How your college or university can develop a successful content strategy
In higher education, content marketing is often something that either falls to the wayside or has never been given any consideration at all. Yet according to Content Marketing Institute, content marketing gets three times as many leads as paid search advertising. The possibilities for high-quality, engaging content on college and university websites are endless, but many higher education marketers don’t know where to start or how to identify those opportunities.
Content is an essential part of any inbound marketing strategy. It has the potential to drive many prospective students to your website and provides them with the information they are looking for, which in turn makes them see your institution as the authority on a certain topic or the perfect-fit school for them.
Identifying content opportunities
Content should not be created out of assumptions of what you think your audience might be looking for. A true content strategy begins with research—gathering data on what information prospective students are actually looking for. Utilizing various (free!) tools, you can identify the keywords students type into Google, the questions they search for, and even how they search on your website in particular. You can also identify what content on your site is currently performing well, what isn’t, and what’s missing.
Google Search Console
Google Search Console, formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools, provides free and valuable data on your website’s search engine performance. You can utilize this tool to see the keywords your site currently appears for, along with impressions and clicks. You can also see your top-performing pages. You can use this data to improve pages that don’t have much visibility and audit the pages that do have a lot of visibility to ensure they are offering top-level value.
Evaluate the keywords your site shows up for. Are there some that have a lot of impressions but very few clicks? This can indicate that your metadata (more on this below) needs some love. That’s because users are seeing your result but not actually clicking on it. What’s more, those impressions could be pages deep into Google, hidden from many searchers’ eyes. These pages are great to optimize, because doing so can boost their visibility. You should always utilize Google Search Console to see how your site is currently performing and where there is room for improvement when building a content marketing strategy.
Which pages on your site get the most organic search traffic? Which pages get the least? Are users actually finding the pages you want them to? You can answer all these questions using Google Analytics. By utilizing the data in Google Analytics, you can build a content marketing strategy that will boost pages that are doing well to an even higher level of visibility or overhaul pages with no traffic to make them visible.
What’s more, Google Analytics can help you identify some user experience roadblocks on certain pages of your website. For example, does a certain page have a high bounce rate? This could indicate that users leave your site after viewing that page. Or do users spend a very limited amount of time on the page? This too can indicate that they did not find the page to be useful. This can help you strategize how to have better engagement on your site by providing more useful content or linking to related content so that users can interact more with your website.
Google Analytics can also tell you what users have searched for internally on your site, which can be incredibly valuable. Pro tip: simulate the experience of some of these searches. For example, if users are searching for “admission,” then type this search term into your site’s search bar and see which results show up first. Are they the most relevant or helpful pages? If not, you have some work to do.
Performing keyword research can give you many ideas for optimizing existing content or creating new content. Say you start your keyword research broadly, looking for keywords related to “MBA.” You may then find that users are searching for:
- What careers can I get with an MBA?
- Can I pursue an MBA while working?
- Who has part-time MBA programs?
- Is an MBA worth it?
Suddenly, you have identified a lot of great questions, all of which can be made into web pages addressing these concerns for prospective MBA students. In doing so, you will build trust with these users, making them interested in your school over another. What’s more, optimizing for question searches increases your ability to show up for special SERP features such as rich snippets and also helps your visibility in voice search.
To look specifically for questions relating to a keyword, you can utilize tools such as Answer the Public. Other tools like Google Keyword Planner and Keywords Everywhere will help you identify other long-tail phrases such as “MBA degrees part time in Boston” or “MBA career paths,” which also provide great ideas for content.
Internal knowledge and needs
Finally, you want to pull from your own internal knowledge of your institution's unique needs to drive content strategy. For example, do you know that your MBA program isn’t having any problem filling seats but your master’s in Accounting program is? Then perhaps your efforts should be focused on the latter rather than the former. Or do you know that the MBA program is about to launch an online option that not many people know about? Then you’ll definitely want to create content around this to gain visibility for “online MBA” in the search engines.
Deciding on type(s) of content
Different topics or targeted keywords may be suitable for specific types of content on your website. For example, an academic web page, an article, and a blog post all have their own unique purposes. For example, you could have an academic page on your website that covers the curriculum of the online MBA program while also having a listicle blog that goes through “10 Careers You Can Pursue With an MBA Degree,” plus an article that talks about whether or not an MBA is “worth it” by interviewing current and past students.
