Making Content Strategy Work with Student Staff (Part One)

green plastic army men

For staff trying to wrangle a content strategy, an intern army can be an indispensable resource.

Content strategy in higher ed can be a gnarly, complex pursuit, and more often than not, we may feel we don’t have the staff to adequately take on the challenge. This is where student workers can prove invaluable.

But how can we apply the time and talent of students—some of whom may only be with us for a semester, or only for a few hours a week—toward content strategy work, which is inherently long-range, in-depth and holistic?

We talked to two folks doing this kind of work in higher ed—one staff member and one student workers—to get their perspectives on how students can help us effectively wrangle our content strategy.

We’ll start by getting the staff perspective. Amy Grace Wells is the online content and social media coordinator for Texas A&M Agrilife Communications, a shared services group that does work for both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a variety of statewide agencies. She currently has seven interns, who work between five and 15 hours each week.

A Content Strategy ‘Army’

How do you use student workers to support your content strategy?

I have what I call a student intern army that does everything from social media to content. I have no staff, so interns from the college’s Agricultural Communications and Journalism program are the only way I am able to implement any sort of content strategy.

I use my social media interns in two ways. First, to help me schedule the main posts on each platform for the week using a method modeled after the U.S. Army. This allows me to focus on monitoring conversations and audience development instead of worrying about finding content to post. I edit and approve their calendars each week before anything is posted or scheduled. This ensures we maintain a consistent voice and tone and, of course, gives me the full editorial control that makes so many nervous when working with interns. Once approved, they schedule the posts throughout the week.

My interns have a clear expectation that they need to go out and bring me story ideas based on the parameters of our content strategy.

On the content side, I call my interns content curators, and I chose this term specifically. Being a shared service on a very large campus, many of the great stories from the college don’t make it to my desk, so these students are not only tasked with writing assignments I give them, but they have a clear expectation that they need to go out and bring me story ideas based on parameters (my content strategy) I gave them. Essentially, it is a beat system like many news departments use to divide work among the team and create better personal relationships with newsmakers. But I think the term curator goes beyond that, by putting that purpose of the content strategy behind their time and efforts. It gives them accountability and ensures I receive quality story leads.

Process and Principles

What sort of training do you give them? Does that training span both institution-specific knowledge and broader content strategy knowledge?

Often the training and materials are dependent on the skill and experience level of the student. A senior, who has completed multiple newswriting and editing courses, almost always incorporates main messaging into a story better than a sophomore.

Honestly, I don’t have a definitive content strategy document for each of these agencies… yet. So what I provide my students is a series of task-oriented materials. For social media, it may be a flowchart to determine which stories or posts are best for which audience. This saves me so much time in editing weekly calendars. I’ve created lists of appropriate hashtags and set up Twitter lists in our social media management system to help them find reusable content. The most used social media material is the weekly planning calendar, which I’ve created with the strategy in mind and as the students are creating posts for each day, they are also choosing posts by categories within the parameters of that agency’s content strategy. For the college they may need to choose one of the university’s core values for each post, while for Extension, they are ensuring they feature each of the different program areas.

My ultimate goal is to have them understand how each small communication can fit into a larger integrated strategy, not be able to regurgitate institutional jargon or processes.

For my writers, I spend five minutes with them before they start talking to sources to discuss the angle and how it fits into our main messages and content strategy. We review interview questions together and I help them see how changing a question slightly will result in a better response with more quotable language. After I edit the story (especially their first few), I spend another five minutes explaining why I changed their lede or rearranged paragraphs. Most students hate headlines and find them one of the most challenging tasks, so I force them to provide one and will even return stories to them if it’s not included. Writing students definitely take more training time, but that small amount of time is returned exponentially with each assignment.

All of the training and materials I provide them could be used in any work situation, so everything they learn is applicable beyond the institution. My ultimate goal is to have them understand how each small communication can fit into a larger integrated strategy, not be able to regurgitate institutional jargon or processes.

Finally, I carve out at least 10 minutes every day to pop into their workroom and check in with each of them. This is essential. I answer questions, talk about story ideas, look over interview questions, provide ideas for the weekly social media calendars, etc. I also make it absolutely clear that, if my door is open, I am available and they should come to me with questions or issues and not wait for me to come to them. This tiny expectation can be the factor that prevents missed deadlines or a project’s derailment.

Takeaways

How do students respond to the work and the training?

The students thrive on it, pure and simple. Students want to learn the skills and get the experience that will make them competitive job candidates. Nearly every student I have worked with initially lacks the ability to see the larger, integrated strategy. They are so used to completing separate assignments handed to them that when they start to see how the same message can be delivered across five platforms it energizes them and gives them those skills that can really only be learned in that first year on the job.

What lessons have you learned through this process? In what ways could students be used more effectively for content strategy work?

The most important thing I’ve learned with student interns is that you must have a very clear job description of exactly what they will do in the semester or else it will become far too time consuming for you and a disappointing experience for the students.

Because most of mine are unpaid (college credit), I treat them extremely well by giving them valuable and challenging work, and most return for a second if not third semester, limiting the training each time.

My goal is that any student who interns with me for a year should have the overall critical skills to land any entry-level job in communications. I’m proud to say that former interns of mine are now at Groupon and The Black Cloud Gallery in Chicago, Zion&Zion public relations agency in Phoenix, Ohio University Undergraduate Admission, and many more. Ultimately, I feel successful when my students take what I’ve taught them and do greater things.

Your Turn

How do you use your student staff to help execute a content strategy? Please share your experience in the comments.

Read part two—the student perspective.

Article photo by john_whitworth_photography / Flickr Creative Commons

Homepage photo by horiavarlan / 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 »

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