Life used to be a lot simpler for social media marketers. There were fewer platforms, and users were still attracted by the novelty of social, which helped content cut through.

Today, marketers face various social media-related challenges, from figuring out the right platforms to post on to developing new content ideas and turning them into engaging posts.

Image source

But, as with any difficult task, social media marketing becomes much more approachable when you plan effectively.

We held a panel discussion at our Higher Ed Summit on how to create and manage an effective content calendar, hosted by Kimberly Moniz — Assistant Director of Content Strategy at Harvard University — and featuring three fellow leaders from the world of higher education social media marketing:

Read on for some of the key takeaways.

Planning Content In Advance

Every social media marketer dreads starting work with no idea what they will post throughout the day, week, or month. For that reason, effective planning is essential.

But “effective” doesn’t mean constructing a watertight content calendar that leaves little room for creative freedom, trending topics, or last-minute announcements. Our panelists were unanimous in supporting an approach that combines a broad, big-picture vision with more granular details where necessary.

Laurie Roberts and the Johnson & Wales University team aim to plan content at least a month in advance, meeting at the start of each semester to highlight major campus events, holidays, and traditions that they must cover.

They also have broader goals for each semester, covering the programs they plan to promote and the student activities they intend to highlight. “We brainstorm a lot at the beginning of the semester and then parse things out on our calendar and give ourselves space to reach these individual goals,” she shared.

Part of this process involves building time for video content creation. Once they’ve developed an idea, they’ll reach out to students as needed and schedule filming times. The actual filming takes place about a week before the post goes live. “We are using that time in between to edit, apply trending audio, write the caption, choose the cover images, and all that other detail work that goes into that final post.”

Similarly, Deanna Stevens Ulrich at Kent State University plans “day-to-day content” — such as news and announcements — about a week in advance. In contrast, they might plan bigger holidays and campaigns months ahead. “It gives us a lot of flexibility having that day-to-day content about a week ahead of time, and then we’re able to maneuver that as we need to.”

For Dave Tyler at Rochester Institute of Technology, it’s important to distinguish between planning and scheduling. He plans ahead but tries not to schedule posts too far in advance to ensure flexibility.

Furthermore, Dave takes what he describes as a “content bucket” approach to social media strategy based on planning around themes that align with the university’s marketing goals.

“You’ll hear our president say a lot of things about how our IT is positioned on creativity and innovation at the intersection of technology, the arts, and design,” he explains. “So we take those keywords, and we plan around them.” This strategy ensures they’re not locked into a specific piece of content, say, about the mechanical engineering program. As long as the content fits into one of the identified themes, it’s a win.

Developing a Mix of Content

Unsurprisingly, our panelists flagged the importance of crafting native content for individual platforms. After all, what resonates with your Instagram audience may not appeal to followers on Twitter or LinkedIn.

For Laurie, Instagram is the platform that best attracts prospective students to JWU. Typically, this translates to content that skews heavily toward showcasing student life, helping potential attendees answer questions like:

  • What do the classrooms look like?
  • What does life look like on campus?
  • What does day-to-day life at JWU involve?

As such, the school’s Instagram strategy incorporates a lot of user-generated content (UGC), including account takeovers and day-in-the-life film segments.

Meanwhile, JWU gears its Facebook and Twitter strategies toward an older audience of parents, families, faculty members, and community partners. That might involve sharing blogs, discussing the application process, promoting emerging academic programs, and more.

UGC is also a big part of the content mix at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Many of the school’s students are required to go out and undertake a co-op at some point during their studies, so much of their content features students undertaking internships.

Dave also sees a lot of value in reviewing the calendars of other partners across campus when planning potential content ideas. “We’re looking at what they’re doing and knowing whether there’s something that we want to elevate.”

Deanna at Kent State typically uses highly visual platforms — Instagram and TikTok — to showcase student life and campus beauty in a way that appeals to current and prospective students.

@kentstateu Living life in color at Kent State⚡️🍁 #KentStateUniversity #LifeInColor #Fall ♬ original sound – ufdeltazeta

Kent State reserves its Facebook and Twitter for university news and campus announcements. Deanna has also seen a lot of success in sharing faculty updates and success stories on LinkedIn. “Things are tailored to the various platforms, based on all the stakeholders we’re trying to reach, whether it be alumni, donors, students, prospective students and their families, and giving them a really good feel for what it’s like to be on campus.”

Encouraging Student Involvement in Content Creation

All higher ed social media marketers face a key challenge: finding an effective way to get students involved in the content creation process. After all, prospective students (and other audiences) don’t want to see endless videos featuring various members of your social media team; they want an accurate snapshot of student life.

To this end, each of our panelists has developed their own systems and workflows for driving student participation.

