Tactics to create and maintain motivation in your student content team

By Posted in - Content & Student Engagement on December 15th, 2016 0 Comments

A few weeks ago I hooked into an exchange on Twitter with a manager of a very small college content team. They confided in me that they’re rapidly approaching burnout, stemming in part from being such a small and under-resourced team, but with high personal commitment to doing their jobs well. I asked the obvious question: do they use student content creators as an extended part of their team? It’s a tactic that many schools, colleges and universities use but the effectiveness of this approach varies significantly. For the burned-out content manager, their main barrier was sustaining the motivation of the content creators, alluding to a noticeable drop in motivation and enthusiasm as the academic year progresses.

So, I wanted to share some thoughts – with a little crowd-sourced help from the sector including those who manage student content creators – on how to keep them motivated throughout the year. There’s obviously some stuff that we’re overlooking here, like how to attract and recruit the right people in the first place which is a major part of the success of your student content team, but that can be the topic of another post another time. And remember, if you want help at any stage in planning, recruiting, shaping, training and motivating your student content team, reach out see if we can help you (we probably can).

1) Pay them

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Paying your student content team offers structure and the security of a contracted agreement with a very clear transactional set of expectations. If they don’t deliver the work, they don’t get paid. Likewise, they have the security of a regular income and the benefit of knowing that their work is valued. Payment could be on the basis of a number of hours per week or semester, or on the basis of payment-per-piece of content that they deliver.

If you want to really motivate them to produce really compelling content, payment could also be performance-related in terms of how the piece of content performs with the target audience (page views, performance over time, etc.) though you’d need concrete clarity on how that works and some serious modelling on the different scenarios. What if the piece unexpectedly goes viral for all the wrong reasons but your payment system is based solely on page views? Think this one through carefully. I’ve not yet come across a school, college or university that has a content-performance-related payment system, but it’d be fun to craft that (give me a yell if you’re interested in exploring this, I’d love to take on that challenge and work that one out).

  2) Lavish them with food and freebies

I’ve worked before with colleges that don’t pay their student content team in cash, but they do pay them through other things such as regular food, vouchers and gift cards, supplies (i.e. art supplies for arts institutions) or by gifting them with the equipment that they use to create the content. In other words, they’re given a nice camera to create content with for the school, but they get to keep it.

The food incentive is always a popular one. It never fails to amaze me how the promise of free pizza can fill a focus group line-up. But I question whether this alone is enough to incentivise a team through a full academic year. So, this certainly might be one to use in conjunction with other approaches. Nevertheless, setting up an editorial suite (a room) that just happens to have a fridge with free snacks and drinks for the content team could be a draw to keep them coming in, or in return for every content piece that they submit, they’re given a code for a free pizza or similar.

3) Show how it matters

Not everyone agrees that payment or payment-in-kind is a great motivator for some content teams. Instead, some people believe that students are highly driven by the knowledge of the impact and effect that their work can have, more so than money…

So, this needs to become a key part of your recruitment efforts, but also your workflow process. Make sure that you’re measuring and capturing the results, feedback and impact of the content created and play this back in an easy to understand reporting system to the student content team.

Storytelling must be a major part of your reporting process. Don’t just give them data, give them anecdotes, quotes and real feedback from others. Share that email from the parent about how that blog post really made their child feel more confident about going to university. Screen grab that tweet from the student saying about how they could really see themselves in that video that your student content team created. Bring it to life with real stories. A single human story might be far more motivating for some than a wealth of data.

4) Involve them in developing the strategy

If people feel involved in something from an early stage then they usually feel greater ownership of it and positivity towards it. This is particularly true if they genuinely feel that their ideas and views have been listened to and adopted. Involving your student content team in the development of your content strategy – or at the very least in the development of a content planning process and editorial plan – is not just going to motivate them, it will probably make your strategy or plan all the better for it.

A word of caution here though – don’t substitute the presence and views of your student content team for robust and continuous audience research. Yes, they may be part of your student body, but in the strategy and planning process their voices should not be the only ones that matter. They may not be as wholly representative as you think. By virtue of the fact that they’ve joined your team, they’re likely to be more highly engaged with the school, college or university. Their own assumptions and views could skew things. So treat them solely as your content team and not as your focus group. Work with them to have them help you conduct and analyse audience research, but not become the research participants.

5) Empower their creativity

Many students who are drawn to be on a content team are likely to have a creative pull and may be particularly keen to experiment with new approaches, styles, formats and topics. If your strategy, workflow and governance systems aims to control their creativity in a way that is overly-limiting, then you may find that equally their motivation for wanting to continue to create great content is also limited.

So, work with your content team to have them influence and help shape the content guidelines, governance and workflow process. In doing so, really question yourselves and them about how experimental they’re going to be empowered to be. What risks can they take? How creative and playful can they be? Really test this out. All too often we hear clients say “we want to really take a risk” or “we want to be really innovative with our content”. Yet when risky or innovative approaches actually surface, they hide it away in fear, or they control and craft the content back into conformity with existing tried and tested approaches. How disempowering must that feel to the student who really wanted to go for it and is motivated by the opportunity to test their own creativity?

