Making Content Marketing Work for Higher Education

Breaking down what higher ed content marketing is, what it isn’t, and how you can develop a successful content marketing plan for your college or university.

Your institution is doing important things. It's a hub of valuable knowledge. A center of cutting-edge research. An engine of economic development. Or a disruptive force in a select discipline.

The things that make your college or university special and distinctive provide value to external audiences — deeper understanding of meaningful issues, clarification of complex concepts, enlightenment to new ways of thinking. Knowledge and expertise is arguably the most valuable asset you possess. 

And people need it.

But does everybody know what you have to offer? They won't know unless you tell them. 

Why Create a Content Marketing Plan?

As the term “inbound marketing” became popularized by the marketing automation platform Hubspot, so too did “content marketing” become a buzzword. Here’s the Google trend graph since 2004, with “content marketing” in red and “inbound marketing” in blue:

When to Use Content Marketing

A content marketing approach is best used to engage people with intention when they are higher in the decision funnel, either driving traffic to key destinations or reinforcing select information or messaging. When executed thoughtfully, it's a way to build awareness and motivate action, helping the right audiences understand what distinguishes and defines you and elevate your brand. 

Content Marketing Leverages Your School’s Expertise

Content marketing takes your core asset of expertise and insight, bundles it in a way that resonates with a target audience, and enables its discovery and consumption. It may be via a blog, a YouTube video series, or a LinkedIn account. It could be amplified with advertising, or it could be wholly organic, depending on strategy and budget.

Higher education content marketing strategies extend your brand's reach, driving more traffic to your site via organic search, social media, and email newsletters. This, by extension, draws more people into your brand, giving them conduits for further discovery or action.

Content Marketing vs. Content Strategy

Content marketing and content strategy are often conflated, but there is a fundamental distinction between the two. Kristina Halvorson, author of “Content Strategy for the Web,” has waxed poetic on this topic via Twitter.

“We need to move leadership away from a focus on content promotion and engagement and towards an understanding of content as part of a holistic, integrated user journey that's driven by need,” Halvorson tweeted in February 2019, “not the mythical desire to have a ‘relationship’ with your brand.”

Back in January 2016, she posed the distinction succinctly: “Content marketing = What are you going to do with content? Content strategy = Why are you doing anything in the first place?”

Content marketing is a tactic. It’s the what and the how. It's a targeted way of using content to elevate awareness around distinctive elements of your brand and institution. 

  It’s an informed approach to ensure that content is equipped with purpose and direction — it is the compass and the map.

Publishing for volume will never be as effective as publishing for value. That's why content marketing can't succeed without content strategy.  If you create content without a plan around it, it will not be effective in supporting your goals, and will squander valuable resources in the process.

Creating a Higher Ed Content Marketing Strategy

As you consider the role of content marketing in your overall communications strategy, here are some key considerations:

Confirm Content Marketing is Right for Your School

It can be easy to want to ride the coattails of a marketing trend, but everything has a price — and it’s usually time and money. Content marketing has a lot of valid applications, but think about your goals, your audience, and your resources. Just because your top competitor is doing it — or because it’s the lead topic on all of the marketing blogs you read — doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

Before committing to a content marketing initiative, be sure to have a clear sense of goals and audience. Validate that what you have to offer will meet a user need or interest. Confirm you have the resources to sustain an ongoing effort. 

Content marketing may not be appropriate or worthwhile at the moment for your college or university. That’s okay. Focus on optimizing the platforms you have for meaningful communication with your key audiences. If you see a window for content marketing to advance your organization, then read on...

Define Audience and Goals

A higher education content marketing strategy is not about spraying the marketplace with blog posts or videos. That means that, as with all things content-related, you have to begin by defining your goals and target audience(s).

Clarify your intent — answer the “why.” What purpose would a content marketing effort serve? What business and marketing goals will it reinforce? Whom are you trying to influence, inform, or enlighten? How will your insights help and support them? 

As you think about audience, think about the user journey of your target audience. If we are talking about prospective students, for example, consider how your content marketing efforts can reinforce the effectiveness of that user journey, and how it would manifest along the way.

The more thoughtful and thorough you are in this step, the more you set yourself up for success. Consider undertaking some user research to gain an even deeper understanding of the audience with whom you wish to engage.