For Dave at RIT, it’s about making life easy for students and alums who want to create and share content. As such, the school has set up Google Forms for content submissions. “We can go back after they’ve filled out the form and fill in the blanks if we need to for these kinds of posts. That helps us build a stockpile [of content] to plan ahead.”

Deanna says content creation is “very much a group project.” Her team collaborates with a group of four social media-focused students who get involved every semester, offering insights on the types of content and themes that resonate with them.

She also works closely with different units on campus, such as admissions and student affairs. This helps her team find relevant students to feature in specific campaigns. “A lot of times, we are looking for a student who can be a face for a particular program or initiative. It’s been really helpful to say, ‘We’re trying to pinpoint somebody who can show us what it’s like to be in this program or what it’s like to be a first-generation student.’ Those relationships are vital.”

For Laurie at JWU, maintaining open lines of communication with key stakeholders is the best way to find students who are doing exceptional work or have interesting stories.

She holds a student involvement fair at the start of the semester to connect with students interested in creating content for the school’s social channels. She also does regular outreach to faculty members, asking them to highlight star students that would make for interesting case studies and success stories.

“From there, it’s just about finding out what that student’s story is. What are they passionate about, what are they studying, what are their career objectives? How can we connect the dots of their story to the JWU story? And how can we tell it in a way that prospective students can see themselves in the story and think, ‘Maybe this is the place for me’?”

Factoring Holidays & Awareness Days Into the Content Mix

There’s no shortage of awareness days. Dave says, “You could look at one of those online calendar sites and find something for every day of the year.” But just because next Tuesday happens to be World Gopher Day or National Take an Egg to Work Day, that doesn’t mean you have to get involved.

When discussing holidays and awareness days, our panelists hit on two key themes:

  • The importance of focusing on events that align with your brand
  • The need to support your words with meaningful actions

First up, Dave urges social media marketers to only reference events that closely match your brand and audience. “We know we have an active community of kids who are doing live-action role-playing and hosting a conference about it on campus. So Star Wars Day is a natural thing for us. Pi Day. Things like that. But am I going to go find a post for National Ice Cream Day just because? Maybe not.”

Meanwhile, Laurie explains how JWU has created a dedicated working group for discussing holidays and awareness days. The team meets twice a month to identify upcoming events and hone in on those that the school should be talking about and sharing.

When it comes to JWU’s public social channels, they gear their approach toward referencing observances, holidays, and awareness days that are supported by on-campus events. “We don’t want to post about a date and then have nothing to show for it because, in this day and age, it’s really important to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

For example, 2022 was the first year that JWU observed Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an official holiday. As well as posting a message of support for the day, the school shared information about supporting and celebrating indigenous communities and cultures.

Responding to Breaking News & Crises

All your planning gets thrown out the window when a crisis breaks. At these times, it’s vital to have a system or process to define what to post (and what not to post).

Clear, transparent communication is vital at these times. Dave explains how he reaches out to other account holders when a crisis develops, instructing them to speak to his team before posting and delaying any scheduled posts. “If there’s a national event or tragedy, we want to make sure we’re not looking insensitive, so I’m communicating as soon as the feeling comes into my head that we need to make that call.”

For Deanna, it’s about gauging the scale and severity of the crisis and taking appropriate action. “Some things can just be shifted. Some things can still go out, but maybe you’re adjusting the wording. Other things you’re pausing altogether. The National Ice Cream Day post, you might want to save that one for next year!”

Top Tips for Optimizing a Content Calendar

To wrap up, Kimberly Moniz asked each panelist to offer a single piece of advice for anyone looking to develop a more effective and efficient content calendar.

Strategy was a key focus. Deanna urges social media managers to communicate their strategy and goals so that all stakeholders understand your brand and the types of content you post. If they come to you with a post idea that doesn’t work, you can workshop something more appropriate. “You’re not banging your head against the wall with something that does not fit your audience. Because ultimately, that’s what’s important.”

Laurie also recommends starting with strategy, writing down your audience, goals, and content buckets. Speaking about content buckets (or pillars, or themes), she explains: “You want three to five at most, and they need to represent your brand, be true to who you are as a business, and be supportive of those ultimate goals. Because then when you’re having moments of busyness or facing a creative desert where you’re not feeling very inspired, you can go back to those content buckets and use them for information.”

Dave’s number one tip is to think about content in terms of topics rather than events or departments you need to post about. “There are a lot of days when I come in, and I don’t know exactly what we’re going to publish, but I know we’ve got great content lined up because we’re thinking about things in broad terms. Give yourself the freedom and the flexibility to look at your messages and your brand and use that as your jumping-off point.”

Want to learn more about social media strategy and planning? Check out our upcoming social media conferences.