Why meaningful content matters in Higher Education

20 minutes

With so much content being published every minute, how can you make sure your content cuts through the noise? It's a simple answer, put your audience first and ensure your content is meaningful. Simple see, but hard to achieve and add meaningfulness as part of your best practice.

In our recent webinar Jonny Williams, Head of CRM, Creative Services and Content at Keele University, shared examples and practical advice to help you foster relationships with your audience through meaningful content. You can read an edited transcript below, or watch the recording.Content and relationships are something that go perfectly well together and opens up amazing perspectives for us to delve into content strategy and content design and really think about our audience and what they need.

This connection between content and relationships has revolutionised the way that I perceive content, but also gives me a solid technical grounding in terms of content delivery.

What is meaningful content?

Meaningful content is something that as a collective notion has evolved over time. When we used to think about meaningful content, really it was about things that people could connect to. Like this wassup advert that Budweiser ran from 1999 until 2002.

This was the pinnacle of pop culture because it was seen as being relatable because of the fact that it focused on a group of friends, it focused on a catchphrase which then burst its way into pop culture. This was what we defined as something that was meaningful. But of course, for most people that experienced this advert, it wasn't actually meaningful. The thing itself didn't really bring anything to the table. However, it was relatable. It was something that people saw as being a reflection of how friends hung out and how stupid little things developed, which of course we'd now refer to as a meme.

That human level of meaning doesn't make something meaningful. From my perspective, that's why it's so interesting that when we're talking about meaningful content or even trying to deliver on stuff that we perceive to be meaningful. We're seeing a lot of stuff on social, on different people's websites, where it's full of emojis. We're trying to push out a message of how hilarious we are and how much we identify with a specific group and trying to position ourselves in a way that is relatable. But of course, relatable doesn't necessarily mean meaningful because for all of the times that we're sat behind a computer screen thinking, "God, we must really be delivering for this audience right now. We know exactly what they're looking for." They might just be sat behind a computer screen looking at our content, feeling more like this.

It boils down to this question, "Should you think about yourself or should you think about your audience? when it comes to your content. It's a fairly simple question to answer because there's only one option, really.

You should always put your audience first and if you're doing anything other than that, then it's far more likely that you're going to be getting eye roles rather than massive laughs and massive smiles.

By positioning yourself in your content, you're not actually delivering what your audience are looking for. This is a key cornerstone to delivering meaningful content. Always put your audience first. I stumbled across something that has ended up being a meaningful experience, but probably not in the way that you're expecting.

I was trying to buy some clothes and at the end of the shopping experience, which was fairly normal, I stumbled upon this screen:

You're probably thinking, how on earth is this a meaningful experience? It was meaningful to me because I had to think hard just to get to a point, so the meaningful experience at the end of it was, "Wow, this company does not really care about me." The meaning I could derive from it was, "This isn't for me. This isn't actually about what I want. It's all about them. They're thinking about themselves. They're not thinking about their audience."

The reason it caught me off guard was because first and foremost, there were four tick boxes with a positive  green colour that I had to select to say that I did not want to receive something, so a positive for a negative response. But then as soon as I'd done that, I then also had to tick a big green tick box to say that I did want to receive some things. So there was a positive response to a negative, which was then followed by a positive response to another positive. And it all got very confusing.

When we're trying to define meaningful experiences, meaningful pieces of content, what we're really thinking about is how we're making the audience feel. If that sat behind the screen or if they're reading our content, or if they're sat looking at Twitter, if that pull in that face, then it's still a meaningful experience, but in all of the wrong ways because what they're going to get from it is something that is exactly the opposite of the relationship we're trying to build.

A good example of meaningful content

One perfect example of where people are doing this sort of stuff right, where they're making it better for their audience, is the NHS. I hope that everyone out there has had the opportunity to read the recent guardian article that's been published about what the NHS have done, let alone the actual NHS blog post, which explains it even better. They've moved away from saying things like wee and stool and moved to the much more simple and clear language of pee and poo.

It's a really striking example because it highlights the level of accessibility that we should be moving towards. I know what those first two words mean. I know exactly what that's going to say and I can unpick what those words are going to be trying to get me to understand. But for a lot of our audience, the average reading age is far below for the average user at the age of 15. And it's really fascinating to frame things, not from just what we want as an audience, especially as copywriters or as content creators, those people that are actually designing text as it were, and start to think about who our audience is.The NHS are smashing that. They're doing a fantastic job of thinking about what their audience really need. But if you as an audience member are approaching content that looks like this, which you can really understand, it is far more likely to make you feel good because you feel like you're actually on the level. Emotion is essential because if we make our audience feel positive, then they're far more likely to keep engaging with us. We're far more likely to build a relationship with them.

