This article is the first in a three-part series looking at the ways you can step up your digital game to meet the many challenges facing higher education – from Brexit to the increasing commercialisation of the HE sector. Over the course of the next three months, I’ll show you strategies, technologies, and techniques that will bolster your digital presence so you're prepared for whatever the future throws at you.
Having a well-designed website isn't simply a nice thing to have anymore – it's an absolute necessity for any institution looking to compete in today's crowded international market. Your website offers students around the world the chance to get a feel for the character of your institution before they visit in person.
We are now always connected to a wealth of information through the devices we carry in our bags, in our pockets, or on our wrists. We are increasingly using these devices to research, do, or buy something in the spur of the moment. You need to be in front of potential applicants wherever and whenever they are online. And to really stand out, you need to deliver them highly-relevant and eye-catching experiences on their very first visit. You simply can't afford to waste a first impression with irrelevant content.
This isn’t easy. Like most organisations, universities have a variety of different users and a range of organisational priorities. Unfortunately, there is only a limited amount of space on any homepage. I meet many university staff who struggle to prioritise the messages that take centre stage. This is often due to pressure from stakeholders. It can be hard to manage competing requests from the admissions department, the alumni department, and whichever faculty has made a major research breakthrough that week.
So, what’s the answer?
Creating a content strategy
Juggling the needs of your users and your organisation isn’t easy. Ultimately, both have to meet. The best way to do this is by creating a content strategy that sets out how your organisation will use content – written or otherwise – to meet both user needs and business objectives. An effective content strategy can:
- Increase the return you get on the investment you make in content
- Identify the correct channels to use to meet your goals
- Improve the effectiveness of your campaigns
- Manage stakeholder demands to publish content
- Increase the lifespan of your website
Different universities approach content strategy in a variety of ways. Some institutions – particularly in the United States – employ full-time content strategists within their departments. In the UK many universities are just beginning to recognise the importance of content strategy. It’s more common to hire a strategist to produce a content strategy and provide tools such as content templates and style guides.
Whatever approach you take, your content strategy should provide a blueprint that defines what you do with the content you have today, identify gaps you need to fill, and help prioritise the content you create.
Setting out what your content strategy should cover
Here are some key questions you should aim to answer.
Why are you publishing content?
Any content strategy begins with identifying your business’s objectives – what you need to get done. Without knowing what you want to do, it’s almost impossible to create a plan to bring about change. Identify the major drivers at your organisation – both in the long term and the short term.
Different universities will have different priorities. If your objective is to recruit more students, your focus will probably be on increasing the number of applications you receive. You might decide to concentrate on communicating your league table results, the employability of your students, or another aspect of your institution that you know students find appealing.
Brunel University London’s homepage highlights the opportunity to study in the heart of one of the world’s greatest capital cities.
On the other hand, if you are a world-renowned university, in the top ten or twenty in the world, you probably don’t have any problems recruiting students. Instead your focus might be on ensuring you recruit the very best students ahead of other universities. In this case your strategy could revolve around highlighting the word-leading quality of your research and facilities.
Statistics on CalTech’s homepage highlight the university’s reputation for producing some of the world’s most renowned academics.
Once you’ve identified these high-level objectives, you can create meaningful metrics to act upon. If you’re trying to increase total applications, for example, the number of visits to your open-day landing page is a meaningless metric. A far more useful metric would be the number of people who actually attended an open day.
Of course, if over time you identify a significant discrepancy between vanity metrics, such as visits, and meaningful metrics, such as conversions, finding the cause can help you identify aspects of your content that could be improved.
Who are you publishing content for?
Who are you targeting with this content? Is it potential students or people within your organisation such as existing students or staff? University websites have many different audiences and purposes. As well as engaging prospective students during the student recruitment cycle, the website must also support current students and staff, engage with alumni, and promote research to ensure future funding.
This large welcome message for new students on The University of Warwick’s homepage might be welcoming to next year’s intake, but it won’t engage year 12 students researching universities over the summer break.
