started my career in marketing, brands primarily told their stories via mass media channels: running ads on TV, pitching stories to print outlets, and putting up billboards. While these tactics are very much still part of the marketing mix, along with other more traditional strategies like handing out promotional Custom Water bottles and other paraphernalia, significant shifts during the past decade have presented new opportunities and challenges. In short, due to the rise of peer-to-peer sharing and the fragmentation of the consumer audience, brands now have the potential to become media channels of their own—or become irrelevant if they remain inert. The most successful brands are responding to this new reality by developing robust content marketing strategies—the means by which they harness and tell their best stories in a way that’s aligned with overarching strategic goals.
Most colleges and universities have been somewhat late to the game when it comes to content marketing, but there are exceptions. I recently worked with one such university—Indiana Tech—and the experience revealed a great deal about how higher education institutions should approach content marketing and why it’s a critical element of today’s marketing equation. Here, then, are the most important factors to consider—and how to get started.
Assemble your team and evaluate resources. The most important factor in a content marketing strategy is the people doing the work—but efforts also must be aligned with resources. Start with the core team that’s already focused on your institution’s story, determine who will lead the group, and then consider what other resources you’ll need, including help from other departments, outside vendors, or equipment, like cameras and audio tools, to create content.
Indiana Tech’s effort is led by—as it would be at most institutions—the marketing team. However, to maximize the effectiveness of the effort, Indiana Tech gets outside help from a few select vendors, including my company. This allows the internal team to focus on strategy while the vendors assist in execution and align the resources invested in the effort with Indiana Tech’s goals. It’s a collaborative effort designed to generate the most content without sacrificing quality.
Develop a written content marketing strategy and build out a content calendar. Just like any serious marketing effort, you’ll want to document your goals, the audiences you hope to reach, and the strategies and tactics you’ll use. In a content marketing effort, this includes which channels you’ll use to tell the story and who is responsible for each. Your social media and email marketing content are primarily elements in this, but more robust content marketing strategies also include content for other media, such as website updates and news releases.
Since this can get unwieldy pretty quickly, you’ll want to create a content calendar to guide your efforts. Your content calendar incorporates what you plan to share and when you’ll share it. The alternative—posting whatever content seems appropriate on a given day—might seem like less work, but it’s actually much more labor intensive. In addition, it’s ultimately less effective, since opportunities are often missed and gaps between posts are more likely to increase as social media managers scramble to find something to post (and as they often settle for uninspired content).
This was one of the first challenges Indiana Tech and my company tackled together. We started by identifying key audience segments and what we hoped to achieve with each. We then determined which platforms would be best for each audience. (For example, we determined that Facebook, while reaching a broad audience, would be primarily used to reach parents of Tech’s day school prospects and students, while Snapchat would be primarily focused on those prospects themselves). Then we focused on one month only, adding the highest-priority events and dates first, and then filling in with lower-priority content for each channel and audience. Once that month was built out, we worked on subsequent months.
Get creative, repurpose existing content, and get your most authentic voices involved. With your calendar as your guide, you’ll have enough lead time to create high-quality text, photo, video, and audio content that anticipates your institution’s needs. Another great benefit of this approach is that you can adapt as new ideas evolve, postponing “evergreen” content when time-sensitive opportunities emerge. This is especially important today, given the considerable competition for your audience’s attention and the corresponding need for agility.
It’s also important to look for efficiencies in the form of repurposed content. After all, the tremendous effort that goes into the creation of high-quality content warrants taking every opportunity to use it. Imagine, for example, you’re filming a day in the life of a few of your students. What else might you capture? Photos; interviews with them for future blog posts, website testimonials, and perhaps even podcast episodes; their responses to a set-list of questions about their experience at your institution—the options are almost endless. And don’t forget to consider repurposing footage from the video shoot itself—short teaser videos for Instagram, for example, or outtakes for your YouTube channel. Once they’ve built a relationship with your institution, today’s audiences want depth as much as breadth.
Speaking of your students, it’s critical to get them involved as well, especially given how easy it is for them to be content creators with the tools at their disposal (which are usually right in their pockets, in fact). Choose your student voices wisely—but once you know who best can tell the story, encourage them to capture their experience and share it with you. Your best chance to connect with prospects is through your students, so make them part of your team.
While Indiana Tech is continuing to adapt its approach, a glance at its social media presence shows these efforts in action, from the high-quality video testimonials you’ll find on its YouTube channel to the more informal, fun approach they take on Instagram.
Measure results—and be willing to adapt. It’s critical to keep a close eye on results. If a certain type of content is eliciting views, comments, and shares, learn from that and how it translates to other audiences—and if other content falls flat, there’s a lesson there, too. It’s important to avoid taking a knee-jerk reaction to any single isolated case, of course, but trends worth acting on will reveal themselves.
Indiana Tech studies its analytics on an ongoing basis, with a deep dive no less than once a month to better understand its audiences and adapt as needed. The key is taking an alchemist’s approach to the work: being willing to experiment, adding new elements in with proven successes. At Indiana Tech, everything’s fair game as long as it’s consistent with the university’s values and helpful or entertaining to its audiences.
Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned from working with Indiana Tech is that, once you’ve made the key initial considerations, it’s better to get started and learn as you go than to wait until you’re absolutely comfortable. The reality is, very few institutions will ever get their content marketing efforts off the ground if they wait for the perfect time or circumstances.
Content marketing is perhaps the best opportunity your institution has ever had to share its story. Your audience is ready, and they’ll follow you even if you occasionally stumble along the way. If you don’t meet them where they are, however, and keep doing only the things you’ve always done, they’ll go elsewhere.
By Anthony Juliano, vice president and general manager, Asher Agency