Multiple stakeholders, funding issues, red tape and complex internal processes can combine to make universities a playground for indecision and stunted progress on any given issue. Read on to find out how design sprints helped the University College London make real progress on one of their digital transformation projects.
Universities: Here's how to better reach your students
Higher education institutions (HEIs) are complex and serve a diverse student body. Therefore, when it comes to content strategy, one size is not going to fit all.
Content needs to work pretty hard for HEIs. It needs to attract students in the first place, then hold their interest long enough to acquire them. Once they’ve enrolled, content has a vital role to play in products and services that serve their university lives and education. But it doesn't stop there. Once they’ve graduated, the university needs to serve the needs of the alumni community, not to mention the (often financial) goals of the institution itself in the years after graduation.
It’s a lot!
But the potential to be unlocked for both students and institutions by getting it right is huge.
So we know HEIs are complex. But what’s going on around them? What’s the wider context? Today, there are a whole host of external factors causing concern for universities and students. Student loan freezes, inflation, ongoing industrial action. The list goes on, and (sadly), even the best content strategy in the world won’t fix any of that lot. So instead, let’s look inwards, and get closer to the spheres where institutions – and their approach to content – can make a difference.
Different users have different needs
The more diverse the needs of your student population, the more factors there will be to consider when designing a strategy. Within the student cohort, you’ll have domestic and international users, but also students with different interests, learning styles, schedules, neurodivergence and plenty more besides. How well do you understand your prospective and current students, and do you know how your content should serve them? Do you know if it is serving them at all?
When different teams, stakeholders or departments are all responsible for planning and creating content across the institution’s ecosystem, a fragmented content landscape and siloed thinking is rarely far behind. Different messages are published in isolation, which ultimately creates confusion for the students on the receiving end.
My first piece of advice is: don’t create any content without deepening your understanding of the people you’re trying to serve. Their goals, behaviours and their worlds. Do the research. Talk to people. Give them a meaningful voice in your content development. Mitigate fragmented internal structures with shared, cross-departmental planning and collaboration. Often it starts with a content amnesty, get everything out on the table: strategies, calendars, templates, resources, team skills, the lot. You'll probably need someone to help you muddle through what's on the table, but once you do, you can start to build from the ground up as one unified content machine.
Recognise patterns and key moments
Where students are in their university journey will dictate their needs and it adds complexity and a lot of moving parts to the content problem. But the relatively consistent cadences of the academic year offer an opportunity to use legacy data, and to gain a more detailed understanding of key moments.
Let’s oversimplify for a moment. Picture this: it's the first week of the first term and you're a new student – perhaps new to the area, perhaps new to the country, perhaps re-joining education after a break – you need to navigate and absorb a huge amount of information whilst making new friends, whilst kick-starting your studies and figuring out how to use the laundrette.
The key challenge is to work out what are the most important moments to this user. What do they need? How are they feeling? Enquiring into all these questions will help you to define the right content – as well as how and when it should be delivered.
Current student experience does not match expectation
Today's students have high expectations of digital experiences.
Today's undergraduates have likely grown up with high quality, joined up (free) services as the norm (think Amazon, Deliveroo, ASOS). Therefore, there is a tacit expectation that their HEI – which is costing them thousands of pounds – is going to deliver in kind. The problem is that more often than not...it doesn’t. Expectations are only going to continue to grow, and gaps will continue to expand unless digital services and content become better aligned to expectations. We did a full report on this which you can find here.
Let’s take a whistle-stop tour of some institutions getting it right. These universities are showing how content processes are evolving and how new practices are being adopted.
- Personalising interactions with AI. Coventry University is trialing AI to spot signals in their data sets which could lead to future well-being or academic performance issues.
- Collaboration. The Head of Student Experience at Lincoln University works directly with media students involving them in a broad range of content from city guides to wellbeing.
- Meeting students where they are. Falmouth University has a well-honed recruitment strategy using targeted ads on social media, offering personalised content to the right person, on the right channel at the right moment.
So, a message to universities: it’s time to think outside of the box a little. We're not saying you should parachute your well-being resources into the Student Union or offer free QR code tattoos linking to your student app, but it’s time to think about your student body in a different way. Meet them where they're at, help them to help themselves, and in turn experience the institutional benefits arising from a happy group of connected and informed students.
Start your content journey, here.
Great State is nothing without the Great People who do the work. In the spotlight, Adrian Bryers, one of Great State's Lead Strategists. He's the self-confessed King of Hobbies with a knack for getting to the heart of the problem. We spent five minutes grilling him on everything from competitive BBQing to the future of technology.
Universities need to get content right. They need it to connect to prospective students to ensure a healthy acquisition pipeline. But, how do you ensure each student receives what they need? How do you form a consistent experience? How do you meet a broad mix of expectations? It's a daunting set of questions but content strategy can save you.