Meaningful messaging

by Meg Fowler Tripp for Call to Action (Inside Higher Ed)

Article three in an eight-part series on how to craft an authentic, differentiating brand.

As Caity and Roger recently wrote for Call to Action, every brand-building effort needs to start with research. It’s hard to drive meaningful change if you don’t know where your brand is right now—or where you’d like it to go.

Once you’ve done your research and synthesized what you’ve learned, it’s time to put that knowledge to work: you’re ready to develop a messaging framework that will help you become known for what you want to be known for.

Should you stop your elevator at the first floor?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of an elevator pitch: a short, easy-to-grasp message that takes just about the length of a single-floor ride to convey. If your goal is to communicate as much as you can about your institution in a limited timeframe, a brief summary will certainly get the job done.

You need a comprehensive, flexible messaging framework that helps you communicate effectively—no matter how many floors you travel.

But if your goal is to equip everyone in your institution to speak comfortably and fluently about it to a variety of different constituencies, in a variety of different venues, for a variety of different purposes, an elevator pitch won’t cut it. You need a comprehensive, flexible messaging framework that helps you communicate effectively—no matter how many floors you travel.

Here’s a basic messaging framework to guide your efforts; your messaging structure should be comprised of:

  • An elevator pitch that isn’t expected to do all the heavy lifting, but rather to serve as a high-level positioning statement that explains who you are and what you do in a concise way;
  • Drill-down messages that speak to specific aspects of what you offer or areas of focus;
  • Storylines that both support and expand on your high-level and drill-down messages; and
  • Stories and proof points—including testimonials and at-a-glance facts or figures—that add color and detail to all of the above.

Once you’ve filled in each of the different components above, you’ll have all the understanding and information you need to start creating communications that truly reflect and promulgate your brand.

Building out your framework

Again, your top-level message should be no more than three to four lines that cover the basics about who you are and what you do. Here’s an example for an arts-focused (fictional) college:

Robert Miller Institute of the Arts is the preeminent fine and performance arts college in the Pacific Northwest, bringing together deeply creative students and working artist faculty to share an uncommon educational experience based on collaborative learning, artistic exploration, and a non-traditional approach to study and curriculum.

In four lines, we learn the name of the institution and the type of institution they are, where they’re located, what they offer, who they offer it to/who makes up the community there, and what differentiates it from other similar institutions. There’s more to the story, but it starts the conversation.

Next, it’s time to craft drill-down messages that build on the bolded points above. Here’s an example that builds on a “non-traditional approach to study and curriculum”:

The Miller Institute empowers students to create their own curricular path, combining independent study, mentor-guided collaborations, and small-group workshop explorations. The ultimate goal is to craft a unique educational experience that prioritizes their personal learning style, artistic goals, and academic interests.

Continuing to move through our messaging framework, our storylines exist to add color and further detail to the messages that precede them in the structure, and to serve as the basis and inspiration for everything from website copy to PR pitches, blog posts, tweets, and Instagram captions. Here are some examples for our fictional school:

Miller Institute alumni are transformative forces in their artistic communities, bringing an unorthodox creative approach to every collaborative endeavor.

The Miller Institute offers free, publicly accessible programming for local community members, providing students with invaluable practical experience in arts education.

The final step in our basic messaging framework is the collection of stories and proof points that continue the work of bringing your main message and drill-down messages to life. There’s a fair amount of leeway in terms of what could be included in this aspect of your framework, but here are some suggestions for our fictional arts college:

  • Student testimonials about the campus experience
  • Alumni testimonials about how their college experience has shaped their careers and lives
  • A list of notable faculty and their past and current artistic endeavors
  • A list of roles and careers students have gone on to fill
  • A list of notable alumni
  • Statistics about class sizes, student-to-instructor ratios, admission rates, matriculation rates, etc.
  • Information about students who have gone on to graduate education, and where
  • Review clips for notable alumni exhibitions and performances

Each one of these options could be used to develop a connection with a particular audience, or to provide additional information for a parent, student, or even donor with a particular question about the college’s programming, output, or results.

Putting your framework to practical use

Now that you’ve built out a full framework, it’s time to get everyone who communicates on behalf of your institution comfortable with the tools available to them. A workshop session (or two) is a great way to build fluency with your messaging—and the more interactive, the better.

Create challenges for your group to tackle, including tasks like shaping a particular message to meet the interests of a particular audience, figuring out which proof points support which messages, or even simply writing a compelling photo caption that tells a story, rather than just listing who’s in the shot.

Above all else, be sure to provide your communicators with your full messaging framework in an easy-to-use, accessible format—could be an intranet, a PDF, or a simple WORD document—to turn to when the time comes to create any sort of content. And when they do create content, encourage them to test it against the framework to ensure they’re making the most of every opportunity to build your brand.

Articles in this series