08/06/2013 12:00 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

How Content Strategy Can Help Save Higher Education

For years -- centuries, even -- our image of higher education has remained almost constant: lush campuses, packed lecture halls, and an unchallenged path to success. But in just the past few years, that image shifted dramatically.

New, disruptive educational models such as online learning and MOOCs (massively open online courses) make lecture halls look quaint. Institutions of all shapes and sizes face challenges due to concerns about the value of a college education, declining government grants and subsidies and mounting competition for new students both at home and abroad.

It's uncharted territory, and many colleges and universities are trying to find their way. Given these challenges, how can they continue to attract, engage, and retain a high caliber of students, alumni, faculty, and staff?

Success arguably boils down to how well we make our case--that is, what we say and how we say it. In the increasingly ubiquitous realm of digital communications, that means our web content. Gradually, higher ed is realizing that we can't just churn out websites and jump onto social platforms and hope for the best; we have to communicate with purpose if we want to succeed.

To this end, content strategy -- planning for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable, on-brand content -- has risen in prominence in higher ed circles in recent years.

Here are three core ways in which the discipline of content strategy can help institutions remain relevant and competitive in these uncertain times.

1. An Emphasis on Clarity

Many times, an institution's website or social media may be the first touchpoint for a prospective student or reconnecting alum. If that experience is frustrating due to poorly organized content or unclear messaging -- say, outdated or hard-to-find tuition information, or stock photos that don't match the related text -- that fragile first contact could sever before it has a chance to take root.

Because clarity is so important, institutions need to develop cohesive communications goals, messaging guidelines, and consistent editorial style. Clarity also means ensuring that web content is unique, accurate, and relevant. By applying a little content strategy, that initial outreach from a student or graduate can result in a real relationship, and not a missed connection.

2. More Efficient and Sustainable Communications Practices

Web content is highly political, and priorities can seem to change from day to day. Higher education is regrettably famed for its turf wars and ego battles, and university homepages are often the battleground of choice. But if every link is the most important, then none of them are. We try to keep everyone happy -- everyone but our audience, that is.

Developing processes -- such as content training, governance to ensure oversight of digital properties, and workflows for content creation, revision and approval--may seem mundane, but doing so lays the foundation for more efficient use of time and resources. By thinking these things through, we can save ourselves from political battles that waste time and talent and compromise our communication goals.

3. Preparation for Change

In addition to the changes within the higher ed industry, colleges and universities must also keep up with the breakneck pace at which technology is evolving. New communications services and platforms debut all the time, each shinier than the last. What's your Pinterest strategy?

But as alluring as new apps and platforms may be, we can't plan around them. Content strategy affirms the need to plan content efforts around our goals and our audiences--that is, determining the problem before arriving at a solution. By doing this, we'll be prepared to assess any new tech that comes along.

Let's Get to Work

The conversation about content strategy within higher education is growing louder. In Atlanta this November, a first-of-its-kind conference called Confab Higher Ed will convene to address these very issues. (I will be there, both as a speaker and one who is helping organize the conference.) From email to websites to videos to social media, experts from higher ed and beyond will talk about how we can communicate more effectively and sustainably in the service of our goals.

When thinking about the future of higher education, there are certainly more factors to consider than just digital communication. But as a fundamental expression of our identity and purpose through a pervasive medium, the importance of our web content in shaping that future cannot be ignored. By embracing the principles of content strategy, colleges and universities stand a better chance of adapting to whatever changes and challenges lay ahead.