Storytelling with On-Brand News Content

Does your news content tell the story you want to tell?

Does your news content tell the story you want to tell?

News content plays a big role in higher ed marketing and communications. It takes center stage on our website homepages and many top landing pages — not to mention our email newsletters, alumni magazines, Twitter, Facebook and other social channels. We rely on it to maintain a timely, engaging web presence.

Above all, we rely on news content to help tell our story. Yet how often do we consider what messages our news content is communicating and how those messages shape the story we tell?

Give it a try — take a look at your homepage. Then look at your Facebook and Twitter pages. Look at your email newsletter and press releases. When you look at these pages, do you see your school? Do the stories you see represent the culture and values of your institution? Does the outside world see what you see as you walk across your campus, hear what students hear when chatting with teachers before class, or grasp those extraordinary student experiences that make your school truly unique?

As you look over your news content, maybe you see stories of alumni achievements or new faculty research or philanthropy work by current students. And these are great stories that you’re proud to share. But do they help tell the story you want to tell? Are these the stories that define your institution, or is your school’s story more elaborate?

Schools, like people, have complex stories. As content professionals, we strive to simplify these stories for our audience so they can quickly understand what we’re about. But here’s the rub. People like complexity. People like meaningful stories — it’s how they connect with our brand and relate to our school’s culture and values. As journalism professor Mary Lawrence says:

We’re fooling ourselves if we think we communicate primarily by bursts of information. We live for stories…Stories give shape to experience and allow us to go through life unblind. Without them, the stuff that happens would float around in some glob and none of it would mean anything.

News content needs vision and meaning to support our brand and tell our story. Simple, cookie-cutter stories that appear to rehash old news, like a press-release-turned-featured-news-story, rarely answer our users’ complex questions, like:

  • "Will I fit in here as a student?"
  • "Can I make a difference here as a faculty member?"
  • "Is my alma mater the place I used to know?"
  • "Will my donation support academic values that are important to me?"

Our stories are wonderfully complex. By telling our whole story — by being authentic and true to ourselves — we’re able to more clearly answer the most complex questions of all, such as, “Why should I care about your school?”

It’s our challenge to communicate the breadth and depth of our institution in a clear and compelling way. News content can help us do this, but messaging and communication goals must first lead the way.

Communicate With Purpose

Clear communication requires purpose. Flooding our websites, newsletters and social channels with random stories about everything we do will not help us tell a cohesive story. The answer is telling purposeful and meaningful stories that reflect the diverse qualities of our institution — and that together paint a complete picture. Every news story, every blog post, every YouTube video is a chapter of our story. A chapter of our long and complex story.

Recently, at the Content Marketing World conference, Kevin Spacey talked about TV shows and movies that have successfully broken out of the cookie-cutter mold by telling unconventional stories. "Our stories become richer and become far more interesting when they go against the settled order of things to achieve the unexpected."

The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Weeds don’t tell the tried-and-true stories with admirable characters we’ve all heard before. We love these complex stories because they are honest in ways run-of-the-mill stories are not. We love unique. We love authenticity.

“The story is everything,” says Spacey. “Which means it’s our job [as content professionals] to tell better stories.” So, let’s do it.

Define Your Story

While some institutions may purposefully publish superficial stories in hopes of suppressing undesirable school qualities, others simply don’t know the story they want to tell. You can’t communicate your school’s story if you don’t know what you want to say — or how to say it. How does this news article or Tweet contribute to my broader story?

We need to understand our story in a meaningful way before we can begin to tell it. Many organizations plan for this with branding and messaging guidelines. By describing the qualities of your institution, brand guidelines can act as communication goals to help authors create content that reflects the culture and values of your school.

Communication goals give your content purpose and vision. Here are a few different examples of higher education brand messaging guidelines:

Another approach to defining communication goals is through a message architecture — a hierarchy of communication themes. For example, maybe your primary communication goals are:

  1. Student-centered
  2. Empowering and valuable
  3. Service-oriented
  4. Pioneering and resourceful

Defining and prioritizing qualities that reflect who you are and how you want to be perceived will enable you to shape your content so it tells the story you want to tell.

