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Content Strategy

The fundamentals of a higher education content governance plan

Robert Mills • 19 minutes

In our recent webinar, Andrew Buck, Content Strategist at Mighty Citizen, shared examples and know-how to help higher ed teams get started with the fundamentals of content governance. From the challenges higher ed teams face, to building a content of culture, and creating a content counsel, this webinar was jam-packed with practical advice and this article is an edited transcript of the webinar, or you can watch the recording.

I want to start by painting sort of a picture for you of what we’re up against when we talk about content governance. It’s a topsy turvy, upside down world that we exist in when we talk about governance.

Selling Higher Education

Let’s imagine that you are a sales person and you are being asked by some mysterious figure to sell something. You don’t know what it is you’re selling just yet, but you do know that you face a wide variety of challenges in making this sale. For example, your prospective customer that you’re told to sell to are going to take years to decide whether they’re going to buy from you. It’s not a decision made at the counter, it’s not even a decision made over weeks. It is years of painstaking consideration before they decide whether to buy this mysterious product.

Furthermore, you think that you’re selling to an individual customer but the truth is you’re actually selling to two customers at once. They both have to agree to buy from you for you to make the sale, and these customers often disagree with each other, especially about the product that you’re trying to sell. The features and services that they’re most interested in are often at odds with one another, so you’re really up against it. But it gets worse, because you also have to sell this product offline, through handshakes and face to face meetings, but you also have to sell it online. And not just online, but you have to manage a ton of digital selling points at the same time, all at once, all over your sales ecosystem.

Even worse, every time you collect information about these target customers, those pieces of data are placed into different locations. The data rarely, if ever, is really brought together. So, you have no big picture of you or 360 look at your customers and what they’re doing and what they want. By the way, I might add you and every other salesperson in this dystopian hellscape that we’re describing has to sell this product while also having an additional, often unrelated full-time job. In other words, you’re being asked to sell on top of the 40 hours a week you’re being asked to do something altogether different.

And the people who are assigned to help you sell this product, they almost never meet with each other. They never meet with you, or very rarely. There is very little two way communication going between all the parties involved in this scenario. And here’s the thing, after years of selling to these two customers, together they make the decision whether to buy your product under extreme stress. It is not exactly always a happy time. There is a lot of consternation that is involved. And in the end, the customers’ decision to buy is all or nothing. If they don’t buy from you now, there’s an almost 0% chance that they’ll never buy from you. You get one shot, and that’s what you’re up against.

So in short, your stretched between the rock and the hard place, teetering over the edge. Or maybe the better metaphor, really, is that you’re spinning these plates and if any one of them falls, you may lose the prospective sale. So the question of course is, what is this this mysterious product you’re being asked to sell in these terrible ways under these terrible restrictions? And of course, the more astute of you have already figured out that what you’re selling is a higher education.

The most difficult marketing challenge there is

We at Mighty Citizen find that higher education really is the most different marketing challenge there is. In fact, we haven’t found harder marketing in the world than higher education marketing. That is the bad news.

There is no harder marketing in the world than higher education marketing.

There is good news, however. Convincing a student to apply to a university is as much about how, when, and where you say something as it is about what you say.

In other words, you can boost the number of students who apply to your school and probably more importantly, improve the mix of applicants to your institution by instituting content governance.

I’m going to cover and share:

  • A clear definition of content governance
  • The benefits of governance for your school
  • Content governance challenges faced by most higher ed institutions
  • Components that go into formulating a content governance plan

This is a fundamentals introduction. We’re not going to dive super deep into any one of these elements, but we want to make sure that we have a clear understanding of the landscape as we step boldly into this relatively new world of content governance.

You can boost the number of students who apply to your school and probably more importantly, improve the mix of applicants to your institution by instituting content governance.

The content governance ice-berg

Oftentimes, universities come to us with a website project in mind. We want a brand new website, we want an app built, we want a microsite for a particular program. They arrive at our doorstep thinking that that’s the challenge that we’re going to help them solve, but the truth almost always end up being that underneath their website project is a content governance iceberg that is sort of slowly pulling them down.

Is there a content governance iceberg underneath your website project that’s pulling you down? This article covers the fundamentals of a higher education content governance plan

What we end up doing in addition to the design and branding work that we do digitally is help them get a real handle on their governance policies, procedures, and standards. And once we do that, we often find that things like the website or any sort of related communication channels end up getting fixed. So, it’s almost like a bait and switch. You arrive thinking you’re going to get a website, but you leave with a clear plan for managing both the website and all of the other communications that you put out into the world.

