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School Ties: How to Prepare for and Produce Online Promo Video for Schools

DigiNovations Executive Producer Whit Wales discusses how to prepare for and produce videos for academic clients that capture the mission and message of the school, and to build a single-video project into a comprehensive video program that effectively promotes and positions the school.

Their Mission--You Should Choose to Accept it

All of this preparation work progresses toward a single goal: understanding what the school wants to say about itself as a prerequisite for figuring out how to bring it to life on the screen. “I think you have to completely internalize the mission and the spirit of the school,” Wales says. “I think you really have to dig down and understand that, understand how students connect with that, and appreciate why the faculty have been there as long as they have, and their passion for what they’re doing. And the rest will take care of itself.”

In a way, you need to bring both the outsider’s view you had and the insider’s view you’ve developed to bear in the project, in part because you need to convey the uniqueness of a place that might seem indistinguishable from a host of other schools (especially in New England) to a new applicant, a new applicant’s parents, a potential donor, or whoever your target audience is. “You really have to do the homework and say, ‘What distinguishes this school from another?’” Wales says, and choose the images and sound bites you include to drive the viewer toward that understanding.

Choosing What to Shoot

If you’re fortunate enough to move beyond a single video project to the stage where you’re discussing ways to extend and expand the school’s video efforts, Wales says, it becomes more important than ever to take your “video consultant” role seriously. And this may well apply on the first project as well--basically, anytime their enthusiasm for video is at its highest, you need to strike a balance between serving as the reining-in voice of reason and not undermining your own efforts to secure more work from them.

“What tends to happen as you begin on a project, is everything looks like a video. Everything looks like a story. Everything looks like something we must film. And so part of your task is to rein in your client and say, ‘What is it we really want to have as an outcome here?’ and then work yourself backwards.”

Naturally, this sort of clear judgment and sense of what you’ll need to complete the project extends to setting up interviews and determining how many people you need to talk to, and (categorically) whom you need to hear from. When your client is new to video--and, as an educational institution, the probably are—you’ll need to start with the basics: “Okay, so we’ve identified that we want students involved. We want faculty involved,” Wales says. “Who are the representatives? And you want representatives in terms of diversity of age, of sex, of color. These are important issues because you don’t want to be monochromatic. But, generally speaking, if you’re just nodding as they just run through kids that they know without sort of stepping back and saying, ‘How can we create the different angles of this prism to generate a more effective statement that will address as many people as possible?’” you may find the project getting away from you.

Part of the issue is that they haven’t been down this road before, and don’t know what it takes to make an effective, engaging online video. But another key issue, Wales says, that can be particularly problematic in educational institutions that have never entrusted outsiders--or, at least, outsiders who produce video--as stewards of the school’s message is a need to control and micro-manage the project. “You want to find that middle territory where there’s a level of trust but also that someone feels comfortable accompanying you on your journey throughout the day in engaging with kids.”

You don’t want to find yourself in situation where you’re conducting an interview and someone is “whispering in your ear saying, ‘Why haven’t you asked about this?’” Ideally, he says, you want to work with someone with whom “the students are equally comfortable with them being there or not being there.”

Again, this is where your expertise in the production process and the experience of working with video clients comes in handy, for anticipating where the roadblocks might arise. “You need to assess and take time to really understand on the front end what you anticipate will happen during filming. If someone is very concerned--maybe overly so--about the minutia of the video, you might want to suggest, ‘If you could plan and connect with the next interviewee, where we’re going to be in twenty minutes, that would be tremendously helpful to me. And we’ll be working here with the student and we’ll catch up with you here in ten minutes or so.’ The more you can anticipate not simply the logistics of your day but the dynamics of the relationship and how it will impact the logistics of that day, the better off you are.”

Knowing the Calendar

Wales concedes that his background with these kinds of educational institutions is perhaps unusually strong--he taught at a boarding school for 20 years--and that certainly helps, but knowing what you need to learn about a school, and what key elements and events are common to most or all schools, can go a long way toward making you look like an expert and trusted consultant in areas beyond video itself.

“It helps to have an understanding of the calendar and what that signifies,” Wales says. “If you have kids in school, you understand what it means when it’s a week before spring vacation, what it means for seniors when it’s late May, what the excitement is about at the start of school in September, or what it means when you’re near homecoming.”

Part of this means knowing when to be there before they tell you so you can capture key moments that may happen only once in a year. Even better, it will help you find common ground with your interviewees on the topics that matter in their daily work/school lives--which is, after all, what you’ve come to talk about.

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“As you put yourself into the calendar, it gives you a great talking point or connection point you have in chatting with teachers or students" before the interviews begin. "They understand that you understand where they are and what’s going on in their lives at that moment. On a very fundamental level, you need to look at the calendar of the school and look for the little facts and details and what they represent.

"If you’re gonna talk to the football coach, really understand what the record has been for the three previous years leading in. You can say, ‘Wow, congratulations, Coach. You guys got to semis and actually won the state three years ago. That’s so impressive.’ Or, ‘Wow, looks like you’ve really been working hard to build a program here.’"

Going in with that level of preparation, understanding, and engagement--before the cameras start rolling--Wales says, "will draw people in and encourage them to speak about what they’re passionate about in very direct and immediate ways.”

Middlesex School from DigiNovations on Vimeo.

Coming soon, Part Two: Building a Single Promo Video into a Comprehensive Video Positioning Program.

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In the conclusion of this two-part series on producing online video for schools, examined through the lens of DigiNovations' ongoing work with Middlesex School, we'll look at strategies and measures you can take to build and advance both your relationship with the school, and develop the project into a diversified and more nuanced promotional and positioning program than a single video can provide.