Higher Ed Live Recap: “A ‘Content-First’ Approach to Higher Ed Web”

On June 19, we appeared on Higher Ed Live with Seth Odell to talk about a “content-first” approach to higher ed web. It was a great discussion about why content matters and how we can make it the center of our conversations about the web in higher ed.

We’d like to share the episode with you and flesh out some of the ideas we discussed with Seth.

Why “Content First”?

Content should always come first because we need it to support all other web work.

  • Designers can’t create effective designs without understanding your content needs.
  • Developers can’t create effective technology solutions without understanding the purpose of the content.
  • Marketers can’t execute a marketing strategy without the content to support it.

Often when people hear examples like these, they’re quick to nod and agree — of course content is important! — but when push comes to shove, colleges frequently still don’t make content a priority.

When priorities are challenged, we typically hear:

  • “We can make do with lorem ipsum.”
  • “We can figure out the content governance model after launch.”
  • “Let’s publish the content we have for now and fix it later.”

At most colleges, “for now” is a long time.

How Did We Get Here?

When the web emerged as a platform back in the era of Hypercolor shirts, everything was new, and best practices emerged to define it. But content? We had plenty of that! We pasted and repurposed from any available alumni magazine, annual report or course bulletin. Phew! Thank God we already had the content.

Only in recent years have we been coming around to the fact that content on the web is a new and unique thing, and it requires processes and protocols to make it work. The discipline of content strategy helps us make the case for giving our content the time and resources it needs to be exceptional. It may seem daunting, but you can always start somewhere.

Building Relationships Around Effective Content

Are you isolated in a department, trying valiantly to make your web content work? Or are you working in a central level, realizing that in a decentralized organization, there is little change you can unilaterally effect from that perch? Are you a staff member charged with producing newsletters and web copy when that isn’t really your strength?

All of these challenges can be addressed through relationships. If you’re isolated, find your peers in other schools or departments. If you’re central, bring people together for lunch or a meeting to talk about what your institution needs to do content right. It’s not about committees; it’s about meaningful relationships that facilitate knowledge sharing and education.

Ask “Why?”

Not sure where to begin? Start by asking a deceptively simple question.


Challenge yourself and others to answer questions such as these:

  • Why does this content exist on our website?
  • Why are we using Twitter?
  • Why is this webpage a PDF?
  • Why are we using this photo?

Every piece of content on your website needs a purpose — even something as common as a Contact Us page. If you can’t answer “why?” it shouldn’t be there.

Advocating for Content at Your Institution

There are two components to this: never shut up, and never stop listening. Invite yourself to meetings, host brown bags, get coffee with anyone and everyone who has something to do with content on your campus. Listen to what they have to say about their needs, their goals, their pain points. Ask questions — Why? Then, share your ideas. Collaborate to develop resources and educational opportunities to help fill the knowledge gap and demonstrate the value of a more thoughtful process around content. Create content working groups that can serve as a knowledgebase for others around campus. To get content to be taken seriously, find strength in numbers and knowledge.

Go tell it on the mountain! Preach the good word: content first.

Let’s keep talking. What do you think?

  • RSS
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
About Rick Allen and Georgy Cohen

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

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive, a digital agency based in the Boston area. Previously, she worked in content roles at Tufts University, Suffolk University, and her independent consultancy to higher ed, Crosstown Digital Communications.


  1. Amen!

    Always happy to support proponents of a content-centric model. In fact, I recently did a conference presentation that included my wish to see organizations lead Website “Content” Redesigns. Too often they only focus on “web” and “design” elements but forget the more important “site” architecture and “content” elements.

    I do also think “quality” content is king so it’s important to lay the groundwork for what makes your university unique/special and what is the brand/ideal you’re wanting to communicate. Furthermore, who is your target audience and what interests them. Highlighting the special research or student projects going on may make great content pieces but may require involving those who are not in the current content creation loop.

    Keep preaching because it’s a good word :).

What do you think?