Turn Your Brand Platform into the Foundation of Your Digital Content Strategy

February 26, 2019
a stone foundation supporting a brick structure

If you’ve developed a branding platform, whether it was done internally or with a vendor partner, congratulations. You’re ahead of the game by virtue of having defined the DNA of your institutional identity, distinguishing it from peers and competitors alike.

So…now what? As it concerns digital marketing and web content strategy in particular, a branding platform is a tremendous step toward meaningful differentiation, but it does not enable well-intentioned communicators to get rolling right out of the box.

For example, if your brand positioning statement reflects your commitment to intellectual exploration, addressing pressing global challenges, and transforming learners into leaders, how should that shape the daily editorial choices of your newsroom?

If your brand attributes are “bold,” “determined,” “supportive,” and “family-oriented,” what should the voice and tone of your web copy resemble? If your brand pillars are “committed to discovery,” “focused on sustainability,” “creating tomorrow’s leaders” and “a culture of service,” how does that inform your website information architecture?

Much like the London Underground reminds riders to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform, there is often a gap between a branding platform and the seemingly nonstop train of communications that higher ed digital marketers drive on a daily basis. But we don’t want to simply mind that gap — we want to bridge it and align our digital content and marketing to this powerful, newly defined brand.

To do so, we need to evolve and extend that brand platform into an actionable set of guidelines that can more tangibly (and consistently) inform day-to-day communications efforts. By pairing tactical resources with revamped processes, you can achieve the kind of extension that will make your brand more practical, sustainable, and consistently executed across platforms.

Style Guides

A good style guide will give content creation the direction and guardrails it needs to ensure it remains within the spirit and boundaries of the brand. It should interpret the high ideals of the brand into specific guidance around language, imagery, and design. What words are okay, and which aren’t? What sorts of photos should you make? How should the brand colors be used, and what usages are a no-go? In short, a style guide helps ensure that the quality of your web content reflects the high quality of instruction and experience at your institution.

Any style guide should be coupled with in-person training to help reinforce and practice the guidance contained therein, with the overarching goal of promoting consistent execution among all content creators.

There are different types of style guides to inform different types of content creation.

Web Editorial Style Guide

A web editorial guide informs language: diction, syntax, voice and tone, punctuation, spelling, and other relevant guidance for usage. You may also include institutionally-specific guidelines, such as how you denote alumni, formal and informal titles, and academic degrees.

Voice and tone, if not already defined in your brand platform, are the next most important thing to define. Voice is the consistent expression of your institutional identity, while tone is how you adjust your communication to be appropriate for specific contexts or audiences. If your goal is to create a human and approachable website experience (as it should be), the voice and tone of your web content is going to be critical to your success.

Remember, your website may very well be the first touch point for a prospective student or parent — do you want to sound like a dispassionate robot, or a supportive resource? By conveying a consistent voice and tone, you will cultivate trust and build a relationship with your audience as you support their informational needs and engage them with your overall brand and experience.

Sample content is always helpful to include in a style guide. By providing examples of how to (and how not to!) write a headline, or a call to action, or a news lede, or high-level marketing copy, you give content creators something very real and concrete to which they may compare their own writing.

Visual Style Guide

Beyond the language, you need to provide guidance on how to create brand-aligned visual content.

For the purposes of this content strategy-focused conversation, we’ll focus on photography and video in this post. However, as you translate your visual branding guidelines to inform your digital design efforts, be sure that accessibility is a primary consideration. The greatest content effort will be all for naught when presented in an inaccessible design.

A good visual style guide will inform the use of photography on your website in the following ways:

  • Guidance for portraits, environmental shots, event photography, and other shot types and photography styles
  • Sample imagery (good and bad examples) that addresses appropriate subject matter, orientation, lighting, depth of field, quality, etc.
  • Guidance on photo copyright, appropriate photo sources, captions/attribution, and usage of stock photography
  • Technical guidelines for image resolution, file type, etc.
  • ​Digital asset management (DAM) system access and guidelines

As for video, many of the same considerations apply, with additional guidance around length, narrative, scripting (or lack thereof), and appropriate use of B-roll footage.

