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Start with great content: Building trust and engagement through content marketing

The best content marketing constitutes a wonderful way of reaching and building relationships among consumers. But there is the potential of misusing it by breaking the very trust brands are trying to establish with their consumers, right off the bat.

Content marketing is defined as “a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

As much as it may deliver useful or entertaining content, however, content marketing often involves an interruption. For example, in the case of educational marketing, it often requires students to stop in the middle of the task they set out to accomplish (for example, downloading a PDF on a topic they find interesting, watching a video, or taking a virtual campus tour), in order to provide their email addresses or open a user account.

For the education provider, this is helpful. It moves them toward the objective of “driving profitable customer action” because it constitutes lead generation and the permission to contact the prospective student.

But what about students? They have had to pause in their goal of pursuing relevant content, provide their email to an institution they may or may not be very familiar with, and now have to hope that the content will be valuable enough to make the extra email in their inbox worth the trouble.

PR Daily makes a noteworthy comparison between old-style advertising and badly executed content marketing:

“Advertising is a paid interruption in an otherwise pleasant stream of content. Is content becoming an unpleasant interruption in our lives, too? With this native advertising trend of craftily embedding paid messages in “free” content, are the lines hopelessly blurred so that content marketing is suspicious and meaningless? Are content marketers the new snake oil shills?”

Well, that depends. Well-executed content marketing is nothing like snake oil. But if it isn’t done well, intrusive or clumsy content marketing can alienate an audience. Over the long run, it can also lead to consumers becoming less receptive and raising their guard again, just as they have done with traditional forms of online and offline advertising.

How to make your content the kind students want to receive

Creating relevant, respectful content is increasingly important for the simple fact that so many brands are producing content, of all types and of varying quality. As of last year, it was estimated that 27 million pieces of content are shared each day. Marketing expert Mark Schaefer has argued that with so much content being shared every day, a lot of it has stopped attracting customers.

So how does an institution cut through the growing noise of content marketing?

If we look back at our definition, we can isolate this part of it: “relevant and valuable content.” So the first requirement of good content marketing is to be very sure that the content will appeal to a well-researched and respected target audience – in the case of education marketing, that is the prospective student.

The first step is the research, and this can simply mean talking to current students and alumni about what is important to them, and listening carefully on social media to prospective students. What information are they looking for? What trends do they find exciting?

Chances are, the most pressing questions students will have when choosing an institution are “Will I fit in there?” and “Will studying there get me what I want (e.g., a job, an experience, etc.)?”

More times than not, students like to hear the answer to those questions from other students, and they are ever more visual and interested in video-delivered information.

Be patient

As much as it is tempting to require students to provide their emails in return for interesting content from your institution, this transaction is so significant (for both parties) that it shouldn’t be overly rushed. Doing so would be a little like proposing marriage without doing a little dating first.

Providing students with content should be unconditional at the beginning of the relationship. The holy grail of marketing today is active dialogue – not a monologue directed by the brand at the passive consumer. You have to be interesting – and interested – in order to move the relationship to the next level.

Social media do’s and don’ts

Social media platforms are natural channels to distribute interesting content, and they should include a significant focus on helping students problem-solve. Pop your FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) content up there and include an alumni story (e.g., “Before I came to Institution X, I was worried about …”), with a happy ending of course! You can also post a timeline to help students know how far in advance they should prepare for different parts of the application process.

As well, consider that prospective students will signal their opinions of brands by their sharing behaviours. If they share content, it means they like it; recent surveys on millennials have underlined the key currency of shares among this demographic. Thinking of a post’s sharing potential – especially for fun-oriented material – will go a long way to ensuring it is the kind of post students will enjoy.

Students are also no strangers to game-based content or other interactive promotions and are used to being rewarded for their participation. When you respond to their informational needs, then add a dose of fun and even a reward system for sharing pictures and other content, you’re on the right track.

Along with social media, post lots of interesting, helpful content on the institutional website. The idea here is to be generous with material and information to position the institution as confident and worthy of further attention.

Throughout this process, the goals should be creating interest and fuelling demand for what an institution has to offer – without trying immediately to close the “sale.” With that in mind, it’s unwise to tie all content to the institution’s products or services. Think of other ways of becoming a meaningful voice in the student’s life. For example, write and post photos of the beautiful scenery around the campus; about the unique cuisine of the region; of funny cartoons about student life.

Creating a balance

One of the biggest mistakes to avoid is posting too much (too many times a day) and recycling messages too often. Strategy consultant Sam Tucker says:

“There are some companies, I won’t name names, that are posting the same content in multiple [Linkedin] groups up to three or four times a day. It’s just a saturation of information and you think, this is becoming annoying, and you switch off.”

An article in MarketingMag warns of the consequences: “Bombarding social media with content is a surefire way to put consumers off completely, leading customers to the dreaded ‘un-follow’ or ‘de-friend’ of the brand.”

Getting more serious

If you have done a good job with the “free” content – the content that does not require the student to provide their email to consume – there is a far greater likelihood that they will be open to providing their contact info to receive more from the institution.

This is the excellent benefit of having been interesting, generous, and patient – the students who do provide their emails (or who opt in otherwise) will be stronger leads. They have decided the institution is credible and trustworthy, and they are now ready to hear more.

Whatever you do offer to the student now in order to secure their permission to contact them, it had better be (a) good and (b) live up to the promise of the marketing copy surrounding it.

For example, if the copy says, “Get a personalised virtual tour of the university by clicking here!” that tour had better be personalised. It can’t be a run-of-the-mill, badly produced tour, which would have two unfortunate consequences:

  1. The student would lose trust in what the institution has to offer;
  2. The chances of the student applying would be reduced drastically.

Both consequences negate the entire purpose of the content marketing effort.

An excellent slidedeck from London-based B2B marketing agency Velocity includes tips about becoming a superior content brand:

“A Great Content Brand is a brand that’s famous for producing intelligent, useful, and entertaining content that’s always worth consuming …

  • This doesn’t mean a laugh riot. It means confident, clear and easy to read with a bit of attitude and energy.
  • If you fail once, you damage the brand.
  • Even if each piece doesn’t nail their exact info-needs, they’ll be glad they invested the time.
  • Utility is the essence of content marketing. Make yourself useful.”

It’s all about trust

If content marketing is all about creating a relationship in order to interest consumers in a brand, it is fundamentally also about trust. Relationships simply don’t happen without trust, and they don’t happen when one party is too aggressive or doesn’t respect the time and interests of the audience they are trying to reach.

The great news is that the international education field is ripe for amazing content to be shared, and students are among the most exciting target markets there are.

(Editor’s note: For additional background on the subject, please see some of our recent, related posts on content marketing.)

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