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Content Strategy

How to create a content governance plan for a university

Andrew Buck • 6 minutes

Higher education marketing is the most difficult marketing there is.

After all, what other sector, public or private, has to confront these challenges every day?

  • Multi-year “buying cycle”
  • Must sell to distinct audiences who (often) have competing values
  • Must sell both online and offline
  • Customer data is tracked across multiple systems of varying quality
  • Organisation’s internal structure is decentralised
  • Stakeholders have different levels of engagement and autonomy
  • The stakes are all-or-nothing (i.e., there’s no ROI for 2nd place)

As tricky and daunting as higher-ed marketing may be, many of these pitfalls and obstacles are rooted in a more fundamental challenge: Universities don’t have content governance plans in place, and if they do, they aren’t obeying them.

It’s understandable. After all, each university is a unique ecosystem—complete with its own “way of doing things” when it comes to overseeing its marketing content. No two schools are created alike. And even if they were all structurally identical, universities are ruled by personalities and internal politics, which constantly shape and reshape content.

So, no, offering you a one-size-fits-all content governance plan isn’t possible. But it is possible to give you a plan for creating a plan—i.e., a way of making better, quicker, more judicious decisions about your school’s content.

Make no mistake: Content governance planning is worth the effort. When implemented with gusto and fierce oversight, a good plan can increase enrollment, decrease costs, and make higher-ed marketing a more fulfilling, productive pursuit.

A quick note about scope

Everything is content. Including how your campus tour guides dress, the fine print on an official enrolment form, the signs you put up to direct parents to parking on move-in day, etc.

Here, I’m going to focus on digital content because it’s still a new challenge for universities. However, a content governance plan would ideally include rules for offline content, as well.

Step 1: Form a University Content Council

Your content governance plan is a living document. It should be updated and expanded regularly. But who does the updating and expanding?

Your soon-to-be-convened University Content Council, that’s who. The mission of your University Content Council will be to:

a) Review online content and recommend changes for the council to consider

b) Contribute ideas for better producing, promoting, and managing content on behalf of the entire university

c) Ensure that everything in the plan directly supports the University’s goals, and

d) Review the Content Governance Plan at regular intervals and make recommendations for improvement

The size of your Content Council depends on the size and structure of your university. In our experience helping schools craft content governance plans, we’ve found that a sound ratio is approximately one council member for every 1,000 students. (Enormous universities, with enrolments of upward of 40,000-50,000 students, can probably survive on a council of 25-30.)

Your University Content Council should meet at least twice per year. Think of these as workshops—as there will be tangible work taking place. Schedule at least a half-day, maybe more, because content inevitably spurs big conversations, disagreements, and digressions.

The goal of each meeting is to review every part of the current content governance plan, discuss and vote on suggested changes and additions, and produce a new version that is shared with stakeholders.

Who serves on the University Content Council?

Universities often suffer from an unwillingness to give marketing staff autonomy over the “digital touchpoints” with students, preferring instead to spread control thinly over a variety of roles and departments.

This has to end.

So, first and foremost, any top-level staff member with “Marketing” in their job title should be invited to join the Content Council. This includes the CMO/Communications Director for the central office and their colleagues, if they exist, within each major school/department.

Next, you’ll want to invite someone from the following administrative groups:

  • Admissions
  • Academics
  • Enrollment
  • President’s Office

Like any committee, the University Content Council will benefit from an infusion of new perspectives over time. Consider making participation in the council a one- or two-year term (except for the primary marketing team who, of course, are always on the council).

Step 2: Include the right parts in the plan

In both length and components, content governance plans tend to reflect their makers. Smaller universities, for example, tend to have shorter workflows and fewer marketing outlets to account for—so their governance rules are more compact. Large schools, meanwhile, often have content governance plans that approach 100 pages—a result of the number and diversity of the plan’s stakeholders.

But at Mighty Citizen—i.e., my agency, where content governance plans for universities are fast becoming one of our most popular deliverables—we’ve found that certain elements should appear in every content governance plan.

The following sections are so fundamental to the running of a large-scale, decentralised marketing strategy that to leave them out of your governance plan will introduce unnecessary headaches:

Content Style Guide

Probably the most recognisable part of the larger Content Governance Plan, the Style Guide is a buffet of rules and guidelines for how content is written and formatted.

