The following guest post was written by Katy Zimmerman, Content Strategist at Colorado Technical University.
What if I told you that you have a team of expert writers at your disposal? It’s true. Content professionals in higher education are sitting on a potential gold mine of untapped authors. University faculty are subject-matter experts in their field, and many also have excellent writing chops. But how can you best use these experts and turn them into a team of contributing web writers?
At Colorado Technical University (CTU), we launched a faculty blog in summer 2012. During the blog’s early stages, we encountered several challenges. There was a common belief among university staff that we’d never be able to convince our faculty to write for us. Once we overcame this challenge, we still faced another problem: The content we received was extremely inconsistent in tone and quality and required extensive editing.
Also, as excitement over the blog grew, we found we were answering similar repeat questions from new writers curious about how to get stared. And once an author published, we were having trouble motivating them to write for us again.
Despite these obstacles, we now — just under a year later — publish an average of three to five faculty-written posts per week and build traffic to the site every month. I’d like to share with you how we got there.
Our Initial Challenges
Here are some of the obstacles we faced and how we defeated them to get to where we are today.
Getting Past Uncertainties
Our biggest challenge was overcoming uncertainty. Blogging was a brand new medium for many of our faculty — and like many working professionals, they were busy, highly focused individuals. My team and I explained that we weren’t asking for academic papers that took months of research. Rather, we sought short, powerful blogs in the range of 300 to 700 words, roughly equivalent to a long email.
In fact, we offered this tip: In the time it takes to write a long email, you could have just written a blog post.
The comparison proved to be an effective message in helping to clear up our faculty and leadership’s misconceptions about blogging. We used the reference often in our communications soliciting university writers. The day I overheard one of our deans use the line to convince a colleague that he should write a blog post, I knew we were on to something.
To jump-start our faculty author program, we initially offered a $200 payment per published blog post. This small amount of money was enough to galvanize initial efforts and build early enthusiasm. But our content team wanted to go broader and build a program that could be powered without financial incentive. So we emphasized how our blog could serve as a platform to position faculty writers as thought-leaders in their field.
Incidentally, several of our faculty bloggers were contacted by newspapers, magazines and radio shows to speak as subject-matter experts on topics they had blogged about. And the neat part was, we didn’t pitch the stories at all — these news outlets found our authors through organic search rather than PR outreach. What we did do, however, was celebrate these wins and circulate them throughout the university as examples of the exposure that could be gained through blogging.
It didn’t take long for word to spread internally as more and more writers were published on our blog. A culture shift occurred in our institution, and within a few months, we no longer needed the financial incentive. Increasing numbers of faculty and staff were eager to contribute — in an average month, new bloggers contributed around 25 percent of our posts, representing five posts a month.
Our writers needed tools to guide them and resources to manage the coordination and editorial processes. Author bios and headshots needed to be written and collected. New blogs needed to be reviewed and edited. So our team expanded to include a dedicated coordinator (who handles blog calendar planning and routes blogs from writers to our editor and finally to the web team for publishing), a freelance editor, and a copywriter.
Once faculty blog posts started coming in, we noticed a wide disparity in length, quality and tone. Bloggers needed guidance and parameters to ensure consistent quality. We also continually received the same set of questions from new authors. Their questions needed answers, but we needed a more efficient question-answer solution.
As a result, we developed a set of blogging tools to help guide our authors. This included a content template to serve as a reference when formatting a post, as well as a document offering blogging best practices. We even crafted a voice-and-tone guide as an extension of our brand standards guide in order to define our writing style.
In addition, we created guidelines to address the most common questions and to outline our submission process: how to submit a post, when and to whom to submit it and when to expect a reply. We also wrote guidelines to summarize the review and web publishing process, including editing and legal compliance review.
These content tools improved our processes tremendously. Our writers were now equipped to focus on their articles, and we spent far less time editing posts and answering repeat questions.
Once we had an established group of writers, we wanted to keep them motivated to continue writing. We made a concerted effort to show our appreciation as often as possible — initially through thank you notes and CTU peer-to-peer recognition awards that show appreciation for fellow employees.
Then we took the process a step further and built a formal recognition program specific to our blog, both to show appreciation for our regular contributors and to motivate new authors to join in on the fun. By contributing at least three posts per year, a writer earns the distinction of official “CTU Faculty Blogger.” In addition to an exclusive email icon blogger badge, writers also receive a development credit toward their professional development goals, a requirement for adjunct faculty.
My team has found our recognition program to be very successful, producing both visibility for regular contributors and healthy competition among other faculty who want to earn their own badge.
Four Tips to Build Your Program
In just under a year, we have over 75 contributing writers and over 200 published articles. Here are some tips to use when building a team of academic writers at your institution.
1. Set Expectations
Your faculty’s definition of writing may be far different from the guidelines on your blog. A 3000-word journal article is a much larger time commitment than a 400-word blog post. When asking your faculty members and academic leaders to spend time writing original content on behalf of the university, be clear and specific.
Create parameters: Do you have a maximum or minimum word count? What should the focus of the post be? Share examples of the type of writing you’re looking for to help potential contributors determine if their schedules will be able to accommodate the work.
Start at the top: If executive leaders show support and contribute to your program, university faculty are more likely to pay attention.
For example, at CTU, Eric Stortz, vice president of operations and regular blog post contributor, was one of our earliest supporters and helped us gain the attention of university leaders. Dr. Connie Johnson, chief academic officer and provost, was also an early advocate of faculty blogging and is still today one of our most frequent contributors. This executive support was influential when soliciting new faculty bloggers.
Ask your university leaders to start first and set the example for others to follow.
2. Explain Value
Describe the benefits of being a published thought-leader. Help contributors see how writing for your blog will be to their advantage. Why will the effort be worth their while? Here are some incentives you might offer.
Beef up their resume: Remind your writers that once published, they too can reap the rewards. A link to a published blog or whitepaper will complement their LinkedIn profile nicely.
Become a recognized expert: Through your distribution and outreach plan, contributors will benefit directly from the added exposure and PR they get for being an expert in their field.
3. Make It Easy
Giving your writers useful content tools will help ensure a quick and efficient process.
Develop content templates and other resources: As mentioned above, these tools make the process easier for everyone. They will help your new writers build and format their posts. They also speed up production time, getting you closer to the final product earlier in the process.
Offer training: Workshops can be a useful tool for training a team of writers. Bring in an outside expert to explain the basics of blog writing and to share best practices with your team. Or use training as an opportunity to convene with your regular contributing writers and take their skills to the next level.
4. Recognize and Reward
Everyone likes to feel appreciated; academic faculty are no different.
Write hand-written notes: Do you recall the last time you received a hand written note? With the rise of digital communications, people today rarely use this form of thanks, which is why it’s more appreciated than ever.
Take advantage of internal opportunities: Share published blog posts with your senior leadership team and encourage them, in turn, to share the posts with their teams.
Use formal recognition programs: If your school offers peer-to-peer formal recognition programs, take advantage of the platform to formally thank your stand-out contributors. Or consider building one of your own as we did.
Access to a large network of highly educated subject-matter experts puts you in a unique position that many content marketers in corporate settings would envy. With the right messaging, tools and reinforcement, a thriving content development team is within your reach.
Do faculty write blogs or other online content at your institution? What have you found helpful to encourage their participation?
Homepage photo credit: CTU blogging superstars Emad Rahim, Ph.D., University Dean of Business & Management and Rich Holloway, J.D. University Program Director of Criminal Justice at Colorado Technical University.