Use your brand to fuel your content and your heart to tell a great story

Is your campus team hard at work managing your brand? If so, you’re likely making decisions about what content to produce to feed your marketing campaign. And, if you’re like most schools, you’re in the mode of collecting stories about the impressive accomplishments of students who then go on to do great things. But are you also in the mode of filtering those stories through the lenses of your brand and the needs of your audiences?

That filtering process is critical.

Proper filtering is what ensures that the stories you tell will be distinguishable from all the other stories told by your peer schools. The vast majority of stories pushed out by colleges follow a  predictable formula. There is a sameness about them, and most are uninteresting. This is unfortunate especially because there are wonderfully rich tales waiting to be told on every campus.    

We know this because hundreds of people have revealed them to us, the deeply personal details about why they chose to attend or teach at their particular school or college. A few examples:

“Where I grew up, people only looked me in the eye if they wanted to hurt me. I built a guard around myself. Here, people looked me in the eye and then asked how they could help. I love the people here. I can relax around them and that allowed me to learn.”  

“I arrived for my first round of interviews to join the faculty on the eve of garbage day in our small town. Not just any old garbage day, but the annual “Clean Up Our Town” day where the crew will pick up anything you put on the curb, no matter how big or heavy or stained. It was late. Cold. Dinner came from the convenience store. I looked around and asked myself, “‘What’s become of me?’” [Spoiler alert: This story has a very happy ending.]

“Here, we [the students at a small liberal arts college] make an effort to have exposure to one another even when we don’t agree so we can have those difficult conversations. It’s harder to dehumanize someone you sit next to at lunch.”

These reflections provide insights into the humanity of a school and are poignant reminders of the power of place and of the bonds that are formed by people who, for the reasons of brand, were all drawn to be together at one specific school.

And, it’s powerful. Once heard, it’s not easily forgotten. It gets into the heart and stays in the head. I remember these stories years after first hearing them. They never leave me. This is the content “gold” that informs the stories that every institution must tell and that future students crave to hear.

But it’s not easy. Producing engaging content on an ongoing basis is challenging.

Experience tells us that it’s not the number of stories that matter, it’s that you have the right stories. And that you repurpose them and deploy them across the appropriate channels at the right time.

Here’s a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” designed to help you build meaningful and compelling brand stories.

  • Don’t evaluate the appropriateness of a story based upon your key messages of brand. While a story must be relevant to the brand, the story, really, isn’t about the competencies of the school. It’s about the effect the people of a school have on each other.  Do base your decision on whether or not to invest in producing a story on the degree to which it will resonate with a specific targeted audience. If you don’t have personas for each segment of your prospective students and their influencers, and for alumni, donors, and the media you wish to engage, then stop everything and get the personas established.
  • Don’t try to “sell” the institution, rather, craft your content so that it will activate a relationship (or enhance an existing one) with a specific audience. For admissions marketing, do know what concerns each group of your prospective students have at each stage of the admissions funnel. Map that out so you have these “buyer’s journeys” at the ready, and then build your story library so that you cover each one.
  • Don’t be afraid to amplify the aspects of your brand that are unique, fun, and possibly self-deprecating. Schools that have the confidence to be themselves have a much better shot at becoming a brand (i.e. “hot”) school. It’s okay to tout your strongest outcomes, but don’t do that at the expense of your personality. People forget what you tell them, but they are far less likely to forget how you made them feel. So, do mix into your content library stories about traditions, beloved members of the dining hall staff, your unique vernacular, and how out-of-the-way your campus really is or how deep-in-the-middle of a chaotic urban center it is. One of the most successful stories that one of our clients produced is a video about how difficult it is to pronounce the college’s name. It garners the highest click-through-rate of all of our ads in all of our markets and has morphed into best-selling bookstore items based on the video’s “say it with us” chant.

Your brand vitalizes your school. It’s the thing that everyone can “touch” to renew pride. Your brand is the emotional and the rational all wrapped up in unique and heartfelt stories of human achievement. Tell your stories as though lives depended upon them, because, they do.

Josanne is a founding principal of Cognitive Marketing, in Rochester, NY, a premier provider of brand strategy and content management services for educational organizations in the U.S. We strive to make our content delightful and enormously useful to the leadership and the marketing staff at schools, increasing their sense of confidence and productivity so that they can meet enrollment goals and raise more revenue. Her twitter feed, @JosanneDeNatale focuses on #CollegeAccess and #EducationalEquality.

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