Emotional content that builds relationships

One of the best examples I've seen of emotional content recently was this tweet that someone shared about what they received from Bloom and Wild around Mother's Day:

It's a concept that has been picked up by a number of other companies, but this was the first instance I saw of content that was really being created with someone's emotions in mind. It was asking people if they wanted to opt out of Mother's Day emails, which for most of us, we'd probably look at that and think, "Well, why would someone necessarily need to opt out of that?" Until we realise that Mother's Day isn't an easy time of year for a lot of people. Another company had been in contact with her, personally, and she said it really caught her off guard in a positive way because she finds it very difficult. That is another way that we can think about meaningful content.If we can deliver content that actually means that someone's not feeling negative or down or it doesn't even have to contemplate negative feelings, then that content's delivering something really special. And that is a perfect example of meaningful content.  A lot of the time when we're talking about content, we jump straight to the words, we jump straight to the text, but we're not always thinking about the fact that content can go so much further than that.

This was another example from close to home. My girlfriend's mum, on her birthday, went on to Google to search for something and she saw the birthday candles, and when she hovered over there was a nice birthday message. In this simple gesture, Google, the massive monolithic corporation, created something meaningful because in that small moment it created content that wasn't just the content in and of itself, because she shared it. The meaningful content wasn't just seen by one person, it was shared and posted to other people that she knows on Facebook because it was a good experience.

The perception then grows. If you do something positive through your content, that meaning is not just what your own words are saying or what your own actions are doing. It's also in how that then becomes shared and who then sees it. This means we should be asking a significant question, "Is my content building a relationship?" Because if we're trying to define meaningful content, if we're really trying to understand meaningful content, it boils down to that concept.

Understanding the relationship management and understanding content as this thing that can deliver and make people's lives better and happier and be full of things that they actually need, that is the question that I ask with almost everything that I approach. Because it's really easy to understand when we're not going to be delivering what we should be delivering as soon as the content we are creating isn't building a relationship.

How does this connect to Higher Ed?

We're all tired of experts, or at least that's what we've been told. That really puts us in a difficult position. But that is a belief that is held by many people across the world. People are all feeling tired of experts, which is why it's more important now than ever that we don't end up in a position where people are sat at home, and they're thinking, "Is this for me?"

When we currently look at the educational landscape, think how many people are sat at home thinking, "Is this for me?" Then it's easy to understand that a lot of our audience and a lot of people that haven't been engaged in education or our content, a lot of our content, especially academic content, looks like this:

It's not accessible. It's something that is scary and daunting and really difficult to unpick. And in so many different ways is something that isn't approachable. And if you think that all of the people in higher education are doing this, then it's easy to understand why maybe that's a bit of a head scratcher, and maybe that is tiring and maybe we are tired of experts. But this whole thing can be changed when we start thinking about meaningful content, because if we're posing the question, "Is this for me?" we can actually reframe what we're doing.Here's a great example from the University of Dundee who are doing some really good things at the moment.

Instead of people scratching their heads and thinking, "Is this for me?" and being scared by terrifying texts or things that seem like it's shutting them down and pushing them away, it literally says that anyone is welcome. It doesn't matter who you are, everyone is welcome to attend. This is exactly how we should be framing all of educational content at the moment. It's a great lesson in how we can rework our content to be positioned on a platform where people know that it's for them. And if your audience is sat there thinking, "This is for me," then you're doing something right. You know that you're moving towards meaningful content.There's another reason why we need to think about how meaningful content relates to higher education. I've got five numbers for you:

Yep, those five numbers are five and then four zeros, because that's roughly the amount that we're asking a lot of our students to spend. When I think about a figure like that, for that volume of money, I'd either be looking for one hell of a party with some of the best music I've ever heard in my lifetime with very, very good company and experiences that I would remember for a lifetime.We're asking a lot of people to commit this huge sum of money that for a lot of our audience, is a volume of money that they're probably never going to see in their lives ever again. The thing is, if you ask them to spend that amount of money anywhere else, you'd be asking for them to commit to an amazing experience. And realistically, that's how we should be perceiving education because education is all about experiences.

Delivering experiences in Higher Ed

We need to be delivering experiences. We need to be thinking about what people are experiencing when they're engaged with education. There was a really nice thing that I saw from the University of Missouri and they actually did a study about kindness.

