While working the last three years to help grow edtech companies through content marketing, I’ve become convinced that traditional universities are leaving their best tool in the toolbox by not using this powerful engagement strategy. As a result higher ed marketing is often wasting an opportunity to build up a real competitive advantage over new edtech challengers.

Before my work as a content marketing specialist, I taught college for many years, and I am passionate about the importance of higher education. I’m also fascinated by the economic, demographic and technological forces that are challenging it. In my work recently I have talked with dozens of emerging nontraditional and for-profit education providers, and it bugs me to see the gap between the marketing strategies of these fast-growing startups and of traditional universities.

Startups use content marketing because it works. It’s a great way for a new offering to compete for attention with incumbents, and it’s a great way for incumbents to defend or grow their territory in the marketplace. Incumbents in the education market ought to excel naturally at this approach.

At heart, content marketing is about communicating thought leadership, demonstrating expertise and establishing authority on the questions your target customers are asking. What better organization to do this than an institution of higher learning? Your campus ought to be filled with people who can provide all of that. You have a much deeper reservoir of expertise, trust and authority to tap than almost any other kind of organization.

Consider the growth of new education resources like Treehouse, Codecademy, Khan Academy or General Assembly. I love what these organizations do. But do they have more knowledge encoded into their organization than your university? Of course not, but they and a hundred other startups are nibbling away at your market share with the simple strategy of being helpful to prospective customers.

Right now someone downtown in your city is thinking about how to advance their careers, and the content marketing projects of these coding bootcamps and other startup alternative education providers are tempting that person to look past your Computer Science program, which may have been the only game in town until a couple years ago.

That’s a shame, because your university has a deeper understanding about computer science, about the job market, about career development and about every other question that person is struggling with. Letting edtech challengers own the content marketing channel is missing a big opportunity.

You probably are leveraging your institutional knowledge via public relations. Perhaps you pitch your faculty’s work to the local media for profiles, and you may have a speaker’s bureau that the media can tap to get expert commentary on news events.

So you already know the value of those resources. What you probably need is a content marketing strategy for using them that is based on growth. Public relations depends on platforms you don’t own and can’t control. But one great advantage of content marketing is that it’s owned media. And because you own it, the content goes on paying dividends indefinitely — much like the value proposition of education itself.  The more you put into it, and the more consistent you are about it, the more powerful the payoff over time.

A giving mindset in higher ed marketing

Universities are well positioned to succeed at content marketing because the approach depends on a certain mindset that parallels something higher ed excels at — giving for its own sake. In fact my own favorite definition of content marketing is built around discovering what you can do for someone else and delivering that.

This is an ideal marketing approach in an environment full of scholars trained in a tradition of making contributions to their field. Not to mention that nonprofit and publicly funded schools have as their mission to work in the public interest.

This approach makes sense for higher education marketing because it is all about sharing highly valuable insight without pushing your own agenda. As a marketing professional you may need to resist the instinct to promote your school in your content marketing assets. There is a place to talk about what you do, what differentiates you, why students and employers should get on your mailing lists, etc.

And you still need pages on your site that answer questions about your particular processes and resources. Keep doing all that. But articles clarifying your application process or the majors you offer isn’t content marketing.

Related reading: 6 Higher Education Brands Killing It With Content Marketing

When it comes to content marketing, I always say to my clients, “Would this still be valuable and make sense if it didn’t mention your name anywhere in it? If not, then it’s too promotional for content marketing.” Your readers will see it as another kind of advertising, and it will undermine the trust you’re trying to build up.

The sweet spot is content that addresses a very common concern, even for people who may never engage with your school, but that you can approach with your unique voice and attitude. (I talk more about hitting this sweet spot in an article on balancing the generic and the specific.)

One of strengths of being a university is that you have a variety of voices. Give your content experts a chance to be heard in their unique style, but keep an eye out for anything egregiously off-putting.

You don’t have to measure. You get to measure.

One of the great things about content marketing in the digital environment is that it’s possible for you to know what is and isn’t working and to adjust accordingly.

This is a huge advantage over traditional marketing tactics. When you design, print and mail a viewbook, how many leads does that generate? How many completed applications result from that?

It’s impossible to know. And if you have a sneaking suspicion that it didn’t quite work, but that it might with a little bit of revision, what can you do about that? The money is already spent. The same problem applies to billboards and air time. These are all one-time events.

With content marketing, even if your blog isn’t producing strong results, with a measurement plan in place, at least you’ll know. And in the cases where a blog post is almost-but-not-quite there, you can keep improving on it and squeezing more value out of it.

Finding your audience

Many people equate this tactic with its distribution channels, thinking that if it’s on a blog or on social media, then it must be content marketing.

No, those are formats. The function of content marketing is to establish a relationship by being helpful in a way perceived as authoritative and trustworthy.

But you still need to pay attention to those channels in order to find your audience. It can be overwhelming to think about them all, and as soon as you do, another one like Meerkat or Periscope appears on the scene.

