Results: A Look at Content Strategy in Higher Education

Lego explorer figure with magnifying glass

Examining the survey results

Last month, we opened up our inaugural survey looking at content strategy in higher education. The goal of the survey was to gauge exactly how content strategy is practiced in higher ed. Thanks to 130 of you, we have a lot of information to help tell that story.

Here, we present the results from the survey, with some commentary of our own—but we’d love to hear your thoughts and follow-up questions in the comments.

Thank you again to those who took the time to complete the survey. We hope that the results are both interesting and instructive.

1. Is your institution public or private?
Public 63%
Private 37%

2. Where do you work within your institution?
In a central / university-wide capacity 53%
Within a school / college 15%
Within an academic department 5%
Admissions 4%
Alumni relations 3%
Student services 4%
Other 17%

3. What type of institution do you work for?
Doctorate / masters-granting institution 60%
Two-year college (community / junior college) 7%
Four-year college 24%
For-profit secondary school 2%
Other 8%

4. How large is your student body (graduate and undergraduate)?
Less than 1,000 students 4%
Between 1,000 and 5,000 students 23%
Between 5,000 and 15,000 students 22%
Between 15,000 and 30,000 students 21%
More than 30,000 students 31%

Two-thirds of the respondents are from private institutions, with half working in a university-wide capacity. Among the “Other” responses for where people work within their institution, it was interesting to note that three work for a research program or foundation.

Only 7 percent of respondents report working at a community or junior college. It would be great to see more people in a content strategy role at these types of institutions, since two-year schools serve an important demographic and have just as much content to wrangle (if not more) as four-year institutions.

5. What is your academic/work background? (Check all that apply.)
Technical writing 15%
Programming / web development 37%
Marketing 53%
Journalism 35%
Graphic design 25%
Library science 5%
English 27%
Other 19%

A quarter of respondents report a background in marketing, not surprisingly. Among the more notable responses for “Other” were psychology, arts administration, academic administration, creative writing, business administration, studio art, sociology, and nonprofit management. We are a diverse bunch.

6. How many years of experience do you have working on web content in higher ed?
1-3 31%
3-5 15%
5-10 34%
10+ 20%

A third of respondents are relatively new to this game, with just 1 to 3 years of experience working with content in higher ed. A fifth have been at it for a decade or more. What to make of these results? Is responsibility for the web generally handed to younger, newer staff?

7. What digital content area(s) are you responsible for? (Select all that apply.)
Website 84%
Email newsletters / marketing 45%
Photography and / or video 35%
News / public relations 29%
Internal communications 34%
Social media 53%
All of the above 18%
Other 6%

In responding “Other,” three respondents noted responsibilities for print products. It’d be hard to ask this question, but I’d be curious to know how many people have influence in the development of print products. After all, our communications should be aligned across platforms, digital or print.

8. For the purposes of this survey, we are defining content strategy as planning for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable, and on-brand content. With that in mind, how does your job title and description reflect your content work?

My title includes some form of the term “content strategist” and that constitutes the bulk of my work 12%
My title is not “content strategist,” but my job description reflects content strategy responsibilities 49%
Neither my job title nor my job description reflect content strategy, but content strategy is still the focus of my work 32%
My title includes some form of the term “content strategist,” but I’m not able to focus on content strategy work 7%

Half of the respondents are not “content strategists” by title, though they are by job description — this is not entirely surprising. And just 12 percent of respondents are content strategists in both title and role, but as we blogged last week, this number is growing.

Interestingly, 7 percent of respondents are content strategists by title, but are unable to focus on that work. What is the reason for this? Are people hiring content strategists but not providing the support and space for them to do that work?

9. Where within your department/organization does content strategy work reside?
IT 6%
Marketing / communications 54%
A dedicated web communications team 24%
We outsource this work (vendor, agency, or consultant) 2%
We are not practicing content strategy 8%
Other 7%

Surprisingly, only 2 percent of respondents say they outsource content strategy work — perhaps owing to low budgets overall, or just for external content strategy support.

Confidential to the 8 percent of respondents not practicing content strategy: It’s okay. You can start small. Any change is still a change for the better. You can do it.

10. What roles fall within your job description? (Check all that apply.)
Content strategist 83%
Graphic designer (print) 16%
Web designer 40%
Web developer / programmer 26%
Copywriter 59%
Marketer 62%
Videographer 20%
Photographer 24%
PR / media relations 22%
News writer / editor 35%
Magazine writer / editor 18%
Director 27%
Executive (dean, vice president, etc.) 0%
Project manager 54%
SEO / SERP 41%
Content creator / producer 67%
Administrative (office manager, program coordinator, etc.) 17%
Creative services 24%
Art director 9%

Most respondents identify as a content strategist, with the next three most popular roles being content creator, marketer, and copywriter. But as expected, most people wear multiple hats. Here is how one person answered this question:

Content strategist, Graphic designer (print), Copywriter, Marketer, Videographer, Photographer, PR / media relations, News writer / editor, Magazine writer / editor, Director, Project manager, Content creator / producer, Creative services, Art director

And this sort of response was not uncommon. Amidst juggling all of these roles, it can be hard to find the time to focus on even a few processes that will help wrangle content.

11. How would you characterize the attitude toward content strategy at your institution?
Enthusiastic and committed 17%
Some interest, but not committed 55%
Indifferent 18%
Some skepticism, but not outright dismissal 8%
Negative or dismissive 2%

For more than half of the respondents, there is interest in content strategy, but no ongoing commitment to its practice. Thankfully, only a handful of people reported a negative attitude, though I’d be mighty curious as to the reason why that attitude exists.