(For a great primer on planning for and creating a message architecture, with examples, check out Content Strategy At Work, by Margot Bloomstein.)

Storytelling and clear communication are tough, and often the above-mentioned types of summary brand guides aren’t enough — especially for people who aren’t expert communicators. Training and straightforward content guides can help content contributors target your communication goals.

Storytelling with a Message-First Editorial Calendar

Okay, great. We understand our communication goals. We know the story we want to tell. But, man, storytelling is tough when you share the work with other content contributors throughout your institution. It’s also hard to make sure the content you create collectively reflects an accurate picture of your school. To get on track, let’s buddy up with an editorial calendar — a message-first editorial calendar.

An editorial calendar is a great tool for planning and scheduling content: “What are we publishing on the homepage next week? What are we publishing in our newsletter next month?”

Editorial calendars help make content happen by planning for creating and updating timely, relevant content. But, even more, they help ensure clear and consistent communication — in other words, storytelling with purpose.

With a message-first editorial calendar, rather than considering your message as a piece of the content puzzle, treat it as the picture on the puzzle box you’re trying to build. In other words, build your editorial calendar off of your messages instead of topics.

With thoughtful planning, we can tell our story in a way that captures our complexity while clarifying themes that accurately convey the culture and values of our institution.

1. Identify your communication goal

If we want to show a complete picture of our institution, we need to plan for how our communication goals come together. Let’s go back to our message architecture example. If our four primary communication goals make up our story, then we want to create content that reflects each one. The more focused our messaging, the clearer our story will be.

So, rather than trying to create content that reflects all four communication goals, let’s plan for telling different chapters of our story that reflect each of our communication goals separately.

Your message-first editorial calendar might look like this:

A message-first editorial calendar.

A message-first editorial calendar.

2. Define the topic (and audience)

Once we’ve defined the communication goal we’ve decided to focus on, we can find a relevant topic that can help us communicate that quality to our intended audience.

If we follow our message architecture example, how might we reflect service-oriented?

Maybe there are stories of students conducting community-service or volunteer work, such as students working to repair trails in the Appalachian Mountains. Or maybe there’s a new campus green initiative or stories of alumni mentoring.

If service-oriented is a real part of your school’s story, there should be many examples to find. Like our lesson on content and community at Boston University, our community can help us find the topics we’re looking for — if we listen.

3. Define the content type

Since we’re being so thoughtful about the content we create, let’s pause to consider what content type is most appropriate.

Most content creators use the content type they’re most comfortable with. Writers use words, photographers use photos, videographers use videos, social media managers curate user-generated content. But there’s an opportunity here to chose content types that best communicate the message we want to convey. As content strategist Clinton Forry says, "lead with the message, not the format."

For example, if your story is “Students Work on Trails in Appalachian Mountains,” what content type would you chose to tell that story? How might it impact your communication goal? I asked this question in a workshop recently, and participants offered up different answers: Some said they would use a photo slideshow, some said a video, some said written student testimonials. There’s no wrong answer as long as you chose a content type with intent.

4. Define the content delivery channel

Like they do with content types, content creators tend to lean toward certain content delivery channels. However, as with planning for content types, it’s advantageous to chose delivery channels that best communicate your message.

There are countless delivery channels we can plan for. This list from the 2013 Content Marketing Institute & MarketingProfs Content Marketing Survey (PDF) offers popular examples:

Which one of these content delivery channels would help us best communicate the quality of service-oriented? Does our use of service-oriented carry a serious tone or a friendly, social tone? Would professional-quality photos be most appropriate, or would an informal video work better?

5. Schedule and publish

The final steps include scheduling and publishing. By routinely publishing content that reflects each of your communication goals, you work to tell a complete and accurate story of your institution. Booya!

Tell the Story You Want to Tell

While studying creative writing in college, I certainly didn’t think about editorial calendars. I had a story I wanted to tell and I kept writing until the story felt complete. But, for colleges, our story is never complete — which is why we need a content plan to continue telling the story we want to tell.

Our institution is not defined by a single faculty interview or a single campus event — it’s defined by the countless school voices, activities, and perspectives that make us who we are. This is our story. Complex. Compelling. Full of meaning.

How do you plan to tell you story?

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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 »

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