Communicate Effectively

Content marketing is not a catch-all for sharing all the things about you, but should rather be brand-informed and purpose-driven — what is a niche, or area of expertise, where you have the knowledge and resources to meaningfully influence thought or action? 

Leverage your in-house expertise to source and guide your content. If said experts can write, or if their byline would be a draw, let them write — but reserve the right to edit judiciously for style and consistency. Above all, be sure to add value for the user along the way. 

Then figure out what approach is best. Is it a blog? A video series? What can your resources best support? Then, what frequency is sustainable? How will you schedule and plan content? How will you support content contributors to ensure quality, consistency, and timeliness?

Regardless of the format, carefully consider the voice and tone of your content marketing efforts, as that will shape the container in which you convey said messages. No matter the value of your information or insight you are communicating, it is the voice and tone in which you communicate it that will inform the trust and relationship you build with your audience. Ensure it is appropriate to your brand, your purpose, and the audience context.

Content Marketing Focuses on SEO

SEO is important for all web content, but your content marketing efforts will truly be dead in the water without a thoughtful SEO strategy. Ensure your content can be discovered organically by audiences for whom it would be useful and relevant.

Measure Your Content Marketing Success

As mentioned earlier, content marketing can be time- and resource-intensive, on top of all the other communication your institution needs to do. So it is imperative that we measure the success of our efforts to ensure that we are using those resources effectively.

Those goals we defined at the outset should have some clearly defined success metrics. For example, if your content marketing effort is focused on thought leadership in sustainability via a blog, are you seeing increased traffic to relevant linked programs? Can you trace that traffic to relevant actions, such as an inquiry? Are people reading and sharing your articles? Are your blog authors being tapped as experts in other forums for the topics they are writing about? These are all possible ways to determine the success of your sustainability thought leadership blog.

You should also be learning through ongoing measurement which topics are resonating and which are not. Perhaps solar energy technology is a hugely popular topic with your target audience, but composting is not. This should spark a reevaluation of how to cover topics relating to composting in the future, and how to get more value out of your posts about solar power.

Once you have a sense of content outcomes, be sure to share them with relevant stakeholders, as well as content contributors, to ensure people see the value of the content marketing effort.

Create a Promotional Strategy

In addition to SEO, you can jump-start your content marketing with some fine-tuned promotion. Part of your resourcing discussion should be around an advertising budget, enabling you to precisely target content to relevant audiences across a range of platforms. Be sure when measuring your content outcomes to distinguish between organic and promotional traffic.

Higher Ed Content Marketing Examples

Here are a few examples of higher ed content marketing in the wild:

  • Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab uses their YouTube channel to tackle pesky grammar questions, proper format for MLA citations, and how to revise a research paper, among other topics, establishing themselves as a writing authority far beyond the confines of the Purdue campus.

  • Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge blog promotes faculty insights on pressing issues of the day, boldly positioning itself as “business research for business leaders.”

  • Through diligent creation and optimization of professionally-minded blog content that elegantly promotes their programs, Champlain College Online executes a strategy that helps fill the top of their enrollment funnel with motivated leads. They saw their organic traffic grow by 100% in 12 months post-launch, with a 50% increase in leads coming from organic search.

  • The Dartmouth College Admissions blog positions students and admissions staffers as knowledgeable influencers in the college admissions conversation, answering common questions and demystifying both the admissions process and the college for audiences which may find both unfamiliar. Check out how one of their admissions officers uses her blog.

  • Boston University elevates its faculty research through a magazine-like presentation that sharply deviates from the press release standard to create a compelling distillation of cutting-edge discoveries for the lay audience.

Can the Old Higher Ed Newsroom Become a Content Marketing Engine?

“But Georgy,” you say, “we already have a content marketing program!” And you show me the link to your university newsroom, stocked with press releases and traditional news stories recapping faculty publications and student projects.

Sorry, but no. That is not content marketing. That is news. News is an accounting of the things that are happening at your institution. Content marketing does not mean putting your news and magazine articles in a shiny template and blasting them out to the world through Twitter. Content marketing is the targeted publication and dissemination of content to guide specific marketing goals and conversions.

That said, if you think about it, the traditional higher ed newsroom is a sort of proto-content marketing organism — an effort to gain awareness about the value of the institution through content. The goals and approach for content marketing, however, are fairly different. But with the right guidance, you may be able to utilize the same staff and editorial processes to fuel your content marketing efforts.