What is content governance?

There is a lot of content that your university puts out. There’s your website, there’s any sort of social media efforts you make. There’s your view book. We sometimes call them look books (or prospectus for our UK readers). Any sort of printed material would fall into that category. There’s a lot that you are putting into the world to try to draw more engagement from prospective students. What we’re mostly focused on here is digital communication, but the principles that underlie a really solid content governance structure apply to offline communications as well.

There is a lot of content that your university puts out, including your view book (or prospectus). There’s a lot that you are putting into the world to try to draw more engagement from prospective students and a solid content governance plan is essential.

This book, Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach. If you don’t know anything about content strategy, if you know just a little bit, if you’re beginning to dip your toe in, or even frankly if you’re an experience pro who’s been doing this for a decade, you should buy this book immediately and read it. It’s not an exceptionally long book, but it is packed with wonderful insights. Kristina Halvorson has really laid out the tactics and strategies that you can use to develop a full content plan for really any organisation.

This is how Halvorson describes content strategy. In fact, she recently came out with a new version of this, but we’re using this slightly older version because we find that it’s a lot easier for clients to understand when they’re first beginning to wrap their arms around content strategy.

There are four components that constitute a content strategy:

  • Substance
  • Structure
  • Workflow
  • Governance

Another way of looking at it is that on the left side, we have the content components, and on the right side we have the people components. So, substance and structure are the words and images you put into the world, and of course the people components are the human resources that are actually making it all happen, and hopefully making it happen harmoniously.

We’re going to focus on the right side of this circle, and that makes it difficult because we’re talking about dealing with people, and we know that wrangling people inside of an organisation, especially one as decentralised as an institution of higher education, can become very challenging and presents a range of dynamic issues that we have to develop policies for to work around or to overcome.

With substance, the kinds of things that might fall into that bucket are degree requirements, the way you describe student life at your university, university events, this list could go on and on and on. It really is the what of your content strategy. What do you have to say to the world?

Differentiation is increasingly important for the university clients that we work with. They bring it up a lot because they feel like there’s a certain leveling out that is happening with higher education marketing. Meaning, one university talks about itself in almost identical ways as another university, even if the universities are structurally or practically quite different. Substance is certainly key to the overall content strategy. But then of course structure plays almost as important a role.

By structure here we mean things like what are the types of content that you’re putting out, especially online? The most common ones are news and events. How are different pieces of content structured and related to each other? What are the channels through which you push this content out into the world? Contact info, application process, all of that needs a particular structure. It’s not just enough to say the thing, you have to make sure that you’re saying the thing in the right order and in the right place.

An example of a workflow might be that updates to degree requirements are set from academics to communications. But of course the workflow is really, how does content move from ideation or concept into habitual publication, maintenance, archiving, etc? It is the particular and concrete steps that content should move through in order to make sure that it is effective, accurate, compelling and engaging.

And then finally we come to our main subject, governance. An example of a statement you might see in a content governance plan is that the web counsel completes and reviews a website audit at the end of each semester. You can see here that if substance is what you say, structure is how you say it. Workflow is how it comes to be, and governance really is all of that. It oversees all of that. It institutes the rules, policies, and procedures that allow all of this to happen. There’s oversight and there’s regular review to make sure that we’re saying the right things in the right ways, to the right people at the right time.

The reason we’re doing all this is that your university’s brand ends up being a combination of two things:

  • The experience that students have
  • The content you put into the world

Nothing beats a great college experience for improving or expanding your university’s brand far and wide. But increasingly, the content you put into the world plays an important role in defining your identity as a school. Who are you? What do you stand for? What don’t you stand for? So, while we certainly need to continue to invest resources in providing a great student experience and academic life, obviously we want to make sure that the content we put into the world is better, more effective, and more consistent.

The content you put into the world plays an important role in defining your identity as a university. Who are you? What do you stand for? What don’t you stand for?

And here’s the real thing. You are now a publisher, whether you like it or not. The advent of the internet really just meant that any organisation that makes or serves anything also now has a new job, which is to publish content. That’s why governance becomes increasingly important, because this is now our second full-time job.

My favourite benefit of instituting content governance mass scale is the ability to better surface content. In marketing we talk about storytelling all the time. But the problem with storytelling in an institution is that we first have to find the stories. How are we going to find the stories that are gonna convince people that we’re the right school for them? Content governance gives us a better, more intentional way to surface content because we now have a plan and a policy that makes surfacing content a priority.

