Higher education marketing seems to be plagued by a bad habit: an over reliance on shrill and overly-promotional content that comes across more like sales copy than an introduction to an institution of higher learning. You know what I’m referring to. Brochures that tout “multifaceted” educations and “holistic learning,” along with claims of having an amazing campus! The best professors! Unbelievable dorm rooms! Kids from 175 countries!

The Graduates (Sakeeb Sabakka) / CC BY 2.0
The problem with relying on marketing material of this nature is that it can actually harm your brand and put off your audience. Consider this advice taken from a 2013 study by the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council:

“…buyers and influencers are turned off by self-serving, irrelevant, over-hyped and overly technical content …when I’m trying to understand something, I want to engage with an expert. I don’t want someone sending me a series of billboards.” Jamie Mendez, Director of Channel Marketing, IBM (source)

In order to stand out to potential students in this day and age, you need to do a lot more than just tellstudents how great you areYou need to show them.  And that means being able to highlight the talents and thought-leadership of your real experts, not just your marketing team.

A Unique Opportunity

Universities are in a unique position to use thought-leadership to help propel their marketing efforts due to the simple fact that they’re chock full of experts. Not fake “social media experts” or “internet marketing ninjas,” but real experts, with things like Ph.Ds., MBAs, and Law Degrees. With so much intellectual capital at your disposal, why wouldn’t you want to tap into that resource?

Using faculty, leadership and other experts is an excellent way to not only differentiate your university, but also create content that resonates with your target audience. In order to take advantage of this opportunity, however, you’ll need to:

  • Get buy-in from leadership and your experts
  • Implement the right tools and processes
  • Create content that speaks to your target audience

Getting Buy-In

Convincing over-worked professors and administrators to write for you isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Right away you’re probably going to have to deal with misconceptions about the effort required to contribute and the tangible benefits content marketing will have to both the expert’s personal brand and the institution in general.

Creative Commons photo by Sage Ross
So how to do you convince both internal leadership and your subject matter experts that the process is worth the hassle?

Simple. Explain the benefits.


Having professors published in peer-reviewed research papers may get you acclaim in academic circles, but it won’t have much of an effect on your real-audience: prospective students and their parents. To get their attention, focus on creating compelling content from experts that speaks to this segment’s concerns and considerations in a language that they can understand.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Whether you like it or not, a lot of the research that goes into choosing a University happens through search engines. If your goal is to start ranking for more than just branded keywords, you’re going to need to spend some time generating content to target those coveted non-branded college search keywords (e.g. “best colleges for business majors”)  . With a little keyword research, some high-quality content creation, and the implementation of Google authorship markup, you can start getting traffic from people who’ve never even heard of your school.


Increasing the visibility of your subject-matter experts can help improve both their personal brand and the brand of your organization as a whole. When potential students (and even industry peers) see real thought-leadership coming out of your institution, their perception of you will improve. By highlighting the expertise of your staff and promoting it through your various content distribution channels, you give experts a powerful reason to contribute.


Your marketing department can write flowery copy for days about how rigorous your academics are and how you have world-class professors, but it won’t have the same impact that actual thought-leadership from actual experts can have. Savvy audiences can tell the difference between marketing fluff and real substance. Again: don’t just sell, show!

Tools and Processes

Another challenge you’re going to run into is the need for a robust publishing infrastructure. In order to support contributions from multiple authors, you’re going to need to invest some time into setting up the tools and defining the practices that will allow you to manage the editorial process efficiently.

train tracks

Railway Yards at Stourbridge junction (Rob Newman) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Here are a few of the basics that you’ll need to get sorted out before you started diving into content production:


All content marketing efforts need to be informed by a well thought-out content strategy. This includes a detailed understanding of your target audience (personas); a well-developed messaging strategy that highlights your key selling points and addresses any audience misconceptions; identification of key performance indicators and success benchmarks; keyword research; and a clear understanding of your current content assets and how they support your overall goals.

