Consistently masterful at blending serious issues and serious comedy, John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, delivered what some might consider a painfully honest (and pretty hilarious) assessment of modern journalism and publishing. Citing staffing declines, dwindling ad revenues and a list of other well-traveled industry changes and challenges, Oliver hit on a critical content challenge very few industries can afford to ignore:

“It is clearly smart for newspapers to expand online. But the danger in doing that is the temptation to gravitate toward whatever gets the most clicks, which is why news organizations badly need to have leaders who appreciate that what’s popular isn’t always what’s most important.”


Finding the balance—of which Oliver’s show provides an excellent example—between the two ends of the content spectrum often creates a unique content challenge, especially for organizations and industries whose audiences span generations. Content expectations, what resonates and why, which channels matter most, and a preference for how content gets distributed and consumed by users can vary significantly from Generation Z to Millennials to Boomers and other generations. Content that motivates one audience could very well disenchant another.

higher education content

Higher Education Content Challenges

Higher Education holds an interesting position in this struggle. Colleges and universities rely on several very different constituencies—high school students, 50+-year-out alumni, legislators and government agencies, ranking entities, academic peers, rabid sports fans, and parents of current students, to name a few—to define the institution’s brand reputation, authority, and market appeal. Therein lies the challenge. When it comes to academic, intellectual, important, and interesting content, how can higher education institutions connect with the variety of audiences they need to reach?

Not so many years ago, the answer was fairly straightforward. Put together a well-crafted press release, get it to a list of news organizations, directly pitch a few high-potential, well-known print and broadcast outlets, and hope for the coverage to come in. The established avenues would do the rest. A successful story might find its way from the local news to regional and national levels, bringing with it the endorsement of those primary influencers in news, information, and entertainment.

To state the obvious, the landscape has changed. Definitions of influence and authority vary drastically among different generations, digital channels, platforms, and content formats. A press release pushed through social media, for example, still seems an unlikely way to reach a generation with a reported 8-second attention span, advanced content filter, and disproportionate preference for visual content over text.

Inside this struggle to capture attention comes an exceptional opportunity for higher education content professionals to demonstrate innovative, creative ways to influence audiences across generations through a smart blend of traditional and modern content tactics. Examples from NC State University and the University of California demonstrate how to evolve news content beyond the press release and bring it to life for multiple audiences. The four tenets below can help guide other organizations to evolve beyond the press release and better connect with their audiences.

#1: Storytelling Basics Still Drive Great Content

While there’s little argument that the media landscape has changed dramatically, what makes a great story hasn’t changed all that much. Timely, relevant, interesting, unique, uncommon, helpful, personally impactful—elements of newsworthiness should still drive content decisions. This lens can transform academic and educational content significantly. For example, the University of California Office of the President’s content team, comprised of Multimedia Producers Zak Long and Jess Wheelock, released a clever video on how to make the best pie ever using science. With a great headline and the video release timed around Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season, the team ensured the story would draw additional attention—and media coverage.

The video earned coverage from an interesting set of outlets across the modern media landscape, including BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, Slate, the Food & Wine blog, and EATER.

Further amplifying the intrinsic utility of the story, the UC content team also developed a “how to” article for Medium, reshaping the content into instructional gifs, tips, tricks, and intense science. The piece trended on Medium, earning a tweet from Medium’s official account as well as Tumblr’s official account.

#2: Diversify Your Outreach

While there will always be an appetite for front page New York Times or major network national evening news coverage among many in higher education content teams (and why not?), there are hundreds of other channels and outlets that can boost a university’s brand and earn credibility among different audiences. Generation Z, for example, looks more to trending pages, influencers, and peer reviews to gather and filter both news and information. Breaking into these places requires new ways of presenting content. Both NC State University and the University of California publish research blogs that take traditional university research content and present it with a fresh, more conversational approach to make it accessible and shareable for different audiences.

By pairing a conventional press release about research findings with a blog post more focused on the methods used to achieve those findings, NC State increased traction for its story on a vomit machine that helps understand the spread of norovirus.

“Each piece highlights a different aspect of the work, and they are cross-linked to each other. They also speak to different audiences. One is more academic/public health-focused. The other is more ‘Wow!’ or ‘Gross!’ focused. We pitched them jointly via social media and through targeted pitching. We got strong coverage on this. And it was clear that some reporters went after the release, while others latched on to the blog post angle. But, really, they supported each other,” said Matt Shipman, University Communications Research Lead at NC State.

