Four Things to Consider Before Launching a Content Marketing Strategy

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Content marketing has been all the rage in the marketing world for the last several years. For those who may be unfamiliar, content marketing refers to creating and distributing content (videos, articles, social media posts, white papers, etc.) to your audience for free to serve their current needs and, hopefully, encourage them to further engage with your brand.

When it comes to higher ed, at times content marketing has been oversold as the ultimate, sure-fire way to attract prospective students, increase donor giving, and augment alumni engagement. [TM1] Yet, throwing a couple of blog posts online every year hardly constitutes the type of content marketing that can, when done properly, be an extremely effective part of your overall marketing strategy.

Here are four major things to consider when launching a content marketing strategy:

Evaluate your resources. It would be great to be able to launch a highly polished, professional-looking magazine like Boston University's Bostonia or the Johns Hopkins Magazine that both feature writing from the country’s top journalists, stunning design, and immersive photography. And if you have the financial and human resources to do it, then by all means, go ahead! But most schools, especially smaller liberal arts ones, simply don’t have the human resources, institutional support, or budget to launch something like that.

Yet, that doesn't mean you can’t still launch a quality online magazine, an informative blog, or even a monthly podcast series. For example, Biola University and Point Loma Nazarene University, two small faith-based schools in Southern California, offer a simple-but-informative blog and a podcast series, respectively, despite their smaller budgets compared to larger private or research institutions. The key is to be honest about what you can commit to regularly. Can your marketing office write consistent articles online? Do you have the necessary relationships across campus to get faculty to contribute their expertise for a white paper series? Do you have the money to invest in a well-designed microsite or batch of alumni videos?

Develop a content strategy. Once you decide to launch a podcast show, a series of videos, a student blog, or some other content marketing initiative and have confirmed that you have the proper resources and internal support to do so, you need to develop an effective strategy. There are a number of free and detailed guides out there to help you get started, but this is a critical step. How often are you going to publish content? If you’re crafting a series of white papers, will they be featured on a set of landing pages? How will you nurture the leads generated from them? How are you going to promote your content (Facebook, Instagram, paid ads, email)? Do you have a set of editorial guidelines to ensure all content is aligned with your brand?

Questions like these should all be written down somewhere and accessed frequently. Additionally, it’s important to meet with key stakeholders when developing this strategy document to obtain their feedback and ensure you’re ultimately addressing the university’s goals with your content marketing efforts.

Be willing to invest in quality. Although this relates to the first point (the need to ensure you have enough resources), it’s important to stress this point on its own. If you’re going to commit to doing content marketing, then you need to commit to doing it well. Your Instagram stories or blog articles aren’t competing with your rival schools’ content—they are competing with every other type of content out there (major magazines articles, YouTube videos of celebrities, etc.). Of course, this doesn’t mean your content has to meet the standards of The New York Times, but it should be high quality and provide value to your audience—be that by entertaining, educating, or inspiring them.

Boston University offers a clever "Alumni Starter Kit" online to both educate and entertain their alumni. Oklahoma State University created a video series called “Orange Memories” that features current students talking about their experience at the school to inspire prospective students. These are both great examples of compelling content that doesn’t require excessive resources or time. If you can’t publish a high-quality blog article once a week, then commit to publishing it once every two weeks, or even once a month. While it’s important to be generating content on a regular basis, a hundred trivial and low-quality content pieces are rarely more effective than a handful of really compelling and high-quality ones.

Measure and iterate. This last point should be an obvious one. There are certain things you won’t know about what your audience wants or doesn’t want when it comes to your content until after you begin producing and promoting it. You may learn that one portion of your audience prefers alumni stories over faculty spotlights, or podcast episodes that are 15 minutes instead of 30 (though, you may also discover that another portion of your audience prefers the opposite).

The key is to try something long enough to obtain an adequate amount of data (through Google analytics, social media metrics, user surveys, focus groups, etc.). Then review what you discover on a regular basis (often with relevant stakeholders and by referring to your content strategy document), adjust your efforts according to the new insights you observe (be they success or failures), and then do it all over again.