Number two is accuracy. If I go to your university’s website and I’m interested in a degree in history, and I go to your history page and I’m reading the degree requirements and there’s something wrong there, I don’t know that yet. I’ll find out later when I registered for the wrong class or I have to drop and add a class because there was inaccurate info. On websites for universities, which tend to measure into the thousands of web pages, accuracy becomes a bigger challenge and even more important because there are nooks and crannies in our website that if we don’t have a governance plan, we’re going to forget exist. And therefore, stuff is going to grow out of date, become less useful and really do damage to your brand, depending on the size of your inaccuracy. Governance makes sure that we are constantly assessing the accuracy of our website.

Number three is effectiveness. Part of a really good governance plan and actually more specifically, part of a really good website or content audit, is analytics and making sure that what we are putting out is actually working. If you don’t already have an SEO specialist, you want to get one of those. If you don’t have an analytics pro on your staff, I would highly encourage you to go find one because it’s one thing to have a real clear sense of our content, like what do we have currently in the public arena? It’s a whole other thing to say, and what is working? What desired user actions are being taken? How are our visits, and what does our bounce rate look like, and how many pages per session are people spending on our website? You need to work that info into your content governance plan in order for it to be most effective.

Then differentiation. I see it with clients all the time in the higher ed space, which is if they get very serious about governing their content firmly, what they end up doing is refining their message and getting more sophisticated in how they talk about themselves and what they have to offer to students and parents. It’s almost like this beautiful side effect of doing governance. You don’t go into governance the same way you go into a branding exercise. It’s not about refining the message, but it ends up being the result of refining the message. And why is that? It’s because governance is a lot about getting rid of what doesn’t work, keeping what does, and elevating human resources within your institution to make sure that you are telling better stories in a better way.

Finally, a bonus to good governance is tidying up. Once you embark on developing a content governance plan and auditing your current content, you end up tidying it up. Meaning you end up getting rid of a lot of content, combining content, eliminating duplicate content, especially online where those websites can get a little bloated. And for somebody like me who’s probably a little too obsessed with simplicity and tidying up, this is a really lovely effect, developing a content governance and assigning resources to it. You will simply have less to manage once you’re done with this exercise.

University content challenges

There are some things that are unique to you universities that really make marketing higher education challenging, and the first of course is silos. You’ve got academics and you’ve got enrollment, you’ve got the registrar, and you’ve got admissions, and you’ve got student life, and you’ve got health services, and you’ve got athletics.

You’ve got tons of departments, and of course within the departments you have individual programs, within the programs you have individual degree types. Not to mention the sort of ancillary groups, the various partnerships you have, the various projects that you’re university is embarking on, and they all tend to be very siloed. Content governance, if nothing else, is about breaking down those silos. We’re never going to become a fully centralised organisation. There’s just too many people and too many dynamics to get there. But governance at its heart is about establishing real clear and concrete lines of communication and collaboration between the various groups that make your university run, especially at the admin level.

Content governance is about breaking down silos. Governance at its heart is about establishing real clear and concrete lines of communication and collaboration between the various groups that make your university run.

Related to that is a lack of authority. Often we see that the people in various departments, schools, programs, are not given the authority to create content, to become subject matter experts on existing content, to take ownership over their corner of the content ecosystem, and that’s a real challenge. Again, a good governance plan should aim directly at this and try to destroy it. To give authority to the people in your organisation to play a role in your content identity.

And then there’s the question of imitation. That university did this, so we’re going to do this. The byproduct of governance is that it gets you away from this. It keeps you from making decisions based on what other schools are doing, and instead allows you to make decisions based on what is actually working. Does having a Snapchat account for your school actually seem to drive any action? Well, a content governance plan is going to make sure that we ask that question at regular intervals and we have the data to back it up, and therefore we can decide it doesn’t work for us. Or, it does and therefore we’re going to pour more resources into it. So, hopefully imitation will become a thing of the past as we move sort of fully into the world of content.

Here’s the thing we have to accept at the outset. Content is never done. We create content, we maintain it, we evaluate it, we create it, we maintain it, we evaluate it. And all of those actions spin around this notion of governance. We as the governors are going to help figure out how we create, how we maintain, and how we evaluate. The way we’re going to do that is by:

  • Building a culture of content
  • Forming a content counsel
  • Sketching workflows
  • Conducting a content audit

Building a culture of content

Content governance really is a cultural shift. But the truth is, it’s going to take years to implement. Years to really turn an institution, no matter really how progressive or open minded the institution is, into one that is really content focused and governs it really well. And it will be messy at times because there are questions of ownership and accountability and collaboration that will make it difficult, but it is an ongoing process. It never really fully ends. Ideally, content governance culture should start at the top. You need folks in positions of authority to make it very clear, regularly, transparently, that we are now an institution that wants to say wonderful things in wonderful ways and everybody plays a role in that, from the president all the way down to the graduate assistant who’s there for her first semester. Everybody has a way to lend to the university’s brand identity through content.