A traditional web page is usually best suited for academic content. For example, you may have an MBA overview page as well as separate pages for the part-time MBA and online MBA. Furthermore, you may have pages devoted to the MBA curriculum and MBA faculty. Academic web pages should provide students with the nuts and bolts of a program along with all the options for pursuing it.
A lot of institutions have news sections they can take advantage of, though unfortunately many of these don’t always follow SEO best practices. These articles usually require research and include interviews with students, alumni, faculty, experts in a certain field, etc. This would be a good format for interviewing alumni on what they’ve done with their MBA degree or sharing how current students are applying their coursework to their workplace or internship.
Blogging is one of the most underutilized marketing strategies in higher education. According to HubSpot, “Marketers who prioritize blogging efforts are 13x more likely to see positive ROI.” A blog is a great place to really explore a question that prospective students are typing into search engines in-depth. Blogs themselves can take on many different formats, including listicles and Q&As.
Blog posts are great for exploring big-picture questions like “What careers can I pursue with an MBA degree?” Within this post, you could address several different career path options. This can even be set up in an easy-to-consume listicle format, with each option numbered and the blog title, “10 Career Paths You Can Pursue With an MBA.”
Don’t have a blog? Learn more about how to get your higher education institution blogging.
Writing a piece of web content with SEO in mind
In short: the more content you have on your website, the better—for both user experience and for SEO. Long-form content consistently performs better. In fact, according to HubSpot’s Ultimate List of Marketing Statistics for 2019, the average Google first page result contains 1,890 words. What’s more, having focused pages that don’t try to juggle multiple topics is also key.
Take, for example, an MBA program page. If you only have that one page outlining the MBA program, your site is going to perform far less than a competitor’s website that has 10 pages devoted to their MBA. That’s because the more pages you have on a topic, the more Google will see you as an expert on that topic. What’s more, prospects are searching for more than just one page of information to make a decision as life-altering as choosing a graduate program.
The MBA overview page should be just that—an overview. That page should tease certain subtopics such as careers, internships, and alumni, then link out to individual pages for each of these subtopics that contain much more information.
You may be asking the all-too-popular questions in higher ed: isn’t that too much content on each page? Will prospects really read all that? Will that much text look overwhelming on the page? Well, consider that our keyword research indicates that yes, prospects are looking for this information, so they indeed would read it. However, you do want the content to be organized in a way that is skimmable and easy to digest. That’s where headers come in.
Header tags are an important component of SEO and user experience. When Google crawls a web page, it uses header tags as guides to get an outline of what the page is about. There are several different types of header tags ranging from Header 1s to Header 6s. They carry less and less weight in the eyes of Google the further down you go. For example, H1 is the most prominent, followed by H2. There should only be one H1 per page—this should be the page’s main topic. You can have multiple H2s, which essentially serve as subheaders or subtopics for each page. H3s are used for subtopics of those subtopics and so on.
Essentially, the header tags should be organized in the same fashion in which you would create an outline. It’s not enough to simply have what appear to be headers on the page—you must ensure that you are tagging the headers correctly in your CMS. Popular CMSs like WordPress and Drupal make this very easy. Your header text should always contain the keywords you are targeting for that page.
As mentioned earlier, keyword research is essential to content marketing success. You can utilize free tools such as Google Keyword Planner, Keywords Everywhere, and Answer the Public to identify the most qualified keywords for each piece of content.
It’s good to identify both primary and secondary keywords for each piece of content. Your primary keywords will appear in the content multiple times, while your secondary keywords may only appear once. Essentially, the secondary keywords should provide additional context to the primary keywords. Secondary keywords may also guide your strategy for creating new content. For example, if you have a secondary keyword of “MBA courses” for an MBA overview page, that can indicate that perhaps a separate courses page should be created, or if one already exists, it should be optimized.
Choose three primary keywords per page, with one of those being the top keyword. Make sure they appear in your header tags, your body content, and your metadata. The secondary keywords can then be sprinkled throughout the page.
