Brand Journalism at University of Notre Dame

University Marcom offices often nail down their marketing work tight. They may also churn out some press releases that occasionally get picked up in major publications.

But when places like the New York Times are producing world-class storytelling experiences, it changes prospective students’ expectations. Universities need to think differently about strategic content, how it can lift their own brands and help them stay competitive.

Many media organizations, though, are cutting staff and hedging their bets on short-form content. Why would a university go the opposite way and spend more time and money on long-form work?

Andy Fuller, Director of Strategic Content at University of Notre Dame, came on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about Notre Dame’s long-form journalism unit, the highly-engaging online experiences they’re building, and how they team up with media relations to get additional press from their efforts.

The Brand Journalism Process: Team Structure, Story Selection, and Production

“The ultimate goal,” Andy said, “was to go beyond the news release that we were always doing, and…to deliver an experience online.”

At the beginning of the project, Notre Dame tried to add a long-form journalism unit within the existing organizational structure. It became clear, however, that if the university was committed to the power of storytelling as a way to lift the brand, it needed a dedicated team. That’s how Strategic Content came about.  

When selecting the stories to tell, Andy’s team at Notre Dame focuses on the university’s strategic priorities. Right now, those are the growing research enterprise, Notre Dame’s international presence, and the university’s identity as a faith-based institution.

Andy’s Strategic Content team recently published a story called, “We Built This City,” which highlights Notre Dame students engaging in different areas of New York City. The story uses sophisticated visual design and beautiful web development. Its level of web production required intensive resources and a tight team structure.

Andy says, “The experience of going to New York City should feel a little bit different online than just text on a page. So, these students were going to different spots in the city, and we thought the way to show that, of course, is…a map.”

To tell these super-sized stories, Andy built a team, and he started with two web designers. He believes in beginning projects with design and doing your homework on why the story idea could work. “I wish I would have had that at day one,” he told us, “a designer right on my team that I could bounce ideas off of.”

Andy also hired writers although he does his own writing from time to time, too. For the web development piece and the imagery, he used Marcom since they already serve as a contractor for Notre Dame University.

The End-Game for Notre Dame’s Brand Journalism Efforts

What’s the end-game for a university’s long-form storytelling?

Not necessarily exposure in national publications.

“Our main thing,” Andy told us, “is (to) provide dynamic content for nd.edu and our social channels…that we’re producing and that we maintain ourselves.” The stories are assets for the university, and Andy’s team is constantly developing them by mapping them, getting photos, and acquiring video footage.

Andy said, “It’s allowed our media relations team the ability to really beef up their pitches. So, when they’re going to these external media outlets, they’re using our materials and saying, ‘Hey. Here’s this cool video, here’s some photos. You’re welcome to any or none of it. I just wanted to let you know that we’re working on this story. It will publish at a given date.”

What about results? Has Notre Dame found long-form storytelling worth the investment?

“We had one that comes to mind,” Andy said. “We have researchers up in a retro-fitted gold mine in South Dakota. They’re a mile underground, and they are studying reactions that create stars. So, we…developed this story to publish on our site, and a little while later it gets picked up in some science publications. There was a pitch to NBC. We had another one that landed in HuffPo, we’ve been in some other kind of niche physics publications as well.”

Clearly, long-form stories are working well on the media relations and placement side. But Notre Dame has also reversed a slow decline of page views on their main university website as a result of creating experiential and dynamic content.

How Other Universities Can Better Tell Long-Form Stories

There are a lot of good case studies about delivering a powerful digital experience. Research what’s popular and why.

“I would start there,” Andy said, “and then I would make sure you have access to good design talent and good writing talent.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Andy Fuller from the University of Notre Dame. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.