Has higher education content marketing lost its way? A shift in strategy is needed to appeal to the next wave of applicants.

Key ideas

  • Gen Z craves authenticity and distrusts older generations. Messages from a dean elicit eyerolls. Instead, they want to hear directly from students—no filter. Be real, even if it’s not entirely positive.
  • Today’s students treat school like an investment. Address pragmatic concerns like the ROI of a degree or networking opportunities. Don’t focus on aspirational messages like, “We provide the next generation stepping stones to a better life.”
  • Content production should be decentralized, not siloed within Marketing or Communications. Val says: “Content needs to be a muscle that all units within the organization are really flexing and working.”

The pandemic has profoundly impacted higher education. But let’s face it: The industry has been at a crossroads for a while. Generation Z, higher ed’s main demographic, is looking for authenticity and relatability, not polished videos or letters from a dean. They want to know: What is life on campus really like? What do your students really think?

“These sizzle reels that are really highly produced. And to think you’re going to spend months producing this perfect sizzle reel, and then post one of those a year to your YouTube channel and go away, kids look at that and think like, ‘Oh, so what’s going on here? This is a vacuum. There’s no real content.’ They want to see the shaky videos that are student created, right? They want to know that you’re letting student voices into the conversation in a real and authentic way.”

Val Fox, Marketing Strategist and Founder, Valocity Marketing

So what needs to change for higher ed to attract this new generation of applicants? It starts with structural changes: No more glossy productions, byzantine approval processes, or siloed marketing departments. Storytelling must become an authentic, always-on, cross-organizational effort.

“I think for content to really take root in organizations—all shapes and sizes; this isn’t unique to higher ed—it really cannot be siloed in marketing. Content needs to be a muscle that all units within the organization are really flexing and working. It’s an organizational capability. When you’re telling stories, just like— We used to say, ‘The brand doesn’t live in one team alone.’ They’re not the only brand ambassadors. Everybody has to be a brand ambassador and know and live the brand.”

Val Fox, Marketing Strategist and Founder, Valocity Marketing

Higher ed content should also address the value of a degree, particularly when attracting new students. According to Val, schools tend to focus on the “Life Changing” and “Social Impact” levels of the Elements of Value Pyramid, spending less time on pragmatic, “Functional” concerns like ROI and connections. Incoming students want to know: Will a degree from your school allow me to earn a higher salary or find a fulfilling job?

The Elements of Value Pyramid
Illustration: The Elements of Value, Harvard Business Review (September 2016)

Val Fox

Val Fox is a Marketing Strategist and Founder of Valocity Marketing.

Relevant links


Stream Episode 19 now, or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform below.


Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!

[music]

Todd: Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. On this podcast, we explore content—its creation, management, and distribution—by talking with the people who make content possible. Our goal is to learn from diverse perspectives and industries to become better creators. The Future of Content is brought to you by Four Kitchens, we design and develop digital content solutions that get results. Today, I’m joined by Val Fox, founder and marketing strategist at Valocity Marketing, and we’re going to be talking about content strategy for higher education. Welcome to The Future of Content, Val.

Val: Thank you so much, Todd. It’s such a pleasure to be here.

Todd: Well, thank you. And by the way… “Valocity Marketing.”

Val: You like it?

Todd: I love it. Any wordplay, I’ll take it. I’m a fan. Wonderful.

Val: Well, it was available for one thing. That’s part of content strategy, right? Just starting with: Is the URL free?

Todd: That’s right. I think—

Val: If there’s any take away from today, it’s just that. Just find a URL, people, and just—

Todd: That’s kind of like the modern— Geez. Is there an equivalent? Like when you have a business idea, what’s the first thing you do is you see if the domain name is available. I don’t know what the equivalent would have been 50 years ago. 

Val: I don’t know a Yellow Pages ad?

Todd: [crosstalk] Oh, in the ’80s it was probably like—

Val: Do people even know what that means today? Did you—?

