How to create a content strategy that students actually engage with

In order to thrive, universities need to get content right.

They need content to reach and connect to prospective students, ensuring that there's a healthy pipeline of people choose to join the institution.

They need content (outside of an educational context) for existing students: products, services and communications that establish and sustain a great student experience. And finally, they need content that speaks to their alumni, to ensure the wider community of the institution is an engaged and serviceable network.

Getting any of this wrong leads to disenchantment and disengagement which pushes down outcomes for students and universities alike. And guess what? There are a LOT of ways to get it wrong. Wrong channel, wrong process, wrong tactics, wrong content, too much content. And so on.

So, just how do you ensure each student receives what they need? How do you form a consistent experience? How do you put a strategy in place that meets a broad mix of expectations? How do you stop your people from disengaging? It's a daunting set of questions.

But never fear, for content can save you. First off, let's unpack the toolkit.

Content strategy

This will be your foundation. Depending on the problem you're trying to solve, I find that most content strategies fall into one, or a blend, of the following categories:

Product / service content strategy. This is an articulation of your product purpose, an artefact that documents a full understanding of all its content and content governance needs.

Operational content strategy. Identifying efficiencies and improvements in an organisation's existing content workflow. Or establishing a content capability from scratch.

Marketing / campaign strategy. Using insights and knowledge of user and business objectives to define the channels, formats and cadence that different forms of content should flow through.

Content design

Content designers are important. They ensure that the information the user needs is expressed at the right time, in the right way. They also work closely with other designers to understand and execute users needs at an emotional level, and therefore become the users greatest advocate. In some instances, they'll also elevate work by layering in a distinctive tone to inspire loyalty, cognition and action. They are vital to questioning the status quo, using user insight to validate their thinking.

Shared artefacts

In many institutions, content practice and outputs are fragmented across departments. Where there are multiple teams with responsibilities for different business areas, channels and products, shared artefacts can help. If you don't have any of these, get the right people in the room and make a start.

  • Style guide
  • Tone of voice guidance
  • Design system
  • Digital asset management (DAM)
  • User personas
  • User research and insight
  • Shared calendars
  • Shared planning cadence
  • Measurement framework

Fill the skills gap

Of course, the most important thing you need to deliver great content is people with the skills to deliver it. You need people who have confidence and experience in delivering high quality, impactful content. Holistic, strategic thinkers who can zoom out are also imperative. But getting good content out there is only the start. You then need dedicated analysts to implement solid measurement frameworks so that you can tell how effective it is.

Once you've digested and established all - or at least some- of that lot, you'll be in a position to start running at this lot: three ways content can improve student experience:

Remove friction

Experience cannot be designed without content. It's akin to building a state of the art library complete with ceilings, windows, air conditioning....and no books. The student experience is no different. If we want to create student experiences that are seamless, co-ordinated, and the best they can possibly be, then a consistent content experience needs to be the bed rock on which that experience sits. Making content seamless through the application of user-centred content design means you should move swiftly and easily through a journey - ending in an outcome successfully achieved.

Create a recognisable identity across all content touch points

Content needs to be clear and consistent, in terms of how it looks, its tone of voice and the types of messages that are being delivered, across all platforms. This is important for brand building, it saves time, and makes things easier for everyone involved. It also creates a sense of familiarity for your students. The consistency will help to build trust and engagement with the messages delivered by the university.

Build connection

Let's not lose a sense of how important content is to build emotional resonance. Content can meet the audience where they're at. The right content recognises context, situation, audience, and state of mind. Respond to student sentiment, demonstrate empathy, recognise and celebrate individuality.

And finally: 5 steps to get you started:

  1. Get the right people in the room. Thats anyone who has responsibility for content down to planners to publishers.
  2. Organise around shared outcomes and resource. Spending an hour figuring out what you want to achieve can same time and energy later down the line.
  3. Map out the as-is. Essentially this is a visualisation of the current student content experience in order to find patterns, anomalies and areas to optimise.
  4. Have a content amnesty. A chance to chuck everything onto the pile and see what you've got. This can be a lengthy process, but it helps to see what's working, what needs improving, and where there are gaps.
  5. Keep users close. User research is a core part of content work. Keep the users at the heart of the process to guarantee their needs are met.

If you want to chat about what a content strategy could do for your higher education institution, then get in touch.

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