Content governance really is a cultural shift. But the truth is, it’s going to take years to implement.

There is the question of whether you can use your current tools better. Here at Mighty Citizen, we use GatherContent because it’s just the best. But there are other tools at your disposal like your CMS. A little side note, your CMS, your content management system, is not your workflow. It is not your content governance, it is a tool at your disposal. It can be really useful and maybe there’s not enough you’re getting out of it, but I do want to emphasise that governance goes beyond any one particular piece of technology. The culture has to be reinforced constantly through staff and faculty training. You have to meet with people, you have to get in a room with them, explain what you’re doing, show them the tools you’re using to do it, and help them understand that you need them on your team.

Rules, workflows, and policies have to be transparent, and easy to access. If you have an internet or if you have some sort of official faculty training, make sure that people understand the workflow is at their disposal. You want to do a close analysis of content effectiveness and that comes more in the form of an audit, but effectiveness should always be top of mind in governance.

You should hire an internal content governor. This would be a person or persons, depending on the size of your university, whose primary job is to govern content and the various processes that go into the governance plan. They’re not necessarily a writer. They don’t have to be a creative in the traditional sense, but they have to be highly detail oriented and have great interpersonal skills.

Make it known that every faculty and staff member has ownership of how the university presents itself publicly. You want to create and promote simple workflows that can help empower your faculty and staff to surface content ideas and corrections. ‘We have inaccuracies on our site, but nobody told us!’ We want to make sure that people know that they can tell you and do it easily.

Forming a content counsel

This is the crux of beginning to implement governance. If you’re going to do one thing in the next year to get yourself going towards a culture of governance, form a content council. Some folks call it a web counsel or a web content counsel. But really it’s a multi-department team tasked with creating, updating, and managing rules and workloads for content. It’s not about writing the homepage. It’s not about developing a branding document. It’s about instituting the rules and the workflows that make all of those other things possible and efficient and closely watched.

[Tweet “A Content Council is a multi-department team tasked with creating, updating, and managing the rules and workflows for content”]

You definitely need representatives from marketing and communication. Ideally, you want a project manager. You need somebody who can manage the details. Then, ideally you would get a representative from each major administrative department. So, advancement, enrollment, admissions, academics, and ideally a rep from each major school. So, a high level arts and sciences business, national sciences, fine arts, etc.

That way the major categories, the major silos within your institution, all have a clear seat at the table. The first tool at their disposal is the content governance plan with workflows. That’s what they’re going to develop – a document that outlines the plan, the workflows for content, these are how we analyse effectiveness.

You should lay out the purpose of this council. What are we tasked with doing, and how are we going to plan for things? The second thing you need in that document is workflows for each major type of content. You need workflows for website, you need workflows for any sort of prep materials, you need maybe even workflows for event collateral. If you’re gonna put up billboards on campus, you would want a workflow for how that all gets done as well.

The third part is the branding guide. You may already have this, but you want to make sure it’s part of the content governance plan as well. How do we use our logo? What are our colours? Similar to that is the language guide, like a content style guide.

In other words, we don’t say college, we say university. We don’t say class, we say course. Getting clear on the language. Governance is about creating consistency. We want to make sure that every time we’re connecting with a student and or their parent, it’s a consistent experience. They’re not going to suddenly feel like they’re talking to a different school. And things like a branding and language guide are key to making sure that you have consistent interactions with your prospective students.

Next you need to think about your workflow and by this we mean the sequence of processes in which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion. You have to make sure that there is a clear pathway that goes from here to here to here.

To build a workflow you start by creating roles, and here are the roles that you need to create a good workflow for something like website content:

These roles are often combined into one person or in addition to somebody’s regular job. For example, your editor-in-chief might be somebody high up in your marketing and communications department. Even if that’s not necessarily their job title, when it comes to content governance they are the editor and chief. And then somebody else would be their web editor, and that person is actually maintaining content, working with the governance council, etc. You need content creators. These can be people in your marketing and communication department as well, but remember, we’re trying to develop a culture where everybody feels that they can have their ideas heard, and has a clear pathway to getting to the web editor and editor-in-chief to say, “Hey, you know what? The chemistry department is doing this amazing study. You need to write about it.”