Metadata refers to the title and description that appears in the search engine results page. These elements also appear when you share a web page on social media. Metadata is essential for search engine visibility. Without optimizing your title tag and meta description, you have virtually no chance of showing up in Google and other search engines.
Every web page should have a unique title tag and meta description that contains the keywords you are targeting for that page of content. This will help your page show up for those specific keywords when someone is searching in Google. Having a unique and optimized title tag and meta description not only helps from an SEO perspective but from a user experience perspective as well.
What if a user is looking for something that you offer, even while using your brand name, yet no relevant results show up because every page of your site has the same generic metadata? This creates a frustrating experience. You want prospective students to easily find what they’re looking for when they’re searching, both with and without your brand name.
If you use WordPress as your CMS, you can install the Yoast plugin to easily insert a unique title tag and meta description on each page of your site. Other CMSs such as Drupal have similar plugins as well.
There are two different types of links you can incorporate into your web content: internal and external. Internal links point to other pages on your website, while external links point to other websites.
Linking to other pieces of relevant content on your site keeps users engaged and helps them find additional information they might be seeking. This also leads to more views across pages on your site, which helps your SEO as well.
When it comes to linking to external sites, you want to be picky. You don’t want to link to a website that isn’t as reputable as your own. Google sees .edu sites as authorities, so higher education institutions should only link to other websites that carry the same level of trust. These can include articles from large publications such as The New York Times or government websites. What you don’t want to do is link out to, say, a website for a small business in the town your school is located in. These kinds of shoutouts should be reserved for social media.
When it comes to incorporating links on a web page, you don’t want to go overboard. As a general rule of thumb, aim to link to no more than two to three pages per paragraph. Only link to legitimate sources that are relevant to the content and that prospects will find useful.
You also want to pay attention to the text that you choose to link. You want to be sure this text accurately describes where the link is going. This is crucial for ADA compliance. You should avoid having link text that simply says “Click here.” Instead, use more descriptive link text such as “View our MBA curriculum to learn more.”
Going beyond the written form
Higher education institutions are starting to branch out to different types of content beyond the written word. Considering there are 1.9 billion monthly active users on YouTube and that 26% of Americans listen to podcasts, this is a smart move. If your college or university hasn’t taken advantage of new content platforms yet, now is the time.
Optimizing video on YouTube
Did you know that YouTube is the second-largest search engine after Google? In fact, Google owns YouTube and YouTube videos show up in Google search results. For this reason, any video content you have should live on YouTube and be optimized for this platform.
Some content may be best suited for a video format. Take, for example, a campus tour or an alumni spotlight. You can even repurpose written content for video as well. You may have a student feature that’s both an article on the website and a video interview on your YouTube channel.
You can learn more about how to SEO/optimize YouTube videos here.
Has your college or university considered starting a podcast? Podcasts certainly take commitment, but this is a great medium for getting brand recognition. You can also utilize schema markup to optimize podcast episodes in Google search results.
Curious to see how other institutions have implemented a podcast into their content marketing strategy? Boston University’s Population Health Exchange has a podcast titled “Free Associations” in which the hosts and School of Public Health professors discuss best practices for reviewing journal articles using examples of topics that range from innovative to amazing and amusing.
If you choose to utilize infographics on your website, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, the text contained within the infographic will not be visible to Google, so you want to ensure that the text also lives in HTML somewhere. Second, you want to be sure that the image is optimized both for search and ADA compliance. You can do this by designating a title and alt text that utilizes keywords.
If you follow the above best practices, infographics can help you gain great image search visibility. Infographics are also great to share on social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Does your higher education institution have a content marketing strategy in place?
Are you engaging with your prospective students? Or are you just relying on a single program overview as the only piece of web content available to convince prospects to be further interested in your institution?
Developing a content marketing strategy should be an essential component of your college or university’s marketing initiatives. Creating content that is optimized for search engines allows you to meet prospective students where and when they are looking for what you offer.
Content provides immense value to your prospects. The more you identify (with data) what they are searching for and the more you answer those questions, the more they will see you as an authority figure and the best-fit school for them.
Carnegie Dartlet regularly runs SEO Writing Workshops on college and university campuses throughout the country and works with schools to create and execute content marketing strategies. Learn more about how we can help now.