My advice is to start growing two channels to start making meaningful progress right away and then to grow from there.

The first channel is your blog. It’s old school, it’s not very glamorous and it may not get great traffic at the moment. It takes consistent effort to build up the traffic.

But your blog is the closest direct link to the application page, where you ultimately want to drive your audience, and it’s what you have the most control over. Also, you can measure the blog better than other channels.

You might be concerned that you have “wasted” a great article on the low traffic blog that you could have used as guest post on HuffPo or someplace. Maybe. But perfect can be the enemy of the good when it comes to content marketing. You need to start somewhere, and if wait until you have command of every possible channel, you never will start. And a good content strategist can work with you on ways to reuse that article.

Second, I recommend putting up an email newsletter signup form right away. Even if you don’t have the capacity to produce the newsletter, the people who sign up for it are real leads who you can follow up with. Also, the trend line on those signups is a conversion metric that tells you how your content marketing project is doing.

From there, you’ll need to develop a distribution plan that uses social media a lot but that doesn’t neglect the good old fashioned influencer marketing.

Once you’ve run with this a little bit, you can start considering what capacity you have to mix in guest posting, webinars, Twitter chats, You Tube sites, or whatever the hot new channel of the month is.

Finding Your Audience

Where to find expertise for your content marketing

Below I list a number of places to look for content marketing opportunities that your higher ed marketing team can use today. But before we get to that, a word about where this expertise is going to come from.

As you go through this list, don’t limit your thinking to faculty. Your campus is filled with experts who work in a variety of roles. Almost all the questions below would be addressed differently — and with a lot of value — by a professor, an administrator, an admissions counselor, a support services professional and a student. Browsing through three or four different high value pieces on any individual topic will make a powerful impression on the your target audience.

If faculty and other key professionals have time to write blog posts and newsletters, that’s great. But many content marketing projects stall by being over-optimistic about what writing other people will have time to do.

It’s usually more efficient — and can be quite effective — to take a journalistic approach, using a writer with good interviewing skills to gather quotes from subject matter experts from around your campus. This is a great way to help your target audience get to know your community better. It can also aid in the public relations work mentioned earlier if these articles come to the attention of reporters who need experts to interview.

Offer help to stressed out high school students

When it comes to high school students, you don’t want to pander or patronize, of course. But don’t be afraid to develop content that answers very basic questions. I know I was the kind of student who never heard the word syllabus before my first day of my first college class. An article on 10 Confusing Terms You’ll Encounter While Applying To College might be just the information some students out there need, and the reassurance that it’s okay not to know will help you build a connection with them.

An obvious place to start is blog posts on the questions you hear from students every day. For example, your applicants for next year are probably asking:

  • Do service projects matter?
  • How do you consider test scores?

Try taking a unique, well-informed and heartfelt approach that helps people understand the issue better. For example, would your target readers benefit from these articles?

  • How Did You Save The World Last Summer?: What Admissions Offices Really Look For In Service Projects
  • 3 Things You Can Learn From Your Own Test Scores

After identifying those obvious concerns, you can start getting more creative. What else are these students stressed out about? Perhaps fewer people are searching for information on the ideas below, but content marketing succeeds with a small ball approach — consistently hitting singles that engage more and more people over time.

  • Tips For Finding a Summer Job
  • Long-distance Relationships and Student Life
  • When Your Friend Gets Into Their Dream School and You Don’t (Or Vice Versa).
  • 10 CEOs Who Went To Their Safety Schools
  • Differences Between a Commuter School and a Residential Campus
  • Getting Real About Being Yourself: Why Authenticity Matters In a College Application

Answer questions for stressed out parents

One of the challenges in marketing for a university is that there are so many influencers in the buying process who you ought to be marketing to, but it is very expensive and time consuming to reach out to all of them. Do you ever wish you could market to parents more? Putting out high value content that addresses their concerns is one way to get started.

  • In Loco Parentis: You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Leave Your Kid At College, But It Helps
  • The Line Doesn’t Go Around the Gym Anymore: How Course Registration Works For Today’s College Student
  • How To Talk With Your High School Student About Financial Planning

Answer questions for stressed out guidance counselors and teachers

High school counselors and teachers are influencers in your market. Imagine if you offered the faculty at your feeder schools articles like these:

  • Dealing With Recommendation Letter Overload
  • Making the Most of Your Campus Visit
  • Freshman Year Isn’t the 13th Grade: Helping Your Students Understand the Difference Between High School and College Work

Answer questions for working professionals

A university probably has more than the average number of buyer personas to think about compared to most marketing projects, but that also means more opportunity.

How much of your total enrollment depends on working adults being attracted to your graduate degree programs? (And how much of your total marketing budget is devoted to attracting those students? Not much, I bet.)

This is where content marketing can really show its value. Busy working adults are online looking for solutions, and they reward institutions that can provide it.