Todd: Yeah, it might be Yellow Pages. It could be a phone number. Is the phone number taken?

Val: Well, a lot of companies used to name themselves like— That’s why AAA was such a popular— Right? They just wanted to be first in the Yellow Pages.

Todd: A-Plus Plumbing. Aardvark Lawn Care. Yeah.

Val: There you go.

Todd: It’s 50 pages of double-A names.

Val: We just lost like two-thirds of our audience [crosstalk].

Todd: That’s right. “We’re here to talk about the Yellow Pages. How to name your company to achieve primary ranking in the Yellow Pages.” Well, okay. What we’re here to talk about is content strategy in higher education. So you have a deep, deep background in higher education. Could you just give us a summary of that, what that’s about?

Val: Yeah. Well, that’s how we met. I was a client of Four Kitchens.

Todd: Full disclosure, yes.

Val: Yes, yes. And I worked with you and your team. So full disclosure, but, yeah, I led marketing efforts for a business university called Bentley University outside Boston, Massachusetts, for— I was there for seven years, 2012 to 2018. 2019. Oh my gosh. I’ve just wiped away a year or so. What does it matter? Is it 2020? What does that even mean? So I was there for a stretch and really came to appreciate the unique challenges in higher ed, which there’s lots to noodle on and talk about on that front today, but yeah. I think 2020 has really grown a lot of industries and higher ed is in a unique position. 2020 has thrown everybody curveball, and I think content strategy has really been— There’s been a forcing function around content and communication this year like no other, so it’ll be an interesting thing to talk about, for sure.

Todd: Yeah. Well, let’s just get into it. So you and I talked briefly before we started recording this and the position you took is that higher ed is at a reckoning and the pandemic is really forcing the issue. So I’d love to hear more about what you mean and what in particular the pandemic has done to force this issue.

Val: So higher ed was already kind of facing this cliff that was predicted to happen in 2024 to 2025, where there were just going to be such a seismic shift in demographics—a lot fewer students in the undergraduate pool—and there already are so many schools that are facing really tight fiscal strains and operating at such a slim—

Todd: Why is there a cliff in demographics, you said, fewer undergrads?

Val: There are just fewer— So this generation we’re going to talk about today, Gen Z, which is anyone born after 1995 or under the age of 25, there’s just fewer of them. Right? There are some regions of the country where you’re seeing some spikes in that audience, but if you’re a school in— So I mentioned I’m still in the Northeast. If you’re a school in the Northeast, it’s getting more and more difficult to attract students where there are population crises. So that demographic is growing in parts of the country like California and Texas and the Southwest and the South, but not in New England or the Northeast. That population is really shrinking.

Todd: Wow.

Val: There’s fewer of us here. So we’re all competing for— The same number of schools are competing for a smaller demographic. And you’re really differentiating on things that are really, really intangible. Right? So you’re a university. You’re really trying to differentiate yourself with an audience that’s increasingly sophisticated about the channels of communication. And there are more nuances in terms of the differences and distinction points between these schools. So it all comes down to the stories you’re telling on the channels you’re telling them on, and that intersects squarely with content marketing and how you’re telling that story and how you’re trying to differentiate yourself. So for some schools, it can be as simple as— They’re putting all their eggs in a rankings basket and just saying, “We guarantee you’re going to come out with— We’ve been cited as being the top school and this particular ranking.” And if schools don’t have that or don’t have great outcomes— And by outcomes in higher ed, that means that you place students in jobs at a great rate. Their starting salaries are really strong. You don’t have those kind of numbers? You’re going to be at a real disadvantage. So what kind of stories are you telling about yourself? Does that kind of land with— It sounded like you were surprised to hear that there are fewer students in that demographic.

Todd: I am. Is this because literally fewer people are being born?

Val: It’s that simple. Yes. Well—

Todd: Wow. No, I didn’t fully realize that.