Style Guide

Every content creator is going to have their own unique style, perspective and idiosyncrasies, and that’s fine. But in order to maintain consistency and adherence to the overarching strategy, it helps to have some sort of documentation to provide content creators with. This usually comes in the form of a style guide, which can include everything from basic parameters like word count requirements, content format options, and rules regarding including multimedia to more fundamental topics like the details of your messaging strategy, tone and voice suggestions and usage guidelines.


Very few acronyms evoke such passionate hatred as a CMS (Content Management System). Unfortunately though, in order to maintain an effective, consistent publishing schedule, you’ll need to use one. In a perfect world, your CMS must allow for multiple roles (writer, editor, admin, etc.), be user-friendly enough for a non-technical person to use, be flexible enough to accommodate multiple content types and formats, and support your organization’s specific content workflow requirements.


While you may have buy-in from senior leadership, you still need to educate your experts on not only why they should help with your content marketing efforts, but how they can do it as effectively and painlessly as possible. Before jumping into content creation mode, you’ll want to hold a workshop or two for potential creators in which you review the style guide, messaging strategy and show them how to use any tools that they’ll be using.


If you can’t track the impact that your content marketing efforts are having on your key metrics, then you have no way of knowing what’s working and what isn’t. While setting up Google Analytics to track incoming traffic and keywords is a good first step, if you really want to collect actionable data make sure to set up goal tracking and advanced segments in order learn more about the type of traffic you’re generating and the actions they’re taking (or not taking) once they get to your site.

Editorial Calendar

Creating a comprehensive editorial calendar is an absolute must. If you don’t have a way of tracking the topics that you want to cover and who is responsible for covering them, you’re going to be dealing with missed deadlines, unmet expectations and extra work all around. The other benefit of an editorial calendar is that it allows you to plan out your seasonal content based on the needs of your audience throughout the lifecycle of the college admissions process.

Generating Content Ideas

Once you get buy-in and lay the groundwork for an editorial strategy you can start dedicating time to brainstorming content.

content brainstorming session
Creative Commons by Kevin Dooley
With that in mind we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least help you consider some ideas to get the conversation started:

  • Tap into (or challenge) the zeitgeist: There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the value of higher education and certain disciplines in specific. If I were an English professor, I might write about my reaction to this New York Times editorial on the Decline and Fall of the English Major, while adding value by discussing my department’s approach to a humanities education.
  • Summarize the latest research: If there’s a new study or research paper released that challenges conventional wisdom or offers new insights into a particular field of study, write a summary that explains those findings in a way that the average person would understand, and why they should care.
  • Talk about jobs: There’s a lot of anxiety and worry out there today from students and their parents about being able to find a job out of college. A series of posts about the Top [x] jobs for [type of major] and How to Prepare for Them would be a great opportunity for professors to explain the real-world benefits of their chosen disciplines.
  • Describe what classes are actually like: Potential students want to know what college classes are going to be like, so why not have professors describe them? Whether it’s a recap of a particularly interesting class discussion, the details of a student research project or their rules for managing respectful debate, this type of insight can help students actually picture themselves in the classroom.
  • The admissions process: Professors aren’t the only experts in your organization. Try to get admissions officials to write about the process, what they’re looking for in potential students, and how to stand out from the rest of the pack.

Of course, don’t just come up with ideas on your own and assign them out. Having brainstorming sessions with your content creators so that they can put forth ideas as well will help them feel like they’re a part of the process and get them more invested in producing great content.

Think you can just do everything I’ve mentioned and then set it and forget it? Well…forget that. It’s inevitable that there’s going to be growing pains along the way as you try to scale your content efforts. In addition to keeping the content generation process going, the goal is to always be looking at the data to improve your strategy and tactics, while also talking to your creators to find ways of improving processes and increasing efficiency.

If you’re able to do that, then with a little luck and a lot of effort, you’re going to start seeing why taking advantage of your real experts beats relying on promotional marketing fluff every day.