Storytelling in Higher Education Marketing

Great stories are all about conflict. Audiences care about stories and characters because they want to see a journey or a struggle to overcome a problem. They also have a beginning, middle, and end and appeal to a larger theme. In a basic way, these are the elements of story that I’m constantly thinking about when creating content as creative director at Circa Interactive, and it’s one of the most valuable tools at the disposable of higher education marketers. So how does storytelling correlate to higher education marketing, especially in the digital space?

Our team is focused on helping university programs increase rankings, generate leads, and build enrollment, and as a journalist and author with a master’s of fine arts in creative writing, I approach higher education marketing from a unique viewpoint. I’m focused on building content that the best publications in the country will want to publish in order to build links and increase program visibility, and attention to storytelling is the key to landing these high level publications.

Media Outreach: Professors are storytellers

Because of recent changes in the SEO industry, Google has placed more of an emphasis on organic and authentic content, and it has caused digital marketing professionals to pay closer attention to backlink quality over quantity. Luckily, because we work with universities, we have access to invaluable content creators: professors. This is where individual faculty members come into play. They are on the pulse of industry trends and research, and while it seems obvious now, they are exponentially valuable as content creators. So our focus has been finding ways to leverage their expertise and tell their stories within the media.

What excites me most about higher education marketing is the access to individuals who are on the cutting edge of their fields. I have the opportunity to interview thought leaders in computer science, criminal justice, engineering, and more in order to  learn about their research in groundbreaking areas (cloud computing, homeland security technology, data mining in sports, and countless others). Our job is to present their research, the materials they teach in class, and their viewpoints in order to tell our programs’ stories in as many ways over as many platforms as possible.

Often, faculty members are more focused on publishing in academic journals, because that’s what will help them reach tenure. They tend not to consider mainstream media, and they write in a different style than publications like the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Ars Technica, PBS, and more. So our job is to help guide them. This is where thinking about story is important. It might help to think about faculty members as central characters in the narratives being told in the media. They are actively seeking answers to problems and conflicts through academic writing and their research, and they are in the middle (in media res) of the action. It’s important to remember that faculty members aren’t just teachers; they are professionals. Most have theoretical and practical knowledge, which makes them the ideal candidate for the media.

For example, recently we helped a professor understand his place in the news. One professor was researching how leadership can help LGBT members in the workplace, and we helped him acquire an article on a major publication where he argued for more direct leadership action among mangers in order to create inclusive workplaces. He was addressing a problem and conflict. This is what caught the attention of the editor.

Another example comes from the tech field. A professor we work with is currently interested in how mobile computing will impact urban life. What he was pointing out was the conflict between the infrastructure of our cities and the updates these urban landscapes would need to handle the projected innovations, while suggesting solutions. The great thing about stories like this is that it’s a large scope, and the changes he’s currently writing about might not take place for another 15 years. This leaves us with a lot more room to tell his story and add to it as it develops.

Once the most relevant and interesting stories are targeted, pProfessors can write articles about the problems they hope to solve with their research. From the creation of these articles, it’s possible to have a link posted in their bio back to the program. This accomplishes several things for marketing purposes: helps increase rankings, builds traffic, and expands the program’s brand. If you’re able to offer ghostwriting services, then this helps with the consistency and volume of articles. (Professors are busy people.)

But the way to accomplish this strategy immediately is to start asking: What stories do my professors have to tell? What conflict or problem are they addressing in the media? And who would care? That final question is important because it helps dictate potential audience and outreach strategy.

The Narratives in the News: Digital PR and Infographics

Right now, the biggest stories in the media are the CIA torture practices; Ferguson and criminal justice; the drop in oil prices and the effect on the economy; and the future of mobile devices and cellular networks. By asking what our professors can add to these stories, we’ve discovered a new way to build links. This is the traditional side of PR that we have incorporated into our SEO practices. We reach out to the media, aware of the current state of a narrative, set up an interview with a reporter, and ask the reporter to include a link if they use their quotes. The reality of this strategy is that some publications won’t put a link and some will, but this has become an important part of our larger marketing strategy, leading to links on publications with high DAs (Forbes, Gov Tech, IB Times, and more) while marketing content to a larger and diverse audience.

In addition to pitching our professors to the media, we actively focus on turning their research and the program’s concentrations into content that connects to the larger stories within the media. Some of our most successful pieces of content have become infographics, and we’ve have had these visual resources published at such incredible places like PBS, Mother Jones, Inc., Entrepreneur.com, CIO, Arch Daily, and many more. We have found that our success is based on access to high-level research and the ability to build engaging and rich stories. Countless marketing professionals use infographics as a part of their strategy, but effective story telling is what separates the quality infographics from the mediocre.

At Circa Interactive, we have created countless infographics on subjects such as juvenile detention, cloud computing, sports psychology, and we’re learned that for an infographic to be effective it’s essential to address some sort of problem (the lack of female computer scientists; the rise in school shootings; the problems facing the smart city) and tell this story with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning should set up the problem or conflict, the middle should address some of the ways that this problem is affecting a community, and the ending should conclude the story with a call to action or summary. Once these infographics are created, we then look at where they fit into the larger narratives in the news.

Most marketing agencies know that content is king. It’s a cliché thrown around in most webinars and workplaces, but what digital marketers need to consider is what separates good content from mediocre content. For me, it’s all about storytelling, and in the higher education world, we have access to endless amount of stories and content that any editor, any reporter, or general reader would love to experience. The first step is recognizing that value and then finding ways to take advantage of it.

Joseph Lapin is the creative director at Circa Interactive. His writing has been published at the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Salon, and more.