By Ann Gynn published June 20, 2017

Higher Education: How to Raise Your Content Marketing Game

higher-education-content-marketing-gameHigher education marketers face an interesting dilemma – in many scenarios, the person who writes the check won’t ever use their services.

The buyer’s journey is replaced by the student journey, says Jonah Deaver of Vertical Measures, who has worked with 200 university programs in the past six years.

That’s why it’s critical to engage with prospective students starting from the awareness stage. “Prospective students are trying to level out emotions that range from fear, doubt, excitement, overwhelmed, motivated, and inspired. They are navigating a lot,” Jonah says. “Marketers should provide them with good information so that along the journey the students will think, ‘That X University is really helpful, I like them, and will listen to them going forward.’ This sets the stage for making a more impactful brand impression at the consideration/decision stages.”

Good content along student journey sets stage for high impact at decision time. @VerticalMeasure #highered Click To Tweet

Jonah’s insight mirrors results of the biannual CASE Educational Communications and Marketing Trends Survey. Prospective students (84%) are cited as the top priority audience by marketers who were asked to pick their top three audiences. Prospects are significantly ahead of alumni (53%), donors (43%), and parents (37%). Further down the priority audience list are current students, faculty and staff, community members, general public and media, governing boards, legislators, and athletic fans.

84% prospective students are cited as top priority audience by marketers asked to pick top 3 via @CASEAdvance Click To Tweet

“Advancing our institutions must start with enrollment, and end with engagement and philanthropy,” as Theresa Flannery, vice president for communication at American University, says in the CASE report.

Obstacles and solutions

Simon A. Thalmann administers the Michigan-based Kellogg Community College’s primary social media channels, blog, and website content. He says the challenge is great in marketing to students – whether it’s a community college or four-year institution.

“In marketing meetings, we regularly bring up that it’s much easier to sell a candy bar or $10 T-shirt to someone via a Facebook ad that requires one or two clicks than it is to sell a $6,000 education,” Simon explains.

Inadequate budgeting (63%) and staffing (78%) continue to rank as top barriers to overall success in higher education marketing, according to CASE research. But when limited to identify their biggest challenges in just the past year, “strategic focus” was one of the most-mentioned topics. And when they shared their concerns on the challenges in the next five years, “keeping up with trends in profession and audience expectations,” was the most frequently cited challenge and three times greater a concern than just two years ago in the CASE study.

Inadequate budgeting & staffing rank as top barriers to overall success via @CASEAdvance. #highereducation Click To Tweet

HOW TO DO IT: Document a content marketing strategy to ensure that staff is operating from the same page and budget resources are focused on what matters most – and what’s realistic – to achieve the institution’s goals.

Chris Hornak, CEO of BlogHands.com, raises a challenge higher education marketers face that many B2B and B2C marketers face as well – compliance and approval. A higher education institution often has so many fingers in the pie that it’s difficult to get sign-off or to expedite the publication of a newsworthy or trending piece of content.

HOW TO DO IT: Create a centralized and standardized process that receives buy-in from the key stakeholders.

College rankings for academics, affordability, social scene, program studies, etc., are well known and often used by prospective students and their families. But higher education marketers shouldn’t throw up their hands if they don’t make a particular list.

“Not every institution can be top of the rankings; it becomes ever more important to showcase uniqueness, niche specialties, and ultimate values. Good content marketing has the power to achieve this by showcasing real-life experience, which offers a study-abroad directory of over 28,000 schools.” says Gina Jones, account manager at StudyDestinatons.com

HOW TO DO IT: Bring experiences to life through video and photo. As Gina says, “If a picture speaks a thousand words, then video a million, and good content marketing using these, the hole in one.”

Jonah says a good place to look for content ideas is from the staff who interacts with prospective students. “Your admissions staff is a great example of this. They are fielding questions or concerns from prospects – this likely means other prospects share the same ones. Content could be built around helping to answer their questions,” he says.

Incorporate current students and alumni into your content too, which is particularly helpful in the final stages of the prospective student’s decision-making journey. “Their testimonials can be a powerful part of your content marketing message,” Jonah says.

Testimonials can be a powerful part of the #highereducation #contentmarketing message via @VerticalMeasure. Click To Tweet

Kellogg Community College has significant opportunity in this area. As Simon explains, “We have tens of thousands of local students and alumni that we can utilize as familiar faces to feed photo, video, and text testimonials.”

