A Higher Ed Content Strategist Survival Guide

The following guest post was written by Lisa Maria Martin, a content strategist and information architect in higher ed. Lisa Maria will be speaking at Confab Higher Ed in Atlanta, GA this November.

Life saver

New to leading content strategy in higher ed? These lessons learned might be a life saver.

I’ve spent time in academia, and I’ve spent time in content strategy, but never before had I mixed the two.

Then, last winter, I began working at a large, private university, handling content strategy and information architecture for websites across the institution’s online presence. Thus far, it’s been a supremely rewarding adventure – though not without its challenges.

Now that I’ve broken in my role (we’re finally past that awkward blister stage), I’ve wondered: What have I learned so far? What do I wish I had known in those first few disorienting weeks? What could have smoothed some of my (ahem) less elegant moments?

Maybe you’re like me, making the jump from agency life to higher ed, or maybe you’ve just been given responsibility for your department’s web content. What do you do now? What do you look out for? How do you make this transition with all the grace of a leaping, CMS-literate gazelle?

You learn from my mistakes, my friend.

1. Meet your real audience.

If you’re new to working in higher ed, you might already think you know your audience: students, duh. You were one once, so naturally you must know how they think.

But which students are you talking about? Prospective students? New transfers? International graduate students? Returning veterans? Part-time working adults at the satellite campus? Rising seniors who live in McGill Hall?

Focusing on “students” won’t clarify your goals any more than focusing on “staff” or “faculty” – or, oh, “humans.” Your audience (and their goals) will be very specific, whether you’re building a website to teach employees about their benefits or structuring content for the student housing office. The purpose of your site, the vision of your leadership, the attitudes of the student body, the values of the institution – all of this affects how you talk to, and develop content for, your audience.

And there’s no excuse not to get to know them. In many cases, you might actually be living, eating, and working with your audience every day – a huge difference from other industries. The last time I needed a student perspective, I walked 20 feet from my desk to chat up the work-study kids who manage our office’s front desk. They’re right there. Go talk to them!

2. Think outside the boxes and arrows.

Beyond your audience, learn everything you can about your organization. You don’t have to commit the org charts to memory (well, that wouldn’t hurt), but it helps to understand reporting structures, value propositions, service offerings, relationships, acronyms, and all those other pesky details that go along with being part of an organization. In other words, learn the content.

Not knowing your content can lead to some silly mistakes. Shortly after my arrival at the university, I got to create student personas based on user interviews. I assigned my fictional characters what I thought were appropriately diverse majors – until my boss pointed out that my freshman was in a program only available to grad students, and my grad student was in a program only offered at a different campus.

The error was easily correctable, but I’m lucky it was spotted. The personas were slated for use on an intense, long-term, multi-website project, where my “tiny” mistake could have snowballed into repeatedly misdirected content choices.

With time, I’ve not only learned our academic offerings, but begun to see content patterns throughout the university. Academic programs and university initiatives can cut across departments, span campuses, and market to multiple audiences; a simple content decision on one site can suddenly and unexpectedly impact others.

It takes time to understand how all the pieces fit together, but it starts with actively consuming information – even when it seemingly falls outside your box on the org chart.

3. Pace your “suggestions.”

Sometimes, in a new environment, it’s easy to spot gaps in established processes – and it’s tempting to rush to fill them (especially when you’re new and eager to prove your value).

But it takes time to absorb the full intricacies of the existing team’s design and content processes – not just the steps on paper, but the invisible forces at work, the fringe cases that introduce new obstacles, the solutions that have already run their course, and so on. It’s possible your techniques or deliverables have already been tested and tried. Our institutions have very long memories.

If you push for change too quickly, you may not understand why things are the way they are. What you see as design or research flaws might be the result of resourcing issues or politics. Do you know how many hoops your boss has to jump through to get approvals for web surveys? Do you know the senior vice president’s stance on responsive design? Do you know if the budget allocations exist to hire content creators?

Every team has limitations. Don’t assume they’re borne of ignorance. The longer you’re there, the more you’ll see the boundaries and where you have leeway to push them.

Make sure you’re really listening, not just waiting for your turn to talk.