First, let’s consider the market for a degree program for which you have competitors in your region, like a nights-and-weekends MBA.

In the old days, you needed the most expensive billboard campaign to make a dent in the market. But those strategies have diminishing returns. You need to establish a relationship of trust with your target market. Articles like these should help achieve that:

  • Talking With Your Boss About Your Career Goals
  • How Finance Can Upskill Your Operations Management Career

And your campus may have more unique degree programs that don’t have regional competitors — in healthcare administration, educational leadership, nursing education, or library science, for example. In these cases, your marketing problem is to help people understand what the degree is or what it’s value is.

Again, interviewing subject matter experts on your faculty for this content is a simple tactic with a lot of positive ripple effects.

Help your institutional partners with their business problems

You may be trying to attract employers so you can co-create training programs or so they will recruit your graduates for their companies. And even without formal relationships, many employers with tuition assistance programs are in a position much like feeder high schools. You get to the students through these potential partners.

One great strategy here is to offer the high-level expertise of your community on subjects related to economic trends, training, innovation and the skills gap. If I were a regional comprehensive university that had trouble competing on name recognition outside my region, I would at least try to own the local conversation on business and workforce development via a microsite that brings together the voices and research of faculty, students and external partners.

Start by asking what questions people in the career development office are hearing or what conversations the president or the deans of the professional schools are having when they are out in the community. That might lead to articles like these:

  • Helping Your Employees Balance Home and Work
  • What New Graduates Are Looking For In An Entry-Level Position: Inside A College Career Fair
  • Optimizing Return In Your Tuition Assistance Program

Help Your Prospective Institutional Partners With Their Business Problems

Engage and retain your current students

You probably do some internal marketing to keep your current student body engaged, make the community stronger, support successful academic outcomes and keep up retention.

But mixed in with these “internal communications” projects, content marketing can play a bigger role to engage this audience segment. Again, focus on being helpful without trying to promote the university.

  • Dealing With Roommate Issues
  • Talking With Your Parents About Moving Off Campus
  • Grad School, Professional School or “The Real World”: How To Start Planning For Your Next Step
  • Great Scheduling Hacks to Complete Your Degree On Time

A simple tactic here is to look at some of the assets that are being produced by the student support offices to help students. Those can be repurposed for your blog and promoted on your social media profiles.

If people who aren’t current students discover this content and get some value out of it, so much the better. That’s more links, more traffic, and better results for your site overall in search engines.

Related reading: Current and Lapsed Customers: The Two Audiences you May be Forgetting in Your Content Marketing Plan 

Strengthen your alumni relationships

Your school probably already has a pretty robust communications plan for alumni, including a magazine and class newsletters. The typical article in these materials celebrates achievements of students, faculty, and alumni, announces changes on campus, and shares news about classmates.

All of that is critical to keeping alumni engaged.

But, again, all of that is a form of promotion, and if you can mix in material that concentrates on helping alumni with their concerns and challenges, you’ll deepen the level of engagement.

Related reading: Millennials are So Over In Higher Ed Marketing. Meet Generation Z.

Of course, the alumni are a pretty undefined group. Some are 22 years old, and some are 102, so you’ll have to pick your spots about what kind of content to prioritize. Their interests will range over topics related to:

  • career transitions
  • retirement planning
  • charitable giving
  • choosing a preschool
  • saving for college

Where to start

Few institutions can implement all the approaches above at once, of course. (I’d like to get my hands on the marketing budget that could.) So I advise picking one segment where you want to generate more relationships, more leads and more conversions.

First, identify your segment and a customer persona within that segment to bring focus to your effort.

Next, identify what a conversion would look like. Is it a completed application? A memorandum of understanding with an employer partner?

Then you want to sketch out micro-conversions along the engagement funnel. The top of the funnel is usually website visits. An SEO expert can help you start working toward that and measuring it.

Intermediate micro-conversions can be signing up for a newsletter, requesting information or downloading a higher value content asset like an in-depth guide. Each of these stages indicates a different level of interest in your school and is an opportunity to capture more lead information.

Finally, you’ll develop an editorial plan and a distribution plan. A good managing editor should be able to handle that.

Conclusion

A university by definition is filled with thought leaders, experts, earned authority and a sense of public mission. All of these are key components of a standout content marketing campaign. No other type of organization is naturally better positioned for this tactic than you.

Related reading: How Nonprofit Marketing Isn’t Quite Getting the Content Thing Yet

Content marketing done well isn’t exactly easy, though it is easy to get started and make some inroads. The beauty of content marketing, however, is that it’s a way of using your resources to control your own fate. Every new piece you create adds to the value of the whole, whereas with most marketing tactics you’re in a race of diminishing returns as people respond less and less to advertising.

Most of all, content marketing is a way for higher education marketing professionals to leverage the resources they have for a strategic advantage. If your school wants to cut through the noise demanding attention from your target markets so you can start building relationships with them, you need to consider using this tactic.

How can we help?