4 Secrets to Making Great Brand Films for Higher Education

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As a higher education marketer, development or admissions officer, you probably didn’t set out to follow in Steven Spielberg’s footsteps but increasingly, higher ed communicators have become filmmakers.

At one time, you produced videos every few years – a signature video for admissions or a campaign launch. But videos today are an essential tool – from short “snackable” marketing videos pushed out via email or social media, to longer features shown at campus and regional events, to videos of all lengths published online and available on demand.

Partners at Tribe Pictures, Vern Oakley and Jon Huberth have been making films and videos for higher education clients as well as other nonprofit and corporate clients for over three decades. They bring feature filmmaking and theatre backgrounds to admissions, branding and campaign videos for a variety of higher ed institutions from Amherst and Princeton, to the University of Vermont and NYU School of Law. As schools rely more heavily on video to communicate their brands and missions, many have turned to Vern and Jon for insider filmmaking expertise. Here, the pair shares some of their best advice on how to make better, more meaningful brand videos for your institution.

1 Know What Film Does Best

Video apps and video sharing sites like YouTube have made the medium ubiquitous. But just because videos are easier than ever to create and share doesn’t mean video is always the best medium to meet your goals. Make videos when you want to:
Create an emotional connection and inspire. The connections alumni, donors and students feel towards places of learning start in the heart, not the head. Video turns logic into magic. Use videos to make an emotional connection rather than to convey facts and figures. A short video can be an ideal medium for bringing your institutional brand to life because it grabs your audience’s attention through imagery, story and music far better than text, still photos and graphics could ever do. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but moving pictures are worth a million as they deliver an unparalleled sensory experience.
Set the stage for a conversation about big ideas. A lot of Tribe videos are used to kick off a new initiative. A video can frame a way of thinking about an issue better than almost any other medium. Great videos help prospective donors viscerally understand what’s at stake before they are asked to invest in new institutional endeavors. The right video sets the stage for a prospective student’s visit, a reunion or homecoming weekend, the start of a new academic year and anniversary celebrations. Videos can make tangible the importance of an annual fundraiser and can help prospective parents understand what makes a school’s tuition worth the investment.
Ensure consistency in the delivery of your message. People aren’t perfect. Tour guides, presidents and admissions and development officers have off days; a good video never does. Videos can take the pressure off campus leaders to communicate perfectly what you need to convey. When shown at events, videos are one of the few tools available to you that will be absorbed by audiences in their entirety. If you’ve done a good job, they are also the best guarantee that the message you intend to send to your audience is the one they take away.

  • Almost 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every single day.
  • People are 80% more likely to watch video than read print.
  • 92% of mobile video viewers share videos with others.
  • In 2019 global consumer Internet video traffic will account for 80% of all consumer Internet traffic..
  • 90% of users say that videos are helpful in the decision-making process.
  • Video is far better at moving viewers to laugh, cry, learn, and take action than photos, text, or audio.

2 Understand Your Problem

Before making a video, carefully frame the problem you are trying to solve. Beyond simply raising dollars or recruiting students, define the issue. Alumni loyalty isn’t translating into giving? Prospective students don’t understand that the “bigness” of your college’s opportunities is greater than your size? Maybe your university feels aloof – for insiders only? Knowing the exact problem you are trying to solve will not only help you determine if video is the right medium to use, but, if so, what type of video to make.

Making any video starts with the process of listening deeply to different viewpoints on campus and off in order to frame the issue your video needs to address. The process of issue framing and consensus building on campus can mean the difference between a great video and an adequate or merely good one. Your challenge is having the objectivity and experience to identify the problem specifically enough. As Vern says, “It’s very hard to give yourself a haircut.”

You know you have a great video when people want to share it with others. Videos that go viral within a college community are the new gold standard. When viewers share a video, they want others to have the same emotions they had while viewing it. The power of video as a strategic tool isn’t just the medium’s ability to evoke emotion; it’s the medium’s ability to evoke the precise emotion you need your audiences to feel. Such precision of emotion comes from a deep understanding of the institution and the problem your video needs to solve.

  • Effectiveness of web video – some facts, figures, and opinions
  • Video entertains, educates, and inspires.
  • When 18 to 24 year olds were asked “How do you want a brand to interact with you?” over 65% of respondents replied “entertain me.”
  • Web video promotion is 6 times more effective than ordinary print and direct mail.
  • Forrester Research claims one minute of video is the storytelling equivalent to reading 1.8 million words.
  • With a video audiences retain 95% of the message and only 10% from text.

The best brand videos, quite simply, are a lot more interesting to consume than more traditional forms of marketing. The proof is in the rapid rate of video adoption around the world and the rate of engagement with the content.

3 Don’t Sacrifice Strategy for Style

Because it’s no longer difficult for communications departments to make videos, and because expectations for more video content are great, there is a temptation to relax the oversight and careful thinking that was necessary with bigger productions and price tags.
In the quest to make viral videos, some schools focus on cool or funny, leaving their brands and key messaging behind. Never sacrifice strategy for style. Production values and cleverness are not enough to achieve your goals. Yes, you want to give your audience a video that is highly watchable. But when your audience gives you their attention, show your appreciation by making your message compelling and relevant. And never forget that you are trying to change minds, move hearts, and/or open wallets. For a real return on your investment of resources, you have to weave together creativity and strategy.