Val: People are waiting longer to get married. They’re having fewer kids and maybe deciding not to have kids at all. So, yeah, I’d say millennials and Gen X are making different life choices which, when you look at a generation later, there are just fewer kids in high school that are going to be college students in two, three, four years. So for those people I know who have high school-aged kids who are so— Now every family’s anxious about college acceptance rates. Will my kid get into the best school possible? I say, “Now? There’s never been a better time. There’s never been a better time to get your kid into the best school possible with the most financial aid possible.” So—

Todd: Really?

Val: Yeah. There’s just fewer kids competing. So if you’ve got decent grades and you’ve been a strong student, maybe taken AP classes and proven yourself, then you will have a really— You’ll be a strong contender.

Todd: Wow.

Val: Aim for the moon. Yeah. The demographics are in your favor.

Todd: Here’s a really uncomfortable question about higher education. And we do a lot of work— Professionally, I do a lot of work with people in higher education. I feel kind of— It makes me uncomfortable to ask this, but I think it needs to be asked. Considering—

Val: Go for it.

Todd: Considering universities, basically closing, during the pandemic—or meaning, physically closing their spaces to students—what is the value of higher education if the experience of physically being on campus and the kind of life experience that that gives you— Whether it’s networking or just kind of this moment of of freedom and being away from home in a significant way and kind of self-discovery and in all of this and swimming in all of these like ideas in different classes and all of that— What is the value of higher education when it’s reduced to— I shouldn’t say reduced. It’s maybe the wrong word. Let’s use the word reduced [laughter]. When it’s been reduced to you’re taking a class on Zoom and you’re just transacting ideas and knowledge. Where does that leave higher education, as we have come to think of it as an experience?

Val: Well, I think you framed that really well. Let’s just take a step back and think of some of the schools that, their whole brand is built around the city and the place-based education you’re getting in that city. So I think of schools like an NYU. New York University. That is their brand. It is the city, and New York City was just pummeled—ravaged—by the pandemic. Schools like that will have a very, very challenging time convincing students to apply if they’re in high school right now. So considering an urban environment. But if you’re currently enrolled in a school like that, are you thinking about taking a gap-year? Are you thinking of maybe enrolling in a school that is in a suburban or rural location where you might feel safer? And then, the offerings afforded by schools like that, that in the past would have looked like, “Look, your classroom is the city. You’re going to have internship opportunities and learning opportunities, all these cultural institutions.”

Todd: Yeah, what a good point.

Val: I mean, that’s part of the offering, and I think that’s going to be so hard for schools to tell that story. They’re going to have to really double down on the degree that you’re getting, the recognition of that degree post-graduation, because this experience for everyone across the board is that it has been diminished. Absolutely, so much of the learning comes from the interaction you have with fellow peers in the classroom, with your professors in the classroom. So it’s a really tough time, but what’s the alternative? I mean, frankly, I’ve spoken to kids of friends, to my niece and nephew. “Do you take a gap year? Well, what do you do?” There’s really nothing to do right now if you’re not going to be able to find a job. You can’t travel. There’s no work. So while I feel for kids, I still think that the schools that are doing it well are really finding ways to get people to connect in unique ways. And it does have to be online in lots of places, but we’re all learning. We’re all adjusting, and there will be some interesting use cases and best practices that maybe get held on to on the other side of this.

Todd: Yeah, let’s talk about the long-term effect of that, because a pandemic is a temporary thing, but it has long-lasting effects. So this might go on another six, 12 months—another semester or two. But at the end of it, coming out the other side and universities reopen and all of this— One can assume after an experience like this, it’s never really going to go back to the way it was, there’s a new normal of some sort that is set. I think that’s going to happen in many walks of life, but in higher education, certainly that must be true. What do you see as being some of the permanent changes, or some of those things, best practices that have been changed that we now hold on to?

