Align Your Content Strategy to Your College or University Strategic Plan

January 18, 2019
two levels stacked precariously on a desk

I’ve worked with higher ed for a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things. But few things are more wonderful than a thoughtfully conceived strategic plan.

Sound dull? Hear me out.

An institution’s strategic plan is a roadmap to fulfill its ambition. Ideally, a strategic plan defines a vision for the future of the institution, then lays out highly specific, realistic, and measurable goals aligned to that vision — and a timeframe in which to achieve them.

Now if that’s not the definition of beauty, I don’t know what is.

A thorough strategic plan is a good indicator of an institution’s commitment and readiness to evolve, since that evolution likely requires some shift in priorities and resources. Being clear-eyed about what you need in order to advance is core to the success of a strategic plan.

If a good strategic plan sounds a lot like a solid content strategy, that’s no coincidence. Both reflect an actionable, measurable plan for achieving business-critical objectives, aligning to broader priorities. So it makes sense that when you have a strategic plan in place, it can help drive a more effective content strategy — and if you do it right, your content strategy can help advance your strategic plan. Here are some ways the two can work hand in hand.

Confirm Goals, Audiences, and Messaging

Your strategic plan will articulate your institution’s needs and ambitions, imbued with the values that make your college or university distinctive. They could relate to:

  • Increasing recruitment
  • Boosting your research profile
  • Expanding geographic diversity
  • Improving specific outcomes
  • Cultivating a more inclusive and diverse campus community
  • Elevating the profile and quality of graduate programs
  • Building more partnerships that enhance opportunities for students and alumni

Your priorities may be wide-ranging, but understanding them (and drilling down to understand your institution’s objectives as it relates to these priorities and plans for achieving them) can guide the fundamentals of your content strategy: goals, audience, and messaging

Setting Goals

Content without a goal is just taking up space. Communications must be purpose-driven. Luckily, there is no more noble purpose for your content than the fulfillment of your institutional ambition.

Every page, every component, every news story — all of your content should align to a specific goal by enabling understanding, adding context, providing examples, reinforcing with testimonials, and ultimately guiding action.

As you think about measurement, these goals become critically important, guiding the definition of your success metrics. Content needs to be purposeful, but you also need to ensure it is successful in achieving that purpose — and if not, revise your approach accordingly.

Determining Audience Hierarchy

If there is any debate about the audiences you should be focusing on, let your strategic plan erase any doubt.

Some college and university websites still exhibit a vestigial focus on internal audiences, driven by the org chart more than organizational priorities. By mapping the segments impacted by the strategic plan to web audiences, you can make a stronger case for reorienting your website toward its likely user segments. From there, you can define a hierarchy of primary, secondary, and tertiary web audiences.

One word of caution: every college or university strategic plan is a reflection of a moment in time. So if at this moment in time, recruitment is a lower priority than objectives around campus climate and sustainability, that doesn’t abnegate your website’s primary role as a tool for marketing and recruitment.

Defining Messaging and Content Topics

As you plan communications efforts, don’t just know what you’re going to say — know that you’re saying the right things. By planning your content in alignment with the objectives of your strategic plan, your institution will be speaking with one voice.

With goals and audiences sorted, you can define your messaging and content topics, selecting the appropriate platforms and formats to effectively reach defined audiences. This may entail going in some new directions, which can be exciting but should also be closely evaluated to ensure effectiveness and efficiency.

Your editorial planning process, as reflected through meetings and calendars, should reflect your institution’s strategic priorities through the lens of your communications goals and target audiences, and ensure that the content decisions you make are on point.

Shape Your User Experience

Let’s pick a couple of those sample high-level institutional objectives I offered earlier: boosting your research profile and elevating the profile of graduate programs.

Now let’s consider a couple of likely audiences for web content about research: industry and business partners, grant funders, collaborating institutions and scholars, prospective faculty, and current and prospective students. Graduate programs have a likely target audiences of prospective graduate students.

As we discussed earlier, you would want to make sure your messaging and content topics support your objectives. For example, your research is fueling discovery and giving faculty and student scholars alike chances to grow as researchers and make an impact on the world. And your graduate programs drive strong outcomes, rank highly, and boast tremendous flexibility.

So, where does your research content geared towards those audiences live? Is the pathway clear? Does it reflect those core messages and topics in an appropriate hierarchy? And your graduate programs — are they sufficiently distinguished from their undergraduate counterparts? Are they findable? Are key details about flexibility, rankings, and outcomes highlighted accordingly?

Be sure the organization and presentation of your web content aligns to your institutional priorities. Consider how new priorities (for example, cultivating a more inclusive campus community) may influence standards your digital properties should meet for accessibility or usability. To the earlier point about goals and conversions, this also accounts for defining and presenting key calls-to-action.

But don’t bludgeon users with a strategic imperative at the expense of delivering a user-centric website experience. Find the balance that supports user needs as well as institutional priorities.

Guide Resourcing and Staffing Decisions

As you seek to achieve all of these things and communicate in a strategic fashion, is your organization structured to help you succeed?

Much like a good strategic plan may necessitate changes to organizational structure or processes in order to facilitate its objectives, your communications operations may similarly need to evolve to meet the strategic objectives of the institution. This could entail:

  • Fundamentally reviewing the efficiency and effectiveness of your existing communications efforts to see if any need be discontinued, revamped, or elevated.
  • Revising editorial processes and roles to account for new priorities or platforms, ensuring clearly defined ownership and decision-making informed by high-level goals
  • Rolling out new training, documentation, or content guidelines/criteria
  • Bringing new tools online (e.g. a project management tool or an editorial calendaring application) to support adoption of any role or process changes
  • ​Hiring new staff to boost capacity in certain key areas (like, for example, videography or digital marketing) or seeking outside partners to support those efforts

In many ways, this is the most difficult work to win support for. After all, everyone wants new platforms and big outcomes, but it’s harder to accept the organizational change needed to make those efforts not just successful, but sustainable.

Show the Value of Content Strategy

Do you face challenges gaining institutional buy-in for content strategy? Then a strategic plan is definitely your new best friend.

The institutional strategic plan is a top-down imperative — this is where your college or university is going, and your job is to support that progress, full stop. So the more closely you can align your communications efforts to fulfilling the objectives of the strategic plan, the more apparent the value of investing in content strategy becomes.

To the earlier point about measurement, it’s mighty powerful to show the needle of your digital strategy success metrics moving in the same direction as the metrics defined for the strategic plan.

So get those reports flowing and demonstrate to the decision-makers at your college or university how content strategy is a proven and indisputable essential business practice. The closer your reports can draw the connection between your content outcomes and the goals of the strategic plan, the better.

Going Beyond Digital

While we’re focused on digital content strategy here, the same fundamental principles apply for a comprehensive communications strategic plan that encompasses print, digital, advertising, social, and any other medium you’re using. A solid, strategic communications plan will work in concert with the institutional strategic plan — the two should feel cut from the same cloth and moving in the same general direction.

A strategic communications plan should also bridge silos across communications platforms the way a good institutional strategic plan seeks to bridge silos across colleges and schools, empowering them with shared resources and a common narrative.

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