6) Make it part of a structured personal development plan or portfolio

Many schools, colleges and universities will have enterprise skills programmes, or other such personal and professional development initiatives (typically delivered through a careers service or employment counsellor). Work with those departments and programme-leads to understand how their work with you can contribute to that programme.

Structure your content in such a way that enables them to readily and easily pull together their own portfolio of content that they have developed or contributed to. Something as simple as clear author-tagging in your CMS, and a template that aggregates all content by a single author could help to readily and easily provide them with a portfolio of their work, and something that they can see build and grow. If you wanted to take this a step further, you could also consider developing a system where the content is combined with measurement and impact data so they see not just their work, but the reach and impact of that work in a single dashboard.

7) Give them credit in any and every way possible

In my visits to education institutions around the world, I see all kinds of different systems for empowering student content teams. Most of them I’m outlining in this post. But one that really stuck with me is a college in the USA that rewards academic credit for the student content team. In other words, the work that they do there actually contributes to their overall degree and academic performance.

To achieve academic credit for your student content team you may need to work through a potentially lengthy approval processes with academic committees. You may even need to construct a syllabus and structure to being part of the student content team that may require careful thought and planning. But that too can pay off as you commit not just to working with them, but also to training and developing them, enhancing their learning and – in doing so – enhancing yours. You’ll have to be robust to get it through those committees, but the pay-off could be worth the perseverance.

Credit, however, doesn’t have to be in the form of academic or programme credit. It can come in a softer form. Giving them a visible profile, inviting them to a thank you dinner with the school head, president or vice chancellor, arranging personal meetings for them with influential alumni or employers… all of these things (and more) can be a way of giving them credit for the work that they do.

8) Introduce friendly competition

We’ve already spoken about the need to demonstrate the impact of their work on others, and thus the need to invest in measurement and reporting. Amongst some content teams, you may want to take this one step further and introduce a little gamification into the process.

This is only going to work where you have a team of content creators, but consider creating a leaderboard that introduces friendly competition to get them to want to create more and better content to “beat” their colleagues. Your leaderboard might consider the number of content items created by individuals (though take extreme care here that you’re not incentivising them to churn out too much low-quality content), or it could consider the impact or reach of that content, by person (page views, click throughs, likes, sign-ups, etc).

9) Build a close community

Communities bond and communities motivate. Forming bonds between the members of your content team will start to make them feel like – and behave like – a community. In doing so, they’ll start to feel a responsibility to one another, not just to the task in hand. In turn, that sense of personal commitment and responsibility will help to foster their ongoing levels of motivation for their work as a team.

Work hard at creating that sense of them being an actual team, an actual community. Consider:

– Regular meet-ups and creative planning sessions

– Clearly defined roles

– A physical space that is theirs and theirs alone (see the “room with snacks” idea above)

– Team-building and team bonding activities

– A structured CPD programme that runs alongside their work for you, only available to them

– Social events and activities

– Virtual community workspaces and groups for them to stay connected all the time (Slack, for example).

10) Clearly define the process (workflow)

Defining a clear workflow and approvals process will help to keep things moving but also show where there are blocks being caused by demotivated team members. While creating workflows can feel disempowering, in reality the opposite can also be true as the structured process that it offers can help us to see things moving and see where the blocks are.

As you develop your workflow, consider a few things:

– How can you use technologies to help you manage the workflows clearly, but also visually signal where there are road blocks that might be causing demotivation, or signs of a demotivated member of the team. That way, when you’re addressing motivation issues, you can actually see what stage of the workflow process you really need to target. Personally, I’m a big fan of GatherContent for reasonably simple workflow modelling for editorial processes, but there are other systems too that you can explore, and Trello is surfacing as a popular one amongst some content teams.

– Clear role definitions and responsibilities. Make sure that you distinguish between a role description in the workflow process and the individual that may be assigned that role. However, when you enter the workflow process make sure that an individual is given responsibility for the role so the team can see in very clear and simple to understand tasks what they need to do (and when they’re holding something up).

– Keep it simple. Don’t involve too many people.

– Empower your student content team with sign-off responsibilities within the workflow.

As with any team, no single tactic alone is going to solve the issue of motivation within the team. And different team members will respond in different ways. In closing, I’d also recommend that at the start of the academic year (or the new cycle for the new team taking up post) that you have an open and frank conversation with them about how they are best motivated, and what’s going to work for them. Don’t just make this a once-a-year conversation too. Introduce regular reviews with each member of your content team, and ensure that motivation levels is one of the measures of performance that you discuss with them every time. Doing so will ensure that the battle you have is avoiding demotivation, not trying to drag already-demotivated people back into action again.

Good luck with this and let us know the tactics that you’ve used, or reach out to see how we can help you with your student content team.

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