Marketing with Online Video

illustration of an article

Published in 2010.

The last week has seen some unorthodox and controversial uses of online video, including Yale’s admissions musical. With more colleges considering the uses of online video in communicating with applicants and other constituents, we turned to Jason Simon, director of marketing and communications for the University of California system, and Mike Barzacchini, director of marketing services for Harper College, for advice on how to use online video effectively.

4 Keys to Effective Video

“I’m not a big proponent of gimmickry or the pursuit of different production techniques. The basics are that you need a powerful story.”
Jason Simon, U of California

Simon and Barzacchini suggest 4 elements you need for an effective online video:

  • A compelling, powerful story
  • Compelling visuals
  • Compelling people on camera
  • Brevity

First, look for stories that demonstrate what is unique and different about your college, such as particular research efforts or unique approaches to teaching in the classroom. Barzacchini also cautions against taking an ad hoc approach to your storytelling. “You can deliver great content — and save time and money — by planning as much as possible. Fully develop your key messages and storyboard or at least outline the flow of your video content.”

Second, make sure that video is in fact the appropriate medium. “As video becomes more and more accessible,” Simon warns, “there is a tendency to want to do video for everything.” Simon suggests looking for those interesting narratives that need to be told with video. Video is a visual medium; if there isn’t a compelling visual component to the story, don’t use video. “If there is no reason to ‘show’ it, then there’s no reason to use video.”

Third, it is critical to find those people who are compelling on camera, who are interesting to watch and listen to, who are able to carry your university’s story with passion. “Spend time being a good interviewer,” Simon suggests, “and get people who are comfortable on camera.”

Brevity is also key. Barzacchini offers 3 minutes as a useful rule of thumb. “When you are pushing over the 3 minute barrier,” Barzacchini warns, “you are asking a lot of your audience.”

“We now have more people paying less attention to more media than ever before. You have to get in and get out, even if you have a great story.”
Mike Barzacchini, Harper College

Innovation: Opportunities for Using Video Meaningfully

Simon and Barzacchini both suggest that there are many opportunities to realize gains through the use in online video, beyond promoting your institution. Here are some examples.

If you change your emergency notification system (suppose you opt for more functionality but a less intuitive design), offer a three-minute instructional video explaining the salient features of the new system to your campus community.

Given the budget crisis, use video to relay appeals from your executive leadership directly to the campus community — taking a page from the book written by President Obama’s campaign. “There is a real power in being able to hear directly from leadership,” Simon remarks. When the University of California announced the need for furloughs, an online video outlined 3 possible programs for furloughs and asked the community for feedback. The video had 40,000 views. Then, when the decision had been made, a second video explained the reasons for the decision and how it would work.

For applicants, offer a series of brief informational or “how to” videos:

  • The steps in the application process
  • What financial aid is available
  • What to include in a personal statement
  • How to fill out the FAFSA

“You can use video not only to share what your campus experience is like,” Simon suggests, “but also to make the application process transparent. You can humanize the process.” Note that these videos can be used not only on your website or your YouTube channel, but as part of an orientation — especially if you keep the videos short.

If you are producing videos for an audience of adult learners or non-traditional applicants, Barzacchini recommends asking your institution’s admissions and outreach officers what concerns they are hearing from adult students. “Start with a lot of listening,” he advises. This will allow you to produce videos that address specific challenges and perceived challenges that adult learners may find daunting. Harper College used online video on its website to present interviews with students who could tell stories about how they overcame barriers to their success, including classroom anxiety and balancing work, life, and education.

“Think deeply about your audience and what they need.”
Mike Barzacchini, Harper College

Finally, Barzacchini suggests looking for internal uses of video. A very low-cost presentation with a voice-over may be an effective way to communicate to internal clients information about what your own office does. Consider offering one-minute or 90-second videos that explain in layman terms:

  • What a bounce rate is for a webpage, and what it means
  • What a good open rate for an email campaign looks like

On a Tight Budget

Producing online videos has become easier and cheaper even just in the past few years. Here are some of the opportunities that have broken down the barriers — and the intimidation factor:

  • Through online streaming services (such as USTREAM or, you can produce live interviews and live broadcasts without needing significant infrastructure or bandwidth
  • The cost of the actual equipment has dropped; many flip cameras offer HD, and there are semi-professional camcorders that can be purchased for about $3,000
  • There are now inexpensive cut-and-paste style software programs (such as iMovie) designed to help users edit home videos that offer high quality

Also, if you are short on time and staff, your own students likely represent an untapped pool of resources. If your college has a visual communication academic program, Barzacchini recommends building a relationship with the program coordinator and developing internships for the students. Identify ways to integrate student talent into your projects in which both your office and the students benefit.

If your college does not have a visual communication program, put out the word that you are looking for video-savvy students. Even absent a departmental internship, this might be a creative project that some students will want on their resumes. You may be surprised at how much talent is hidden on your campus. “Each year, students are more interested in video,” Simon notes. “They are growing up with webcams and YouTube and the ability to take a video on their cell phone and instantly post it online. Students are interested and often bring a unique angle to the story.”

Finally, for higher-cost projects, Barzacchini suggests looking for opportunities to reduce or eliminate some traditional media in order to fund video. Harper College’s summer campaign targeting young adults will feature a 15-second video; the college decided to eliminate three print post cards for the same audience in order to fund the video initiative out of the cost savings. Barzacchini notes, “When you compare the relevance and tracking options for video to a post card for this audience, it is an easy decision.”

“Here’s what’s exciting — as we test and roll out campaigns, results can be immediate and dramatic. We’ve never been closer to our audience and been able to learn more quickly and continually from and about them. That’s invigorating and rewarding for a professional communicator.”
Mike Barzacchini, Harper College