Insights — Higher Ed Marketing's Missing Role: The Content Strategist

Higher Ed Marketing's Missing Role: The Content Strategist

Strategy / January 31, 2020
Matt McFadden
Matt McFadden
There's a hole in your org chart.

As big as it is, it's incredibly difficult to see because the role has yet to exist. It's a content strategist. Some institutions have content strategists. If they do, they probably oversee website content. Many years ago, when the idea of content strategy began gaining momentum in higher ed, it was strictly a digital function. 

Those strategists were, and still are, skilled at information architecture, analytics, content structure and flow, developing plans and workflow for ongoing content, establishing governance, and more. This content strategist role arrived in higher ed at roughly the same time as social media managers, and both continue to be woefully undervalued. These roles are responsible for producing the content with the greatest reach, greatest number of impressions, and highest level of measurable engagement than any other role at your institution. Which is why it's long past due to reinvent the role of the content strategist in higher education.

Content Strategy is No Longer Just Digital

We shouldn't define the role until we define content strategy. Again, this was, and still is, largely thought of as a digital term. Let's break that mold and use a definition I've used for a few years now.

"Content strategy is the planning of well thought-out storytelling that is aligned to an institution's goals, articulates its brand, is clear and compelling, and will ultimately move its audience to act."

The essential items here are an organization's goals and its brand. A great higher ed content strategy incorporates a framework that clearly ties to the institution's strategic plan and its brand strategy. The framework is pretty straightforward and is built on pillars, categories, and topics and addresses audiences, key messaging, and the best way to bring a piece of content to life and the best channel for its distribution.

Content pillars

Just like brand pillars, they are the foundation for content. Thematically, they should align closely with the university's strategic plan initiatives and brand pillars.


Under each pillar are groupings of bigger themes. Categories usually cover academic experience, school pride, connection to industry, outcomes, etc.


These are grouped under the categories and where things begin to get specific. For example, consider the Academic Experience category above. Topics may include faculty profiles, undergrad research, study abroad, student profiles, and other unique or important aspects of a school's academic experience. These are not actual story ideas, but once these are established, the team can begin dropping real story ideas into a content calendar.

To finalize the content calendar, each potential piece of content needs to identify its core audience(s), key messages, goals, mediums, and channels. When looking through this lens, it's clear now that we've moved beyond the website and across marketing, PR, alumni relations, social media, and all mediums of content production.

So, where does the content strategist fit within the organization?

Pretty high. As high as a direct report to the CMO/CCO. Another possibility would be reporting to the AVP of Brand Strategy, Brand Manager, or similar title and role. They should be central enough that their content strategy provides direction for both marketing, communications, and the academy.

What will this role do?

First and foremost, they develop the content strategy and its framework. This takes time and buy-in like anything in higher ed. That process should include all parties involved in the production of content. The Directors of Marketing and Communications, creative director, videographers and photographers, writers and editors, designers, social media staff, key university leadership, and representatives from the academy should all be at the table. Subsequently, the content strategist will lead monthly and quarterly content meetings and report on performance. Which leads us to...

What skill sets make for an ideal content strategist?

They are a blend of content producer, analyst, and project manager. They'll naturally align to one of those functions more than the others, but they've been around long enough to have experience in the other two.

What's the greatest benefit?

There are a few, but the top two are improvements in reach and engagement (across multiple channels) and improved efficiency. The improvement in reach and engagement comes from the team creating more compelling content designed for unique channels. Years ago, most content from marketing and communications was driven by the channel. All stories were written for the news site. Even when the stories became multi-media heavy, they were focused on the news site with not enough emphasis placed on the other media (e.g. video). Today, the schools excelling at content strategy break apart the old news article and place the media where its audience will want to consume it. Those institutions also excel in organizing and delineating content, creating a more efficient and effective organization.

What's next?

It's not likely you'll get funding for this role in the next budget cycle. Schools can, however, begin shifting focus within the organization on how everyone plans, collaborates and produces content. For the short term, the content strategist is a mindset. And as improvements come, schools will have a stronger case for adding the role to the team.

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