Val: Well, that’s a great question, I think that there might be more. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were students who decided to pick and choose classes from schools that are remote from them. I mean, if you’re used to this model and you think the best professor or faculty member in the discipline you’re most interested in happens to be across the country, could you just dial in to a class there? What’s preventing students from kind of shopping around that way? Especially if faculty have really gotten savvy around making a virtual classroom engaging for their students and bringing together the best composition of interesting students from around the world? Why not? Why wouldn’t you do that? I think that could be a really compelling outcome for students. I think internships, if you want to work somewhere right now, internships being place-based, where actually you have to get in and, let’s say you’re going to school in a rural area. I think that could be an amazing outcome. I’m going to school. I’m thinking of rural schools that have maybe great arts programs, but all the amazing art institutions and museums are in major metropolitan areas. Why couldn’t you work alongside an amazing curator or somebody at a museum in New York City, even if you are in the rural Midwest? Why not? What’s stopping you? I think that that could be an amazing outcome and level the playing field for students that are in different parts of the country or rural areas. I think that would be tremendous. And then I think in terms of the higher ed operations, I think I know a lot of people who are sitting inside an administrative function in higher ed and this year has really tipped the scales in terms of creating a lot—pushing, I think—a lot of decisions down to people who are closest to the information in higher education. I mean, I came from a fairly small—by most standards—institution, but you think of these large state schools and how long it takes to make decisions, and higher ed is still very, very bureaucratic. Things need to go through so many approval cycles. In a pandemic, in an emergency situation, you wind up operating on a daily basis, pushing decisions down to the people who are closest, whether those people are in health services, or student affairs, or campus security. You’ve got to operate with this sense of just agility day to day. And that’s become, I think, the best operating practice that I hope schools embrace. I know schools are certainly doing a lot more outreach with their students and parents,and faculty. I mean, they’re running these little cities, right? They’ve got to keep their citizens, if you will, abreast of just— This is a public health concern. And they have been put squarely in the center of just this new operating model and have to communicate in real time, in ways they never had to before. So I think that the students, and parents of both prospective students and current students are going to expect a whole new level of communications from schools coming out of this around public help around student safety, and it’ll just be a new normal, and I think that, I saw it from where I used to sit a year-and-a-half to two years ago where you’d have a whole team of people just spinning cycles on getting out one email or blog post a week, and that was considered rapid fire, and now it’s times 10. And so the expectations of teams and operations at these institutions is that the bar has been raised. And I think that’s a good thing, because there was just a lot of unnecessary cycles, and these are schools that if they could do more to stay engaged with their audiences and serve their audiences better—and communications is one of the many ways that they can do that—I think they’ll be well served by that. The schools that really stepped up their game will be well served.

Todd: And so communication is one form of content that is handled within higher education, student communication and safety and things like that. What other aspects of higher education-oriented content are you seeing the bar being raised for—whether it’s this incoming generation, Gen Z, and their expectations around communication styles and channels and content quality and all of that; whether it’s the permanent or semi-permanent changes that a pandemic world has imposed on us in terms of our expectations of what the higher ed experience is like; where do you see that content heading?

Val: Well, Gen Z, they’ve really reframed what high value content looks like. So they come out of the womb almost with this expertise around, and savviness around, content. Northeastern did a national survey of that audience a few years ago, and there are a couple of interesting findings that first, you really think of that audience—again, Gen Z, anyone born after 1995, so under the age of 25—they’re almost expert brand managers in and of themselves. So they already have a lot of the skills that I used to hire for when looking for digital communications roles.

Todd: And is that just like the whole personal branding, like you need to present yourself and know your audience to speak to different audiences?

