Crafting Your School's Message

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David Ross
David Ross




Throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks is no way to form a content strategy. Schools - like any brand or business - need to know who they are, who they're talking to, and what makes them so special.

Building your personas is part of this process (you can find free templates for that here). They're the "who" you're talking to.  Much of your message is the substance of what you're saying. But your school also needs to pay attention to the "how" you're talking to them. The "how" is a mixture of voice and tone.

Let's define out terms. 

  • Voice is the personality you show while communicating your school's message.
  • Tone is the attitude or mood shown in any specific instance.

It's easy to confuse voice and tone, so let me stick with that a bit longer. When you think of someone's personality, you think of it as fixed. Personality can be complicated and it has different facets, but people are who they are. 

Having a distinctive, identifiable voice sharing your content is critical to communicating your school's message. Your school's content won't stand out in the sea of content that washes over your prospects every day without it. And if that's true, your prospects certainly won't remember or recognize your school's voice from among all of the other schools vying for their attention. Maybe they like a post on your blog, but so what if they can't remember it came from your school!

If you don't know what your school's voice is, you risk having content produced in a voice that contradicts the substance of your message. If your school's key message is that you develop character in your students, not just college-ready grades – how easily is that message undermined by content that's heavy on the slang?

Finding Your Voice

To find your school's voice, you have to start with clear messages. What are your school's fundamental values? How do you want others to describe your school? What makes your school different from others that may have similar values? 

Hold some focus groups with different stakeholders at your school to hear how they answer these questions. Students, staff, counselors. Why have they chosen to be part of this community? Get a variety of perspectives. If your school has already defined its key messages, the focus groups are the place to get feedback on whether those messages resonate with the right people, or whether they need to be refined.

Then get a sense of what sort of voice make sense for your school. Ask them to imagine the school as a real person with a distinct personality; how do they describe her personality? Have people share their backstory for using certain adjectives to describe your school. These can help reveal deeper associations the school holds for them. 

Review a good cross section of your content. Which have a voice and tone that engage and present an identifiable perspective? What views, words, phrases, attitudes reinforce the substance of the message your school wants to communicate? Which are too generic to show any personality? What are they lacking?

Be sure to take a close look at your school's mission statement and pull out the values embedded there.

Look at how your prospects talk about your school, or their school selection process. This is different from looking at what they're asking about, or what their concerns are. Look at how they talk about these things on social media, in their emails to your admissions office, and in focus groups, the questions they ask during campus tours, etc. What words and phrases do they use?

The deliverable you want from each of these steps is a list of words and phrases that describe your school's values and personality. These are the building blocks of creating a consistent voice/tone brand for your school.

Want to see which keywords you (and your competitors) already rank for? Try out our Keyword Tool here >>

Select three to five of these words that really distill your school to its best self. After this process, you may have list like: opportunity, access, community, warm, supportive.

Creating a Voice/Tone Matrix

Now that you can describe your school's values and personality, you can start building a vocabulary around them. How formal or informal are you? How does that vary based on context? If your school's voice leans towards the more formal, your blog posts will still likely have a less formal tone than your program brochures.

Where do slang or technical jargon fit into your school's voice? Should they always be avoided? Or how will they be used in some places to vary tone so content with the same voice doesn't get repetitive? 

Is your school a "we" or an "it" when mentioned in your content? If your school personality is a warm, supportive community, you probably will decide to refer to your school as "we." If it's stern but fair mentor, then perhaps your academy gets the third-person instead of first-person pronoun.

Here's a useful list of 12 elements that make up brand voice.

Document your school's voice by creating a table with your defining words in one column. The next column should contain a short explanation of what that value is intended to communicate about your school. Use the final two columns to provide samples of words and phrases and that are good to use to express that value, and those which should be avoided. 

Share this voice/tone matrix with the people and departments who will be writing content for your school. Make sure to keep space within the school's defined voice for different departments to put their own stamp on that voice. The alumni office may develop its own tone that fits its primary audience, which may be distinct from the tone preferred by the campus life office.

Aiming for Consistent Uniqueness

All of this creates a unique voice and set of messages that can help you define a keyword strategy and influence content decisions.  AND it helps your content be consistent across teams.

A consistent voice is an integral part of synchronizing your marketing efforts to achieve maximum impact of your message. When your school's voice is recognizable across all the school's content, it increases the authenticity and credibility of your content and by extension, your school.

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