In higher ed, content strategy is starting to get some serious attention at conferences, on blogs or Twitter. While theoretical advice abounds, it’s still tough to find higher ed professionals or executives who have been given the latitude to work on a comprehensive content strategy at the institutional level.
Tough, but not impossible.
Mike Powers, who will teach the second edition of our 3-day Web Writing Boot Camp (including a session about content strategy) next month, has been given this opportunity (and challenge) just a few months ago at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I interviewed Mike about a month ago as I was working on my column for University Business about content strategy in higher ed, a column to be published later this month. With content being on the mind (and in the tweets) of many at the High Ed Web Conference last month in Austin, now seems a good time to publish Mike’s answers about the process towards his institution’s comprehensive content strategy.
1) You have started to work on a comprehensive content strategy at your institution. Can you share the reasons that pushed you in that direction?
I’ve moved from being Director of Web Services to being Interim Director of Communications. Coming from the web side of the house, I had already been pushing our web team in the direction of content strategy, and my boss at the time was encouraging me to bring that to the rest of the office.
But I think the most immediate reason was the challenge that social media presents. Between print, the web, media relations, video, Facebook, Twitter–we’ve found we’ve got something like 16 different tools we can use for any particular communication. It’s clear we need to be strategic about which tools we use for which tasks. Furthermore, all of those tools need a steady supply of content. Planning for the creation of that content is another need content strategy addresses.The wider adoption of content strategy in our office was made much easier by the fact that we have an office that encompasses print, web, video, photography, and media relations all under one roof. We really had just about everyone we needed to get started right on our hall.
2) Content strategy doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, dedication and hard work. What is your plan at your institution and what has been done so far?
So far, we have:
1. Formed an office-wide content strategy group that includes people who focus on the web, social media, PR, print publications, and video.
2. Started using an editorial calendar that includes all of our communications media, from websites to Twitter to billboards to TV.
3. Put together, because the group was excited about it, an ongoing blog that lets us get interesting stories out there more quickly than other channels we use. Externally, we probably didn’t have to launch the blog so soon. But for the group, it has given us a quick payoff–something we can point to and show those outside the office as a benefit of our work.
We are currently working on a message hierarchy (this is an idea right out of Kristina Halvorson’s book) that maps our institution’s existing “message pillars” onto more specific and useful messages that we can use in a variety of communications. In other words, we’re looking carefully at the messages we are trying to send.
Then comes the content audit: are we actually sending those messages to our various audiences? What, during a typical year, do our audiences actually hear about us? Are those messages driving the kinds of actions we’re looking for (for instance, donations)?
From there, we’ll be making decisions about what we need to change to better reach our goals. It’s a process that will take a few months, but given the ever-present rush of current projects, there’s only so much we can do at a time.
3) You are now in charge of web and print publications. Have you found any untapped synergies yet?
Web, print, video, and photography–we’re lucky to have it all in one office at IUP. Largely because we’ve all been under the same roof for quite a few years now, we haven’t had any huge “ah-ha!” moments yet.
But those of us who’ve worked mostly with the web and those who’ve worked mostly with print are starting to better understand how we use them together. We’re also seeing places where we’ve been doing a particular print publication for years when a web publication would be much more appropriate. And we’re talking about how we continue to adapt our alumni magazine to the digital age.
4) Do you have any practical tips to convince top management and get started with content strategy in higher education?
I was lucky in that my manager had heard about content strategy independently, and was interested in doing something about it. So I was actually being encouraged to do something under the name “content strategy.”
But if we’re talking about top management–let’s say, your president–I’m not sure how much convincing about content strategy per se you need to do. Take Kristina Halvorson’s definition of content strategy: “the practice of planning for content creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” If your content strategy efforts are actually doing that, and paying off, you’re not going to have a whole lot of convincing to do.
In other words, rather than starting with trying to get people to accept that they need some grand thing called “content strategy”–which will just sound like you’re chasing the latest buzzword–start by doing something that will let you show results quickly. For us, that was the editorial calendar. Content templates would be another good place to start. Show the value there, then move onto some of the projects–like the content audit–that will take a greater investment of time before you see the payoff.
And you might not end up using the words “content strategy” at all.
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