They looked at how teachers and their relationships with students can improve academic excellence, and then they found that kindness works. I thought was a really nice way of phrasing it, "Kindness works."We can actually achieve things by being nicer to our students. And in many ways that's great because of the fact that you can see how that is applicable to our academics, to the people that are directly engaging with students. But it's quite easy to look at that and think, "How can we deliver that?" from a digital perspective, but there are people who are doing it. There's people who are building relationships, who are delivering meaningful content from a distance. And then, this example from the University of Reading:

If kindness between teachers and students works, then just imagine how effective it is also going to be to deliver things through social media. So to ask a student, "Do you want to hear something nice?" Because we're happy to engage with you and build a relationship with you. We're happy to be human and to actually tell you that we value you, we see something in you that maybe you don't always see in yourself." That really is fostering a beautiful relationship, which also means the students going to say, "This is definitely for me." And that's true of all of your audience. The idea of making sure your audience know that it's for them, it's accessible, your audience is not alone in the world, they are part of something, is really powerful. They are allowed to be engaged with education. They're allowed to be engaged with your content and you're creating content that is for them.

At Keele University, one of the small things that we've done is this world map. Our mascot is technically a dragon, but I think most students will identify more with the volume of squirrels that we have on campus. This piece of content is powerful because it screams, "This is for you." You are not alone. There are squirrels all over the world. And this is actually a map of our alumni, and this is showing where in the world we have alumni. if we can create content that says, "You're part of something bigger. We care about you, we care about your emotions, we care about how you're accessing this content. We want you to be able to associate with it and understand it and delve into it," then all of that says, "We care about you." That's what all of our content should be saying because if we can position our content to be meaningful, then I think what we can deliver is stronger relationships, better experiences, and a sense of institutional pride.

Achieving institutional pride through content

Those three things are supremely powerful because if you position all of those three things in the right way, then you're going to have this amazing relationship with your audience. You're going to have this fantastic perspective on what your audience is actually looking for. And then if you're trying to sell that to the institution as well, it probably means that there's going to be more money too, which is always a nice thing for institutions.

So we know what meaningful content is and why it matters to higher education. The next question is where, when, and why we need to be doing this. It's easy to see the previous examples and think we stop at digital content. But these sorts of concepts are just as important when it comes to offline and thinking about physical mediums such as a newspaper or a magazine. Physical mediums are still present, they still exist and they still matter. The thing that we need to accomplish though is not to think about those areas as different ways that we need to create meaningful content. Instead, we need to be thinking how we can unify our content. If you can unify your content, then it puts you in a really powerful position because the fact is your audience does not care where they receive your content, your audience does not care where that content is coming in.If they need to know something, then they're going to try and find that out. It doesn't matter whether that's in a book, or whether it's in a prospectus or on your website or on their phone. At the end of the day, the content is more important than the platform.

This is all part of delivering a meaningful experience. Equally within that, it's really easy to think about content delivery in a linear fashion:

Because a lot of the time we want to talk about content within our own structure. We want to say, you're going to be an inquirer on day one and then at the end of this process you're going to become an alumni. Just as we would think about for other businesses, you're going to be a lead all the way through to being a dedicated brand ambassador who's been a customer for years.Although it's difficult to think about education in those terms, it's a very similar journey and pipeline. What we see constantly, in terms of higher education is this model replicated. We see content and delivery through this model, day by day by day and actually we need to change that because this doesn't suit your audience. If I want to know about car parking, but I'm not a student yet, then I should be able to find out about car parking. So we need to put the audience in the middle.

We need to ensure that all of these different types of content which take on different forms, different shapes, different platforms are all accessible to the audience. Because if we put the audience at the heart of the content, then it means we're in a much better position and they've really won.If we empower our audiences to actually seek our content when they want it, then it's going to be far more meaningful for them because that experience is going to be positive and it's going to leave them feeling like they've been empowered, like we trust them, which is so important. Beyond that as well, it's making sure that all of these bits of content are accessible in language and form. Because content takes all of those different forms and it's no good if we've got this massive blocker for them that they might want to know about a piece of research. But if it's all written in really technical language, then how are we ever going to spark their imagination? How are we ever going to ensure that they can actually join in, in education?

Accessibility is meaningful

The thing is accessibility is meaningful and the reason that accessibility is so meaningful at the moment, is because accessible is not the default, at least for now. As soon as you make something accessible, you're telling someone really loudly, "We care about you," and that's gotta be the cornerstone of all meaningful content. It's what we should be absolutely trying to deliver as universities or even any educational institution, not just universities.