Start by clarifying your target – who are you trying to reach? Where do your institution’s interests and your audience’s interests intersect? What do you want them to feel and do after seeing your brand films? Hone your goals. Trying to pack too much into a video clutters it and lessens its impact. With targeted goals in mind, identify key themes and messages. Discuss specific ways to effectively visualize these messages so they are interwoven into the fabric of your video’s story.

Remember that music is the secret ingredient in any video. Understanding when to use it and when not to use it is essential because music is one of the quickest ways to develop the right feeling. Properly used it can underscore and support your strategy..

“Cast” your video with the students, faculty, alumni, and school leaders whose personal experiences will strike emotional chords in others. Videos for colleges and universities are often intended to inspire and motivate. Don’t try to make real people – your students, faculty, and alumni – become convincing actors. When subjects look uncomfortable on screen, they make the viewer uncomfortable as well. “We warm people up before filming them,” says Jon. “We also try to avoid giving them interview questions or a script in advance.”

  • What does video do well?
  • Sets the tone for an event and sparks conversation.
  • Captures both the heart and soul of the institution by bridging the logical and emotional sides of the brain.
  • Builds the emotional underpinnings of philanthropy.
  • Tour guides may have off days, but a video will always deliver the exact message you want.
  • Makes your organization appear transparent and authentic.
  • More than any other medium, video can capture your school and present it without any perceived marketing spin.

4 Think Through Length & Distribution

Determine length right up front by gauging your audience. Is it a single type of viewer – 14 to 17 year-old prospective students? Does your marketing video need to appeal to multiple audiences – alumni and parents or students and their parents? Will viewers be new to the institution or so familiar with it that they bring certain expectations – those you either want to fulfill or counter depending on your purpose? How will your audiences view the video – on a desktop computer, tablet or smartphone? In the admissions office while waiting for a tour or at an elegant event on campus or off? All of the above?

Videos made for digital distribution versus a big screen have different strategic and creative considerations. Length and the packaging of messages are chief among them. For example, in making an inspiring brand video for Washington and Lee University, Tribe knew that the school intended to show it only in a large format at events. With that in mind, the filmmakers could include long takes that allowed the audience to absorb the campus’s iconic beauty. Videos created for admissions office waiting rooms or on the Internet need to be shorter and punchier. Even if you plan on using your video in only one way, remember the fact that it may end up being seen in multiple formats – you might not be able to control the viewer’s mode of watching, so plan on it being seen on a small screen at some point.

Many schools are choosing to create snackable, stackable videos. Snackable videos are under two minutes. Marketing videos that come through an audience’s email or social media feeds and are short enough to be watched right away. Longer videos are likely to be saved for later. Whether or not audiences return to view that “saved” video when they feel they have more time is a question. Stackable videos can be watched right away, but also convey an institution as a whole, with each video offering a chapter of the story. When stacked together, they present more than the sum of their parts. Stackable videos can be distributed separately to build anticipation for an upcoming event or to attract an audience that will return to your website or social pages for more. Such shorter videos can be shown separately as touch points throughout an event or they can be edited together to create a longer video for live showings.

  • What does video do well?
  • Combines all the key ingredients of human storytelling imagery, sound, motion and content are all combined into a single medium.
  • Represents the Holy Grail that enables you to deliver a compelling, informative story in one desired format.
  • The first medium that comes as close as possible to being there
  • “Makes Real” the people of a place – its students, faculty, alumni – by personalizing a story as no other medium can.
  • It takes you places you can’t go.
  • Reaches key influencers and untapped audiences with its viral nature.
  • Video is quickly shared online and is the most influential thing that will bring people back to your website.

From cave paintings to Greek mythology to great literature, human beings have always told stories. Stories are how we connect and make sense of the world. Today we tell our stories more often than not on video. What are people most likely to be talking about around the digital water cooler? An Oscar-winning movie, a television show that inspires “binge watching” or a viral video shared by thousands on Facebook. Videos created for colleges and universities have the power to spark narrative bonds within their communities – the power to reach across generations and internal, external and prospective constituencies to inspire such conversation and shared understanding.

Vern and Jon say the best advice they can give is to remember that even in the age of YouTube, the time it takes to produce great stories on video can be daunting. Be prepared to make a video three times: once at the conceptual stage, once during taping, and once when editing. “We recently worked with a college that had made a very good video but there was an even better video hiding inside,” says Vern. Truly great videos happen in the editing. Make sure your team has the expertise to salvage and repurpose shoots if first edits go awry. Establish a production schedule that allows sufficient time for research and integration of concepts, look and feel, casting, filming, graphics, music, and masterful editing.

When you make a great video for your campus it will inspire even those beyond your institution as they relate to its message in the context of the larger world. Even if they are not a prospective student or an alumnus, they will think: “I wish I’d gone there.”

  • What does video do well?
  • Perfect to share with an audience for a communal, emotional experience.
  • Effective to incorporate into a campaign launch gala or to show in admissions offices before a tour or screen at “admit days,” bringing parents and prospects into the fold in a shared experience.
  • Ensures consistency in the delivery of your message.
  • Because you can take care to craft the exact message you want, videos are the best guarantee that the message you intend is the one your audiences take away.
  • Convenient for people to consume.
  • Video is self-guided, repeatable, can be watched on almost any digital device and is easily shared across individual networks.
  • Video is time-independent and can be available to watch wherever and whenever…

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“It’s one thing to understand the role of video in business communication, it’s another to know how to use video to solve actual business problems. Vern Oakley gets that.”


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