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State of Content Marketing for Colleges, Universities & Higher Ed

The State of Content Marketing for Colleges, Universities & Higher Education

We’re all familiar with the content marketer’s lament: “How do I explain to my family what I do?”

We’ve been content marketers for a few years now, and our families still don’t quite get it. Maybe higher education could give us a frame of reference — something to point to that shows our families exactly what we’re talking about. 

Business has Penn. Medicine has Johns Hopkins. Pretension has Harvard. Content marketing has…the Content Marketing Institute? 

This is not to disparage the industry pioneers at CMI. Rather, taking a look at the spectrum of higher education offerings reveals a noticeable void. Content marketing, employed by 86 percent of B2B marketers, does not have a formal foothold in colleges and universities at the undergraduate level. While traditional fields have their hallowed grounds, content has its baptism by fire. 

The Programming Puzzle

To better understand the state of content marketing for higher education, we sampled three universities: the University of Missouri, Northwestern University, and Syracuse University. Why these three? Each is globally renowned for its journalism, media, or integrated marketing programs.

Here’s what we found: 

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Not only was this a fascinating study in semantics, but also one that provided a few truths about content in higher education: 

  • At the undergraduate level, advertising and public relations are the umbrella engines that drive content-related study.
  • At the graduate level, certain programming does exist, but these programs eschew creative processes for analytics and cultural analysis.
  • Editorial and publishing processes are rarely addressed. 

While it is heartening to see specific programming available for content marketers at the graduate level, the vacuity of undergraduate programming is profound. Why is this?

The Next Step for Higher Ed

Content marketing is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Few fields require design, account planning, account strategy, analytics, marketing research, creative writing, editing, production, publishing, and sales to coexist under the same roof. Naturally, this creates problems at the collegiate level — where individual schools and colleges must teach a breadth of general skills to enhance students’ employability.

But in a world in which engineering students collaborate with strategic communicators to build apps and law students collaborate with medical students to appease plaintiffs, interdisciplinary efforts aren’t impossible to program. 

Here are four ways higher education can embrace content:

1. Interdisciplinary Partnerships 

Good content cannot exist without research and strategy. Without a client to research and strategize for, content cannot exist at all, and without content, a firm has nothing to sell to potential buyers. Schools of communication and business share a similar goal: to educate students who can generate perpetual engagement as they drive clients through their content funnels. It’s only natural that the two team up.

2. Capstone and Internship Experiences

At the University of Missouri, students who work for MOJO Ad, an advertising agency owned by the Missouri School of Journalism, gain professional experience running a national client’s campaign for the 18- to 24-year-old youth and young adult market. Students work together on teams that include interactive specialists, media planners, designers, writers, strategists, and more. Encouraging content efforts in settings like this provides students with specific context for how branding and corporate thought leadership can be maneuvered through editorial, publishing, and social media channels.

3. Immersion Programs 

At Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, full-time students are required to complete the IMC Immersion Quarter, a program that immerses them in top agencies and companies to develop and strengthen their integrated marketing education. Students who have the opportunity to experience the content process in a real-world setting typically grasp it more quickly than they would be able to through online certifications. 

4. Emphasis Area Development

Forming entirely new programs or concentrations within programs is the ultimate endgame for content at the undergraduate level. Many of the aforementioned suggestions could become part of this emphasis area — immersion programs and internship experiences would be great additions to a content marketing concentration.

If universities aren’t up to the challenge yet, influencers like Chad Pollitt, co-founder of Relevance, are also working on online courses that will allow prospective content marketers to receive a credential toward its study. Pollitt calls the certificate he received from the University of San Francisco “the best thing I’d ever done in my career.” 

No matter the catalyst, the need for talented content marketers in all spheres of the industry is growing. As it has for other industries, it’s the charge of higher education to produce graduates that fit the needs of growing firms. The schools that have already moved to the forefront of content study are changing the game. Those that bring it to undergraduates will win it.

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About Kyle Gunby

When it comes to ideation, I love my 4th, 5th, and 6th thoughts. The first three are often contrived. Improvisational comedy is my art, Nelson Mandela is my hero, and Zooey Deschanel is my love.


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