Planning Content for Online Programs

Laptop, papers and headphones

For many, this is the new campus.

For many students, campus is no longer a bucolic, tree-lined quad—it’s the nearest web browser. The face of higher education is changing, thanks to the boom of online learning programs—from traditional campuses introducing online degree programs to new, online-only institutions.

As these programs and institutions have emerged, they have had to find creative ways to not only market themselves to a range of prospective students, but to facilitate virtual relationships among students and faculty. To accomplish both goals, a successful content strategy is essential. Except this time, there are no ivy-covered brick buildings that can represent your campus if your content isn’t up to the task. There’s a lot riding on how we communicate online.

We asked four individuals with experience managing content marketing for online programs in higher ed about how they handle these challenges.

Building Community

1. What role does content play in supporting an online community? How does content help bridge that gap between an online and classroom experience for students?

Seth Odell (@sethodell), director of interactive marketing, Southern New Hampshire University: Content is the magnet that pulls our online community together. Whether it is institutionally generated or user created, we find that students connect with each other, and our brand, around content that embodies their interests, provides a point of pride, sparks a conversation.

At SNHU we understand that the student experience extends well beyond the [learning management system] environment, which is why most recently we have undertaken our biggest community project to date: to introduce and implement a social layer across the entire online student experience. This community project is hinged on the idea that everyone is both a content consumer and producer.

By empowering students to share their work and passion, ask questions, provide guidance, receive assistance, we hope to build a robust community of lifelong learners and dramatically increase the overall online student experience.

Sarah Krznarich (@krznarich), former assistant director of content strategy and student engagement, Arizona State University Online: Supporting an online community, especially one of such varied and disparate students, can be tough. When it came to pushing out university-related content, such as academic calendar updates, we had to be smart about pushing it out onto multiple channels, and keeping it clear and concise.

I found that where content was posted was often as important as what the content was. – Sarah Krznarich

We used ASU’s student portal, a place students had to visit to get into their classes, but we also stepped up the use of social media platforms. The portal didn’t allow for conversations, while Facebook let students ask questions and advise one another. I found that where content was posted was often as important as what the content was.

Mike Lesczinski (@MikeLesczinski), public relations manager, Excelsior College: For those of us in public relations, content is about storytelling – we use different platforms to share our story with our students and in turn to share their story with the outside world.

For example, our “campus” events held in Albany, N.Y. are livestreamed and archived on the web. These include a series of interactive webinars on a variety of topics. On a given night, a student could listen in as a career counselor discusses how to translate military skills to a civilian resume, watch a panel of women technologists debate professional development strategies, or learn from a security expert on how to prevent cybercrime.

John Dalton (@JODaltonIUE), director of communications and marketing, Indiana University East: Our favorite saying is that “Content is a hungry beast” and we need to constantly be feeding it; not just pitching classroom or college content but slices of daily life as well. It seems what we call “experience marketing” is more difficult to quantify for online students but we think about it a lot; promoting the video streaming of our basketball and volleyball games is a start, so that online students realize we have an actual campus with campus life and sports, as opposed to some other online schools.

Keeping an Edge in a Changing Marketplace

Online learning is quickly entering the mainstream of the higher education experience. How are content efforts such as yours helping fuel this growth and providing you with a competitive edge, and what challenges remain? How do you foresee the shifts in the higher ed marketplace affecting your content efforts?

Odell: Content helps fuel program growth in a number of ways. One key way is by providing prospective students with a demonstration of value prior to inquiring or enrolling. Today’s prospective students are savvy shoppers and want to see for themselves what the caliber of the education is, as well as what the real student experience is like.

From websites where students can record and share their own experiences, to online groups that gather students by interest for online community building and networking, we try to be as transparent as possible about the experience students will have at SNHU, by letting our current students share their experiences.

Often this content creation, even if it’s just conversation, is topic-based, and that’s where the real benefit to us is in marketing. Just like online groups connect and create based on interest, so too do prospective students search for programs. For students searching program-specific terms, their first touch point with our offerings may be through a student’s online post, rather than through our traditional website.

Being able to accurately track, measure and correlate your actions to prospective students actions is a must. – Seth Odell

The biggest challenge moving ahead is having a strategic plan to properly create content opportunities around all program offerings. Being able to accurately track, measure and correlate your actions to prospective students actions is a must.

Finally, for the market as a whole, I see further transparency coming to the marketplace, which is a very good thing for students, and will be fueled by accessible, authentic content.

Krznarich: I focused our content efforts on the things that have always “wrapped around” a student’s education: study tips, time management help, and discovering people or opportunities in one’s area of interest—curating articles on landing a new job, for example.

Our content had to travel beyond a campus —since our students’ campus is their laptop— and it meant digging into resources like Alumni and Career Services and crafting new ways to engage students with the university. Pep rallies and bookstore sales couldn’t get pushed to our audience; we had to create a strategy that made sense in both San Diego and Chicago.

Lesczinski: To compete with the for-profits and traditional institutions, we must focus on the quality of the student experience for our enrolled students and look for ways to build peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student relationships.

We will be looking to increase the personalization of the content. – Mike Lesczinski

We will be looking to increase the personalization of the content. For instance, since we are a distance learning college, we will be introducing an “Ask an Advisor” video series for each of our school YouTube channels to give our students a chance to put a face to the voice on the other end of the line. Our veteran’s center, currently in development, will focus on building a strong peer-to-peer community, helping our military veteran students share their stories and achievements with others, find mentors and study buddies and build relationships that we believe will enhance their academic and life success.

