Q&A: Becky Vardaman on Content Strategy in Higher Ed

We’re huge fans of the people out in the field, doing the hard work of content strategy. We also love getting new perspectives and sharing advice. That’s why we’re launching a series of Q&As with industry leaders who can give insight into where content strategy has been and where it’s going.

Becky Vardaman, vice president of strategy at Converge Consulting
Becky Vardaman, vice president of strategy at Converge Consulting

First up is Becky Vardaman, vice president of strategy at Converge Consulting, a higher education marketing firm based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

How did you get into content strategy?

Like many people, I found content strategy while knee-deep in a content problem. At the time, I was faced with a big, unruly corporate website. A smaller site is more easily managed by one or two like-minded folks, but when you add volume and get other stakeholders involved, you have to have a plan if you want your content to be any good. I found a blog by Kristina Halvorson and felt an immediate kinship. I bought her book (and about 20 others), and I’m now a content strategy disciple.

So many content strategy careers were launched by Kristina’s writing. Now that you’ve been at it a while, where do you see things going next?

I see a lot of trends in the field. Here are a few:

  1.  More people know what content strategy is now and actually acknowledge that it’s necessary. That is a huge victory. However, most of those people have no idea how to actually DO content strategy day to day. I expect more organizations will invest resources in execution.
  2. Another trend I’m seeing is the development of some great tools, like Blaze, that help get this stuff done at scale. Some of the most tedious tasks are being streamlined, like content inventories, audits, and card sorts. This is one of the most exciting trends!
  3. There are also more platforms to worry about now, and more are entering the scene all of the time: social media networks, video platforms, microsites, and third party applications. Mapping and improving your content is a job that’s getting bigger, and I only expect that scope to grow.
  4. With every search engine algorithm change, the line between content strategy and search engine optimization blurs a little more. Many of the tactics are the same, and you really should be looking at them together. Good content = good search visibility. This is a good thing!

With so much change and growth, what are the biggest struggles your clients face?

It is challenging for many of our clients to know where to start. Putting a process and strategy behind content development can mean crossing some long-established silos and asking some uncomfortable questions. It takes confidence, patience, and a great deal of empathy.

“Putting a process and strategy behind content development can mean crossing some long-established silos and asking some uncomfortable questions. It takes confidence, patience, and a great deal of empathy.”

Becky Vardaman, Converge Consulting

How do you find focus and discover that starting point?

We don’t start a new project without a complete content audit. It gives us a good baseline to (a) get to know the client and become intimate with their content, and (b) provide the basis for our information architecture recommendations. We also use the audit from Blaze to build out card sort decks for that in-person exercise.

Many people seem to be afraid of doing an audit. Do you have a content audit horror story?

I don’t know about a horror story, per se, but I’d say the most horrific part of doing a content audit used to be the sheer time it took to put one together. We’re working with websites with pages in the hundreds, so mapping all of that by hand was tedious, to say the least. Blaze has been tremendously helpful here.

Shaping all of that content into concrete recommendations has to be challenging. How do you approach it?

Higher education websites are really big and serve lots of varied audiences, which is a major challenge for navigation and user experience. It’s critical to have client buy-in on who their most important audience is. The institution’s marketing team also needs to have enough authority to make that decision and the ability to navigate the (often very political) waters to get internal consensus. University website redesigns are frequently the arena for departmental punch-outs because so many people have a seriously vested interest.

Notre Dame Alumni website
“The key [to responsive, minimal, top-image-heavy websites] is to keep navigation friendly and not too deep”

We’ve also seen the transition to responsive, minimal, top-image-heavy websites (Notre Dame’s Alumni site, Carthage College, Creighton University) to great effect. The key is to keep navigation friendly and not too deep. It’d be unreasonable to expect a huge college website navigation to be as sleek as a five-page digital agency’s.

Along those lines, Bucknell University’s recent redesign has gotten a lot of attention. What’s your take on it?

I applaud Bucknell’s team for taking a risk. We know that an institution’s website plays a role in the enrollment decision for nearly all prospective students, so there’s clearly a lot to be gained by standing out from the crowd. Their “controversies” come more from user experience than from the content – with the major one being navigation. When our clients want to take risks, we encourage them to track them like crazy. Tools like user experience testing, Google Analytics, and Google Tag Manager (with auto-event tagging) can give you the powerful data you need to fail fast.

That’s great – fail fast so you can learn and adapt more quickly. How can marketers learn more about using these techniques and tools?

We’re excited to hold Converge 2014 this October in Nashville! It’s the only higher education conference focusing on what’s new and next in adult and graduate student marketing. We have some really amazing sessions focusing on content, data, analytics, and recruitment. There’s still time to sign up!

Converge also hosts monthly free webinars on higher education marketing and look for our (soon to be announced) next Google Analytics workshop. It will be in February and it will be somewhere warm!

To wrap up, all of the struggles of working with large organizations can get you down. Is there a project recently that left you feeling energized?

A law school site that we worked on from start to finish launched this summer. It is just a small piece of the entire university’s web redo, but seeing it live is so rewarding! We worked with the client from content audit through writing, implementation and strategic analytics. Sure, we’ve seen all of the content in Word document templates, but it’s very rewarding to see it come to life in their wonderful new layout!

Have a story to share?

We’re looking for interesting experiences and new perspectives from the people who are moving the content strategy field forward. Is that you? Contact us.

Q&A: Becky Vardaman on Content Strategy in Higher Ed