A framework of meaningfulness

This is a structure that is hopefully accessible and one you can communicate outwards as well because it's no good if you're the only person in your business, in your institution, in your organisation, that understands this idea of meaningfulness because it needs to translate through everything that you do.The first part of this framework is the question, "Does your audience need this content?" It's really easy to create content that no one really needs. We've all seen the top 10 articles that don't relate to anything and how your university relates to a certain "Game of Thrones" character and all of the click bait Buzzfeed content. Now that can be fun, but really it poses the question, "Does your audience need this?" Because how could it be meaningful if they don't want it? And if you're just filling your timeline, they're probably not ever going to even engage with that. The best way I think we can identify that is by using user stories. GOV.UK have got great examples of user stories, and I think that in terms of that people have really defined content design and content strategy, user stories are so useful.It allows you to really understand who your audience is.

This one's a perfect example which I use, I think I had probably a thousand hits a day to the passport page justifying this user story because I think it's a really easy way of understanding what's a piece of content should be delivering. Again, the University of Dundee are doing great things. They've actually used GatherContent and they've incorporated user stories as an essential part of how they build their pages, how they build their content. If you define what the need is, then you can ensure it's actually going to be useful.

The second question, "Are you creating with your audience in mind?" So you know what they need, but just because you know what they need, are you actually then going to deliver it in a way that is what they want? Are you thinking about the audience? One of the perfect ways that I've seen someone deliver on this recently is Aston University.

This is one of their course pages, and a lot of course pages will be so full of blurb that it's almost impossible to know what you actually need to do to apply to a course and what grades you need to get onto the course and what you should be looking for. But for me, this just cuts through the noise. Because as a student, what I really want to know is before I apply, am I going to get onto this course?Is it the course I'm looking for in terms of course type and duration and beyond that as well, when can I find out more? The thing that goes beyond all of that as well as the fact there is just a nice big button right in the top corner that lets you know you can actually apply to this. And if you go into a lot of university course pages, let me know how long it takes you to find a way to apply. Because that's one of the things that students constantly point out. They don't know where to apply. They don't know what they're doing when they reach page and they don't actually know what they need to get onto a course.

Next is thinking about whether you're bringing value to their lives. Because if your content is not bringing some sort of value to their lives, then again, it's not gonna be something they truly need and equally isn't going to be meaningful to them. It's not going to be an experience that they'll remember and build a relationship. One of my favourite examples of content that is actually bringing value to their audience's lives is this podcast from Glasgow.

It's a podcast that is not just about things that the university wants students to do. It's a podcast that completely outlined real experiences of students that have gone on and done something so much bigger than just their degree.It's combination of alumni experiences, but then also tips and tricks for how you could get into industry and to ensure that your degree is actually going to be worthwhile, and well changing. I think that phrase is really powerful. So this is a piece of content that brings value to students' lives, but it's also a piece of content that students are going to be looking for. They want to know how they can actually bring value to their degree. They want to know how they can deliver on it. And beyond all of those things, what's really important in terms of meaningful content and ensuring that you're building relationship through your content is the question, "Are you fostering trust? Is your content trustworthy? Are you delivering trust to your audience?" Because in all of those previous examples, they're completely honest.

It's showing you the facts. It's being honest and truthful. I love this tweet from Reading:

It was just amazing to see the response it got, to see over 73,000 people like a tweet about the University of Reading taking in refugees, and being really upfront and saying, "You know what? We're going to take these refugees on, and if you don't like it, we don't care, jog on." That could not be more honest, it couldn't be more frank. And for me, this builds trust in them as an institution because you know what they're saying is real. They're showing it not just through words, but through deeds as well. The thing is trust is completely subjective, but if you can be consistent in your content and if you can be honest with your audience, then it means they're going to trust you. And that is a fantastic cornerstone of meaningful content.When looking at meaningful content ask:

  • If it's needed
  • If it's for them
  • If it's valuable
  • If it's trustworthy

Then you know it's meaningful. Once we've defined meaningful content, once we know what we can do to identify, how can we implement it? My starting point would always be ask the questions before you create something.Think about that framework. Think about whether or not stuff is needed, whether it's for the audience, whether it's valuable, whether it's trustworthy, think whether it's definitely going to be meaningful before you create something. Ask those questions and figure out whether it's something that your audience really want, because it's very easy to dive into creating content and actually end up making something that's a bit of Frankenstein's monster. It sort of delivers what people need, but at the same time, maybe it doesn't and it's very easy to end up with a piece of text that you think is speaking on their level but actually isn't really speaking on their level because it's not fully delivering on what people actually want. And I always like this idea in measure twice cut once, because, how hard is it to ask the questions more than once and really know what you've got to do before you do it?

