In a previous article, I asked why higher ed websites don’t act more like media companies.
Now, I’m going to share a rough framework my team has tested and that seems to show promise. With this framework, we’ve been able to create successful articles, videos, and other web content that help raise our school’s brand image. This frame makes content:
- Easier and faster to produce
- Less expensive
- Higher quality
- Similar to what audiences are accustomed to reading on mainstream media sites (like Vox)
Here’s an example of this framework in action:
Though these aren’t going to win Pulitzers, they’re strong enough to provide a proof of concept.
Establishing this media company framework is relatively inexpensive, especially for higher ed organizations. Student labor is a great value, especially if your university has a pool of journalism majors you can train to create certain types of content.
Here’s how this media company model worked for my team.
Find the right people
Budget is a major hurdle when it comes to recruiting great talent. When we lost our developer, we were unable to replace him with a full-time employee because we simply couldn’t offer a competitive salary for Silicon Valley.
Fortunately, education often attracts individuals who are focused on mission, not maximizing compensation. (That’s the case with me, at least. I’d rather work on something I care about than pursue a higher paycheck for the sake of a higher paycheck.)
If possible, find staff who can provide full-stack skills. This means people who hold skills outside their specific job title. For example, I’m a digital content strategist, but I also do WordPress web development, graphic design, marketing strategy, and copywriting. Our graphic designer can code, making her an invaluable asset. And when we had our developer, he was able to do front end and back end development while providing user experience (UX) guidance.
By finding people like this, you’re acting more like a startup than a traditional enterprise. The attitude is more, “I’ll learn how to do that,” rather than, “That’s not really my job.”
You have to embrace reasonable limits, of course, but the attitude of being willing to grow skillsets is important.
Finally, team members have to love accountability. It’s through accountability that we’re able to accomplish great work and improve. Without measuring success, we simply can’t know how to do better next time. It’s tempting in the slow-moving higher ed culture to “hide.” No one will know if you don’t do your job most of the time. So by finding workers who see the power of accountability, you’ll maintain your ability to execute quickly.
You’ll need the following skillsets for this framework to function:
- Video production
- Web development (definitely front end, and possibly back end depending on what kind of content your product)
- Content strategy
- Graphic design
- Social media
These roles may overlap across employees. For example, one employee might have writing, marketing, and interviewing/researching skills. Another may have video production and web development skills. As long as each of these skillsets is represented in your team somehow, you’ll be fine.
Get your technological house in order
If your website isn’t optimized to leverage content, you’re gonna have a bad time. I highly recommend hosting your content (or your entire site) on a robust CMS like WordPress. Other CMS solutions (coughT4cough) might look okay but are a nightmare to use on the backend.
Read my articles about why investing in a content-first website paid off in the long run:
- Planning A Content-Driven Redesign For Higher Ed Websites
- Why Developing A UX-Driven Content Framework Saved Our Higher Ed Site
Recently, I oversaw a migration from an on-premise server to a cloud-based server for our higher ed website. The process was much simpler than we feared; in fact, the most difficult aspect was updating the theme to match the main university’s branding. We anticipate having an established company host our site for us will save us significant money and time.
(Just to give you an idea, managed WordPress hosting for a site of our size and traffic volume costs only about $120 per month – that’s far, far lower than maintaining it on premise. Not only does it save us money, it also frees our overworked IT staff to catch up on other projects.)
Develop a workflow to quickly leverage subject matter expertise
With all the roles filled, you’re ready to begin producing content like a media company.
Your process will vary from one type of content to another. Generally, here’s a workflow I’ve found to be successful:
- Identify a topic that would contribute to your goals (such as establishing expertise on a subject)
- Research talking points and develop good interview questions
- Interview 2-3 subject matter experts
- Write a draft of the article
- Send the draft for review to the subject matter experts so they can point out any critical errors
- Add graphics or content design elements
- Publish and share
In theory, this workflow takes about two days. It might even go faster once you’ve determined what works for your organization. Or it might go slower as you wait on reviews or subject matter expert availability.
(And as a side note, this kind of work is where my master’s in American Studies comes in handy. Being able to perform in-depth research across multiple digital communities allows me to do most of the heavy lifting on article production. This reduces the time needed with subject matter experts to a few short interviews per piece.
Develop an editorial calendar for more in-depth takes
While the workflow I just described works well for “hot takes,” or articles where experts comment on current events. Those are fine and are highly shareable. But those have a short shelf life. You need to address the need of long-term brand authority growth. Over time, the communities you serve should see your site as a go-to source for information about a particular subject.
In content marketing, we refer to this kind of highly researched, in-depth content as “pillar content.” These pieces are so good, they form the pillars of your brand media.
Creating pillar content takes much more time than current event pieces – months, sometimes. By establishing an editorial calendar, you plan for this content well in advance. You can coordinate publication schedules with other university organizations, leveraging each other’s audiences for greater reach. You can also strategically launch pillar content around major campaigns, such as giving campaigns or admission cycles.
These articles clearly aren’t hot takes; they’re carefully considered topics of long-term value. To write them requires traditional journalistic skills. But the framework is essentially the same as current events pieces. Your team acts as an in-house media company to leverage your school’s expertise. By taking most of the work out of the hands of experts and putting in on your team, you can share some really great content with minimal time commitments for experts.
For one of my favorite examples of this, see Algorithms for Innovation. It’s an annual report asking (and exploring) big questions around the department’s scholarship. Their cross media approach adapts the content for any reading scenario, from a printed magazine to a smartphone.
Coordinate with magazine writers
Your school probably has some sort of magazine. With an editorial calendar in place, you can coordinate your efforts and make both outlets (your site and the magazine) more effective.
Not only does this help you plan ideas for your editorial calendar, it helps your school’s audience get a more coordinated story from your brand.
Finally, have a marketing director who can go to bat for you when needed.
This approach is innovative, fast, and adaptable. In some cases, you’re going to run into people in your school who think you’re moving too fast. Or you’ll find some faculty who don’t like that you publish articles without a dozen rounds of peer review (like an academic journal). Or you’ll run into people who don’t like that you’re using a measurable way to observe progress, putting their own laziness at risk.
That’s all okay. Higher ed is entering the battle for its life,and it needs to be more aggressive than ever in embracing innovation. Stagnation is death. With a simple framework like this, that only requires minimal resources to implement, what have you got to lose?