What will content look like for higher ed in 2020?

What will content look like for higher ed in 2020?

9 minute read

What will content look like for higher ed in 2020?

9 minute read

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

What will content look like for higher ed in 2020?

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

Last year, Higher Ed Live wrote an article on design, content and cultural trends for 2019. These were:

  1. Standing for something
  2. Doing less, but better
  3. Designing at human scale

We’ve certainly seen a lot of that in the last year, with higher ed institutions differentiating through branding and messaging, and a bigger focus on simplified design and user experience.

But there are still challenges to create content that is truly engaging and user-centered, whilst also being aligned with organisational needs and goals.

So with this in mind, what will content look like for higher ed in 2020? What can institutions be doing to improve their content to be ready for what the not-so-distant future will bring? To help, we’ve put together this article with:

  • Stats, facts and opinions on content in higher ed
  • Key trends you should be focusing on this year
  • Loads of examples from universities in the UK and US to help you benchmark

Let’s dive in to see where content is heading in 2020:

Student-centric, student-led

While you need to be thinking about being user-centric with your content in general, extending this to faculty members and staff, Millennial and Gen Z students are particularly savvy and powerful  when it comes to content today. And because they're powerful, they're also picky.

To keep up with competition and attract new prospects, content people need to take a leaf out of the search engine's book (and that includes YouTube and social media platforms). Search engines are getting smarter at matching their results with user intent and needs, aiming to provide the best experience possible. Institutions must seize newfound student power too as a driver for creating content.

In 2020, your content needs to respond to students needs by being:

  • On board with user-generated content. Students care about and respond better to what other students are doing and saying more than institutions. And they're creating a lot of content themselves. So make use of student-led and student-generated content to gain attention and build trust, sharing it on your website and social media. Check out this student blog microsite at Newcastle University.

  • Easy-to-use, but also enchanting. Students consume your content mostly because they want to get from A to B. So use plain language, help them achieve their goals, but also remember that they are on a journey, so make it exciting for them and have fun. Microcopy when talking about web writing is also worth a special mention here. This is the tiny bits of content that helps guide users along their online journey, and make decisions about what to click next.

  • Responsive to emotion with compelling stories. Choosing a university or navigating student life is an emotional journey, and storytelling in content is a great way to respond to students' deeper emotional drives at different points in their journeys. Use student, alumni and faculty member stories as well as building a consistent brand narrative. Why are you here? What makes you different? Bradford University won the 2019 ContentEd Storytelling award for their 'This is Bradford' campaign, using student-led videos.

  • Responsive to questions with useful information. We're living in the 'answer economy' today which refers to our desire for real-time, on-demand, direct answers to the questions we are searching for (just look at and Google snippets and 'zero-click' searches.) Universities need to make it easy for students to find the information they need by mapping content to align with different stages of the user journey.

The focus when creating content in 2020 must always be tied back to student needs and their personal experiences. You only have to look at the student advice blogs  like StudentBeans or Save The Student in the UK in recent years to see how important this is. Companies like these conquered the student market all from spotting, and attending to, a very obvious student need with content.

Better tech, processes and team structures

Next on the list of 2020 content trends is the improvement of tech, processes and team structures. Digital transformation needs to be informed by and aligned with content strategy.

According to 2020 IT trends report from EDUCASE, higher education leaders want ‘simplify, sustain and innovate' through digital transformation. They are moving away from ad hoc approaches to systemic, scalable, and repeatable approaches. Just two of the ten key ways they plan to achieve this are:

  • Administrative simplification. Applying user-centered design, process improvement, and system reengineering to reduce redundant or unnecessary efforts and improve end-user experiences.  

  • Digital integrations. Ensuring system interoperability, scalability, and extensibility, as well as data integrity, security, standards, and governance, across multiple applications and platforms.

We’re also seeing a trend of practices originally used by software developers seeping into everyday content management, strategy and team structures (yay!). For example, The University of Bath have adopted agile working practices in their content production process, and the University of Reading  use a matrix team structure to power their content operations.

So what does this all mean for content in 2020? Well, institutions are now seeing the value in investing in technology and updating systems and processes so they enable people, not hinder them.

When applied to content creation, this means speeding up the creation and review process, breaking down organisational silos, fostering collaboration, communicating better and promoting self-organising teams. If you set up the processes and technologies that make life easier first, it then sets the stage for data-driven decision making and content personalisation (more on that later).