We could accidentally alienate if we don't ask the questions. If we don't ask the questions first, then all you end up with is content isn't really meaningful. It's not delivering what they need. If what we're doing is just creating stuff, pumping out into the world and then sort of looking at it afterwards and thinking, "Oh, well, how could we do that better next time?" It's already too late because we've already possibly missed the opportunity to build meaningful relationships. We've already possibly missed the opportunity to define ourselves to our audience. And then there's also the risk that we've possibly alienated the whole group of people that could have been the biggest ambassadors for us.

They could have felt like we were delivering something meaningful to them and then help spread that meaningful content out to the rest of the world. So these are some of the do nots, but in terms of the, "How do we do it?" The best starting point that I've ever found,  is be brave. just ask that question, "Can we try this somewhere? Can we put this out into the world in some small way? Is there a piece of content we were going to do and can we do it differently? Is there maybe a Twitter post that we were thinking about doing, where we're thinking about writing something about a really strong PR story, but actually could we strip out some of the technical language and make it so that an everyday person can understand that? Can we make it so that maybe we can inspire a 12-year-old to explore stem subjects for the first time?" Or even can we make sure that someone in our communities is looking at what we do and really seeing the value in us? Because if the tide of experts, maybe we can change that position. Maybe we can make sure that they know this is for them.

Realistically, that is a really scary thing to do, to go up to one of your managers or to go to senior management or even just to look at your own blog posts and think, "Right, can we try meaningful content? Can we try and implement our framework of meaningful content somewhere?" But don't forget you're not alone because the content community is powerful and strong, especially in terms of education content. There's amazing resources out there like the new readability guideline, which our employees look at. I think they're absolutely amazing and something we should all be implementing across everything that we do. But there's also tons of people on Twitter and LinkedIn who, if you reach out to them and ask those questions, they will be there for you because we've all been through it and we're all still going through it. And that's kind of what makes it so exciting. It's a relatively new realm to explore. The content can go beyond just being words on a page. It can go beyond being stuff that people read once and then throw in the bin. It can really be meaningful. It can really build relationships. Now I know in terms of Higher Ed, especially because it feels easier to say that for different business areas, but a lot of the time in higher education we're stuck between a rock and a hard place.

We end up looking at other content that is about making better content and feeling like this. One thing that's key to remember is that within this delivery structure, within how we can make meaningful content, not only are we looking at our audience, but you've got to remember that you yourself are an audience in terms of consuming this. And I think when thinking about how we can implement meaningful content, how we can improve our content and how we can make lives better for our audiences, we're probably thinking this as well. It's not just our audience looking at content and thinking, "Is this for me?" I think a lot of the time we feel like imposters or we feel stuck sometimes and think, "Is this for me?" "Can I deliver meaningful content?"

You can deliver meaningful consent because realistically, if you're passionate about actually making sure your audience is having a good experience, then you're halfway there. If you're willing and ready to look at this framework and think, "You know what? Even if I just do it on one website page or even if I do it on one page of our prospectus this coming year, if I can think about whether our content is needed and whether it's for the audience and whether it's valuable, whether it's trustworthy, then you can create meaningful content. That's an amazingly powerful thing because as soon as you're doing that, it means that the people who you're looking to, your audience, is really going to value that, and that then means that you can support your institutions do something much better and more powerful as well.

Content relationships really can create something beautiful. If we can put relationships at the forefront of what we want to create, then we're in this amazing position to build relationships with our audience. We can forge these fantastic communities that empower each other and they allow the people within those communities to nurture themselves and to really have fantastic experiences that transcend beyond just business needs, and instead actually forge something that is far more long lasting. That ensures there's a legacy of people not being sick of experts but instead ensures that there is this really wonderful dynamic experience with people that want to be part of it.

Like the NHS are opening their doors and making something that is more accessible and is for everyone, not just a small party of people, we can do the same thing through our content. We can really showcase who we want to be and not as an open dynamic set of institutions. And by doing that, it means that we are going to continue the opportunity that a few of us have had, but hopefully as an opportunity we'll want to offer to people in the future as well to be involved in something fantastic such as education.

About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways,WebTuts+, UX Matters , UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and ContentOps at leading industry events.

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