Val: Yes, exactly. So you present yourself differently on different channels. On Instagram you’ve got a very visual presence, versus you might have a totally different following on Twitter, where maybe you’re following news trends and news cycles there, versus your Instagram following that’s more photo driven or video driven. So they curate their profiles very intentionally on different platforms, and they understand the nuances of all of them. And they’re very savvy around how to cultivate their followings, and they’re very intentional about being authentic and showcasing your unique qualities. So if brands come across as inauthentic in any way, they’re immediately just at awe, right? So if that means—

Todd: That’s actually interesting, to say that somebody from, well, of any generation is being authentic on social media, that strikes me, it’s like on the one hand, I totally believe it, on the other hand, I think, “Is there anything about social media that’s authentic?” You know what I mean? Because Instagram, the shots are always framed in a certain way and it’s always in the best light, at the best time, and the best take, and there’s a filter and all of this stuff. Is there sort of a new definition of authentic?

Val: Here’s the difference. Who are you putting in those shots? So I’ll give you an example. We used to do a lot of focus groups. I found it fascinating. I’d spend as much time as I could in focus groups of parents and students, because you learn so much. We used to put examples of content in front of students and some of it was printed content, digital content, and they’d look at anything with pictures of faculty, or deans, or anyone older than them—older than 10 years older than them—and they’d say, “I’d never trust this person.” They’re clearly paid to tell me, “Why are you putting a dean or a president on this? I want to hear from people that look like me. They’re my age and have my struggles.”

Todd: Oh, I see. Okay. That kind of authenticity.

Val: Yes, even if that person is perfectly backlit, okay. So it’s a student. It’s a senior at the school. Even if they’re perfectly backlit and their tattoos are airbrushed out or whatever, they just want to know that they’ve had struggles—they’re relatable. “Oh, this person went in studying accounting. That’s what I’m interested in.” Or, “They’re in a fine arts program and struggled to find an internship. That might happen to me.” They just want to hear the stories from people that are—

Todd: It’s not about superficial authenticity, to coin a paradox. It’s not about that. It’s about sort of subject matter authenticity and audience authenticity.

Val: Relatability. Yes. Yes, relatability. Everything can’t be completely perfect. I mean, they want to see— I also think that students in that generation really appreciate lower production value. If everything’s totally packaged and it’s like this— Schools put so much, and a lot of brands do, I can’t just point the finger at education— These sizzle reels that are really highly produced. And to think you’re going to spend months producing this perfect sizzle reel, and then post one of those a year to your YouTube channel and go away, kids look at that and think like, “Oh, so what’s going on here? This is a vacuum. There’s no real content.” They want to see the shaky videos that are student created, right?

Todd: Mm-hmm.

Val: They want to know that you’re letting student voices into the conversation in a real and authentic way. So that could mean, for some schools— I’ve seen some schools where they’ve had negative posts on channels, and they don’t take them down. They respond to it and engage in the conversation. I give school props for that. That’s saying—

Todd: Because that’s real.

Val: — “We let discord, yes, into this community, and we have civil discourse that’s healthy. That’s what happens here.”

Todd: And that’s kind of the whole point, or one of the main tenets, of higher education is debate and discourse and disagreement.

Val: Well, yes, it’s certainly discussed, Todd. What that happens and how that happens, that’s a whole other podcast. You could have a long conversation here about safe spaces and free—

Todd: Sure, free speech zones and things like that. Yeah. Yeah, of course. Of course.

Val: Yeah, yeah. But, yes, I think students have finely tuned filters. In terms of how much has been whitewashed for me, how much has been filtered for me, I want to see behind the veneer here, right? So what’s it really like? So for schools that invite discourse, for schools that invite student voices or alumni voices into the conversation, where maybe it’s even having students run some of the channels. I was at a school where we’d do student takeovers or alumni takeovers of our social channels. I mean, grants are getting savvy around that. Not only does that make your social outreach more scalable, but it also just makes for interesting content. So one-way messaging will get drowned out. The point is it just can’t be one-way. You have to engage multiple voices in there.

Todd: Got it. Well, lets—

Val: But, at the same time— I’ll just share one other thing about this audience. They’re very practical and pragmatic. They lived through the Great Recession, and now they’ve lived through this, so they will be even more heightened— Have a more heightened awareness around degrees that kind of pay off. 81% of them will say that they believe obtaining a college degree equates to getting a good job. So they really equate school and education with careers.

