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June 19

How to Create a Story Pipeline for Higher Education Marketing

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You already know stories are one of your most powerful tools as a higher-ed marketer.

You probably also know, from first-hand experience, that collecting the stories you would love to have for your marketing efforts is a challenge. 

You are confident there are a multitude of inspiring faculty, alumni, and current student stories just waiting to be told, but you seem to keep pulling snippets from the same small set you have on hand.

Would you rather have a full pipeline of vibrant stories you can draw from to enliven your marketing channels with fresh, authentic, and engaging content? Keep reading for a three-part strategy to get there.

Which Stories? Targeting your Collection Efforts.

Before describing the steps you can take to have a steady supply of stories, it’s important to give some thought to the kinds of stories you want to collect. This will guide you toward the right people and also help you formulate the questions you should ask that result in effective content.

The most strategic stories, from a marketing perspective, will fall into one of four categories:

Overcoming obstacles 

When potential students are thinking about your institution, they will have standard objections, which you are probably familiar with. Paying careful attention to your audience and being sensitive to their needs and concerns is central to empathetic storytelling, which results in material with high relevance — and thus, high engagement.

An obvious and universal example is, Can I afford this? Others might be particular to your institution, like, Is there anything to do in such a small town?

Appealing to facts and figures is an important part of answering these objections. Telling stories, however, is even more compelling, and can be a key part of your content marketing. If students investigating your school can hear how their peers were able to afford their studies or why they love living in a small community, this can play an important role in removing obstacles in the way of applying. 

Illustrating the “feel”

A core question for potential students is, Will I fit at this school? They want to uncover the feel, culture, and ethos of your institution. 

This is an area where stories work much better than anything else. You can say your campus has a close community feel, but a student testimony about experiencing that is much more credible.

Demonstrating value

Another place stories shine is in illustrating the outcomes alumni are experiencing because of their time at your college or university. 

Again, numbers are helpful, such as the percentage of graduates who find jobs within their field. But stories make those numbers concrete and allow students to see themselves experiencing those same outcomes. 

As Chad Wilson, Vice President and Executive Creative Director at Grand Canyon Education put it when we talked on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, ask yourself, 

“Can [prospective students] imagine themselves at the end of that story?”

When the answer is ‘yes,’ that’s when you achieve the greatest impact. 

Reinforcing brand pillars

You likely have a messaging strategy that includes several brand distinctives you try to incorporate in your marketing. Suppose, for example, you talk about your school as a “driver of change.”

Stories are your chance to lend credibility to your brand messaging by showing what it means on the ground. If you’re a driver of change, find stories about how your faculty, students, or alumni have shown leadership in specific ways that demonstrate this. 

Keeping these four kinds of stories in mind along with the specific obstacles you want to engage and brand pillars you hope to illustrate will give direction to your collection efforts. 

Once you know the kinds of stories you want and the questions you should ask to help elicit them, the next question is how to find your sources.

Finding your Stories: 3 Strategies

So how do you keep your pipeline full of great stories to fill the roles described above? Here are three things I advise schools I work with to do.

1. Use LinkedIn

When it comes to collecting alumni stories in particular, LinkedIn is a goldmine. Most people who use LinkedIn list their alma mater as part of their profile and the platform lets you search by using a college or university as a filter.

Use other filters to narrow the alumni of your school to those who might be a good fit for the kind of story you’re looking for. For instance, if you want to tell stories of leadership, filter for the keywords “president,” “CEO,” or “founder.”

Want to feature alumni from your nursing program? Look for the keywords “nurse,” “NP,” or “APN.”

Once you’ve identified potential candidates for a testimonial, reach out using a personalized connect request (or, if you have a paid account, send an InMail). 

If you’d like to see how it works, I walk you through the process in the video below.

2. Tap your faculty

When you work in the marketing department, your connection with students is usually limited. Faculty members, on the other hand, have relationships with current students and alumni that make them aware of powerful stories. These relationships also mean a request to tell their story is more likely to be met with a positive response. 

So ask your faculty. Explain what you need and why and make it easy for them to connect you with students and alumni who might be willing to help. 

3. Create a culture and remove friction

As marketers, it’s your job to explain the importance of stories and help cultivate a culture on campus of watching for the testimonies that can illustrate who you are and demonstrate the impact of what you do.

You should probably look for some compelling stories to help you share this message!

You also need to make it extremely easy for people to share stories or connect you with those who have them to tell.

One way you can do this is to create an email address dedicated to this purpose and monitored by the marketing department. It could be something like stories@yourschool.edu. When someone has a story or a lead, they can simply send it to this address and you can follow up from there.

If you’re intentional and consistent in investing resources in these areas, you will soon have a steady inflow of stories that can make a powerful impact on your marketing efforts.

Collecting and Organizing your Stories

I want to close by touching briefly on one more topic: the systems you need in order to make collecting and using your stories as efficient as possible. 

First, let’s talk about collection. The simplest method here is to have people share their stories in a written form and email them to you, perhaps using the kind of email address I described above.

Collecting video, however, is even better. For one thing, most people find it easier to speak than to write, so giving them a video option makes it more likely they will respond. For another, video is more compelling for the audience and will usually result in higher engagement rates. 

There are many tools out there that can help you collect user-generated video. One very affordable option I’ve used recently is Vocal Video. Another is Memory Fox (that’s my affiliate link, by the way). Both allow you to simply send a link that participants can use to easily record a video. They don’t have to sign up or install anything. 

Second, there’s organization. You want a way to categorize the stories you collect so you can easily find appropriate ones to use later. This becomes especially important as your story bank grows in size. 

This can be as simple as a Google Drive folder your team shares. A more sophisticated option is offered by Memory Fox (mentioned above). It has robust features that let you tag, organize, and manage the stories and testimonials you collect and easily deploy them in your marketing.

Whichever tools you use, the important thing is to get started today in an intentional, strategic process for collecting stories. Your efforts will pay dividends for years to come. 

Feel overwhelmed by the process or need some outside input? Let’s talk


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