Fewer than a fifth are enthusiastic and committed, with about a quarter indifferent or skeptical. There’s still a lot of work to do. Selling content strategy is a challenging, ongoing process — but a necessary one.

12. What is the top challenge your institution faces in executing your content strategy? (Select all that apply.)
Limited staff resources 35%
Lack of support from senior leadership 15%
Limited content strategy expertise 21%
Lack of collaboration / communication among peers 26%
Other 4%

Why no commitment to content strategy for more than half of the respondents? For about a third, it’s a staffing issue, though the other reasons aren’t far behind.

I thought it was interesting that a quarter of respondents cite lack of collaboration and communication as the top challenge. In one sense, that’s good, because it shows an understanding that people and relationships are key to an effective content strategy. On the other hand, it shows we have a long way to go in building those relationships. Perhaps initiating a campus content group could help bring people together, or improving your own relationships with some tips from improv comedy.

13. Do you offer content training to content contributors?
Yes, we regularly offer training sessions 20%
Yes, we organize training sessions when we upgrade/change CMSes, update guidelines, or make some other change 25%
Yes, we provide training when asked 24%
No 31%

Frankly, this shocked me. 30 percent of respondents report no training whatsoever being offered to content contributors. If you’re concerned about the quality of content on your website, or users report problems, frequently, this may be why. The folks with the keys to the car don’t know how to drive. As Rick put it in his post on training and content governance:

If you’ve ever blamed content contributors for bad content when you haven’t provided them with the tools and training to do their work effectively, I’ve got some tough love for you: It’s not their fault the content is bad — it’s yours.

14. What content strategy tools/processes do you use? (Select all that apply.)
Development of communications goals 65%
Editorial calendar 54%
Style guide 75%
Content templates / page tables 59%
Message architecture 15%
Information architecture 54%
Content groups/committees 26%
Content workflows 29%
Competitive analysis 22%
User personae 32%
Taxonomies 23%
Metadata 33%
Content “how-to” guides 35%
Focus groups 21%
Web analytics 83%
Usability testing 39%
User research 32%
Content audit 58%
Content modeling 12%

This was kind of a trick question. About two-thirds of respondents said that they establish communication goals as part of their content strategy work, but the fact is that developing these goals helps lay the foundation for all other work, from audits to user testing to analytics. While two-thirds is admirable, there’s room for improvement.

There were a few other results that were concerning. Just over half use editorial calendars or perform content audits, fundamental tools for planning or understanding content. Only a quarter have a campus content group, and just over a third offer or utilize content guides. That could be a barrier to adoption or understanding of content strategy within an institution.

15. Do you have a content governance plan in place?
Yes, within my unit (central, college, school, department, division, etc.) 11%
Yes, as part of the university’s centrally managed content strategy 8%
No, it’s not a priority 29%
No, but we’re working on it 52%

Only a fifth of respondents report having a content governance plan in place. Content governance is really just a five dollar word for the collection of roles, tools, and processes you have in place to manage and make sense of your content. It may be that various roles, tools, and processes are in place, but in an uncoordinated manner. Consult our checklist to see just where you are with regard to content governance.

16. How do analytics influence your content decision-making?
Analytics are regularly evaluated to inform content decisions 41%
Analytics are regularly reviewed, but they do not inform content decisions 45%
We do not review our site analytics 11%
We do not have site analytics set up on our website 3%

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by this result. Forty-two percent of respondents use analytics to inform content decisions! Bravo! Just over the same amount are looking at their analytics, but not making the connection to future content. We want to see that number decrease! Here’s a framework for making it happen.

17. If you use a CMS, what informed your selection?
Content goals and needs 34%
Vendor solicitation 4%
RFP process 24%
Previous history with vendor 19%
Selected at random 4%
We don’t use a CMS 15%

Another pleasant surprise: A third of respondents selected their CMS based on content goals and needs. To be fair, of the quarter that selected “RFP process,” content goals and needs could have conceivably (hopefully) been baked into those RFPs, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. More than half!

One-fifth picked a CMS based on a previous relationship with a vendor. Make sure that, regardless of your history with a particular business, they are well versed in best practices for web publishing and production. History means nothing if the resultant user experience is poor.

What’s Next?

We hope this information leads to some reflection within higher ed on content strategy and its practitioners. This is all still fresh territory, and we need information to help us better understand how to move forward.

What’s your take on these results? What should we ask (or ask differently) next time?

Photo by jonathanbeard / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is director of online content at Suffolk University and principal of Crosstown Digital Communications LLC, a consultancy focused on helping institutions of higher education tell their stories on the web. From 2004 to 2011, she worked at Tufts University, where she led the university’s forays into multimedia, social media and online news. Keep going »

Comments

  1. Gosh, this was fascinating to read. I used to work in content strategy in higher ed (under the title of “web editor” or “assistant web production manager”) and still have a soft spot in my heart for higher ed orgs working on these big problems. I loved seeing that there are so many other people who have similar backgrounds, and seeing where their roles differed from mine. Thanks for posting this!!

  2. Fantastic research Georgy, very insightful.

  3. Wonderful stats to share with my peers – good to know we are not alone. My team and I seem to be somewhat unique among higher ed – we are a team of 6 that are housed under one department but each report to a college at our university to specifically help them with their content. It gives us a wonderful advantage to keep tabs on our colleges but also to collaborate on the content we as a team generate.

    I have a question about a discrepancy in #12 – the table says 35% cite “limited staff resources” but the pie chart cites 35% at “negative or dismissive.” Do these two charts reference the responses to the same question or different questions?

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