The competition is steeper than ever among higher ed institutions as more students plan to attend college and determine the best school for their needs, based on programs, location, activities, and more. And while your website is often one of the first places they will go to find out more about your school and what you offer, how you get them there and how you keep them there relies heavily on content strategy.
What is a content strategy?
A content strategy is a piece of your overall marketing plan in which you identify, create, and analyze the types of content that will attract, recruit, and retain students. Your content strategy drives what content you post on social media and on your website, or send in emails and is directly tied to personas.
To have it be an effective strategy, your web content should be appropriate for your school, your users, and its context. Your content should also be appropriate in its method of delivery, style and structure, and above all substance - think of what your message is trying to convey and how that will resonate with your audience. If it isn't relevant information, they may not be interested.
With an effective strategy, you should also have a set workflow behind it to plan out the content. Consider how the individuals at your school are going to create this content, then share it out with your users. Furthermore, once the content is written, you shouldn't just set it and forget it. Governance is all about the relationship you build with your users through the content. You will want to go back and see how people are interacting with the content via opens, clicks, etc.
Overall, content strategy determines what that means in relation to your website - and how to get there from where you are now.
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Elements of a Successful Content Strategy
Your website should be all about your audience - not what you or your marketing team want to see. When someone is coming to your website, they're not thinking about your school from your perspective; they're thinking about it in terms of their own viewpoint.
Each content decision you make should be made with consideration for how it relates to the user's needs and wants.
Your content should be able to answer at the least least these two questions:
- What problem it solves for them?
- Why should they care?
A Combination of Emotion and Logic
Consider the saying, "People buy with emotion and then justify with logic." This means that having both rational or statistical information to back up what you're saying, as well as emotional stories to connect with your prospects, will be most effective.
Rational aspects are important because they highlight some key statistics that are indisputable. For example, a financial aid "by the numbers" infographic is helpful for prospective students who are focused on the cost of higher education.
However, people internalize stories much better than facts, so having an emotional aspect to your content is important. Make them laugh, or cry — either way, it is a win-win.
A Strategy for Sharing Content
Your marketing plan will need to include tailored email, social, and paid outreach strategies to promote your content, engage your personas, and drive people back to conversion points.
Part of your content strategy is determining where these audiences are and the best way to get this content to them.
Some areas to consider include:
- Scholarship needs
Structured content is a process, not an event. You want to make sure the content you're writing is structured well for readability.
- Write clear titles that aren't misleading or "click-bait." Let users see how they'll benefit from reading.
- Use cascading subheadings (H1 - H5) to divide longer articles into easily "scannable" sections.
- Bulleted or numbered lists can clearly communicate content that is step-based or sequential
- Clearly indicate "next steps" for users with prominent call-to-action buttons using specific, action-oriented verbiage ("Schedule a Tour" vs. "Learn More")
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How to Build a Content Strategy
Phase 1: Research
You have to base your strategy on something, such as the type of student you want to attend your school. The objective of your research phase is to acquire an intimate understanding of your users' goals. Your content strategy should be structured around satisfying those goals while hitting your school's business objectives. Remember, it's not all about you, so always have your users in mind.
Your research process should be broken into two parts:
- Internal (what you have control over) which can include:
- your current website's analytics - what pages are getting the most clicks, which have the highest bounce rates
- stakeholder interviews - outside of the website, where is the entire school headed and what is the website's role in achieving the school's goals?
- target user working sessions - serves as the bridge from the internal to external process, to identify the types of users you want to attract to your website
- External (speaking with users you want to attract) which can include:
- user surveys - quick, easy, and cheap to execute
- follow-up interviews and focus groups
- usability testing - can be done in person to previews your current website and see where users have struggles
At the end of all your research, it is helpful to look at this from a higher level to identify the common themes and recommendations to improve your content strategy going forward.
Page 2: Insights
For this phase, you want to interpret the hard data you receive during your initial research phase to understand the types of content you should write. Your insights should be broken down by three categories:
User personas are fictional, research-driven representations of single users that represent your key website user groups. Try to stick with three to four personas. You want to determine if there are common themes, demographics, website behaviors, etc. between your user personas to narrow down what content actually matters on your site (what these users would actually care about).
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Content Messaging and Tone
To be credible, your content needs to consistently support an articulated brand hierarchy, which involves these three phases:
- Unique selling proposition
Also known as a value proposition, a unique selling proposition gives you a platform to share what your university is here to achieve and the difference it seeks to make in the world.
- Brand pillars
These are three or four distinct elements, which when aligned together in your brand, make it unique, important, meaningful, and secure.
- Brand voice and tone
Voice and tone are the personification of your brand. This is your brand's personality, voice, and manner. Brand voice is made up of the words, phrases, and characteristics that set your organization apart. Brand tone is how you communicate who you are to your audience.
If you can define these three phases and look at them together, ask yourself, how is your content consistently support these areas?
Content mapping is the process of matching up (or mapping) the content you create to specific personas on their journey towards making a decision.
Content Mapping Helps You Do Two Very Important Things:
- It allows you to organize your content for specific messages and audiences, improving your marketing
- It helps you to determine the gaps in your content, and therefore, content that will need to be produced in the future
The first step is the attract phase which is also known as the awareness phase. This is typically problem-focused. For higher ed, it could mean a high school senior is looking to attend college but is unsure what to major in, or a student in an urban area who needs a full scholarship. You want to create content for this step that is helpful, valuable, findable, and addresses a problem. So, for that student unsure about what to major in, you can highlight student interests that best resonate with a job field/career path.
The next step is the convert phase which is also known as the consideration phase. This is typically solution focused, but remember, it's still not all about you. In this phase, a prospective student may decide they want to attend a state university over a private university.
Following this step is the close phase, which is when students need to make a decision. During this step, it's okay to now become product focused and start talking about your school. Be open to sharing your brand stories and share relevant content based on if an applicant has accepted attending your school or still needs to make a decision.
From there, you don't want the content to end. Even after a student enrolls at your school, you want to keep them enrolled. During the delight phase, retention is so important, so remember to continue sharing content with them.
Phase 3: Content Governance
Content governance describes how to manage your digital content in a controlled and orderly fashion. With the right governance, even a small team with a modest budget can support a small scale but high quality and consistently delivered content marketing plan. Look at how you're going to execute this content strategy with the resources you have - i.e. the number of people on your team.
For this step, you should consider:
- Identifying steps in your content creation
- Assigning roles, tasks, and tools
- Governance chart does not equal organization chart
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How to Maintain Your Content Strategy
People and institutions are continuously evolving, so your content strategy should too. To stay ahead of the curve, check in with your users at least once a year through surveys, focus groups, or events. Based on their feedback, you can reset or adjust your content strategy based on their needs.
How to Get Started Today
Remember to smart small as you dive into planning your content strategy around your admissions yield this spring. Consider these three steps:
- Choose one audience
- Repurpose on-campus events
- Start with existing content; read it with fresh eyes and a new lens
These steps should help you establish SMART goals for your pilot, which includes:
SMART goals will help you prove success and help pull in the right students this spring. From there, take the summer and slower months to re-evaluate what has been working and what you can try differently for the next school year.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie brings a fresh new marketing perspective with her background in social media, communications, and radio broadcasting. She is a co-producer for the FinalsiteFM podcast network and is passionate about helping schools stay ahead of their marketing goals by tracking new trends and developments. She is also a practicing singer/songwriter and loves to expand her creativity in DIY projects.