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Lights, Camera, YouTube, Action!

Higher ed institutions can unleash the power of online videos without breaking the budget.
University Business, Aug 2007

LAST JANUARY, MICHAEL Wesch, assistant professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, created a great audiovisual illustration and explanation of the power of Web 2.0 technologies. Produced in the basement of his house, this video was only 4 minutes and 31 seconds.

Once it was uploaded to the online video sharing website YouTube, "Web 2.0: The Machine Is Us/ing Us" became a hit in days. This video has been watched more than 2.8 million times around the world.

"My video created great connections for myself and the university," said Wesch in an online webinar he gave last June. More specifically, its success resulted in extensive national and international media coverage, donations to the KSU anthropology department, as well as broad and intense interest in the program from students and faculty around the nation and the world. "It has transformed the image of what is traditionally seen as a little agricultural college," concluded Wesch.

Amazing for a video produced with a free screen casting application, don't you think? While Professor Wesch's success story might not be easy to replicate, it definitely shows that the power of online videos can be unleashed by institutions of higher education without huge production or promotional budgets.

With the rise of broadband internet users, watching videos has become a favorite pastime for millions of online browsers.

According to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive in December 2006, 74 percent of adult web users have watched online videos on websites such as YouTube, ABC, CNN, Yahoo, Google, and MySpace. The proportion increases to 85 percent for the traditional college student demographic, users aged 18 to 24. The same poll found that 32 percent of YouTube users spend less time watching TV as a direct result of their online video viewing habit.

More and more higher ed institutions are regularly producing full-fledged online video  programs.

Is it a passing fad? An August 2006 report by In-Stat, a technology research firm, indicates otherwise. The report predicts the number of households watching online videos worldwide will grow from 13 million in 2005 to 131 million in 2010, a growth fueled by the adoption of broadband internet in 413 million households worldwide by 2010. Beyond these statistics, the multiplication of online video initiatives in colleges and universities proves the medium has finally come of age.

While most institutions have been posting a limited number of online videos created for other distribution channels (e.g. television, VHS video) for a while, more are starting to launch full-fl edged online video programs produced on a regular basis.

Since its redesign last April, Duke Today, Duke University's website featuring the daily roundup of campus happenings, has included "Duke on Camera," which lists available video stories produced by the News and Communication Office. "We noticed that videos were among the most popular 'top story' features on the old site," explains James Todd, writer and producer in charge of these videos at his institution. Duke has dramatically increased its capacity to find and produce videos over the past few months and is currently releasing a video per week.

Last fall, in the aftermath of the media storm around the lacrosse team alleged rape case, the university's news team started to look into YouTube as a new way to reach potential applicants.

A story came along that seemed to be a perfect test case-Duke's engineers had built a prototype "cloak of invisibility." This had some Harry Potter overtones, but it turned out that the story, ironically, hinged on something visual: the pattern of microwaves moving around a cylinder, remembers Todd. Once the video was shot, it was uploaded on October 19, 2006, to Duke's channel on YouTube, which had been created for the occasion. "Within 24 hours, the video was viewed more than 20,000 times," recalls Todd. With more than 89,000 views as of late June, "Invisibility Cloak Findings at Duke University" is definitely a YouTube success story that also highlights the quality of the research work taking place at the university.

Although online videos produced by colleges and universities can drive very powerful word-of-mouth online campaigns, they don't have to spread online like viruses to result in positive outcomes in terms of publicity and recruitment numbers.

Take RealNebraska, for example. The monthly recruitment video series was launched in 2003 by the admissions office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Modeled after The Daily Show starring Jon Stewart, the series is hosted by David Burge, associate director for admissions.

With students helping with Longwood U's videos, they speak better to prospective students.

RealNebraska is available on iTunes as a free videocast as well as on the homepage of the UNL admissions office. The two episodes available on YouTube don't seem to have found an audience on the online video sharing website: Both had been viewed fewer than 300 times over the period of nine months since they were first posted.

Despite this fact, the online show has drawn constant positive feedback and played a major role in UNL recruitment initiatives. It even resulted in national TV coverage on NBC's Today show during six straight days, when David Burge was selected as one of the finalists for the "Anchor for Today" contest in February 2007.

"Our recruitment videos are already featured on our local cable network," says Burge. His initial goal was to get a chance to show his recruiting video once on NBC and get even more regional coverage for UNL. Outcomes have exceeded expectations: Four million people per day watched the TV segment; RealNebraska was featured on the front page of Lincoln's local newspaper three days out of six, while Burge was a fixture on three morning radio programs and featured on the evening news in both Nebraska and Kansas.

Following in the footsteps of institutions such as Furman University (S.C.), Longwood University (Va.) has focused its redesigned admissions website,, on video content since last fall. The goal was to capture prospective students' attention by providing an immersive online experience offered mainly by the online video program Longwood Show, written, produced, and directed by students. "Having students help in the production not only saves you time and money but results in content more likely to speak to that prospective student thinking about your school," says Dave Hooper, director of web communications at Longwood.

Longwood Show brought in 250 percent more visitors to the admissions website on the day the first episode was launched. "Combined with our other marketing activities, we're seeing the ultimate results-approximately 20 percent increase in applications over the last two years," adds Hooper.

Mars Hill College (N.C.) has gone even a step further. Last March, staff there launched a new video online and cable channel,, featuring student videos. Beyond the traditional interviews and a few video blogs, MHC students have the opportunity to record videos in a booth set up periodically in the cafeteria where they can share praise or concerns about the college. "The students loved this project and really got involved," says Andy Mrozkowski, MHC's webmaster, who developed an open- source video player for this project.

Duke, UNL, Longwood University, and Mars Hill College have decided to provide more online video content on a regular basis. Thanks to the giant leap made recently by the technology and the spread of user-generated productions, it has become possible for most institutions to offer online videos produced by students or staff members. No Hollywood budget required.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.

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