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Why Your Higher Ed Institution Should Embrace Content Marketing

Tyson Schritter / COO, Abound and Colleges of Distinction

This is the seventh of seven articles in the “Are You Making This Fatal Mistake with Your Higher Ed Marketing?” series, detailing how to elevate your school’s brand in the minds of your audience using a proven and easy-to-follow framework that puts them at the center of your brand’s story.

As a higher ed institution committed to safeguarding, pursuing, and sharing knowledge, the last tactic covered in this series should be right in the wheelhouse of any institution of higher learning. Content marketing is one of the most effective ways to convey to your audience both “empathy” and “knowledge.” Content marketing refers to providing your audience with free educational, inspirational, or entertaining content in an attempt to build a relationship with them, strengthen the perception of your brand, and subtly encourage engagement.

Most colleges and universities already do this to some extent. For example, an alumni magazine or annual report is essentially a type of content marketing—free content offered to members of the school’s community to keep them engaged with the school in some way. By offering to give your audience something educational, valuable, or inspirational, you are acknowledging their needs or desires with an empathetic gift that demonstrates your willingness to help them, even if in a minor way.

At the same time, educational content further asserts your role as an authority in an area of knowledge. When a business professor writes an article on a university blog about the importance of developing professional relationships as an entrepreneur or a dean conducts a podcast interview with biology faculty about the latest breakthrough in genome editing, you’re giving your audience a reason to believe that you are a committed, engaged, and knowledgeable institution. The more you can convey this to your audience, the more they are likely to engage with you as a prospective student, donor, or potential recruit.

Examples of Great Content Marketing

You don’t have to launch something overly complicated in order to demonstrate authority and empathy through content marketing. The company Blue Bottle Coffee, for instance, provides helpful and educational content for brewing quality-tasting coffee in a relatively simple format, detailing a step-by-step guide that any amateur barista can reference at home. It’s free content that anyone can take advantage of whether or not they’re using Blue Bottle Coffee beans or grounds. Yet, it’s easy to see how someone who stumbles upon their website in an attempt to learn how to brew coffee better might consider giving the company’s coffee a shot because, well, it certainly looks like they know a lot about coffee. If they are such an authority on what makes great coffee, then surely they must sell great coffee as well, right?

Another compelling, non-higher ed example of content marketing comes from Intrepid Travel, an organization that books trips for customers to various destinations all over the world. They feature an online content hub highlighting travel stories and travel tip articles. From pieces on drinking beer in the Czech Republic to the best hiking trails in Australia, Intrepid Travel provides free and helpful resources to eager and curious globetrotters. Someone may reference an article to learn about the “must-see” attractions of Marrakesh and then, perhaps, consider booking a future trip through Intrepid Travel. By providing free inspirational and educational content, they are demonstrating authority (they know the art of travel as well as anybody) and empathy (they understand both the challenges and joy of international travel) in a successful way.

Content Marketing for Higher Ed

Fuller Seminary has taken to heart the value of higher ed content marketing with their Fuller Studio, which is an online space for the institution to publish content from the university magazine. But it does much more than that: Fuller takes advantage of the digital medium by featuring videos, podcasts, and photos, all of which make for an engaging and polished content hub experience that is akin to that of any major publication. It’s not hard to see how a prospective student would view Fuller as an innovative leader in faith-based academia or how a donor would feel good about supporting the institution’s mission. While it’s true that something like what Fuller has done entails a sizeable amount of resources and a higher level of support, it no doubt communicates to audiences the institution’s commitment to their mission within higher ed, making it a very attractive organization for people who fall within their audience demographic.

Another great example from higher ed, Boston University, features one of the the most impressive examples of content marketing with their Bostonia magazine, also constructed a creative and humorous Alumni Starter Kit online to help newly-minted alumni begin life after college with confidence and support. Not only is it entertaining, clever, and helpful, but it’s a great way to keep alumni connected to the university. It also means that an alum who takes advantage of the resource might be that much more likely to financially support the university down the road. Something like this is relatively simple, cheap, and easy to do, but it can go a long way in demonstrating to your audience both empathy and authority.

All in all, content marketing is one of the most effective ways to show—rather than just tell—your audience that you’re a knowledgeable and empathetic institution in the story you’re sharing with your marketing.

Steps to Consider:

Do you already have a content hub or blog that could be more active? Universities often already have a platform on which to do content marketing but haven’t kept up with adding content regularly to it.

Who are some experts you can ask for help with content? Do you have relationships with certain knowledgeable professors or experienced alumni? What about admissions counselors or current students? The good news is that being part of a higher ed institution gives you access to a lot of individuals who can help you create educational and compelling content.

Can you offer one-off lectures or workshops at a local business or organization to help increase adult student enrollment as a form of content marketing for higher ed?

What does your promotional strategy look like? You might already have an active blog or online magazine but are not committing enough time to getting your content in front of your audience. Consider how you can use email, social media, and digital advertising to get your content in front of more people.

How can you figure out what kind of content your audience is interested in? Consider emailing a survey to your audience or conducting short interviews with them in order to determine what content they are most interested in consuming. Remember that when it comes to adult students, marketing to them will look very different than marketing to traditional students.

What type of content are you already creating or want to create? Blog posts? Videos? Podcasts? Instagram stories? It’s important to diversify your content since different audiences will consume different types of content. Of course, you don’t want to overload yourself if you’re just starting out, either. Be realistic about what you can do today (e.g. blog posts, social media, etc.) and what you can build up to over time (longer videos, podcasts, etc.).

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