Georgy Cohen • 10 minutes
One of the greatest things about working in higher education is that you are surrounded by great stories everyday. Though sometimes, it may feel like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean—water, water, everywhere but not a drop to drink.
That’s because while higher ed has stories in great supply, it is often tricky to create conduits between where those stories live (usually academic departments) and the individuals best equipped to tell them (usually a central marketing communications team).
Even once you have a sense of the stories to tell, are you conveying them in the most appropriate formats, and then marshaling them to effective purpose? How can you tell which are working well for you, and which are falling flat?
As you begin thinking about implementing storytelling ops, it’s important to reframe how you define “story”—a story is not an 800-word article, a video, or an infographic; it’s a unit of narrative, representing an event, experience, or outcome that helps reinforce and exemplify your value proposition.
A lot has been said about the value of narrative for engaging deeply with your audience and the ability to enhance the user journey by weaving a cohesive narrative throughout. We get it: storytelling should be a core part of our marketing mix. As Cornell University’s Ashley Budd sums it up, “Leaving stories untold is the sales equivalent of leaving money on the table.”
You can present a single story across a range of formats, over an extended period of time: a tweet today, a video next week, a longform feature story in a month. It may standalone or presented with other stories sharing a similar theme (e.g. a roundup of women’s health research efforts underway across the institution).
But stories alone aren’t enough. By rethinking how your organisation is structured to support “storytelling ops” from a process and culture perspective, you can set yourself up for greater success.
Colleges and universities are decentralised organisations. You’ve got departments, schools, college, and various other units, and stories live within each one—alumni doing exceptional things, students having transformative experiences, and faculty pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Given that these individuals may have primary affinity to a department or someone within the department, the department may end up as a story repository, spread across a range of inboxes, piles, or files.
Typically, though, these outlying units have the least sophisticated communications operations. They may not have a dedicated communications professional, and the individual(s) assigned communications tasks may not have dedicated time in their job description to perform those tasks consistently or to institutional brand or quality standards. And it can be hard for a central marketing team to wrap its arms around this decentralised array of stories and communications efforts.
As a foundational move, an ongoing conversation between these outlying units and the central marketing office would be mutually beneficial in two significant ways: one, institutional standards and guidelines can be communicated down (if not enforced), and two, select stories can be elevated for consideration and pursuit by the institutional marketing team.
This sounds simple, but can be very complex depending on how exactly these organisations are structured, and how these relationships have been managed historically. But taking the first step to reach out to establish ongoing contact and awareness, to listen and be heard, is critical. And face-time is crucial to help build trust and awareness.
Sustaining that conversation can help cultivate process and accountability for information sharing over time. Perhaps there could be regular meetings with unit stakeholders to evaluate possible stories, a ”beat reporter” from the central marketing team assigned to keep up with the unit, or a “parking lot” to which those unit stakeholders can submit story ideas for consideration.
The best information sharing solution will depend on organisational structure and culture, but finding a sustainable, effective conduit for story ideas, buffeted by strong relationships, can create a robust story pipeline over time.
Not everyone can be a writer or a videographer, but you can still train people to be effective storytellers by helping them understand what makes a good story (and what doesn’t) and the various ways in which a story can be told.
Before we barrel down a well-intentioned path, we must acknowledge a few realities. One is that, as previously acknowledged, these individuals likely may not be full-time communicators, and their available time for content development may be limited. Also, the available documentation and guidelines that could support independent storytelling efforts may be lacking. So it’s important to set realistic expectations and provide ample guidance.
First, let’s talk about guidelines. There are lots of interesting events, individuals, and pieces of data to be found, but what really makes a good story? Getting people to think about stories beyond the initial element of human interest and consider their relevance to the broader content strategy for the institution is key. There is a wide range of considerations:
You’ll also want to educate people on what information is necessary to shape a good story. It could be the specific details of a new book or paper, understanding the degree of prestige for a particular accolade, or confirming all the parties involved in an award-winning research grant and their respective roles.
From there, it’s time to think about format and approach. Again, liberate yourself from the 600-word news article! What is the best way to tell this story? Visually? Written? Crowdsourced? Short-form or long-form? A story about a student’s transformative experience studying abroad might best be captured in a first-person narrative (either a video slideshow with voice-over or a personal essay), while a story about a campus legend may best be told through crowdsourced comments and/or photos.
People across the institution may not understand the various options, why you might choose one versus the other, and the resources or effort required to execute them. Help people understand what’s possible and appropriate, as well as what is sustainable. Show examples, estimate effort, and even indicate which friendly marketing staff member might be responsible for bringing that story to life. (Everyone say hi to Jenny, the videographer!)