Delivering content on mobile

If responding to user needs and thinking about digital experience means one thing for institutions, then it’s going mobile-first with content. This can’t be stressed enough. There’s an hugely increasing demand for mobile access to course content and submissions (both from academics and students), and when high school students were researching potential higher ed intuitions, a whopping 41% visited a university website via mobile once a week, and 18% check in once a day according to research by Statista.

That study was in 2016, but with millennial daily mobile usage rising every year, and Gen Z being the first truly digital-native, mobile-first generation with increasingly early adoption, the demand for mobile is only going to grow. Prospective students now also expect more dynamic and responsive content on mobile, with many wanting to complete the full application process directly from their phones.

In response to the mobile-first trend, over the last few years we’ve seen more and more institutions rolling out mobile device initiatives to attract prospective students and improve current student experiences. Maryville University and Ohio State in the US, and University of Westmister in the UK, have all deployed free iPads to students, empowering them through the way they can consume and contribute to content.

Standing back on social media = standing out

Another area where users are empowered with content is social media. It’s no longer a space for institutions to shout about themselves, but rather a space for two-way conversations, shared communities and the celebration of user-generated content. It's a space for students to have their voices heard.

When higher ed social media professionals were recently interviewed for their predictions on where social media is heading in 2020, Molly Mattison from Adtalem Global Education talked about social media communities:

This is nothing new, but a continued shift for schools – our most important role is now as facilitator, rather than broadcaster. Success in 2020 will hinge on our ability to foster community online, create connections and add value to conversations relative to our schools and programs.

Many universities have been making use of things like branded Snapchat geofilters and hashtags to engage students, but while these are definitely useful parts of a social content strategy, in 2020 institutions need to go a step further to allow for truly user-generated content. Some examples are:

Video and live-streaming

With social media platforms allowing users to create, consume and share videos in an instant, the rise in popularity of video content shouldn't come as a surprise. You’ve already read the statistic somewhere (now so far ingrained in public memory that the original source is seemingly untraceable) "YouTube today is the second largest search engine in the world", and research by HubSpot shows:

But in 2020, as well as creating original videos and sharing others people's work on your and blogs and social media, a powerful way for institutions to make use of video is to live-stream content.

While many are using platforms such as Facebook Live to stream content like campus tours and student-led projects, another content form that is building momentum is live stream lectures and special events (beyond the graduation ceremony that is). This may seem counter-intuitive to give away exclusive events so easily, but in a world of inbound and 'pull' marketing, giving away content for free works.

Washington and Lee University in the US and Oxford University in the UK use live-streaming to very good effect, and now have a wealth of resources available to the public. This builds trust and community, attracts the attention of prospective students, generates public interest and showcases experts and thought-leaders at your institution.

Personalisation will prevail

From prospecting to enrolment, admissions, learning, alumni engagement, faculty and staff, personalisation technology can help universities and colleges serve better content for everyone, based on their immediate, contextual needs.

Generation Y (millennials) in particular are driven by personalisation. So much so that they've been referred to as  "Generation Y-Me." In one study, American Express hired a psychologist to understand how to engage millennials. The results found that personalisation is best way to reach the millennial generation, and almost half (48%) expect brands to customise offers to suit their needs. Here are some types of personalisation to implement in 2020:

  • Tailored emails. Using audience segmentation, profiling and marketing automation is one of the simplest ways to offer personalisation through triggers relating to different types of content an individual has looked at.

  • Chatbots. By creating on-brand scripts powered by AI, universities are able to answer questions instantly to keep up with the 'answer economy' while maintaining a consistent tone of voice. When this is done well, young people are likely to prefer chatbots as a way of interacting with organisations because they can get the information they need quickly.

  • Custom news feeds. Students today are used to personalised content based on their preferences from platforms like Netflix, Facebook and Amazon. In 2020, institutions should be using content customisation and personalised recommendations on student news feeds and homepages.

  • Personalised prospectuses. Many universities are now using these to entice prospective students and make it easy for them to get the information they need. The University of Liverpool is currently offering a personalised prospectus, which allows students to streamline the information about the courses they are interested in that's online and in print.

Optimising for voice search and conversational AI

In 2016, Gartner predicted that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020. Other stats were saying it would be more like 50%, while some were denouncing voice search as a fad.

But regardless of what they thought back then, and what the stats say now; however much we mocked "okay Google," and however much we tried to resist Siri,* it’s 2020 now, and voice search through smart devices and assistants is ubiquitous.