Todd: Well, we’re going to take a short break, and when we return, we will talk with Val about climbing the value pyramid of content.

[music] 

Todd: Hey, everyone. Todd here. I want to tell you a little bit about Four Kitchens. You probably know that Four Kitchens creates websites, but we do so much more than that. Our team of Web Chefs can help you make better use of your content, create world-class digital experiences, and scale your web team. And most importantly, we get results. We’ve helped media companies streamline their streaming platforms. We’ve helped public broadcasters increase donations, and we’ve helped universities enroll more students. To find out more about how Four Kitchens can help, visit us at fourkitchens.com. Now back to the episode.

[music]

Todd: Welcome back to The Future of Content. Our guest today is Val Fox, founder and marketing strategist at Valocity Marketing. So I’d like to talk about the Elements of Value Pyramid and how that applies to content strategy. So first off, what is the Elements of Value Pyramid?

Val: Sure. Well, do you remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from school, the model that demonstrates— ?

Todd: Of course.

Val: Yeah. We need our basic needs met—food, security, warmth—before we can start moving up the pyramid. And the higher up the pyramid we go, the more complex our needs. Well, research from Bain & Company that they published in 2016 extends that by really identifying about 30 fundamental attributes that they called these elements that value that drive consumer decision-making. And their findings also underscored that companies that perform well on multiple elements from the bottom to the top of that value channel or value chain ended up with more loyal customers. So what that means in terms of brands and content marketing, to me, is that if you can leverage content to tell stories that hit on those values and reinforce those values, you’re just going to be reinforcing those kind of deep ties that customers, and in this case, students, have with your brand. So at the bottom of the pyramid, Bain put these functional attributes. So some of them— And there’s quite a few here. I’m not going to list all of them. The ones that jumped out to me when I think of higher education— Connections are at the bottom of that pyramid, and that could be connecting. We talked about this earlier, right? How are you connecting with your peers in the classroom, possibly with the graduates who are alumni of that school, with faculty? And there’s some really interesting apps that have come out and, I think, might be getting more play right now, specifically in the space for schools. There’s a company called Ambi in Boston that wants to be the social network for universities. And there is one called PeopleGrove that’s been adopted widely by schools to connect students with alumni. So how are you making it easy for your students to connect with one another and the whole community that you’re really kind of building your brand on, right? Another one is reducing risk. And before the break, we talked a little bit about Gen Z and how mindful they are—pragmatic they are—about outcomes, meaning, “I want to make sure I get a good job out of college.” Reducing risk in higher ed is a big one because of the debt you’re taking on by making a decision like this to go into debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly, to sign up for school. And so schools can make a really clear case to students that the particular school or degree that they’re interested in has great outcomes. When I was at Bentley, I did a lot to advance this idea that we could be sharing labor market analytics and there are companies called Emsi and Burning Glass that partner with schools to really help them understand and help them get information around what are the outcomes for a particular degree over the next five to 10 years, even by region. So you could really help students make decisions that, yes, give them the confidence that getting this degree will indeed pay off. Here’s what the labor market is actually showing. So—

Todd: It’s really interesting that these two concepts that you’ve raised already, the ability to create connections, whether it’s within your higher education experience or meaning your cohort, or it may include alumni or professors or whoever, and also this idea of reducing risk. You know, “This is an investment. This isn’t just something I’m doing as a matter of course. I’m going to take on debt to do this. It’s going to have to pay off.” These are actually fairly mature ideas and concepts around the higher education space. It’s interesting that these reside on the bottom level of the value pyramid, as if to say these are just table stakes. If you’re a university, at a bare minimum you have to be doing these things. You have to prove that you’re valuable. You have to prove that you create connections and those connections are valuable. And we’re not even getting to the stuff that’s complicated yet.

