An expansive collection of photography equipment, lined up on the floor very neatly

Visual Content Strategy for Higher Education

Whether you outsource your visual content strategy, or manage all your photography and video needs in-house, here are some important things to keep in mind when working with visual content creators.

Now that everyone carries smartphones with high-resolution photo and video capabilities in their pockets, many marketing teams manage to create captivating visual content in-house — or even by outsourcing it to student content creators. Many higher education marketing teams, however, still prefer to work with freelance photographers or videographers to ensure their visual content adheres to strict brand and quality guidelines. 

Regardless of whether you execute your visual content strategy in-house, outsource to freelancers, or a combination of the two, here are some helpful strategies to maximize your time with visual content producers. 

Leverage Your Social Media Efforts 

Higher education social media managers know what’s happening at your institution. They know what photos and videos generate the most likes, the most engagement, and when they’ve really captured something that makes your school special. Coordinate with social media staff across campus to generate ideas, partner on photoshoots, and repurpose their most stunning evergreen content. 

A section of the Syracuse University website showcasing images taken from social media. For example, a person on a skateboard with the Syracuse logo on the bottom of the board, as well as a baby in a Syracuse onesie
It is becoming increasingly common to see higher education websites incorporate social media posts from the campus community directly into the site design.

Make a Shotlist

Keep a running list in your web/marketing/communications office of “Photos We Wish We Had.” Do you have lots of summertime photos, but none of your campus in the fall or winter? Formal portraits of your faculty, but none of them meeting with students in their office? Do you end up defaulting to the same few landscape photos because your team finds something “off” about the group photos you choose?

Take notes on what people are responding to, then talk these challenges through with your photographer before you start shooting. A good photographer will see great shots on their own, but equipping them with a list of moods, scenes, and needs will go a long way to ensure you end up with a solid set of fresh additions to your photo library.  

Size Matters

Professional photographers and videographers are visual thinkers. But they’re also used to framing photos in standard portrait and landscape dimensions, which isn’t always what you need on your website. Prep your freelancers — staff content creators — by showing them your website and giving them a sense of the size, orientation, and types of photos you need. For example, if they know you need narrow landscape shots with people clustered to the right to avoid conflicting with the text in your hero images, they’ll be able to see how you plan to crop their images before they begin shooting. 

A photo of four men sitting side by side with a box overlayed on top displaying the appropriate dimensions for the photo
Whether its part of a comprehensive style guide, or merely a text document with image guidelines, your visual content creators will appreciate as much direction as you can provide.


Find a Branding Balance

Your people are booked for the photo or video shoot, and now they’re calling and asking you what to wear. As much as it’s tempting to outfit them in a full new outfit from the campus bookstore, aim for a more balanced approach. Depending on your audience, you might suggest they wear “fall academic chic” or “no sweatpants, please” Having some people in branded apparel or accessories is fine — as is having people wearing school colors in subtler ways. But you want this to look natural, and if people don’t regularly wear sweatshirts emblazoned with the school name on your campus, this won’t be the right look for you. And another quick note on branding: make sure someone is looking out for and removing water bottles, fast food containers, or other heavily branded items and clutter from the scene. 

Maximize Your Time

Only bringing in a freelance photographer for one day? Have your photo or video shoot participants pack a few different looks and change partway through. This is especially valuable when photographing faculty or senior leaders who are regularly featured in news stories on your website (and on social media). A quick change of a shirt, jacket, or shawl can make it look like you had a whole other day with your camera crew.  

Be Mindful of Representation

Your website’s visual content should be an authentic representation of your school, and that means thinking carefully and critically about the people who appear in your photos and videos. Showcasing your institution’s diversity is important, but so is being accurate about the makeup of your student population. Be especially careful not to tokenize students, faculty, or staff from historically minoritized or marginalized identities, and, whenever possible, consider compensating students for participating in photoshoots. 

Don't Forget the Consent Forms

Having your face front and center on your college’s website is no small matter. Make sure you take the time to not only explain to photoshoot participants how their photos will be used, but to also have them sign a consent form acknowledging it. In some states, you will also need to be mindful of the age of consent when photographing people under 18 years of age. Consult your university’s legal counsel to create permission forms for adults, groups, and parents, then scan and store the signed forms in the same folder where you keep the photos. 

Keep Your Visual Content Strategy Front of Mind

As much as is realistically possible, keep your visual content strategy at the forefront of your mind. You never know when you'll have an opportunity to solve a content issue in an unforeseen way. For example, programs that work with young children or patients can struggle to wrangle the permission slips from parents and schedule time to bring a photographer into elementary school classrooms, community centers, or doctor’s offices. Rather than purchasing stock photography for these needs, why not schedule a photoshoot with children of your faculty and staff on "Bring Your Child to Work Day" to ensure you have easy access to parental consent?

Keep Your Content Library Fresh

Just as you employ best practices in auditing and refreshing content on your website on a seasonal or annual basis, take the time to do an annual cleaning of your digital asset management system or photo library. Cycle older photos into archive folders, saving only ones that have historical or evergreen importance, sort through any assets that may have been uploaded hastily and not culled, and update your shot list for the next photoshoot.