The joint approach generated coverage from a long list of outlets including The New York Times, Science, The Huffington Post, WIRED, Vocativ, and HealthDay. Stories from The Abstract (NC State’s research blog) regularly earn coverage and shares, often from outlets that may have passed on a more formal release.

For the University of California, its research blog opens up the opportunity to speak to different communities with entertaining and informative content that might not make the normal news cut. “The research blog also allows us to resurface UC’s work, even if it’s not breaking news. We’ve been able to get a lot of eyeballs on evergreen stories—stories that may not be covered by the media, but are highly shared because they resonate with our followers or communities on Tumblr,” say Jess Wheelock and Zak Long, the minds behind UC’s research content. A few top performers include Blossoming into Science, The Augmented Reality Sandbox, and The Science Behind Breaking Up (also covered by BuzzFeed). The blog has also opened up relationships with other news outlets, including regular reblogs from sites like Discovery News.

#3: Fit the Channel

Anyone who’s spent time with content on different media outlets like Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, BuzzFeed, or The Huffington Post should easily recognize the unique tenor, language, and editorial differences from outlets like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Diversifying coverage requires shaping and reshaping content for specific types of channels accordingly.

Using the nuances of specific channels to its benefit, the University of California used a video, press release, and blog posts with different angles to adjust content for various audiences. The video and blog posts artfully balance the seriousness of the science with the playfulness of emojis for an instantly intriguing topic plus great visuals. The combination provided excellent content for less-traditional but still influential media outlets. The story showed up in Gizmodo, Daily Mail, Vice’s Motherboard, FastCo, Digg, Uproxx, IFLScience, and Engadget.

#4 Moving Pictures Move Audiences

Visual content drives the modern media landscape and appeals to most audiences, regardless of generation. For Generation Z, video plays an even more important role with young adults spending plenty of time on YouTube and with digital video. Getting content to this audience—the primary source of prospective undergraduates—means offering video. News organizations recognize this, too. Video content tends to expand media coverage. “We’re using online platforms as shelf space. It’s where we can put images, video, background information, etc.—essentially anything we need to tell a story (or sell a story). Then, when we reach out to reporters or directly to audiences, we can refer them to those online materials. In short, we give end users easy access to the things they might be interested in,” said Shipman.

For example, NC State repackaged previous material from a press release, putting together a short blog post with the addition of a video. Links to previous releases, background info, and related content provide context for the video while providing a new piece of content to share through social media and pitch to reporters. The result? Coverage in Science Friday, Discovery, Discover, Chemistry World, Quartz, The Huffington Post, The Independent, and the National Academy of Engineering.

Video powers plenty of the University of California’s research-related content. Using playful animation and smart illustrations to demystify complex research, UC has earned a substantial following on YouTube for its Fig. 1 channel. Videos are regularly featured in other digital properties popular among audiences that typically spend less time with traditional media outlets, which helps the University of California’s reputation among these audiences.  For example, UC’s video on How Power Makes People Selfish earned coverage in io9, BuzzFeed, and Upworthy, among other places.

The UC team demonstrates an excellent ability to pick the right kinds of stories for video as well, using titles and visuals together to make already interesting topics even more appealing for more audiences. Videos like What Captain America Can Teach Us About Science, How Morals Influence if You’re Liberal or Conservative, and A Video Game That Teaches You How To Code play to a broad number of audience interests, instantly grabbing attention.

As a centuries-old industry with target audiences across multiple generations, higher education content creators face unique challenges in creating content that plays well in both traditional news outlets and newer platforms that challenge established practices. Both NC State University and the University of California demonstrate how great content that earns coverage, conversation, shares, likes, reposts, and favorites doesn’t come from broadcasting a press release or posting hollow click-bait headlines and cat photos. The best opportunities fall somewhere in between. Through sound storytelling and smart distribution that understands audience and channel, colleges and universities can reach audiences of any generation without sacrificing the integrity of its academic products.

The Author

Tim Jones is an experienced marketing and communications executive with a demonstrated ability to develop and implement comprehensive, creative, integrated marketing, and communications strategies. He is currently the Associate Vice President of Marketing at Clarkson University, where he leads and implements university-wide marketing, branding, messaging, and creative strategy to elevate the university’s position, prominence, and influence.

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