Val: Right. So, Todd, my challenge to higher ed is that I think higher ed spends a lot of time at the top of that pyramid in this category Bain talks about as “life changing.” We talk a lot about students. One of the values there is self-actualization. They have done a tremendous amount of great work creating content and a lot of videos showing students, “What is your life going to be like five or 10 years out? What are the amazing jobs you’re going to get? You’re going to be so successful and happy.” Or “You’re going to make so many amazing friends.” There’s a lot of effort placed in that. And yes, it is important. That is a huge part of the decision and the connections that students make and the brand value that comes out of making those decisions to enroll in a school. I would challenge schools that they need to spend more time on some of these very simple—to us, very simple—kind of basic table stakes, brand attributes that I think they take for granted. I think they take it for granted.

Todd: Right. I’m reminded of my own alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. They have this really emotional— Well, I don’t know if they’ve done it in a few years, but this really emotional, powerful advertising campaign and motto that they’ve used for a long time, which is, “What starts here changes the world.” There’s lots of helicopter flyover shots of the campus and circling around the tower and a very kind of sincere-sounding Texan talking about all the great research that’s done in the community and all of these things. But from a really practical standpoint, I would just really— You know what would be useful for me? Especially somebody who’s maybe in the market now to look—if I were 20 years younger—looking at a university to attend is, especially looking at the world today, I just want to make sure that my investment’s going to pay off, that I’m going to get a job.

Val: Yes. Yes.

Todd: I don’t need the high-definition flyover shots of the campus. I don’t need to be talked to in this way about belonging to a tribe or being self-actualized. That’s great. That feels good. But I just need to make sure that I’m going to spend four years at this place and not be broke and not be able to get a job.

Val: Right. Right. And that does not— A lot of leaders in higher ed would say that is diminishing the value of an education, right? “That is not what we’re about. We’re about providing the next generation stepping stones to a better life.” Yes, you do all those, but look, you need to check a lot more boxes than that. It is a very competitive landscape. And right now, schools that are doing better on these table stakes are going to make it easier for people. They’re going to make it clear for people that that math equation adds up—that ROI equation adds up. They’re the ones that are going to succeed on the brand dimensions. So I would say that there are quite a few things on this ladder that schools haven’t really considered yet, and a lot of them are just making it easy to transact with the school. How many information silos are there? You have to maybe send all your information into financial aid, and then all the same information into housing. It’s a horrible, horrible experience. So when I think of some of the brands that Gen Z are passionate about, they’re ones that have integrated across this whole value chain, or brand pyramid, value pyramid. One in particular that jumps out to me because I experience it on a pretty regular basis myself is Peloton. Are you in Peloton at all?

Todd: I actually am. And boy, we can talk about Peloton forever. [laughter]

Val: Okay. So are you wearing any Peloton gear? Because, you know after you hit a certain number of rides, they send you a free T-shirt, you get rewards. They’re gamifying, you have badge value. You have—

Todd: They give you shout outs.

Val: The shout outs, on the functional level it’s easy. It integrates with all of your apps. So whether it’s—

Todd: That’s such a good point, because it was a year ago that I got a Peloton, and I guess the timing was good because I can’t go to a gym. So when I think about, “Why is it that I like this thing so much?” All that stuff that you mentioned, like the community, and the gear, and all of this stuff, that’s nice. That kind of hits me at an emotional level. But actually the things that I love about it are the fact that it is one of the most well-engineered pieces of machinery I have ever interacted with. It is so easy to use. It actively teaches you how to use it better, and they reinforce that message over and over again, and then they add the other stuff on top. And that’s definitely like the icing. They don’t treat the icing as the meal, right? Their core, just the core of their businesses, is they have a beautiful machine that functions really, really well. It’s totally reliable. It requires virtually no maintenance, and if at any point you kind of stop doing it—I’ll admit I’ve had some stops and starts—they really do a good job of encouraging you to get back on and making it easy to do that. And so this podcast is brought to you by Peloton. [laughter]

Val: Yeah.

