Campus Chronicle: Cracking Content Marketing For Higher Education

Columnist Pratik Dholakiya explains how schools rely on content marketing to tell a story that matters — to effectively market to students and win over new ones.

Your school needs content marketing. In fact, it relies on it. It has done it for years; it’s just never had a name before.

Your brochures, your white papers, your leaflets and everything your potential students come into contact with is “content.”

But while students have advanced and grown and changed how they devour their information about potential schools, you haven’t adapted, changed or grown with the times.

Okay, maybe you now have a Twitter feed and a shiny new website. But you’re still spinning the same tired message. And it’s not helping you get more admissions, is it?

With rising college debt and the fact that 74 percent of college presidents say their schools can’t sustain more cuts without affecting the quality of education, it’s time for that to change.

In this article you’re going to learn:

  • How to determine your site’s unique selling proposition (USP) and be honest about your school’s story
  • How to use that story and USP to guide your content marketing efforts
  • The three most effective ways to market to students

So if you’re ready, hit the bookmark button, because you’re going to want to keep this post around for awhile.

The Current State Of School Websites

Here’s a harsh truth you need to hear: All schools are starting to look and sound the same.

Instead of connecting with students on a new and exciting level, you’re blending into the background and becoming just another school.

Take a look at these two university websites next to each other:

Aside from the color of the site, what’s really different? Nothing.

Where each site should be screaming, “Choose us because [Unique Selling Proposition goes here]!” it’s actually saying, “Well, you could come here … We’re all right, I guess.”

And when up to 96 percent of students use the internet to influence their higher education decisions, is that really the message you want to be sending out?

Don’t fret if you’re one of the schools in this position, though. Because standing out isn’t as hard as you’d think.

Identifying Your School Story

Content marketing is all about the story you tell.

As marketing legend Seth Godin put it in his book, “All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories,” the reason people buy into anything is because it tells a story that matters:

“The way we matter is by connecting with people with a story. A story that resonates, a story they care about and a story they’ll tell other people.”

And you might not think of schools as having a story that goes beyond test results and sports. But you can tap into a rich vein that runs a lot deeper.

From every student who’s been taught to every class project and refurbished sports hall, there’s a rich story to be told.

For example, when US News asked graduate students why they chose their schools, you’d be surprised at how much a good story helped them make their decisions. All of the people asked chose based on how the school made them feel.

For some, it was knowing the law program would make them practice-ready. For others, it was the appeal of school traditions. And for a select few, it was being able to sit in the sun and study.

Which means you need to find out what the story of your school is. To do this, you need to ask an important question: “Who are we, and why should anyone care?

This question is at the heart of the story you want to tell your potential students. Does your school have a long history of tradition? Does it have a community feel? Are you flexible and offer distance learning opportunities? How do you take care of your students? Do you have a monster ski slope that nobody else does?

Take a look at Stanford Graduate School of Business. While its marketers could have gone down the route of painting themselves as a traditional redbrick boring business school, they decided to tell a different story.

They set up a Tumblr blog filled with inspirational graphics, interviews, success stories and business content to help not only their students, but anyone who cares about business.

They’re adding value (more on that next) and showing a different side of business school. Their content has personality and a voice.

And when you come back to their home page, it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill college site either. It’s clear, concise and straight to the point — exactly the same as their lectures.

Don’t be afraid to take risks and go completely against the grain. This is all about standing out against the backdrop of boring schools.

Try making a list of all the qualities your school has. Then go back through and take a look at the unique qualities that other schools don’t have. From there, you have the perfect grounding for telling your school’s own powerful story.

Craft Content That Creates Value, Desire And Trust

Once you’ve got your story — or at least the essence of your college — it’s time to start looking at what content your students are looking for.

Now, this is a big topic, and there are no right or wrong answers here. After all, each school is different. But as a general rule in education marketing, your content should tick three boxes:

  • Value
  • Desire/Persuasion
  • Trust

Let’s break each one of those down so you can get a closer look.

1. Value

When you create content for anyone — whether that’s a tweet, a blog post or a sales page — you have to answer one question from the content consumer’s point of view: “What’s in it for me?

Because when anybody reads (including you reading this blog post), that’s the question they’re asking themselves. They want to take away something that will add value to their own lives.

That could be:

  • Peace of mind
  • Useful information
  • Actionable advice

In other words, anything that leaves an impression on your potential students and makes them come away with more knowledge than they started with.

For example, Duke University regularly tweets about what’s happening with its new students — like this tweet about their initiation into a Duke tradition:

What value does this add for the potential student? Well, it does these things:

  • Shows them how new students are treated
  • Creates a feeling of being part of a big community
  • Gives them a personal look at university life

All of the above can be big reasons why someone would choose Duke for the next four years.

2. Desire/Persuasion

You have to make people want to come to you. After all, they’re making a big investment of time and money (and their future) to come and join your university, so your content has to create that desire in them.

The best way to do this in education is to anticipate the big questions and objections that stand in the way of admissions — and proactively address them in a persuasive manner.

Take the time to acknowledge what students are worried about and provide resources that tackle those problems.

