Like so many terms and phrases before it, storytelling has officially become a buzzword within the marketing world. Storytelling has seemingly permeated every marketing agency website and Linkedin profile — quickly checks own Linkedin Profile. Guilty. And like every buzzword before it, it has become difficult to tell who is authentically telling a story, and who is just trying to ride the wave.
One institution that is truly telling great stories? The University of Notre Dame. The institution, famous for its faith and football, is using its Stories at Notre Dame endeavor to bring lesser-known stories to its community, its industry, and the media at large.
Stories at Notre Dame is a product of Notre Dame’s brand journalism unit, called Strategic Content, explains Andy Fuller, who is the Director of Strategic Content at Notre Dame. “Basically, we’re just looking to find stories about the life and work of the University and telling them in the most compelling way that we know how through a variety of mediums. Whether that’s video, written text, graphic animation, you name it.”
Stories, as an institutional commitment, was borne from a reorganization of Notre Dame’s marketing and communications department a few years back. As Fuller describes, that reorganization coincided with observations that many within Notre Dame were seeing within the media, mostly outside of higher education. “We were inspired by the work being done by The New York Times, and their famous ‘Snow Fall’ feature that came out in 2012. And we wanted to create a unit that took on the same look and storytelling as an enterprise. We were looking to be more intentional about the way we told stories at the University.”
Much of the work being done within Stories is closely associated with the work already being done by Notre Dame’s media relations team. Initially, that relationship largely consisted of the strategic content team dressing up news releases. But over time, the department and structure developed to the point where stories became less like a news release and more like the story Notre Dame hoped would be created as a result of a news release.
“There’s a lot of external outlets out there looking for good content and content done well. Our insight was that, if we do our jobs really well, as an internal storytelling mechanism, those external media outlets might take notice as well,” says Fuller.
Today, Fuller continues to work in conjunction with the Notre Dame media relations team, involving them in story development and media pitches. He says that the media relations team has been successful in many of their external media pitches, since they can reference a more completed story, rather than a concept alone.
This process reached a fruitful end result earlier this summer, when Notre Dame embarked on a story about science faculty who were developing a particle accelerator in an old gold mine in South Dakota. “We got that placed in a pretty prominent science magazine,” says Fuller. “We started with a story, our media relations team pitched it, and we ended up reaching a broader audience because of that.”
“There’s a lot of external outlets out there looking for good content and content done well. Our insight was that, if we do our jobs really well, as an internal storytelling mechanism, those external media outlets might take notice as well.” – Andy Fuller
To source stories, like science faculty in gold mines, health experts responding to a lead crisis, or women at Notre Dame whose scholarship and leadership is empowering change, the Notre Dame strategic content department relies on a mix of formal and informal channels.
Much of the content inspiration comes from communication officers across the campus, who are looking to reach a broader audience for a member of their college or school. But there’s also a social listening component to content sourcing, according to Notre Dame’s Social Media Manager Liz Harter, who constantly scours different platforms, like Reddit, for content opportunities worth pursuing.
Notre Dame seeks to tell two stories per month, though those stories can vary in length and commitment. Fuller says that in a typical month, they’ll release one story that follows a templated structure, and one story that’s a “heavier lift” from a text and media perspective.
“When we got the ‘swipe up to read more’ capability in June, our click-throughs on Instagram exploded.” – Liz Harter
Stories also vary greatly in the length of time between story conception and publication. Fuller notes that most stories take around two months to complete, though one story, which has brought members of the Notre Dame team to Africa, is still in progress, and will likely take four to five months to complete when all is said and done. Other stories, notes Harter, can be put together in 24 hours, as was the case when the University President traveled abroad earlier this year.
To produce these stories, Notre Dame relies on a team of six, with job titles that range from writers to project managers to data scientists. Beyond their core team, the strategic content group also partners with marketing and communications when graphic designers or videographers are needed.
In the first year of Stories at Notre Dame, Fuller and his team saw a 300% increase in traffic to the features section of ND.edu, and a bump in overall time spent on ND.edu as well. And that momentum hasn’t slowed down. Through July 2017, Stories at Notre Dame has amassed 56% more pageviews than during the same time period in 2016.
