In October 2021, I wrote an article about AI copywriting software. After testing several programs, I concluded the bots posed neither a threat nor seemed particularly useful to writers at that point in time.
Since then, artificial intelligence generators have continued to mature — getting smarter, more capable, and more pervasive (like the notorious ChatGPT, which has an estimated 100 million users per month). While this emerging technology has stirred up some pedagogical quandaries for college and university faculty members, it’s also making its way into marcom offices, with CMOs and their teams wondering how (or if) they can put these programs to use.
There is little question that AI can be used in higher ed marketing. But how can it be used effectively? I turned to my SimpsonScarborough colleagues to get their thoughts on how higher ed marketers can use AI to build their institution’s brands (and how not to use it, too).
Can a machine build a brand that inspires, elevates, and endures?
First, allow me to tell you what AI is not: it’s not a replacement for humans.
“Of course,” you say, “a human would say that.”
But a machine does not care about your brand.
It does not have the experience, understanding, or soul that people do. It mimics and regurgitates human language, incapable of comprehending what it’s doing (for now). It will not build your brand in a meaningful way that is authentic to your institution and uniquely stands out from competitors, because it can’t. To build that kind of brand, you need people.
Now, this doesn’t mean AI cannot build a brand, period; it absolutely can. It will be trite and unremarkable, patched together from everything the AI has learned by consuming what humans created, and it will do nothing to distinguish your institution or inspire your audiences. But! It will be a brand.
In short: you can’t rely on AI by itself in your brand building efforts. But you can make AI work effectively for you as a resource. We know from SimpsonScarborough’s Professional Development & Salary Study that higher ed marketers are increasingly asked to take on more work and responsibilities; while AI doesn’t address the underlying cause of that issue, it can help relieve some of the symptoms as a productivity assistant.
How to use AI for good, not mediocre
From a brand execution perspective, there are a few key areas in which AI can be the most help: content marketing, web writing, and creative work.
These are all labor-intensive efforts, requiring time to think, research, think some more, create, edit, edit again, and, finally, publish for audiences; AI software can assist in this process as a thinking partner, a creator, and an editor (but don’t rely on it for research — programs like ChatGPT are currently known for giving patently wrong information).
Wielded as a tool in the hands of professionals, AI offers immeasurable potential in helping higher ed marcom offices become more efficient and productive.
AI and Content Marketing
Whether you’re building or maintaining your brand, cultivating consistent, high-quality content plays a key role in brand marketing efforts. It keeps your audiences engaged with your institution, provides proof points for your brand, helps you maintain an active digital presence, and establishes legitimacy.
It also takes a lot of work to keep up with — and content marketing experts with deep knowledge of your institution don’t grow on trees.
AI programs can increase your team’s productivity in writing articles, blog posts, creating social media posts, drafting emails, checking SEO, and more, promoting efficiency. This is a win for inundated content marketers everywhere who have ideas but no bandwidth to execute them.
It can also prove useful for building out a content marketing strategy—in it’s rightful place. When I asked Corynn Myers, our Director of Brand & Integrated Strategy, about using AI in content marketing strategy, she noted that:
“AIs like ChatGPT are not going to produce anything that is final strategy-worthy. But if you ask the right questions, AI tools can provide new perspectives, ideas, and other insights. It's like a brainstorming session on steroids.”
AI and Web Writing
Your website is often where prospective students first form impressions of your institution’s brand; to leave them with a positive experience, web writing and upkeep is essential — but it can also be onerous and sometimes overwhelming. This is where AI swoops in.
Like content marketing, AI can help with efficiency and productivity in these efforts. While software shouldn’t write your homepage, or any top-level page, it can certainly assist with first drafts, keyword lists for organic search, tailoring voice and tone, meta descriptions, and other labor-intensive tasks.
While the productivity boost from AI is nice, Tim Jones, our Director of Digital Content, warns against allowing it to interfere with the quality of your web writing. He puts it like this:
"So much of the emphasis on AI tools goes to outputs—templates, formats, posts, headlines, outlines, keyword lists, or whatever it may be. And, while that can be an immensely helpful and undeniably efficient way to generate these things as starting points, great web writing is measured in outcomes. Use the efficiency gains from AI to focus on crafting web content that performs for your users and your brand."
AI and Creative Work
If your internal team requires help writing on-brand copy for print, digital, or other needs, AI is not going to give you particularly good options. What it will give you is a start, serving as a creative spark and brainstorming resource to toss ideas back and forth with (robot catch, anyone?). Writing can be a lonely activity; AI serves to alleviate that loneliness and get writers out of their own heads.
While AI can be used for creative design purposes, the ethics are still murky and the legalities are questionable at best. Associate Creative Director of Design, Katie Schwendeman, notes that the bots learn how to make art by replicating the art, design, illustration, and notable style of both historical and contemporary creators — a reality that should give you plenty of pause before jumping into the AI art world head-first. Katie’s advice? If you’re going to use this tech, use it with strategic intention and definite hesitancy:
“It’s clear to see these capabilities are improving and the desire to replace a freelance illustrator with a subpar, nearly free Midjourney output will be alluring. But at this time, AI art is better suited for initial, behind-the-scenes purposes — such as sketching the frames of a first-draft video storyboard, or mocking up a potential Snapchat AR filter — harnessing its speed to get ideas across quickly but allowing humans to come in for the detail and actual craft once an idea is green-lit.”
Where do we go from here?
Implementing AI into your marketing workflow will take some time; engineering AI prompts alone can be an exacting process and is a skill and of itself. Learning about the different AI options out there, which large language models (LLMs) they use, and how to ask the machine to generate you what you need are foundational in successfully using this tech as a tool. Start with ChatGPT if you haven’t already — or, if you’re feeling brave, Microsoft’s Bing AI.
Emily helps brand stories verbally come to life, connecting them with audiences and authentically moving the brand forward. Whether it’s brainstorming big ideas or writing the perfect headline, she enjoys working on all our clients’ creative needs. When she’s not working, writing, or reading, you can find her dabbling in the kitchen, guiltily scrolling TikTok, or researching her latest special interest. Learn more about Emily and the rest of our team here.