We sat down with Tracy Playle, the author of The Connected Campus, to delve into her new book – and why content strategy is becoming more relevant for education marketing and communications.
How could a content strategy transform how you work? Pickle Jar Communications founder Tracy Playle has been helping higher education institutions to develop strategies for more than a decade, and she’s sharing her thoughts in an upcoming book. So what can we expect when it arrives on the shelves?
Can you tell us what the book is about?
It’s all about content strategy, and how to make one work for an institution of higher education. The focus is specifically on content designed for information, communications and marketing. So the book isn’t about creating great teaching and learning content. Instead, it’s about how to inform and engage people, and how to make our content efficient and effective. It offers thoughts about the content itself, but also our practices and processes.
The book is really the culmination of 10 years of running Pickle Jar Communications and helping universities around the world re-think their content and their approach to content management and design. Of course, it also draws on my experiences of working in-house at the University of Warwick too. So, it’s about sharing that knowledge.
It covers topics such as what content strategy is, understanding the benefits of a strategic approach to content, and a whole load of “how-to” content that addresses different elements of content strategy – from stakeholder engagement to audience research, content structuring, governance, and working with distributed authors.
Why do you think content strategy has become such a key element in education marketing and communications?
Content strategy is not just about education marketing and communications – in fact, that’s one of the questions that I address in the book. Often the starting point for content strategy comes from marketing or external relations. Really, however, what that’s focusing on is a content marketing strategy. That’s just one sliver of content strategy, one output of a much more visionary and strategic piece of work. When we dive into it and see its full potential, it’s a hook for thinking about information management in its broadest sense. It just happens to have some clear wins and benefits for marketing and communications.
For marketing and communications, it provides a framework for consistency and really helps us to understand and map out how our content should manifest our brand, and how our content should add value to our audiences’ lives. But it’s also a mechanism for making our teams – in very disparate institutions – more joined up in how we think about, plan and produce and maintain content. That leads to greater efficiencies. This plays into a world in which higher ed is under pressure to demonstrate value for money. But it also helps us to reduce risk. Our sector and our content may be heavily regulated, and leave us vulnerable to all kinds of risk. Content strategy helps us to plan for that and mitigate those risks.
Content strategy is far more than just a buzzword and the latest in a whole pile of strategies that we need. It’s the vehicle for a new way of telling our stories, connecting with our audiences, providing information, protecting ourselves and shifting the culture of a sector that has so much to offer and yet is so heavily at risk.
What made you want to write the book?
There are many great books on the market about content strategy and related topics. But there’s nothing that specifically looks at how to design and implement a content strategy for the specific context of a higher education institution. In higher ed, we have a whole load of complexities and sensitivities to manage as well as some unique quirks. So I wanted to write a book that really focuses in on those circumstances more directly rather than just writing something generic. It is, after all, the sector that I’ve worked in and with for the last 16 years – I know it and I love it.
From a personal perspective, I also wanted to find a way to capture and consolidate so much of my own knowledge in this field, and provide a space for me to share, discuss and explore some new thinking that I’ve been developing too. You can explore curiosities, challenges and big questions in a book, in a way in which you don’t always have the scope or the opportunity to do when you’re working on a university’s content strategy.
So for me a book is a place to share knowledge, but also a vehicle through which you can test new ideas and be a little playful with models and modes of thinking. I apply the same mindset to conference talks that I give – they’re my space to explore new ideas with a relevant audience, instead of always testing ideas out directly on client (university) projects. Though I like doing that too!
Did you learn anything new while you were writing it?
Well, firstly I learned that I am actually capable of writing a book if I really commit to it! But in truth, every time I write something I evolve my thinking a little further. So the book might contain models, templates and a few approaches that are new, while other parts of it contain models and approaches that I’ve been using for years.
Who is your ideal reader?
Someone who wants to embrace a strategic approach to content for their organisation. Someone who is willing to see this as a process, achieving small incremental wins while also tackling some of the big cultural questions in higher education. This is a book both for the curious and the practical professionals. It is most definitely not a book for those who want to maintain the status quo.
The content will appeal to anyone working in or leading communications, information management, marketing, digital, print, web, and audience-focused roles such as alumni relations or fundraising. But of course I also think that institutional leaders should be engaging in this topic. At its core, this book addresses questions around the culture in higher education, and the future of the sector. Organisation leaders should hold their colleagues to account when it comes to planning, creating and maintaining content, so it’s important that they understand how it needs to be treated strategically and how they need to set clear visions and organisational strategies that a content strategy can and should support.
How would you describe the book in three words?
Useful, usable, provocative.