For both photos and videos, cross-platform usage should be a consideration, and style guides should advise on adapting video and photo content for not only the web but varying social media platforms and any other relevant usage (e.g. campus video screens).

My favorite visual style guide is from St. Edward’s University (not a client), because it includes a great combination of real sample imagery and clear, succinct guidelines.

Editorial Process

Your brand does not live in the very nice binder delivered by your branding partner. It will live in the daily decisions you make about what photo to make or place on the homepage, what story to write, how you write the summary of the biology program, and how you organize your website content.

To make these day-to-day decisions in a way that ensures brand sustainability, you have to operationalize your brand through your editorial process.

Even if the essence of your brand is something that everyone agrees on and believes to be true, that feeling alone is not enough to guarantee consistent brand alignment in the choices they’ll make. Your brand is bigger than individual decisions, so you need to bake it into the tools and processes that support that decision-making. Here are a few starting points.

Topics and Messaging

Let’s consider the imaginary brand pillars I floated earlier:  “committed to discovery,” “focused on sustainability,” “creating tomorrow’s leaders” and “a culture of service.” Depending on how your branding work was done, you may have a little more texture to work with, perhaps some supporting messaging or a list of relevant supporting facts or topics (e.g. your distinguished campus research centers, your stellar campus sustainability stats and programs, and the leadership center that guides the thread of leadership through the undergraduate curriculum).

But if you don’t, take the time to create that texture yourself. It needn’t be exhaustive, but the goal is to put down some tangible examples of the ideals your brand captures in action. What types of stories or information best reinforce those brand pillars and bring them to life?

Another twist is to consider your key audiences and, for each audience, create the list of topics for how you would convey each brand pillar to them. This will help you think about how to present your brand to a specific audience.

Content Types and Formats

If you have style guides and topics handy, the next thing to figure out is content formats. What content formats/types are best suited or most appropriate to convey these messages? Statistics and infographics that reinforce impressive proof points? Longform feature stories that bring compelling narratives to life? Videos and photos that leverage dynamic campus settings and personalities?

Be sure to square this ideation against the reality of the skills and resources you have at your disposal, and proceed accordingly. Defining the most suitable ways to tell your story will help focus your efforts going forward.

Also, these insights should be used to inform broader decisions about, say, content types in your CMS or site layout and structure, thus truly integrating your brand into the tools you have to communicate it.

Editorial Planning

Having translated your brand into actionable style guides and messaging topics — and encoded your website with brand DNA through thoughtful decisions around content types and site structure — it’s time to tackle the messy part: the part that involves people.

Your editorial planning, as it plays out during meetings and through calendars, is where the rubber of your brand hits the road of the daily communications grind. The better job you do of operationalizing your brand throughout your editorial planning process, the more consistently and accurately conveyed that brand will be over time.

This is where the marriage of convenience between the editorial meeting and the editorial calendar comes in handy, because an editorial calendar makes a fine brand taskmaster. By structuring your calendar to support a brand-aligned content plan, the brand ceases to be just an idea and becomes a box to check. Over time, you can look back at the decisions you’ve made and make sure they have resulted in an appropriately balanced presentation of your brand.

For example, perhaps all stories featured on your homepage hero must align to at least one brand pillar, or perhaps all brand pillars must be represented on your homepage at any given time. Maybe the hero is committed to representing pillar A, the photo gallery to pillar B, and so on. Figure out how you want to map the brand to different content types or components on your website.

Or take a step back: as content ideas are introduced and discussed, they must meet a standard of brand alignment. Do they touch on one pillar? Two? Three? The strength and nature of this brand alignment should drive decisions around whether to pursue the content, what format it should take, how it should be promoted and distributed (this is where the audience exercise from earlier comes in handy), and perhaps how much resources to commit to it.

Achieving brand alignment, consistency, and sustainability is the secret sauce of marketing and communications. But once you operationalize your brand through your editorial process and supporting resources, you’ll turn something grand and true into something concrete and impactful. And that’s a recipe for success.

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