Todd: But anyway, yeah. I’ll take one. Yeah. It’s a great experience and because they’ve they’ve really nailed, in my opinion, the functional aspects of value.

Val: So what would a university look like if they were run by Peloton, right? You’d have gamification. You’d immediately be connected. All your learning platforms would be connected, all of your housing, your aid, your invoicing, your health. The health monitoring, I mean, it would be so easy. Maybe that’s what it will look like in the future. But that is a brand— Those are the companies setting the bar for what interacting with brands looks like today. And Gen Z expects that.

Todd: Yeah. It’s interesting that we’ve reached a point where you can compare a university to a home gym company, because for many people, they’re just both brand interactions and product quality. And if you come to expect quality interactions and products all the time because the bar is so high, why would you not also expect it from a university, even though it’s a completely different thing in a completely different experience?

Val: Well, and in a university, saying all those— Universities are promising all these things, that if it’s not actually delivering on some of the basic things, it’s very hard to— You talked about the icing versus the meal. If you’re just not getting the meal—you’re not getting the meat and potatoes and you’re just getting the dessert—it’s not fulfilling after a point in time. It’s just not going to satisfy you.

Todd: And especially once it’s all over and you’ve graduated. I realized, “I had a great time, but I don’t have any marketable skills. What do I do?” Oh, interesting. Well, let’s talk a little bit about— Before we go, let’s talk a little bit about how marketing and communications teams can start to operationalize some of these new content practices. What would you recommend to them?

Val: Well, I think one of the big things that’ll come out for all organizations out of COVID is that we talked a little bit earlier about rapid-fire decision-making and decentralized decision-making. And I think for content to really take root in organizations—all shapes and sizes; this isn’t unique to higher ed—it really cannot be siloed in marketing. Content needs to be a muscle that all units within the organization are really flexing and working. It’s an organizational capability. When you’re telling stories, just like— We used to say, “The brand doesn’t live in one team alone.” They’re not the only brand ambassadors. Everybody has to be a brand ambassador and know and live the brand. And the same with content. Content is really— To make it a kind of a muscle everyone really works and uses, it’s about creating connected experiences. And so companies that create— That decentralized that— So whether it’s decentralized social channels and communications, that’s had to happen right now during COVID just because of the nature of the communication and the fact that it’s getting— Content voices are really taking root across the organization. We talked about safety and security teams needing to have a voice at the table and issue, create content communications. All sorts of different people from across campuses are doing that right now. And so the more that becomes—

Todd: So we really have to get through the— Or we really have to get past the model of “everything goes through Comms,” right?

Val: Yes. Right.

Todd: In fact, it comes from everybody. It’s just that Comms maybe now serves to facilitate that process, rather than try to funnel it.

Val: Well, I think Comms is a great resource for best practices and for steering guidance around that, but they don’t hold the keys to it and they shouldn’t be gatekeepers. They really should almost unleash the university in that capacity. And with guidance there, but really it should be decentralized and embraced.

Todd: Well, let’s leave it at that. I think that’s a good note to leave it on. Val, thank you so much for joining us. If anybody would like to keep talking to you, if they want to reach out to you, how can they get ahold of you?

Val: Sure. Valocity Marketing—just like my name—V-A-L-O-C-I-T-Y marketing-dot-com. And my contact deets and info are right there. Check me out.

[music]

Todd: Fantastic. Well, thank you, Val. And to everybody listening, I hope you learned as much as I did, and I can’t wait to see the content that you create next. Feel free to send it my way via email at future@fourkitchens.com. You can also reach out to me at @FoCpodcast on Twitter. To find out more about Four Kitchens and how we solve complex content problems, visit fourkitchens.com. Make sure to search for The Future of Content in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts—wherever you get your podcasts—and please click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. Until next time, keep creating content.