I see many university websites with calls-to-action that are too specific or not specific enough. While drawing attention to your medical school open day is okay if you know most of your potential students are interested in becoming doctors, it is far too specific if only a small proportion of your intake study medicine. My colleague Gabriel has written a fantastic guide to the things that potential students really care about. How many of those are highlighted on your homepage or in your information architecture?
What are your users trying to do?
While all content should support your high-level goals, each individual piece of content should also have a specific purpose. Students looking to attend university now have grown up with the internet, have had access to a lot of information from an early age, and will arrive at your website well informed and expecting your site to be easy to use. They will arrive looking to complete a task – whether that’s to look for entry requirements for a specific course, sign up for an open day, or find information on accommodation. Your website should be designed to make completing these tasks as easy as possible.
This call-to-action encouraging visitors to sign up for Imperial College London’s email newsletter dominates their website – but how many visitors are coming to the website to sign up for a newsletter?
Taking a task-focused approach allows you to set criteria that you can use to judge the effectiveness of a piece of content. By evaluating whether a piece is helping users perform the task it’s intended to facilitate, you can determine whether it’s working or if it needs improvement.
The University of Reading’s homepage is very task-focused – even going as far to highlight information aimed at reassuring students and researchers worried about Brexit.
Tying content to user-tasks can also help you justify refusing to publish or prioritise content that doesn’t meet a user need. After all, does any visitor to your homepage really want to read your VC’s statement on the university’s centenary celebrations? Remember, every piece of content that isn’t serving a purpose is taking up valuable space that could be occupied by more useful content.
Where should you publish content?
Identifying why you are producing content and who you are creating it for can help you decide where to publish it.
Consider whether your website is the right channel to reach the specific segment of your users you are targeting. For instance, is it really worth putting alumni messaging on your website homepage? This would be quite easy to determine by looking at analytics. You might then decide that this audience is more likely to engage with an email newsletter or social media campaign linked to a dedicated landing page.
Thinking carefully about where you publish can not only help you reach the right audience and make your content more effective, it can also free up space for other content that might be better suited to specific channels.
When should you publish content?
Some content is time critical – especially when it’s supporting campaigns.
Take student recruitment. Early in the academic year, your focus will probably be on engaging year-12 students and getting them to sign up for an open day. In the summer you’ll likely be running clearing campaigns.
Cardiff University’s smart homepage design promotes their clearing campaign whilst also making space for a course search and advertising upcoming open days.
Your strategy needs to take account of this and allow appropriate space for these campaigns. Creating a calendar of content that you want to promote across different channels throughout the year can help you to organise your campaigns and give you plenty of lead time when you need to make design changes or do significant development work to your website.
How do we plan to manage content once it's published?
Governance is an important but often overlooked part of content strategy. All content has a shelf life – at some point it will need to be written, replaced, or removed. Even the most evergreen content needs updating from time to time.
Your content strategy should deal with which department or member of staff owns each piece of content and who’s responsible for keeping it up to date. Left unchecked a website will grow out of control – especially as staff leave or change departments and the content they looked after is forgotten about. Who looks after that microsite you created for that research project three years ago?
A comprehensive content audit can help you identify what content you currently have on your website and what you should do with it.
Making your content strategy work
If your content strategy is to be effective, it’s essential that everybody involved gets on board with it. Start the process by communicating what you’re going to do. Call a meeting where you explain the importance of getting your content into shape and explain how it will help the university. Alternatively, send an email around explaining what you’re doing and asking people what they think could be improved about your institution’s current workflow.
It’s important that people don’t feel that they are having something imposed on them but instead that you are putting a strategy in place that will help them with their job. Make key stakeholders feel involved by running workshops with them. Finally, when your strategy is solid, put it into writing, get agreement from leadership, and set it free among your colleagues.
There’s no better time than now to get started. The universities that succeed digitally over the coming years will be those that have their content aligned with their organisational goals. After all, can you really afford to lose ground to your competition?