Higher Education Content Strategy 101: The Fundamentals

Working in marketing at a university is one of the hardest jobs in the world.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling reported in 2015 that 36% of first-time freshmen apply to seven or more colleges. That means your university is competing with many other higher education institutions across the nation that are all catering to your potential students.

And higher education marketing takes so many forms. There’s information about the university itself, admissions, programs, degrees, campus life—and that’s just scratching the surface. The amount of digital content coming out of various departments and through various channels (website, social media, etc.) requires a solid content strategy. Otherwise, you’re just making noise instead of providing value.

Learn more about higher ed marketing strategy in the free white paper: Your Online Marketing Plan for Higher Education

So, how do you define your content strategy? Welcome to syllabus week!


What is Content Strategy?

Content strategy is a guide. It’s how you plan for and produce your message. Then, it’s how you evaluate and refine that message over time.

Content strategy is an aggregate of a few best practices—equal parts planning, delivery, and consistency. To execute on content strategy means to consider your processes for content creation, search engine optimization (SEO), user experience, and more.

There are a few accepted models for content strategy. One that I like was created by Kristina Halvorson and her team at Brain Traffic, called the Content Strategy Quad:

content strategy quad

A simple way to look at this is by dividing the top and bottom quadrants. Editorial and Experience involve people—your audiences. The goal of these quadrants is to create valuable, timely, audience-appropriate content across your organization. The Editorial quadrant requires that you understand your audiences, point of view, and tone. The Experience quadrant focuses on your users’ needs and preferences, user journeys, and preferred content formats.

Structure and Process are more about the delivery and maintenance of your content and your content team. These quadrants represent the nitty-gritty details behind your content strategy and are just as critical as the quadrants focused on your audiences. The Structure quadrant answers how content will be organized to be findable, categorized, and personalized. The Process quadrant focuses on how content moves through its lifecycle, tools used to create and manage content, who gets to say “no,” etc. This is also known as content governance.

Now, why is it worth all of this work?

According to LucidPress, consistent branding increases revenue by 33%. Content strategy is nothing more than curating your brand, consistently. Content strategy covers all aspects of content marketing to ensure you’re providing content your audiences need, value, and love. Taking the time to invest in it produces measurable results over time.


But We’ve Always Done It This Way

I won’t sugar coat it: Effective content strategy requires mobilization. It takes a significant amount of planning and resources that you may not have at your disposal. If you know you need to do deep audience research, you can’t just stop producing content tomorrow. That’s not a reason to cut your losses, though. The truth is, universities have a real inertia problem. You have to battle the dangerous mindset of “we’ve always done it this way.”

That, on top of politics, the siloing of roles and responsibilities, and needlessly complex hierarchies often work against the kind of innovation and proactive thinking that content strategy demands. Yet still, you have to find a way to shake the table and challenge your content processes. Content strategy matters.


A Mighty Citizen Case Study: The University of Texas Permian Basin

The University of Texas Permian Basin (UTPB) came to Mighty Citizen with a content problem.

UTPB had a well-known issue (coined “The Falcon Shuffle”) where students simply could not find what they were looking for on UTPB’s website. For example, say a student wanted to know how to change their minor. They’d open the UTPB website and fail to find their answer. Then, they’d call the wrong department, who would tell them the correct department to call. Then, the student finds out they need to fill out a form, which unfortunately wasn’t available on the website. We partnered with university leadership to deliver a solution.

We established a process for publishing so that content is created once and published everywhere (known as C.O.P.E.). This eliminated inconsistent content and made website updates much easier on the marketing team.

Based on audience research, we also built a new “common questions” module for current and prospective students. When a student selects a question from the drop-down menu, they’re instantly redirected to the page on the site that contains their answer. UTPB’s web team can create as many questions as they want, allowing them to respond quickly to new issues.

Another major product of our work with UTPB was a Messaging Platform—a document that details how the University talks about itself. Messaging platforms get internal teams on the same page regarding key foundational messaging and how it’s tailored to different audiences. UTPB’s messaging platform helped them create consistent content for their website and other platforms in the future.

By student population, UTPB is the smallest of the nine schools in The University of Texas System. But in terms of professional opportunity, clear messaging, and content sophistication, they’re now one of the mightiest. Take a look at our full case study with UTPB.

Once you’ve settled on a solid content strategy, you might find you need an editorial content calendar to keep track of it. Check out my colleague Caroline Fothergill’s post “Creating the Perfect Editorial Calendar – A Cinderella Story.”