4. Mind the politics.

Higher ed is a fantastic industry, but it’s no stranger to the challenges that plague other industries. As in any large, established organization, you might experience painfully slow decision-making, boatloads of red tape, and territorialism. Personality conflicts, grudges, and everyday sensitivities can shape projects in ways that seem strange to outsiders.

One of my earliest projects – which I joined midstream – was so tangled up in its own histories that I had to attend a meeting just to be briefed on said tangles: the phrases I should and shouldn’t use, who to expect resistance from, and the complicated origins of the project tensions.

My initial instinct was to ignore it. So some people are in a snit – so what? I won’t be dragged into it! I can fix all the problems because I’m new and different! But the truth is, without having at least a cursory understanding of the project history, I would have had both feet in my mouth at the next stakeholders’ meeting.

Rather than holier-than-thou ignorance, be matter-of-fact. Treat politics as any other project constraint, like limited budget or an aggressive timeline – but a constraint that requires empathy and careful attention. Rely on trusted coworkers (who have been there longer than you!) to keep you informed and help you navigate potential conflicts.

5. Find allies everywhere.

Reach out. Depending on where you sit in your institution, you might work very closely with developers in IT – or you might not even know who they are. You might have an entire team of marketers backing you up, or you might have to work through a far-flung media relations office.

If you don’t have others in your office who do what you do, where can you find potential support? Try your counterpart in other offices, a central web team for the university, or even your local content strategy meetup. Don’t assume that people outside your immediate reporting structure can’t help you – or that people with other titles won’t be able to champion the content strategy cause.

A few months ago, I sat down with a “Director of Research Communications” to discuss the website for her boss’s lab. She’d never heard of content strategy, but during the meeting, she said, “Well, I want this site launched as quickly as my boss does, but I told him we can’t even begin the process until we know what content we want on the website.”

I almost hugged her on the spot. And, wouldn’t you know it, their website launched on time, with well-managed, well-structured, solidly written content. You just never know who’s going to be in your corner.

6. Hug it out.

Immerse yourself in your school’s personality. Learn the history, the colors, the fight song. This isn’t just a job that happens to be at a university – you’re part of a community now. By embracing it, rather than keeping it at arm’s length, you’ll feel like you have a stake in it, too.

So root for the mascot. Participate in their personality tests and team-building exercises and community events. Read their publications (even the student paper). Pay attention to what the local and national news is saying about your fellow Colonials, Bears, Terrapins, Hawkeyes, or Huskers.

And go on the campus tour. You’ll get to see what prospective students see, in all their nervousness and excitement and hope. (You’ll also learn where they’re hiding the library Starbucks. I cannot stress this enough.)

With less than a year into my position here, I know there will be more lessons to come (there are so many stakeholders whose toes I haven’t even stepped on yet). There will never be a day where I just know all the things and nothing ever changes again.

But one of the reasons that I chose to work in higher ed was because of my background in teaching. Like our institutions, I place a lot of value on the learning process. The real lesson is in recognizing that the learning never stops.

Photo by dirk1812 / Flickr Creative Commons

About Lisa Maria Martin

Lisa Maria Martin has been a copywriter, a designer, a poet, a journalist, and a composition lecturer at several universities — which sparked her interest in higher ed web work. She is currently an information architect and content strategist at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She spends egregious amounts of time on Twitter (@redsesame) and occasionally writes at thefutureislikepie.com.

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  1. Amanda Costello says:

    LOVE the idea of going on the campus tour; our university is massive, but prospective students can request custom visits based on their college of interest. Totally putting this on the to-do roster for fall semester.

  2. Great post! It’s great to get a fresh perspective of entering a new workplace. I found number five particularly helpful. I am one of the few social media content strategists in my entire program and often find myself struggling to make decisions that would benefit from good advice but I never through to reach out to other departments within the university. Thanks for the wonderful advice.

  3. I can relate to this post on so many levels. After two years with the institution, I still feel like I’m finding my way in some respects, especially since I work with people who have been there 10, 15, even 20+ years! I could not agree more with #3 and #4, and I still see newbies not taking these two factors into consideration and running into major obstacles because of it. Great advice and great post!

  4. Sarah Corfield says:

    Thanks for your great article – I’m preparing for an interview for a marketing role in a business school, so this was really interesting!

What do you think?