KCC Stories is centered on this concept (and Kellogg’s uses #KCCStory to keep it alive in social media):

KCC Story

More examples and inspiration

Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education listened to the staff and administrators who speak with students on a regular basis to identify pain points for students, says Kate Neuens, a marketing analyst who previously worked in the division.

By asking questions, the marketers learned that students attend continuing education because they are looking to change careers, and getting ready for interviews is a big part of this transition. The marketing team worked with the Office of Career Services to create a video and blog post – How to Ace an Interview. Hosted on YouTube, the video – an evergreen piece of content – has garnered almost 1 million views in four years.

Chris Hornak of BlogHands.com offers these two examples to illustrate how higher education can use content for different purposes:

  • A prospective student-focused blog hosted on the admissions site that tackles many topics that pop up in the “buyer” journey, from atmospheric to the practical – University of Illinois

University of Illinois

  • A blog demonstrating the faculty and staff’s expertise in the school’s subject matter – positioning them as experts and thought leaders – Harvard Medical School

Harvard

Jason Acidre, co-founder and CEO of Xight interactive, says delivering information using different content experiences is critical.

Delivering information using different content experiences is critical, says @jasonacidre. #highereducation Click To Tweet

There is a huge potential, he says, in using data visualizations, videos, and interactive content – along with text-rich documents. Xight’s client, Credit Loan, uses multiple formats on its blog – from a full-blown guide to detailed colorful infographic:

Credit Loan

The George Washington University is another great example – offering a quick-loading, interactive virtual tour of its campus in Washington, D.C.

George Washington University

Conclusion

The examples and advice on higher education marketing in this blog mirror the national trends. As the CASE study reports, “A large majority indicated that not only social media channels and mobile websites had occupied more of their time, but video production, digital recruitment communications, and other digital collateral had each become more prominent activities. By contrast, print and direct mail showed the largest decreases.”

Interestingly, CASE research also indicates that more than nine in 10 marketers in higher education use website and social media visits/activities as a metric of success – that’s more than any other measurement of marketing effectiveness.

But the key to success really isn’t the transmission mode. Ultimately, it’s creating comprehensive, unified content that reaches and resonates enough with prospective students to turn them into incoming freshmen or transfer students.

Go on your own hands-on, higher education content marketing journey with Jonah Deaver and Mike Huber of Vertical Measures. They will lead the higher education lab on Sept. 8 at Content Marketing World. Use the code BLOG100 to save an additional $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ann Gynn

Ann Gynn edits the CMI blog. She also serves as the Tech Tools editor for Chief Content Officer magazine. Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. Former college adjunct faculty, Ann also helps train professionals in content so they can do it themselves. Follow Ann on Twitter @anngynn or connect on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Ann Gynn

Join Over 180,000 of your Peers!

Get daily articles and news delivered to your email inbox and get CMI’s exclusive e-book Get Inspired: 75 (More) Content Marketing Examples FREE!

  • http://www.rossmorrone.com This is Marketing Podcast

    HE content marketing is all about creating brand experience. Find what is unique about your University by sitting down and talking with you students. Let them tell your story for you, by the experiences they have lived through. If you can show this on the channels prospective students are engaging your brand on, as Gina mentions, it’s an ace for sure.

    The mistake marketers are making is capturing staged environments creating lookalike visuals that everyone else has been doing for years. Next time you are at a college fair, pick up as many print pieces as you can and block out the University name – what is different? Not much.

    Social media take overs, vlogs and video content is worth the investment because it allows prospective students to visualize themselves in real environments. Once you find out what makes your campus unique, it will feel more authentic to your audiences.

    • Jonah Deaver

      Having a distinct university brand is important. In earlier phases of marketing to the student journey, branding is best suited for a limited role – with helpful information taking the spotlight. But when prospective students enter the decision stage of their journey, conveying brand authority and uniqueness can differentiate one’s school from the rest when it matters most.

      You present some good strategic ideas and the need to frame it inside an “authentic” vibe is spot on.

      • http://www.rossmorrone.com This is Marketing Podcast

        As you mention, it’s extremely important to have this content waiting to be discovered by your prospective audience when they are ready. Another thing we are very mindful of is not to push our brand on a prospective user too heavily as they are still deciding on their college choice. We want to be light on our approach and then heavy when they are ready to engage with us.

  • Satish Veeramani

    Thank you so much for sharing. really it is very good for the learning..