*(because let’s face it, anyone who has ever used their voice to set a timer while covered in flour and eggs knows damn well how handy it is).

Making sure your content is optimised for newer trends and algorithms i.e. natural language processing, mirroring the language of prospects and students, using long-tail keywords, and creating content to help people answer questions quickly is really important in 2020.

All of that said, it’s important to differentiate between voice search and conversational AI. As Christi Olson says, voice search is just the beginning - conversational AI is the real disruptor, and voice search is just a component. Instead of using search engines directly, we are now talking with digital assistants like Alexa, Cortana, Siri etc. And it is these conversations that are changing the landscape.

In a university environment, this technology has been utilised recently by Lancaster University, The university's Ask LU Alexa acts as a "digital friend" to students, answering questions, providing feedback and advice. It’s able to answer simple questions as well engage in more complex conversations to help students navigate their academic journeys.

Web accessibility, usability and inclusion over everything

Last, and definitely not least as in 2020 this ranks above everything else, is creating web content that is accessible, usable and inclusive. Now traditionally this means you’re compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) but it should be about much more than that. This is about empowering and enabling all users through content and content design. It's about universal web design and design for all.

All content you produce now needs to be designed in a way to be accessed by anyone and everyone. This includes being responsive, mobile-first and clear. It's often easier for people with learning difficulties to use technology and it breaks down barriers for disabled students.

Optimise your content for readability and SEO with things like headings, descriptive alt text for images, and plain, conversational language. As a rule of thumb, if content is easy for the search engine bots to understand, then it is easy for people to understand. The University of California, Berkley have their own web access site with specific accessibility guidelines.

Future-proof your content strategy with GatherContent

And as we said at the start of this article, most institutions are going through some form of digital transformation today. And students are more empowered that ever before when it comes to digital content, with things like social media, mobile access, and the influx of user-generated content.

So the best way universities can future-proof their content strategy, in line with digital transformation, is by truly understanding student power, student needs and student goals, and responding to them with content. But, with students now needing content across multiple channels and platforms, in different formats, designed and personalised for them in different ways, institutions are now struggling to manage content in a way that's strategic and consistent.

This is where GatherContent can help. GatherContent is a Content Operations Platform that allows organisations to simplify and strategise content management at scale. Check out how we are already helping hundreds of higher ed organisations with their content.

Last year, Higher Ed Live wrote an article on design, content and cultural trends for 2019. These were:

  1. Standing for something
  2. Doing less, but better
  3. Designing at human scale

We’ve certainly seen a lot of that in the last year, with higher ed institutions differentiating through branding and messaging, and a bigger focus on simplified design and user experience.

But there are still challenges to create content that is truly engaging and user-centered, whilst also being aligned with organisational needs and goals.

So with this in mind, what will content look like for higher ed in 2020? What can institutions be doing to improve their content to be ready for what the not-so-distant future will bring? To help, we’ve put together this article with:

  • Stats, facts and opinions on content in higher ed
  • Key trends you should be focusing on this year
  • Loads of examples from universities in the UK and US to help you benchmark

Let’s dive in to see where content is heading in 2020:

Student-centric, student-led

While you need to be thinking about being user-centric with your content in general, extending this to faculty members and staff, Millennial and Gen Z students are particularly savvy and powerful  when it comes to content today. And because they're powerful, they're also picky.

To keep up with competition and attract new prospects, content people need to take a leaf out of the search engine's book (and that includes YouTube and social media platforms). Search engines are getting smarter at matching their results with user intent and needs, aiming to provide the best experience possible. Institutions must seize newfound student power too as a driver for creating content.

In 2020, your content needs to respond to students needs by being:

  • On board with user-generated content. Students care about and respond better to what other students are doing and saying more than institutions. And they're creating a lot of content themselves. So make use of student-led and student-generated content to gain attention and build trust, sharing it on your website and social media. Check out this student blog microsite at Newcastle University.

  • Easy-to-use, but also enchanting. Students consume your content mostly because they want to get from A to B. So use plain language, help them achieve their goals, but also remember that they are on a journey, so make it exciting for them and have fun. Microcopy when talking about web writing is also worth a special mention here. This is the tiny bits of content that helps guide users along their online journey, and make decisions about what to click next.

