December 7

How-To’s Of Effective Content Marketing


Higher ed marketers are increasingly relying on social media to make their pitch to prospective students. 

Brian Piper To help us better understand how to successfully implement content marketing strategies on these platforms, we invited Brian Piper, the Director of Content Strategy and Assessment at the University of Rochester, to share his experience with us on our podcast.

He is also a popular convention speaker, and the coauthor of two fantastic books, Epic Content Marketing, and The Most Amazing Marketing Book Ever.

Brian first emphasizes that there is a difference between “content marketing” and mere “social media marketing.” Social media marketing focuses on the channel (X, TikTok, etc.), and then creates content for that channel. In other words, it chases metrics. Content marketing, on the other hand, is much more intentional. It first identifies the story that it wants to tell, and then it tailors its message to its chosen channels in a way that best tells that story.

Set Your Goals

Brian explains the first step to successful content marketing:

The first thing you need to always do is understand what your strategic goals are and what priorities those align in. You have to know your institutional goals, your department goals, your school goals, and which ones are the highest priority for you… [I]f you’re creating content that’s not directly tied to a specific goal, or not focused on a specific, very particular user, you’re kind of just throwing it out there. You’re hoping that something is gonna have an impact, that something’s gonna work.

It’s very difficult to measure if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish with each piece of content, with everything that you put out there. Data without strategy is just numbers.

Without knowing our marketing goals, we won’t really know what metrics to look at. Are we simply trying to promote brand awareness? Are we trying to boost a specific program at our school? Or attract a particular population group? Once those sorts of questions are answered, then our metrics can give us real insight into how we are succeeding in achieving those specific goals.

“‘Everybody’ is Not an Audience”

Brian’s experience at the University of Rochester reveals a typical shortcoming of many higher ed marketing strategies:

University of Rochester is a private R1 research university. We have a music school, a business school, [and an] education school. We have a medical facility. So we have all sorts of different audiences, different students, different users.

When I first started at the institution, our content officers would come to our editorial council, and they would [say], ‘Here’s a story idea we have.’ We would be, like, ‘Yes, this is great content. We need to put this story out in the world. Who is the audience for this content?’ And they would say, ‘Everybody. Everybody is the audience. Everybody needs to read this.’ And we would say, ‘“Everybody” is not an audience.’ 

You have to pick one very specific audience. Is this a piece of content that’s gonna target a potential undergraduate chemistry research student? You have to really think on that very specific level.

In his book, Epic Content Marketing, Brian writes about how creating audience personas has changed over the last 10 years.

The key of a persona is to find out what factors go into their decision making. What problems are they facing? What pros and cons weigh in the most? 

Surveys and questionnaires can help, but the best way to find these things out is through real conversations with real people:

But the key is really to have those conversations to personalize the users that you are talking to, so that you can really make sure that that content is hitting home with them, that you’re addressing their specific problems, that you’re answering the questions that they have in a way that isn’t trying to sell them something or push them something. 

You’re looking for an opportunity to build that trust, to create that relationship, so that they see you as a reliable, trusted source that they can come back to, whether or not they decide to enroll with you.

Intentional Deployment

Identifying and understanding your target audience is the key, then, to knowing where and how to reach them. What channels are they on? What formats do they respond to? Audio? Video? What level of language and depth of information is necessary at this stage of contact with them?

One specific idea that Brian suggests is to let actual members of the target audience create their own content, which the college or university can then promote. This greatly helps with the sense of authenticity: They know the language, the thinking processes, and those things that are attractive to their peers.

The goal, of course, is to move the audience towards action:

[Y]ou also want to incorporate those calls to action where you’re trying to lead that user down into your conversion funnel. So, are they clicking on a button that’s gonna take them into the academic section, so they can look at the programs you offer? Or are they more interested in looking at, you know, who the faculty is and what their credentials are, so they can determine whether or not that’s the right program for them? 

And, ideally, you want to be able to track all the way down through a request for information, or booking a campus tour, or even enrolling. I mean, that’s the ideal, right? Funnel from start to finish, if you can track…a social media hit to a visit to your website, to an eventual enrollment. That’s the gold right there.

Using AI Tools Effectively

Our conversation concluded with a discussion of artificial intelligence. What is it? How can it be used? What is its future?

As a self-proclaimed “AI Enthusiast,” Brian wants to relieve the fears that many have toward this emerging technology. “People have fear about things that they don’t understand,” he says.

[AI is] really good at looking at large amounts of data and summarizing it. It can take very complex research papers and dilute them down to very consumable, understandable summaries… [I]n general we’re looking to use AI to reduce a lot of the monotonous, repetitive work that we do. So anything that can be automated, you need to start looking at your processes to figure out what you can take off your plate and let AI do – because there are a lot of things that it just does better than us.

Doesn’t this mean that our jobs may be at risk?  Brian says, “Not really.”:

People are very concerned about losing their jobs to AI. But [you could] lose your jobs to someone who knows how to use AI. You’re not gonna lose your job to AI. You’re gonna have to figure out how to pivot away from skills that are easily replaced, easily automated. And you’re gonna have to figure out how to lean into these new technologies. 

We saw it happen with the internet, with mobile, …and it is just another step in the process.  It’s another tool to use. You just have to start thinking about how you can best use it and how it can help you do your job better.

Brian says that the best way to deal with AI is to actually use it.  Experiment with it.  Learn how other people and groups use it to their advantage.  Learn how to use it to your advantage.  

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Brian Piper to get even more insights into:

  • Where your content can make the greatest impact [10:24]
  • How to identify which metrics truly matter for your objectives [13:38]
  • Where customer personas and audience comes into play [18:04]
  • The importance of adapting to AI and a rapidly changing landscape [25:57]

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