Content and Community in Higher Education

Wallace and Gromit

How does content support your higher ed community?

Some things were just meant to go together — mac and cheese, Wallace and Gromit, Georgy Cohen and a karaoke bar. Also, content strategy and community management.

When it comes to social media, these disciplines are completely dependent upon each other. Every tweet, Facebook comment, Flickr photo, YouTube video and blog post is content — and content should give people a reason to stay engaged in your community, conveying meaningful ideas worth contributing and responding to. Content strategy provides a framework for ensuring content is meaningful, appropriate, and valued by your community.

How do we communicate our brand and reflect an appropriate voice and tone? What content types and delivery channels are most effective for our communication goals? When, where and how should we publish content?

You can’t create relevant, on-brand, shareworthy content without content strategy, and you can’t guide, respond to and promote community interactions without community management. The challenge is aligning content strategy with community management to deliver on unifying goals and to support business objectives and users’ needs.

How does this work in higher ed? How can content create and sustain meaningful conversation? What types of content best serve our community? What are the opportunities for using social content in new or better ways?

I reached out to a few higher ed community managers to get their take on planning for content and community. Here’s what they had to say.

Create and Sustain Meaningful Conversation

What is the role of content in online community management?

Ashley Hennigan, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Rochester Institute of Technology (@ashleyhenn)

When I have conversations with colleagues about web content, especially referring to social media, the same words seem to dominate the conversation — engaging, relevant and media-rich. As a community manager, it’s important to break these words down and understand how they relate to your content and your audience.

Engaging must mean “remarkable.” If the content is not worth talking about, it will fizzle fast in a social experience.

In a social space, relevant content often correlates to “real time,” right now! – Ashley Hennigan, RIT

Relevant should not only relate to what the audience wants but also to the time frame in which they want the content delivered. In a social space, relevant content often correlates to “real time,” right now!

Lastly, rich content or a media-rich environment relates to the form in which the content is shared. For example, a video blog would be considered more media-rich than a text-based status update. It’s possible that the more remarkable and relevant the content is, the less media-rich the content needs to be, but a community manager should always be striving to deliver the most media-rich, relevant and remarkable content available.

Alaina Wiens, New Media Communication Specialist, University of Michigan-Flint (@alainawiens)

Our online communities are a great place to share content that uplifts our brand and informs our audience. We must be mindful, though, that not all content is relevant to our online communities and not every online community is the same. The community we build on Facebook may be totally different than the community we build on Twitter or another social network.

Content should be tailored to the wants and needs of each specific community, and we should monitor which content is best received over time.

Mike Petroff, Web and Enrollment Technology Manager, Emerson College (@mikepetroff)

I feel strongly that content is the initiator of conversation within an online community. There needs to be a topic to discuss or story to generate opinions for a community to thrive and return for more. Steadily delivering or curating content is the best place to start when trying to develop conversation.

Listen Up!

How can we plan for content that supports online community and social media goals?


The key to planning for content is in this role is understanding the community. Your community should and will dictate your social media strategy.

In order to deliver remarkable content, you must know what your audience is talking about. Listen and they will tell you what they almost always tell you: what they are looking for, when they want it, and in what form.

The overarching goal in any social media strategy is to build and benefit from relationships. Communication in this case must be a two-way street. A community manager must listen and respond.


Assuming that one of our social media goals is to foster a thriving and active online community, we can plan for appropriate content by monitoring and measuring. What content is getting the most response and interaction? What content are people asking for? Do user questions have a common theme?


Content can either be the initial conversation piece or the conversation itself. – Mike Petroff, Emerson College

First, it is critical to listen to the needs and wants of the target audience for the community. Then, deliver content by creating answers to their questions or topics for them to discuss, or by showcasing content from within the community.

Content can either be the initial conversation piece or the conversation itself — so you must be prepared to collect and showcase each.

Be Prepared for Customer Service

What are the content challenges you face in supporting your online community?


No question about it, the biggest challenge I face in community management is keeping up! Conversations and remarkable stories move fast. In order to stay relevant, you have to position yourself in the right place at the right time. It’s easy to get hung up on the quality or presentation when providing rich-media. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stay relevant for the audience and deliver the content when they want it, without the bells and whistles.