  • Responsive to emotion with compelling stories. Choosing a university or navigating student life is an emotional journey, and storytelling in content is a great way to respond to students' deeper emotional drives at different points in their journeys. Use student, alumni and faculty member stories as well as building a consistent brand narrative. Why are you here? What makes you different? Bradford University won the 2019 ContentEd Storytelling award for their 'This is Bradford' campaign, using student-led videos.

  • Responsive to questions with useful information. We're living in the 'answer economy' today which refers to our desire for real-time, on-demand, direct answers to the questions we are searching for (just look at and Google snippets and 'zero-click' searches.) Universities need to make it easy for students to find the information they need by mapping content to align with different stages of the user journey.

The focus when creating content in 2020 must always be tied back to student needs and their personal experiences. You only have to look at the student advice blogs  like StudentBeans or Save The Student in the UK in recent years to see how important this is. Companies like these conquered the student market all from spotting, and attending to, a very obvious student need with content.

Better tech, processes and team structures

Next on the list of 2020 content trends is the improvement of tech, processes and team structures. Digital transformation needs to be informed by and aligned with content strategy.

According to 2020 IT trends report from EDUCASE, higher education leaders want ‘simplify, sustain and innovate' through digital transformation. They are moving away from ad hoc approaches to systemic, scalable, and repeatable approaches. Just two of the ten key ways they plan to achieve this are:

  • Administrative simplification. Applying user-centered design, process improvement, and system reengineering to reduce redundant or unnecessary efforts and improve end-user experiences.  

  • Digital integrations. Ensuring system interoperability, scalability, and extensibility, as well as data integrity, security, standards, and governance, across multiple applications and platforms.

We’re also seeing a trend of practices originally used by software developers seeping into everyday content management, strategy and team structures (yay!). For example, The University of Bath have adopted agile working practices in their content production process, and the University of Reading  use a matrix team structure to power their content operations.

So what does this all mean for content in 2020? Well, institutions are now seeing the value in investing in technology and updating systems and processes so they enable people, not hinder them.

When applied to content creation, this means speeding up the creation and review process, breaking down organisational silos, fostering collaboration, communicating better and promoting self-organising teams. If you set up the processes and technologies that make life easier first, it then sets the stage for data-driven decision making and content personalisation (more on that later).

Delivering content on mobile

If responding to user needs and thinking about digital experience means one thing for institutions, then it’s going mobile-first with content. This can’t be stressed enough. There’s an hugely increasing demand for mobile access to course content and submissions (both from academics and students), and when high school students were researching potential higher ed intuitions, a whopping 41% visited a university website via mobile once a week, and 18% check in once a day according to research by Statista.

That study was in 2016, but with millennial daily mobile usage rising every year, and Gen Z being the first truly digital-native, mobile-first generation with increasingly early adoption, the demand for mobile is only going to grow. Prospective students now also expect more dynamic and responsive content on mobile, with many wanting to complete the full application process directly from their phones.

In response to the mobile-first trend, over the last few years we’ve seen more and more institutions rolling out mobile device initiatives to attract prospective students and improve current student experiences. Maryville University and Ohio State in the US, and University of Westmister in the UK, have all deployed free iPads to students, empowering them through the way they can consume and contribute to content.

Standing back on social media = standing out

Another area where users are empowered with content is social media. It’s no longer a space for institutions to shout about themselves, but rather a space for two-way conversations, shared communities and the celebration of user-generated content. It's a space for students to have their voices heard.

When higher ed social media professionals were recently interviewed for their predictions on where social media is heading in 2020, Molly Mattison from Adtalem Global Education talked about social media communities:

This is nothing new, but a continued shift for schools – our most important role is now as facilitator, rather than broadcaster. Success in 2020 will hinge on our ability to foster community online, create connections and add value to conversations relative to our schools and programs.

Many universities have been making use of things like branded Snapchat geofilters and hashtags to engage students, but while these are definitely useful parts of a social content strategy, in 2020 institutions need to go a step further to allow for truly user-generated content. Some examples are:

Video and live-streaming

With social media platforms allowing users to create, consume and share videos in an instant, the rise in popularity of video content shouldn't come as a surprise. You’ve already read the statistic somewhere (now so far ingrained in public memory that the original source is seemingly untraceable) "YouTube today is the second largest search engine in the world", and research by HubSpot shows:

But in 2020, as well as creating original videos and sharing others people's work on your and blogs and social media, a powerful way for institutions to make use of video is to live-stream content.

While many are using platforms such as Facebook Live to stream content like campus tours and student-led projects, another content form that is building momentum is live stream lectures and special events (beyond the graduation ceremony that is). This may seem counter-intuitive to give away exclusive events so easily, but in a world of inbound and 'pull' marketing, giving away content for free works.