Dalton: We definitely feel our main attraction is that we offer an Indiana University degree, which has value and gravitas worldwide. I do believe as the marketplace grows more sophisticated the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit as well as places that have actual brick and mortar will become more evident.

Going With What Works

In crafting a content strategy geared toward online students, what content types do you feel are particularly effective in helping both you achieve your goals and students meet their needs? How do you manage and measure your execution?

Odell: It depends entirely on where the student is within their educational journey and what their needs are. At SNHU we are beginning to offer everything from video tutorials on navigating the online learning environment, to online clubs and journals, and we’re even exploring things like virtual internships and online career services.

Krznarich: Students who learn online often vary in age, occupation, and location, so it was important to provide our supporting content in a variety of ways. For example, our “Online Student Orientation” consisted of screencasts (short videos with voiceover) but also PDFs that could be printed and read.

If a particular type of post length of story performed well, we used that to inform future efforts. – Sarah Krznarich

We relied on Google Analytics to tell us which content types were successful—time on page, exit paths, and conversion rates all contributed to our content’s “grade.” If a particular type of post length of story performed well, we used that to inform future efforts.

Lesczinski: Interactive web events are quite popular among our students, providing a platform for them to interact and engage with their classmates, instructors, guests, and members of the external community in real-time. However, one of the “gaps” may be that real-time access isn’t possible for some students, so all of this is archived for asynchronous access.

From a communications perspective, we’ll look at a broad range of metrics, anything from registration numbers and attendance at our web events to the number of views and comments on a YouTube video to Google Analytics. Radian6 has also proved quite helpful to measuring our social media content and identifying places where our content is being shared and reaction on the web. We’ll be looking to incorporate more of our content-based initiatives into student satisfaction surveys, as well.

Dalton: The data that we see about more students gravitating to Twitter is holding true for our student population as well; I would say that if you discount traditional email and focus on social media, anecdotally we are answering more questions on Twitter than anywhere.

Case Studies

Give an example of a successful student-oriented content initiative you have undertaken, including how you executed it and what the outcome was, as well as one that was not as successful and the lessons learned.

Odell: In the Spring we launched SNHU Stories, a crowdsourced website that allowed students to record and post their own video testimonials. The videos were then posted to the site, which featured a map of the world that demonstrated the reach of the SNHU community. The project took a fair amount of work upfront, but has received a significant amount of videos. We’re happy students have a place to share their story, and for us as the institution it only helps when our most passionate brand ambassadors have something, in this case a video, they can share with all their friends and family. Organic growth is the name of the game, and it’s fueled by good old-fashioned word of mouth.

Organic growth is the name of the game, and it’s fueled by good old-fashioned word of mouth. – Seth Odell

I wouldn’t say we’ve had anything that was unsuccessful, but we have had some content projects that took time. In the spring we also launched, a website celebrating social entrepreneurship, featuring videos and articles about the subject.

After we first launched it, it really took awhile for the site to take off. That was a real lesson for us, that if you create content they won’t necessarily come, at least not right away. But we put together a strong plan to expand the brand, established a content calendar, built some strong relationships with fellow social entrepreneurs online, and most recently were named a Top Blog of 2012 by BuyerZone, an accolade we are quite excited about.

Krznarich: Several months ago, all ASU students had to reset their password for security reasons. Because this affected student email and portal access, we had to rely solely on a generic homepage message and social media to communicate with students.

Our team was in constant contact with concerned students, answering posts early in the morning and in the middle of the night, keeping them apprised of our efforts to get things back on track. We were able to push timely updates to them, and because we were diligent our students remained understanding. Sometimes a content strategy means something as simple as good customer service.

Lesczinski: This past January, our School of Liberal Arts hosted a campus panel on career options for criminal justice graduates. We brought in practitioners from a number of criminal justice fields including a police officer, criminologist, lawyer, researcher, etc. The one panelist that couldn’t make the actual event in person, actually called in from his squad car. The students definitely got a kick out of that.

We can better foster that sense of community by focusing on smaller, more intimate events – Mike Lesczinski

We crowd-sourced panel questions to our students, registrants, and members of online criminal justice communities leading up to the event to generate interest and then provided ample opportunity for attendee to interact with our panelists. The feedback from this event made us realize the importance of trying to personalize our events. We don’t need to attract thousands of students or registrants for these types of events to be successful. In fact, we can better foster that sense of community by focusing on smaller, more intimate events tailored to specific target audiences that will allow for more personal interaction.

The Challenge for Marketing Online Education

What strikes me from these responses is how heavily the emphasis for these content efforts is not merely informing, or even marketing to the student body—it’s all about facilitating relationships. Whether it’s live or recorded video, capturing and sharing student stories, or simply finding ways to solve problems from potentially thousands of miles away, content has a wide gap to bridge for these and similar institutions.

But rather than seeing the lack of an on-campus presence as a disadvantage, they are using content to successfully create a different kind of rich, interpersonal experience. And as higher education continues to evolve and online learning programs keep growing in number, these lessons will become increasingly relevant.

Photo by pylbug / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »


  1. Great to see see that that content development of content is getting taken seriously. Also interesting to see some fundamental flaws still with some of these – eg snhu is still using numbers as part of their urls on the main web site.

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