Top 5 Things Higher Education Marketers Can Learn from Buzzfeed

Posted: July 22, 2015

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

Today, the marketing and communication teams at most higher education institutions are using their usual mould to crank out story after story. Their online content is often inspired by a media relations press release or a long-form magazine article. We completely understand why. This type of content has historically served the higher ed landscape really well and achieved the desired results. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Instutions of higher education need to be creating the types of content that most audiences actually spend time consuming online. 

This is where strategic content marketing comes into play. The purpose of content marketing is not just to communicate a message; its purpose is to do so in ways that correspond to audiences’ online behavior and what they are already looking to consume. Content marketing is about inviting your audiences to click rather than blasting content at them. It’s about engagement and relational marketing, not megaphone marketing.

Instead of capitalizing on content marketing’s ability to engage target audiences and to entice readers to keep coming back, many institutions are churning out stories that don’t match what their audiences want or need. In particular, higher education marketers should think more about targeting specific groups with tailored content. With a little strategic focus, content marketing can become one of the most effective ways for higher education institutions to accomplish their marketing goals.

In thinking about a new content marketing approach, higher education institutions can learn a lot from other effective content platforms – and Buzzfeed is at the top of this list. Whether you love or hate this approach, Buzzfeed’s success is undeniable. Every month, the site receives more than 200 million unique views, and Buzzfeed’s videos are viewed more than a billion times each month. Also, Buzzfeed’s readership is dominated by millennials (50% of readers are ages 18-34) – the same people most higher education institutions are hoping to reach. Buzzfeed has mastered the art of creating content that audiences actually want to read.

So, in true Buzzfeed fashion, here’s a list of the top 5 things higher education marketers can learn from Buzzfeed:

1. Use Top-Five Lists.

Or top-10 lists, or top-27 lists. Buzzfeed is famous for their lists. In fact, Buzzfeed has essentially re-invented the digital top-ten list, and with this comes a powerful content presentation method that caters to millennials’ short attention spans. Articles like “12 of X University’s Weirdest Campus Traditions” could grab the attention of prospective undergraduate students. If you’re a community college, try something like “5 Awesome Jobs You Can Get Without a 4-year Degree.”

Another way to package these lists, taking a page from the book of the great David Letterman, is to present them as rankings. Buzzfeed has mastered this technique, frequently posting “definitive rankings” on a wide range of topics. People want to know who is the best – who beats whom. With a piece like “The Definitive Ranking of Quirkiest Professors on Campus,” you’ll have readers consuming your entire article to find out who ends up on top and to know whose class to take.

2. Comment on Trending Topics.

Buzzfeed provides a running commentary on trending topics. On their homepage, you’ll find content ranging from politics to investigative pieces to popular culture and sports. Most importantly, their content is up-to-the-minute. Lots of people turn to Buzzfeed’s running commentary as news breaks. With a similar commentary, higher education institutions can engage with readers on current, relevant topics that are already on their minds. In particular, your students, professors and staff can weigh in on current issues. Get biology professors to comment on the surge of shark attacks off the North Carolina coast, have one of your football players provide an insider’s view on the upcoming NFL season, or ask economics professors to analyze Amazon Prime Day. Remember, it’s not about staying current for current’s sake. It’s about associating with, engaging in, and maybe even shaping the very conversations your audiences are already having amongst themselves.

3. Keep it Short.

A major piece of Buzzfeed’s success can be attributed to their short, quick articles. When readers come to Buzzfeed, they know they can read a summary of whatever breaking news interests them, without sacrificing too much of their time. These shorter pieces mean readers are more likely to fully engage (i.e. read the whole article), which increases the chance that they’ll return to the site. When readers keep coming back, they develop a psychological connection with your brand. Your institution then has the chance to nurture them through the conversion funnel. There is a huge opportunity here for higher education marketers. Your content doesn’t need to be 2,000-word academic articles. Instead, ask your academians to write 200-word pieces or even bulleted lists. You’ll get more professors to buy in with this smaller time commitment, and you’ll entice readers to actually consume your content. In addition, you can take those 2,000-word academic articles and summarize them into bullets, repurposing the great content that already exists and serving it in a more digestible format.

4. Create Shareable Content.

Buzzfeed content is all over social media. People are constantly sharing with their friends and family. In fact, 75% of Buzzfeed’s traffic comes from social sources, and that’s not a coincidence. Buzzfeed epitomizes viral, contagious, sharable content because it appeals to the emotions of its readers and sparks conversation. Higher education content marketing should attempt to do the same. Use your content to make your readers feel something and to generate discussion. An article like “22 Things You Remember if You Went to X University in the 90s” will get your alumni reading and feeling, and probably sharing. Once you’ve encouraged your readers to share your content, make sure it’s easy for them to do so. Include share buttons on all your content and give your content a hashtag.

5. Have a Sense of Humor.

Buzzfeed isn’t afraid to post their serious content about conflict in the Middle East next to something outlandish, like “11 Slightly Horrifying Things You Never Knew About Belly Buttons.” Particularly for higher education institutions with lots of knowledge to share, it’s easy for readers to get bogged down and lose interest in academic articles and research summaries. To keep users engaged, try touching on some silly topics. Ask students to contribute articles like “12 Weird Things Dr. So and So Said Today in Biology 101.” Have your admissions counselors put together a piece like “5 Hilarious Things We’ve Read in Application Essays.” If you’re not quite comfortable jumping headfirst into this sort of humor, try putting an academic spin on some silly topics. Have a psychology professor write an article called “Why Netflix Binges are Taking Over Your Life” about the psychology behind why people are so hooked on TV shows and why Netflix’s “keep watching” feature is so effective.

Of course, this top-five list only begins to touch on the ways higher education marketers can improve their content to more effectively engage readers. There’s no doubt that making dramatic content changes like these is a difficult process. For most institutions, though, investing in content designed to cultivate the media’s attention and hoping for coverage just doesn’t cut it anymore. In particular, this model is no longer useful for engaging with audiences in the places where they’re already reading and consuming. There’s still a place for PR, media relations, and the press release. But for schools hoping to find ways to better use content to really engage their primary target audiences and capitalize on what the web offers, content marketing is the new frontier. If you want to learn more about creating engaging content and leveraging it to reach your goals, or if you are interested in starting a conversation about how we might be able to help your institution make the most of its content marketing, please contact us.