One of the first things you’re told when trying to create an online presence – whether for an institution, for a programme or for an individual, is that, to create an impact, you need content.
And providing general “about us” sections, publishing brochures, providing programme details and posting general news updates on your websites is not enough. Your content needs to provide something extra – a source of information for your audience so that you become known as a leading and authoritative voice, can prove your value, and can generate a following.
Producing high-level content has the power to elevate your reputation, enhance your visibility to new audiences, support business development and, for schools, could be a key tool in boosting recruitment – both of students and faculty.
That’s all well and good, but what actually is “content”?
The term is frustratingly vague. What does it look like? What should it cover? How does it become seen, and how much content is enough? Even more frustrating is the all-too-common reality of investing large amounts of time and effort into creating content, only for it to produce little in terms of results. It’s no wonder that many struggle to understand the value of content creation, or can recoup the benefits, when there’s no set rule book to follow.
Essentially “content” is a cover-all term for any information you provide, in any format, that enables a reader to learn more about you, your activities, values or goals, and provides a perspective on a topic important to both you and the reader. Examples could be a video interview with a member of faculty about their research or expertise, it could be a student’s account of a particular study experience, it could be a Dean discussing their involvement with an event or providing their perspectives on issues affecting their school, or it could be your admissions team providing a “how-to” guide for programme applications. The list goes on. It can be news, features or anything that enhances your voice, visibility and values, and allows readers to benefit from them.
But with every institution, every Dean and countless faculty being encouraged to produce masses and masses of content, it’s easy to see how so few of these efforts actually manage to create tangible results. Unfortunately, the vast majority of content is only ever read by the author, the editor and those within their immediate circles.
So how can you create the content that not only gets read, but is also sought after? And creates an impact?
Here are a few key steps to consider;
1. Consider your end-goal
Who, or what, do you want to be seen as, or known for? Does your institution want to champion all things sustainability? Perhaps your Dean has a perspective on the importance of rankings or the future of digital learning. Whatever it is, before you put your creative hat on, you need to consider what you hope to gain from your efforts – who you wish to engage with and what response you want to encourage. Defining this will help you to hone your message, rather than talking in general terms to a disparate readership – a sure-fire path to obscurity.
2. Who are your audience and how can you be of benefit to them?
Now you have a goal, consider how well that meets with your target audiences’ needs. Take the time to get to know your intended readership – what do they like to read about? What topics have been covered and what has the response been? Consider how you might add to, or potentially lead these discussions, adding new ideas and perspectives to enhance, rather than repeat, the debate. Social media provides a quick and easy way to gain an insight here– searching groups, keywords, following pages and organisations are all useful tools for research without investing too heavily in time or manpower.
3. Tackle key topics – but only if you can add something useful!
Struggling to start a conversation? There are tools online that can help a person, or an organisation, root out which topics their audiences see as a priority. For example, services like Quora or Answer The Public provide an insight into the key questions your audience might be asking and the areas where they’re demanding thought leadership. Use these services, as well as the feedback from those you already engage with and current themes/stories raised by the news agenda to help inspire your own output. Doing this will keep your content useful, insightful and relevant to readers.
However, be cautious of “jumping on the bandwagon” and producing content that adds to the noise rather than helping to filter it. There’s little point in writing yet another article that complains that business is not doing enough to combat climate change, instead why not write a piece that highlights the key issues for an industry to tackle in order to be more green? Whatever you are producing, try to add something new for a reader to benefit from. It is this sort of content that differentiates leaders from followers and will enable you to cut through the noise.
4. Keep it simple
Your content needs to be accessible and useful. If writing an article, keep it short, snappy and easy to understand. Lose the jargon and keep examples and references within the realms of day-to-day business rather than in academia.
Headlines matter. Use keywords and phrases that are directly relevant to what you have to say, and do not be tempted to shoehorn in popular trending topics that have little to do with what you actually wish to talk about.
Don’t embellish or overexaggerate your position, and do not be sensationalist for the sake of it. Try to avoid hard sells for programmes or services. Any of these actions can come across as disingenuous to a reader and will quickly lower you or your institutions in their estimations.
To help boost visibility, SEO is a critical factor, but there is a danger to be found in littering your text with SEO-friendly terms that detract from the points you’re trying to make. Use key words and phrases responsibly and sparingly.
5. Mix it up
There are many ways for an audience to engage with content and not every discussion suits every medium. Consider which method might create the best impact. A video chat with a Dean or CEO might work better as short video than a long-form article. Presenting ideas or illustrating case studies through webinars or white papers might be the best means of covering all the finer points of a discussion, but why not follow this up with a shorter article which provides a snapshot to encourage potential readers to engage?
As well as methods of delivery also consider mixing up your platforms for delivery too. Can your faculty use their social media channels to further promote or discuss the content on your websites? Keeping a mix of methods and platforms in your content strategy will help ensure maximum reach, and greater exposure.
6. Keep an eye on trends
Readers respond to those individuals and institutions which appear to have their finger firmly on the pulse of what’s happening in the world and can use their position or expertise to explain it, discuss it or challenge it. Do not use your content strategy to solely push out your own messaging but also consider what your readers might like you to respond to and engage in. Different topics and trends become popular at different times of the year or are impacted by what might be happening in the world at any given time. Be sensitive to this and do not be afraid to react to it.
7. Leverage social media
In some ways it is easy to be visible outside of your current circles. Anyone who joins a social media provider is afforded a platform from which to speak and share their views – for better or worse! Use these tools to your best advantage to further spread and mix up your message. For example, faculty who have authored articles on their school’s website and summarise them or repost them through their social media channels, or seed them into suitable groups or forums to prompt further discussion and debate. Each social media platform will have different tools for doing this effectively – using the most effective number of hashtags for example.
8. Be consistent
Building a following takes time. Do not be discouraged if you do not see immediate results, but instead focus your efforts on consistency and reliability. Publish regularly and engage with those who respond. This sense of reliability will help build your brand and enhance your value in the eyes of your target audience, making you into a sought-after voice and source of information. You do not have to be as timetabled as posting an article every Thursday, but rather build the expectation amongst readers that you’ll regularly share your perspectives, and can be relied upon to be up to date with current issues and trends that are important to your readers.
9. Make it look good
It might sound trivial, but posting long blocks of text is, for time-pressed readers, very off-putting. Structure your articles into bite sized chunks, or clip it into short videos. Add bullet points, images, visual graphics and anything that can boost your visual appeal.
10. Reflect, review and reposition
Take the time to regularly review your performance and consider whether your content is having the desired effect. If you’re missing the mark, try to work out why that might be and where you may be falling short. Canvas opinions from your readers and invite feedback from your followers via social media or mailers. It also pays to keep an eye on what your competitors are doing and how they benefit from it. It’s important for an institution to publicly acknowledge and act upon feedback rather than burying it.