Here we go, time for another From the Inside guest columnist – lovely stuff!
Our latest guest writer is Dana Rock from Oxford Brookes. She’s prepared a trio of posts that will massively level up your content strategy and we are thrilled to bring them to you.
Over to Dana…
In this three-part blog we will be exploring how to craft your content strategy. We’ll be sharing our experience of improving the pre-arrival information for students moving into halls at Oxford Brookes University as an extended example.
Part one looks at easy hacks for finding out what people want to know. Part two will guide you through how to use web analytics to help people find what they’re looking for. And part three addresses how to overcome information overload and refine your content strategy so that the key messages get through at the right time. Ready? Let’s roll…
How do you know what people don’t know? Three easy ways to create better content
How do you know what people don’t know? Philosophical musings aside, as a content strategist you need to get a lid on what your audience want to know in order to deliver timely, relevant content.
If, like me, you want to improve your content but don’t have the resources to carry out an extended student journey experience mapping process then here are my top three methods to help you quickly and easily create useful, usable content.
A cold night in halls
Last year I was lurking behind the main reception during our arrivals weekend. A surprising number of new students came up to ask the same question: ‘where can I buy bedsheets?’
There aren’t many places in Oxford that sell pillowcases at 7pm on a Saturday. Some students were certainly not going to be enjoying a cosy first night in halls. And the number of queries suggested to me that this wasn’t just a couple of people being forgetful. It suggested that there was a gap in the communications – and it was one I resolved to fix.
Make your content accessible
Now, after a bit of digging I found that students were provided with information on what to bring. But providing information is not the same as people ingesting it.
The guilty suspect was this little number: a downloadable PDF outlining WHAT TO BRING AND WHAT NOT TO BRING. The list of what to bring did include bedding. But the document was dominated by a longer list of what NOT to bring: Bean bags, kayaks, scooters, drones…
The document didn’t foreground what students wanted to know, it foregrounded shouty full-caps that were irrelevant to most students. And the downloadable PDF format (boo, hiss), was not easily accessible or browsable by users.
The solution: a simple packing list, written in small caps, clearly presented on a webpage.
A glance at the web traffic also revealed that most new students were going straight to look at the specific webpage for their new hall once they found out where they were living.
So, knowing where they started, we improved the content on those webpages about what was and wasn’t included in the halls (ie bedding!) and then directed users from there to the more detailed moving in information. (Note: part two of this blog will explore how to use your web analytics to help people find that they’re looking for)
Ask the audience
Previously, the pre-arrival communications to students moving into halls seemed to be based on what we wanted to tell them. Which basically bottled down to: behave yourself.
This is what led to WHAT NOT TO BRING, but also the 26-page (!) induction document that told students THE RULES: YOU MUST BE QUIET AFTER 11PM, WEAPONS WILL BE CONFISCATED etc. Somehow I suspected that this wasn’t quite the right approach…
Move forward to the spring and I’m chatting to some prospective students on a visit day. They were all students who had accepted their place and were keen to know more about the university accommodation. So over lunch I simply asked them: what do you want to know about living in halls?
The students I spoke to weren’t actually plotting to smuggle in bazookas or erect inflatable castles in the kitchen. Mostly they were worried that they might end up with messy or noisy flatmates.
Sure they had some practical questions about what it was going to be like and what to bring. But here’s the thing: they were nervous. In fact, HEPI’s reality check report highlighted that 47% of new students feel somewhat or completely unprepared to live with strangers.
The 26-page induction did our students a disservice on two fronts.
Firstly, it made it difficult for them to find out the information they wanted to know. But secondly, it painted a picture of halls as bedlam. It’s not a realistic picture and the threats and warnings would only have increased their apprehension about living with strangers.
After my lunch with the prospective students I knew I needed to rewrite the induction document.
Now only six short webpages of information, the information is presented in a way which chimes more with the students’ emotional needs. The emphasis is not on telling people off, but preserving a peaceful environment. Got noisy or messy flatmates? The rules are here to sort it out.
Ask your enquiry team
Sometimes it’s not all that easy to have impromptu focus groups with your audience. But thankfully there are some folks chatting to your prospects all day, everyday: your enquiry team.
Shout out to the accommodation enquiry team: they are ace. They have a wealth of knowledge and they handle a lot of strange questions (my favourite being someone wanting a room with a sea view. Sorry, we’re in Oxford?!) And they had some questions from me too:
- What are the most commonly asked question?
- Where in the process are people getting stuck?
- What are the specific needs of particular groups of students?
The feedback from the enquiry team from the previous year helped enormously to shape the content.
The common queries about what was in the room and what they needed to bring were, as mentioned, easily turned into useful web content. Some folks were getting stuck in the booking process as they didn’t expect they would need to pay a booking fee.
Again, easy enough to sort once you know it’s a problem.
We noticed too that different channels led to different enquiries. For example, students and parents tended to ask more practical or formal questions via email. Via Facebook messenger and Instagram Q&As, new students were more likely to ask how they could find their new flatmates or have specific (and random) questions about life in halls. (note: check out Katy’s blog for tips on using Instagram’s ‘ask a question’ function)
The enquiry team also highlighted particular groups of students who had more specific questions. For example, students with medical needs often needed to have a one-to-one chat to ensure their accommodation was going to be suitable.
Sure, I’ve changed stuff on the website because of feedback from the enquiry team and then changed it again because of further feedback. But having regular feedback from the enquiry team allowed me to make iterative improvements to our content. And as a result we’ve got fewer enquiries.
In effect, if your basic content is good and tailored for your main audience needs then the enquiry team can focus on helping those students with specific needs. Win, win.
- Content strategy isn’t just about giving out messages, it’s about understanding how people use, understand and digest that. Content needs to be usable, findable, accessible.
- If you want to know what people want to know – ask them. And listen out for the emotion that’s behind their responses.
- Or alternatively ask your enquiry team. Tailor your content to meet the most common questions and you’ll free up their time to answer more specific queries.