Like how Georgia Tech tackled the topic of low female enrollment:

Which brought about some great responses from parents, too:

Persuading prospective students to desire to come to your school will take some research. You’ll need to learn what preconceived notions or concerns people may have about your school specifically. But when you can show your students the benefits of being with you and put their doubts to rest, your content will be effective in achieving your goals.

3. Trust

At the end of the day, this is what education and content marketing are both about. You need to position yourself as a school that people can get behind, that they are willing to invest their entire futures in. Because without trust, all the rest of your marketing is null and void.

Because of this, it’s important to be open and honest about life at your university, the results you’re getting (like the percentage of students that graduate with a job offer), and what goes on from day to day. The University of Manchester did this wonderfully by creating a blog, run by students, that offers case studies of life in and around its university, covering everything from lesson plans to nightlife and day trips to the highs and lows of being a student.

Not only does this show that students are behind the university because they give up their free time to do this, it also shows the candid, real-world side of being a student. That can often be a lot more appealing than the dressed-up, fantastical version some schools try to build.

Once You’ve Built Your Content — How To Help Them Find It

It’s never been easier to market to your students. In fact, you’re able to connect with your students in lots of different ways and find new students who would previously have been out of your reach.

Here are some interesting statistics for you:

  • Four out of 10 students will search for education options on their mobile phones
  • More than six out of 10 students use social media to research their colleges
  • Nine out of 10 students will use the internet to research college and course options

That means that if you’re still stuck using only a brochure, you could be missing out on a huge chunk of potential students.

Recently, the EnVeritasGroup did some research into how students were making decisions about their colleges. They found that 87.2% of 18- to 20-year-olds used Facebook as part of their search for the right college. And the top four platforms for helping students make decisions were:

  1. Facebook
  2. Twitter
  3. University-run blogs
  4. Google+

You can see not only that the internet a big factor but that students care about the social impact of a school, too.

In this last section, we’re going to look at three ways you can attract prospective students to the content you’ve so carefully crafted using the principles described above.

1. Social Media

You’ve just seen how important the likes of Facebook and Twitter are to helping your students make decisions. The question is, how do you capitalize on that?

This is where your school story and brand really has to shine through.

The University of Miami’s Facebook page is a great place to see an example of this in action.

It’s a school that takes pride in sports, in medicine and in being diverse — and all of their updates tell this story:

Facebook can also be a valuable place to showcase ratings, reviews and other positive messaging from third parties, who are likely to be more trusted than the school’s official representatives:

There’s no magical formula here. But take care to avoid the hard sell in social media. Instead, there should be little selling at all — just content that appeals to new students and tells the story of who you are and why they should care.

2. Blogging

Blogging is powerful. I mean, you’re reading this, right?

But here’s the thing about college blogs right now: Most of them are pretty weak.

Many blogs appear — especially after the initial excitement wears off — like half-hearted attempts, because schools feel they need to have one but aren’t quite sure what to do with it.

So why don’t you become the trendsetter who changes it? After all, you’ve just seen that it’s the third most influential way to attract new students.

If you’re looking for what to model your blog on, the Vandy Bloggers blog from Vanderbilt is a good benchmark.

This admissions blog does exactly what a blog needs to do:

  1. Answer the big questions on the topic of admissions
  2. Tell a powerful brand story

The content adds value, desire and trust to any potential student, while still lending a helping hand when they become students, too.

3. Mobile Content

Fifteen percent of Americans aged 18–29 use a smartphone for online access, and 30 percent of all Americans use a smartphone to access educational content. That’s a lot of people.

And it’s not a number that’s going to stop growing either, with 80 percent of people worldwide already using mobiles to search the internet. Which means it’s time for you to start creating mobile-friendly content for your school. But, what does that mean, exactly?

Well, it could take a few forms:


This is a big undertaking and shouldn’t be attempted if you’re not truly committed, but creating an app where students can interact with you — from campus maps to bus timetables and admissions information — can be a powerful tool.

Responsive Websites

Turn all of your touch points — the places your students come into contact with you online — into mobile-friendly, responsive pages.

For example, Harvard has made all of its websites, blogs and research articles available for mobile use:

Which means that students can connect with the school from anywhere.

This is especially helpful if you’re running a social media strategy — which you should — so that potential students can always access your content, with no issues.

It’s Time To Connect

By now, you should have a solid idea of how to start connecting with new students. But let’s recap all the essentials you need to know:

  • Your Story: Identifying a story that resonates with potential students — especially the students you want — is key to standing out and not becoming just another school.
  • The Focus Of Your Content: No matter what it is, it should always tick three boxes — value, desire and trust. If it doesn’t, it’s a wasted effort. In addition, you need to answer the big questions standing in the way of admissions and explain what you’re doing to make it easier for students.
  • Create Connections: Your new students are social and mobile, so make sure your content fits their needs. Always make it accessible and easy to use, and put it in a place where they’ll see it.

All that’s left to do now is answer one question:

What’s your story going to be?

Let me know in the comments!


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

(Some images used under license from


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