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Content marketing is a buzz word among marketers. But what does it mean and how can higher ed see results?

The Content Marketing Institute has a number of definitions but I like this one: “Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

It is important to stimulate your audience, but essential to move them to take an action that delivers results, nudging them up the value chain through interacting and sharing to applying or donating.

There are many ways in which colleges and universities adopt content marketing tactics. Some are tried and true, like university magazines. The best of these explore current topics or events mingling perspectives from faculty research, courses, and alumni with those from other experts.

Many institutions use new social media channels or push the content marketing envelope in other ways. For example, here’s Fordham University on TUMBLR and Oberlin College on Instagram. Others experiment with video: LMU introduced its new president through a takeoff on a Jerry Seinfeld web show. Michigan Engineering develops news videos like this one about research that might allow airplane wings to flex and move like bird wings.

Then there’s “One Cool Thing.” In rethinking the alumni magazine, the communications and marketing staff at Michigan Engineering “… wanted to deliver something that would interest our audience, but we didn’t want to overwhelm them. So we came up with this idea of sharing just ‘one cool thing’,” explained Dan Kim, executive director of communications and marketing.

A subscriber to the resulting “One Cool Thing” app receives a daily link to “cutting-edge technology, amazing photos, new discoveries.” Kim says, “We highlight research from anywhere, but we use more content from our college than from any other single source.” He reports extremely positive feedback about the cool things that the app helps users to discover; almost 9,000 people from six continents downloaded it and more than 90% percent of sessions are from returning users.

Kim isn’t aware that One Cool Thing has helped recruit students, secure major research funding, or inspire larger alumni donations. Yet. But it’s still valuable: “It helps to create a foundation for our colleagues in development or admissions or faculty recruitment to close deals because identifying and sharing that cool content helps strengthen our brand.”

Indeed, the coolest and most valuable content on many campuses is typically found in the classroom. How can content marketers leverage that content to help their institutions get tangible results?

One insight may be to think differently about how academic assets like MOOCs are marketed and, more importantly, assessed. Consider this evaluation of a MOOC at Kennesaw State University. KSU offered its first MOOC in 2014 — the K12 Blended and Online Learning MOOC (K12BOLM). According to an assessment of the MOOCs first run,

“By traditional measures, the first iteration of the MOOC aligned as expected. Enrollment decreased weekly. Of the close to 6,000 learners initially enrolled, 40% were active in week 2. At the conclusion of the 8-week guided course, 6% of the learners enrolled in Week 1 successfully completed all aspects of the course. This included weekly discussions, video embedded quizzes, readings, peer-graded activities and three unit level assignments.”

Some skeptics might consider KSU’s experiment a failure because of its low completion rate. But in evaluating this MOOC in 2015, KSU looked at other factors, including social media mentions. And, in fact, the MOOC helped to increase brand awareness: “Over 25,000 Twitter Hashtags Tweets and Re-Tweets were documented. … More than half had never heard of the institution. Another 25% had heard of the institution but were largely unfamiliar with it.”

And if the ultimate goal of content marketing is, as the Content Marketing Institute suggests, to deliver financial results, this MOOC really paid off: “While the first iteration of the K12BOLM resulted in 12 students enrolling in graduate programs, a survey of participants in the MOOC’s second iteration show that over 100 participants plan to enroll in BCOE graduate programs.”

Those results should inspire marketers to think about what content from their campuses could achieve a similar payoff.

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