Washington and Lee University in the US and Oxford University in the UK use live-streaming to very good effect, and now have a wealth of resources available to the public. This builds trust and community, attracts the attention of prospective students, generates public interest and showcases experts and thought-leaders at your institution.

Personalisation will prevail

From prospecting to enrolment, admissions, learning, alumni engagement, faculty and staff, personalisation technology can help universities and colleges serve better content for everyone, based on their immediate, contextual needs.

Generation Y (millennials) in particular are driven by personalisation. So much so that they've been referred to as  "Generation Y-Me." In one study, American Express hired a psychologist to understand how to engage millennials. The results found that personalisation is best way to reach the millennial generation, and almost half (48%) expect brands to customise offers to suit their needs. Here are some types of personalisation to implement in 2020:

  • Tailored emails. Using audience segmentation, profiling and marketing automation is one of the simplest ways to offer personalisation through triggers relating to different types of content an individual has looked at.

  • Chatbots. By creating on-brand scripts powered by AI, universities are able to answer questions instantly to keep up with the 'answer economy' while maintaining a consistent tone of voice. When this is done well, young people are likely to prefer chatbots as a way of interacting with organisations because they can get the information they need quickly.

  • Custom news feeds. Students today are used to personalised content based on their preferences from platforms like Netflix, Facebook and Amazon. In 2020, institutions should be using content customisation and personalised recommendations on student news feeds and homepages.

  • Personalised prospectuses. Many universities are now using these to entice prospective students and make it easy for them to get the information they need. The University of Liverpool is currently offering a personalised prospectus, which allows students to streamline the information about the courses they are interested in that's online and in print.

Optimising for voice search and conversational AI

In 2016, Gartner predicted that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020. Other stats were saying it would be more like 50%, while some were denouncing voice search as a fad.

But regardless of what they thought back then, and what the stats say now; however much we mocked "okay Google," and however much we tried to resist Siri,* it’s 2020 now, and voice search through smart devices and assistants is ubiquitous.

*(because let’s face it, anyone who has ever used their voice to set a timer while covered in flour and eggs knows damn well how handy it is).

Making sure your content is optimised for newer trends and algorithms i.e. natural language processing, mirroring the language of prospects and students, using long-tail keywords, and creating content to help people answer questions quickly is really important in 2020.

All of that said, it’s important to differentiate between voice search and conversational AI. As Christi Olson says, voice search is just the beginning - conversational AI is the real disruptor, and voice search is just a component. Instead of using search engines directly, we are now talking with digital assistants like Alexa, Cortana, Siri etc. And it is these conversations that are changing the landscape.

In a university environment, this technology has been utilised recently by Lancaster University, The university's Ask LU Alexa acts as a "digital friend" to students, answering questions, providing feedback and advice. It’s able to answer simple questions as well engage in more complex conversations to help students navigate their academic journeys.

Web accessibility, usability and inclusion over everything

Last, and definitely not least as in 2020 this ranks above everything else, is creating web content that is accessible, usable and inclusive. Now traditionally this means you’re compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) but it should be about much more than that. This is about empowering and enabling all users through content and content design. It's about universal web design and design for all.

All content you produce now needs to be designed in a way to be accessed by anyone and everyone. This includes being responsive, mobile-first and clear. It's often easier for people with learning difficulties to use technology and it breaks down barriers for disabled students.

Optimise your content for readability and SEO with things like headings, descriptive alt text for images, and plain, conversational language. As a rule of thumb, if content is easy for the search engine bots to understand, then it is easy for people to understand. The University of California, Berkley have their own web access site with specific accessibility guidelines.

Future-proof your content strategy with GatherContent

And as we said at the start of this article, most institutions are going through some form of digital transformation today. And students are more empowered that ever before when it comes to digital content, with things like social media, mobile access, and the influx of user-generated content.

So the best way universities can future-proof their content strategy, in line with digital transformation, is by truly understanding student power, student needs and student goals, and responding to them with content. But, with students now needing content across multiple channels and platforms, in different formats, designed and personalised for them in different ways, institutions are now struggling to manage content in a way that's strategic and consistent.

This is where GatherContent can help. GatherContent is a Content Operations Platform that allows organisations to simplify and strategise content management at scale. Check out how we are already helping hundreds of higher ed organisations with their content.

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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