Many schools choose to adopt an existing style guide—e.g., AP, MLA, Chicago, etc. This is fine, but it presents a couple of challenges. First, it demands that all content creators and reviewers be familiar with that particular style guide. Second, the chosen style guide may have rules that don’t jibe well with the University’s particular “tone” or “voice.”

The sections of the Style Guide that appear in all of the plans that we develop at Mighty Citizen are:

  • Punctuation – e.g., Do you use the Oxford comma or not? What about em-dashes?
  • Vocabulary and Capitalisation – e.g., How do you format school-specific words? Do you capitalise the word “internet”?
  • Say This Instead of That – a simple, two-column table that tells writers which phrases to avoid (often for legal reasons) and what to replace them with—e.g., say “suggested” instead of “mandatory”
  • Images – including guidelines for subject matter, sizing, etc.
  • Voice and Tone – describes how most University content should “feel” to the reader

Archiving process

This section of the Content Governance Plan should simply describe when online content should be removed from public view and placed into an “archive.”

The archive itself should be some sort of file directory, not the CMS itself; otherwise, technical concerns in the future could cause you to lose your content. And as GatherContent so deftly reminds us, content can be repurposed and reused, no need to toss it into the trash. Many universities use Google Docs or MS Word as their official “content of record,” allowing them to easily archive content outside of the CMS.

Usually, archiving decisions are made according to a calendar. For example, you may decide that all of the Spring 2019 enrollment webpages should be archived in May 2019 to make room for the upcoming summer and fall pages.

Content calendar

Probably the most dynamic part of a Content Governance Plan—and, honestly, an optional one that can just as easily live outside the plan itself.

A great content calendar contains the following:

  • A calendar, divided into weeks
  • Deliverable types—e.g., blog article, webinar, events, third-party writing, social media, etc.
  • Content owner—for every item on the calendar
  • Due date—for drafting/delivery (and, optionally, publication)

Here’s an example of the content calendar we use at Mighty Citizen:

You can get a copy of this template (in Excel format) here.

Legally required information

If your university is publicly funded, you’re probably required to publish—or at least make “publicly available”—certain content. Often, this will include information like:

  • Staff and faculty salaries
  • Budgets
  • Enrolment statistics

… and so on. This content is so critical to your compliance regulations that it should get its own section of your content governance plan, ensuring it can’t be overlooked.

University Content Council

This section will describe the purpose of the council, its meeting schedule and current members, contact information for the council leader, and links to previous council meeting minutes.

Example: University of Texas System Style Guide

Step 3: Publish and promote

If a content governance plan is created in a forest and nobody uses it, does it make a sound?

Nope. It doesn’t. And that’s why it’s so baffling that many organisations—universities and others alike—spend time and resources getting their content in order, only to let the rules and guidelines languish in obscurity, confined to some folder on their shared drive.

If you’re going to craft a content governance plan, part of the plan is how it should be shared with your various audiences.

First, put the plan online—ideally, “gated” behind some sort of login. Most universities have an internal website for faculty and staff. Put it there. And don’t just link to a PDF version. Place the content plan itself onto the site. If possible, use anchor links and a table of contents to help users quickly jump to the most relevant sections. (At Mighty Citizen, our clients who put their governance plan online are seeing much greater adoption organisation-wide—which is the whole point!)

Second, schedule a “rolling roadshow” across campus, at which you will show off the content governance plan. Make sure you invite anyone who might create content on behalf of the University—e.g., communication teams within individual schools and programs, other major administrative offices, etc. At each edition of the rolling roadshow, you’ll walk through the highlights of the plan. No need to read every detail; that meeting would be insufferably long. Instead, help everyone understand that these are the rules now. Be sure to ask for feedback. The content governance plan is always in flux, and understanding how users actually use it will help your Content Council enhance it over time.

Just the beginning

Yes, I admit it: The phrase “content governance” is a dull one—more likely to elicit yawns than yelps of excitement.

But under its dull veneer, the concept of “content governance” is a rich, creative subject. Your university has a lot to say to the world. But without a plan for how to get that message into the world in a consistent, focused, measurable way, you’ll end up playing an endless game of catch-up and problem-fixing.

Content governance plans are treasure maps. Get your hands on one right away.

How to create a content governance plan for a university

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About the Author

Andrew Buck

Content Strategist, Mighty Citizen

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