The Power of Storytelling at Santa Clara University

It’s hard to stand out right now. There are thousands of colleges and universities doing their job and educating their students well. But most of their websites are saying similar things. At times, the sites can almost seem like they contain the same content with a new institution’s name slipped in.

That doesn’t help you stand out.

What you need is a good sense of who you are and what makes you different. And that’s the people on your campus. By digging into the people that thrive on your campus and talking about who they are to your audience, you engage the reader in a genuine way. 

Matthew Morgan, Director of Storytelling at Santa Clara University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss how our editorial, news, and marketing teams can all use storytelling strategies to make their campus stand out.

Storytelling in Higher Education Marketing

The #1 rule of marketing: Be Authentic!

We sometimes think creative should come first and the sale pitch second. But in fact, we should start with the truth. If you have content that’s overly messaged or sounds like a commercial, it won’t engage people. In fact, it will drive them away. Customers are savvy, and they can smell a sales job from a million miles away. So what we want to do is provide content that’s true and genuinely interesting. 

Look at some of the very best academic institutes — the top of the Ivy League — a lot of their marketing is really an afterthought and it’s not super polished. Why? They don’t have to market themselves hard because they’re outstanding institutions. The other 99% of schools, however, don’t have that luxury. 

But while it’s important to work hard, it’s equally vital not to be too polished. 

“When I’m visiting a website, if it becomes too much of a sales pitch, it makes me wonder why they’re hiding the real people,” Matt said. “So for me, we like to sometimes show a little bit of imperfections and really lean into what’s real about our institution with our storytelling.”

Letting Your People Be Your Brand Differentiators

Our students, faculty, and alumni are essentially our celebrity endorsers. They’re the people that put the face to the experience of attending our schools. When people come to the website, they can look at it and they can say, “Oh, that person is interested in the same kinds of things that I am. Or they attack problems in the way that I do. Or they’re interested in similar things.” And they can see themselves on the campus.

“But I think that the reason why it’s so important to lean into stories when it comes to differentiation is that it’s the most truthful way,” Matt said. “By focusing on the people who are here and they’re succeeding, it’s impossible not to highlight your areas of differentiation.” 

When Matt sits down with students who are going to be in a marketing video, he doesn’t use the word “marketing.” That can make them act unnatural. Instead, he sets the stage with the students by saying, “Look, we’re going to be truthful in everything that we tell about your story. Nothing is going to be something that comes out of nowhere that didn’t come out of your mouth at some point or that’s not true.”

Like Matt told us on the podcast, “We don’t want people to come to this school that don’t want to be here. It doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose. It doesn’t serve the students’ purposes. It doesn’t serve our bottom line.”

Next Steps to Upgrade Your Storytelling Game

Give your storytellers freedom.

When you get scared about making a mistake or hurting the feelings of a faculty member, you take away your chance of being memorable. 

“One thing with the magazine that we’ve been really successful with,” Matt said, “is we’ve tackled some really taboo topics. Things that you would never cover in an alumni magazine. Because we did it responsibly.”

Bottom line: Come at a difficult topic in a way that’s truthful and adds to the conversation. 

Visuals are really important.

“As someone who works in words, I value words a lot,” Matt said. “But if my photo or my layout is not good, no one’s going to want to read what I write.” 

Great images don’t have to be expensive. You don’t even need a staff photographer although one can prove helpful. You can find cheap or free photos that will work. But remember that people are not very forgiving anymore of bad photos. 

“I think we’re at a point where you need to have good photos and good visuals,” Matt re-emphasized. “So if you’re just thoughtful and intentional about it and give yourself some time to game plan, adding great visuals to storytelling can really make all the difference.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Matthew Morgan from Santa Clara University. 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.