University of Minnesota’s Content Strategy Practice

Is your content strategy to publish first and ask questions later?

If so, you could be missing out on valuable data that can help you produce and refine the quality content that your users are searching for.

Our guest this week on the Enrollment Growth University was Amanda Costello, Editor and Content Strategist for the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, who has been in the higher education business for more than 10 years.

Amanda wears many hats from content strategist to user experience researcher to information architect, but finds they all contribute to a better end product. She spoke with us about her approach to content strategy and how research data is critical to the process.

Here are the highlights from that interview.

Identify the Why Behind Your Academic Content

Amanda boils content strategy down to simply ensuring that when a user is navigating the university’s website, they find what they’re looking for.

And yes, that dances a fine line of dipping into user experience and even information architecture, but a higher ed content strategist might have to color outside the lines of their job title to deliver the desired outcome.

Job titles and duties aside, the core of what Amanda does is to find out what the faculty or department’s goals are and what they ultimately want, which is not as easy as it sounds.

That first meeting with faculty or directors looks like Amanda asking questions like “What do you want this website to do?” and “What do your users want?”, but she also asks “why?”. A lot. Like at least five times during that first meeting.

Sometimes, the real answer to that “why” goes a lot deeper than just “we need a website for xyz.” and Amanda ultimately has to suggest that a website might not even be the right tool to address that underlying issue.

Clearly identifying the “why” behind a project ensures the best content and best chance for a successful outcome.

Understand Your Content Research Tools

When you approach a new website, rewrite, or optimization project, user research and focus groups are a great place to start, but there are other tools you might find helpful for major projects.

In 2016, when Amanda and her team started work on their core website redesign, they collaborated with their university’s usability lab to run card sorts and tree testing on their site.

The goal with this collaboration was to see what topics people grouped together and also to see how easily specific content could be found. Both tools proved to be “spectacularly useful.”

Card sorting is simply a measure of the information architecture of your website, showing how people categorize topics into groups, such as grouping tuition rates with bill payments.

Tree testing allows you to ask users to locate information on your site and then follows the paths to how they found it or, where they got lost trying to find it.

You can make sure that your your headers are intuitive enough for people to understand where they’re going, without having to see the content on the page. It’s a great way to see where you have gaps in logic or data, but it’s also validating for where you got things right.  

Let The Data Do The Talking

There will always be situations where a department or director will push back and want a website, even when the logic and content to create one isn’t there.

In those situations, Amanda will pull back the proverbial curtain to let them see the behind the scenes, knowing the data will back her position.

She’ll run the tree tests and card sorts, but she’s found the most impactful way to prove her point is to actually invite those key stakeholders and senior leadership into the usability lab to see the extent of testing and work done to try and make their project work for their users.

That hands-on approach gives tangibility to the data presented, allowing the stakeholders to make fully educated decisions about whether or not to proceed with a project their content strategist has advised again.

In the world of higher education, data is extremely compelling and worth the time taken to show the good, the bad, and the ugly of a prospective website or webpage. You have margin to take time to get something right, where you might not have that in a corporate setting.

Higher education moves at a slower pace and Amanda says that’s an asset. You’re able to do the research required with a huge grace period to know if a project will fail or succeed before anyone else knows you’ve even started it.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Amanda Costello from the University of Minnesota. 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.