Part of that increase in traffic is due to the promotional efforts that Notre Dame has placed behind its content. Harter notes that strategic communication frequently partners with other departments on campus, who share their respective portions of a story on their own social, digital, and print marketing channels. Notre Dame’s alumni team has also begun to share certain alumni pieces on their channels and in their alumni magazine.
They’ve also seen incredible success with their stories on social media, though Harter notes that their success was not immediate. “Prior to Stories being launched, we were sharing a lot of news releases,” says Harter, who adds that when they first began publishing interactive, long-form content, “it just wasn’t what people were used to seeing from us.”
But Notre Dame’s audience has come around. Their Facebook audience has improved in size and engagement, and their organic reach has also increased, “in an environment where it’s not normally doing that,” says Harter.
Building on their Facebook success, Harter has turned her attention to sharing stories on Instagram. “One of the things we’re getting into now is Instagram Stories. We know our audience is a little younger there. And there are a lot of students there,” says Harter. “But we weren’t telling the Notre Dame story there beyond the beautiful photos of campus or a moment from an event. With Instagram Stories, we have a whole new audience for these pieces…and when we got the ‘swipe up to read more’ capability in June our click-throughs on Instagram exploded.”
But storytelling has also had a positive effect on a different Notre Dame audience, one that was a focus from the inception of Stories: peer institutions. “That’s an important audience for most colleges and universities because they are the ones who rank you,” says Fuller. “We’ve seen a nice uptick there as a result of this new emphasis on content and doing it well.”
Fuller admits that they aren’t sure exactly how Stories has improved their peer institution ranking. Rankings are, by design, a hard nut to crack for colleges and universities. Still, Fuller notes that some of their content is chosen because they think it will play well with industry peers. And to make sure that their peers see the impact Notre Dame professors, students, and alumni are having on the world at large, Notre Dame has put some budget behind the content they are creating to make sure the right people see it.
Even after well over 100 stories, Notre Dame is still trying to tell a better story. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘How can we get better? How can we change?’” says Fuller, who adds that, in particular, they are looking to increase their use of video.
Fuller and Harter are aligned in that with Stories, they have found a project that is satisfying professionally and personally. “I think for most people who work in higher ed marketing,” says Fuller, “it’s an immense privilege because you’re dealing with people who are using their life and their intellect to really make the world a better place. It’s a really easy thing to be inspired by, being around people like that.”
You can hear more from Andy Fuller and Liz Harter on the latest episode of the Hashtag Higher Ed Podcast, where they elaborate on the transformation of Stories from news releases to original long-form storytelling, why they see themselves as a newsroom, and discuss their favorite stories.
Liz Harter’s Social Shout Out
Todd Sanders, Director of Digital Communications and Social Media, University of Florida.
Follow Todd on Twitter at: @TSand
“Aside from being a Notre Dame fan, which always wins points in my book, Todd posts the most delicious-looking photos of food that he’s cooking on a griddle in the University of Florida social media office, and his Green Bay Packers-inspired bacon designs from last football season are the stuff dreams are made of. Food pics aside, he shares a lot of behind the scenes photos of the UF social office, letting you into their thought process. And each fall, I’ve had a good conversation with him and John Lucas from the University of Wisconsin about the thirty-second spots that air during football games.”
Andy Fuller’s Social Shout Out
Lisa Mulcrone, Editor of MSU Today, Michigan State University
Follow Lisa on Twitter at: @lmulcrone
“I had the opportunity to listen to her talk about the Spartans Will campaign maybe a year or more ago. It just struck me what a great brand positioning and versatile campaign that was. I thought that was really impressive work and she’s a delight on Twitter as well.”
Special thanks to Liz and Andy for joining the Hashtag Higher Ed Podcast. You can find Liz on Twitter at @EAHarter, and Andy on Twitter at @Andy_Fuller. You can also follow Notre Dame’s Stories endeavor at @NDStories on Twitter.
Listen to this episode, and previous episodes of the Hashtag Higher Ed Podcast, on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Music, or wherever podcasts are found. To explore previous episodes of the Hashtag Higher Ed podcast and sign up for alerts regarding new episodes, visit our Hashtag Higher Ed hub.