There will always be a level of unpredictability when it comes to an online audience. – Alaina Wiens, University of Michigan-Flint

No matter how much monitoring or measuring we do, there will always be a level of unpredictability when it comes to an online audience. In some cases, all prior experience tells you that a post is going to get a great response — but it flops. In other cases, seemingly innocuous content leads to debate.

Another challenge arises in sharing content generated by others in the university. Perhaps there is a campus event or topic that’s of interest to the community, but the in-depth details live within another department. When questions arise, answers can take time to collect and report.


Community management’s biggest enemy is scaling good customer service. You must prepare to scale your support as soon as you decide to increase the size of your audience. A happy and well taken care of audience will be an incredible asset to your marketing efforts but only as long as they stay happy. Organizations lose out when they aren’t prepared for audience growth within an online community.

Community Building, Content-First

Can you share an example of an online community-building initiative you have been a part of and how content contributed to its success?


It is hard for me not to recognize the group of social media ambassadors that I work with at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Their content is often remarkable, relevant and almost always very media-rich. They use multiple social media platforms to deliver their content, including individual text-based and video blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. They deliver content for students by students and as a result are tapped into the pulse of their audience. Content is updated 24/7, especially on the Twitter feeds, and we aggregate the content to various places including the RIT accepted student homepage.

Outside of day-to-day engagement, social media ambassadors write and produce a weekly web series each year offering a more in-depth look at RIT Behind the Scenes. The group has been widely successful reaching current students, alumni, faculty and staff but has really made an impact on undergraduate enrollment at RIT reaching their target audience of prospective students and parents.


In December 2010, the University of Michigan-Flint launched a Facebook campaign called “UM-Flint Was Here.” The campaign encouraged the Facebook community to take a photo somewhere in the world with the UM-Flint logo and share it. All photos have been collected in a photo album on the university Facebook page. With limited promotion, the campaign has seen photos from all over the world.

Soliciting and showcasing user content has encouraged others to share their own content with us. The campaign has been a vehicle for learning about student initiatives and has helped us make connections with students, staff, faculty and alumni.


Using Storify, we collected our students’ coverage of orientation and wrote an Emerson news story alongside [it]. – Mike Petroff, Emerson College

When it came time to cover our orientation and move-in activities for the class of 2015 at Emerson, I knew I needed to reach out to our student community for content. I met with some key student ambassadors and student activities leaders on campus along with our marketing department before orientation. We developed some strategies to promote a Twitter hashtag and email address / Flickr tagging for photos and video submissions, and set up some listening stations to track and curate orientation content by the hour.

Using Storify, we collected our students’ coverage of orientation and wrote an Emerson news story alongside the Storify (updated daily) when covering orientation. It worked out great and gathered steam each day since the students saw Emerson College promoting their tweets, pictures and videos.

Engage with Remarkable Content

What are some opportunities for using content in new or better ways for online community and social media efforts?


Be the source of remarkable content for your audience. Ashley Hennigan, RIT

Aggregate. Drive the content to one place so your audience doesn’t need to go to five different social platforms looking for it. Pick up a camera. A text-based blog is helpful in some instances, but if you are able to tune in and share a bit more of your personality through video, this is where relationship building will thrive.

Listen, respond and be timely. There are tools available to help you be in multiple places at once, but it will still take time and dedication to provide relevant content. Lastly, be creative. Push beyond the norm and be the source of remarkable content for your audience. Engagement is easy after that.


If we’re truly seeking to build online communities, why should all of our content be our own? Brands that engage with audiences online should be interacting in those community spaces, sharing others’ relevant content, soliciting content from users and responding to content that community members have created.

We know that social media cannot be used as broadcast channels and that we should encourage feedback and engagement (however we choose to define these terms), but we have to move even beyond a two-way conversation and truly connect with the members of the community we are trying to build.


Find ways to collect community concerns and build a detailed (and up-to-date) FAQ or knowledgebase for them. Addressing the needs of the community is paramount.

Prepare — don’t react — with your content. If you build an editorial calendar in advance, be ready with content (videos, blog posts, etc.) that you know your community will love or talk about. It may sound crazy, but you can plan out your engagement in advance with good and targeted content.

More Examples

How do you plan for content and community? What are the challenges you face in making content work in a social sphere?

Update (November 21, 2011): As a follow-up to this post, we reached out to Jenny Mackintosh to learn about content and community at Boston University.

  • RSS
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »

What do you think?