Storytelling is a cultural function. Much as our ancestors actively cultivated an oral history tradition, we have to intentionally create an organisational culture that cultivates purposeful storytelling. Despite the plethora of great stories all around us, we cannot activate them to great purpose without creating a process for evaluating and assessing their value for our marketing objectives.
Culture is, in effect, a series of activities that become consistent habit, and over time become essential. So consistent application of sustainable process is critical. Two key considerations:
But while all of this sounds good on paper, the key is to ensure that these activities become cultural functions. That means their ownership must be clearly defined, intentionally managed, and consistently facilitated. This most directly influences decision-making—ultimately, who is making the call about what is a good story and what isn’t, and how best to execute it? While the group should influence the process and work collaboratively to bring a story to life, there needs to be an owner tasked with making the calls—and being accountable for the outcomes.
The tricky thing when you’re dealing with humans is that they have feelings, and feelings can get big and derail a defined process pretty quickly. That’s why ownership is important, but it’s also worth outsourcing some of the decision-making process from people’s heads into an agreed-upon framework.
A content scoring matrix can help assigning value to a story idea based on its alignment with defined criteria, like key messages, audience priority, or institutional priorities—and hopefully set individual agendas or egos to the side. Here are a couple examples of matrices where you can plot story ideas against defined criteria:
A story in a silo, no matter how brand-aligned or well-told, is a wasted opportunity. If no one discovers and consumes your story content, it is not doing its job for you.
This is where it is important to think about the customer journey, the path that your target audience is taking through your site to answer their questions and complete key tasks. Think of stories as relevant context lain along that path, reinforcing the value of that journey. After all, all stories must be purposeful. What goal does a particular story serve? The answer to this question should motivate how you utilise it, because a good story can be a bridge between a user’s motivations and the achievement of your goals
Consider, for instance, a prospective student and her parents trying to figure out if they can afford a university. A clear pathway to cost details or aid options can be bolstered with relevant narratives about a scholarship recipient who had a transformative experience, or even statistics reflecting the amount or types of aid distributed each year.
As you design and build your website, think about the placement and presentation of stories along the user journey. And as you plan content, consider which stories will be the most effective along certain points of the journey. A thoughtful taxonomy can help you pinpoint your efforts.
In addition to reinforcing the customer journey with relevant stories, thinking about how you are pushing your stories out into the world, getting them in front of your audiences to motivate understanding and action.
Stories may live on your website, but they can truly flourish as you thoughtfully push them out into the world via select communications platforms.
So here’s what we know so far. We know there are a lot of stories out there, and we need to build better pathways to find them. Then we need to create helpful criteria to determine which stories are the most relevant ones worth telling, and how best to convey them. From there, we need to find a way to get them in front of key audiences through marketing, website taxonomy, or otherwise.
But, then what? If we haven’t set ourselves up to measure the outcomes of our efforts, it will have all been for naught. And to go back to an earlier point, you can’t effectively plan content without measuring the outcomes of your previous efforts.
Equipping your stories with goals is the first step. Next is using those goals to guide how you promote and distribute story content. This sets you up to collect a host of data about the effectiveness of your story content—essentially, it’s the life story of your content as it makes its way around the world (of your audience).
Encoded in this data is feedback about the efficacy of your content planning efforts way back when—in which contexts and for which audiences a story truly resonated, and how effectively it compelled people to take the next step (completing a conversion or taking a chosen next step).
The most important thing to remember as you consider this data is that volume does not equate value. The best audience is the right audience, not the biggest one. And the value of your content traffic and engagement can in part be characterised by how well it motivated people to take a desired next step.
So as you engage in content planning, the data should be by your side, informing and guiding (though not necessarily dictating) your decision-making. Ideally, data is making its way back through those conduits down to the outlying units that are feeding you stories, helping them realise the return on that relationship. Story analytics, in addition to shaping your own reporting up to leadership about marketing outcomes, can and should inform their own reporting on outcomes to deans or other unit stakeholders. In short, never miss an opportunity to reinforce the value of an effective marketing effort to the academic mission of an institution.
There’s no way around it. Changing how your institution talks about itself means fundamentally revisiting communications roles, process, and priorities. And that can be hard. In some cases, legacy approaches to storytelling and communications have been intractably in place for years.
With that in mind, it’s important to pursue progress over perfection. Find one champion with whom you can work to elevate stories out of obscurity, tell them well, and apply them to great purpose. If your first editorial meeting approach doesn’t work, don’t abandon the effort—iterate. Even a failed marketing effort will yield data that will help you improve next time around.
If you have buy-in from leadership around the idea of “failing forward” and innovating the organisation as well as the product, that’s huge—and every purposeful story will be a proof point showing the value of making the shift.