If you are deciding between two people to hire at your university, always hire the better writer. A sourcing manager is like a project manager, their job is to find the content. They’re the ones sending emails, having the phone calls, having the meetings regularly to try to figure out, where is this really great content hitting?

You need an SEO specialist because we need to know how to get found through search engines. And then of course, your subject matter experts, your SMEs, they’re job is to maintain and evaluate. These are the people you go to if you’re going to write something for the School of Liberal Arts, well there’s probably a couple of professors there who have been there a long time. You want to make sure they’re talking to you, or maybe it’s a graduate student who’s studying something in particular. Your subject matter experts can be almost anybody, but you need to make sure that they’re part of the equation, too. And then finally, reviewers or approvers.

If you have these roles or at least some of these roles in place, then developing a workflow simply becomes a matter of this role delivers it to this role, and that person is either going to review it, write it, approve it, etc. And then they’re going to move it on to this person. And often we’re going back and forth. It’s not always linear. It’s not like we just source it, write it, and publish it. Sometimes we have to go back to our SME to get some review, and then it has to go to the SEO specialist so that they can weigh in, and then it has to go back to the SME.

Conduct a content audit

You need to conduct a content audit. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend it. It’s better if you have the counsel in place, but really content on a big old spreadsheet in which you track every piece of content you put out into the world. And these are the sections of a good content audit. Website, print, email, mobile, social media, events, and editorial calendar.

This is a giant spreadsheet with various tabs, probably one for each content types, but of all of these content types, the ones you’ve gonna get your hands around as quickly as possible of course is the website. Every page on your website listed and ordered. This document, if you can put it together, can become an invaluable resource to your governance council because it’s what they’re going to refer to in order to figure out what needs to be gotten rid of, what needs to be added, what’s working and what isn’t, until the structure makes sense.

This is an overview of an audit spreadsheet. For the hierarchy we use a numbering system and that tells us how the pages are related to each other. Everything under 1.0 feeds up to the homepage, and then once you get to three digits, well, that leads up to the page above it. It’s a nice numbering system to understand how different pages are related. With page title, that’s where you want your SEO specialist chiming in because few things are important to your search engine rankings as page title and making sure it aligns with what people are searching for.

The parent section is another form of hierarchy. What page or what section is this page sitting in, and of course what layout is this page? When you’re in your CMS, you can pick from different layouts for each web page you create. You want to make sure you’re picking the right layout for the right subject matter. We often put in the current URL for easy access, and then we put in the purpose.

If you can’t explicitly say what the purpose of a particular page on your site is, then you shouldn’t have that page. This is also going to help you identify duplicate content. Are we talking about the health services we provide, both in the health services section of the site and over in the student life section? If so, can we delete one of those and just cross link?

You cannot have a really good audit without fields for action and metric. Action is, on this page on our site, we want the user to do blank. And success metric is, on this page on this site we are going to measure the effectiveness by blank. Often it’s something like click throughs or filling out a form. It’s too easy to say, “Oh, well we’re just gonna look at the number of applications we get online.” Because on your site, there’s a lot more that you want to do to engage your users than simply push them towards the apply button.

The last part of the audit spreadsheet that you need is a governance section. And this is just an example of one so you can say, you know, who’s our web manager? Who’s our SME for this page? Who’s gonna write it? You should be putting job titles in there, not individuals’ names, because people come and go, and we don’t want to be locked in. Governance in a lot of ways is about making sure that the stuff we put out into the world is immune to the vagaries of hirings and departures and structural changes internally. Governance helps makes sure that the stuff we’re putting out there is more evergreen, and we don’t have to revisit it every time we hire a new professor or we decide to change the name of a building. Adding governance so that you always know who to go to for any particular piece of content is really invaluable and will save you countless hours in the future.

Content governance at the university level isn’t easy. But it’s a major way to set yourself apart and attract more students

Content governance is as important as the content itself. And it’s hard, it requires human resources, it requires time, it requires technology, it requires money. It’s a question of, does your university value this? Do you think it’s important? And I hope you do, because it solves all sorts of problems. Silo communication, lack of individual authority, lack of innovation. Governance is about getting real and serious and obvious about our brand identity.

It’s not easy, but it’s going to help you set yourself apart and it’s going to help you attract more students.

Webinar transcript: The fundamentals of a higher education content governance plan

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About the Author

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent

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