Add Filmmaking Talent to Your Web Content Team

The following guest post was written by David Baker, Director of Web Communications at Oregon State University. David will be speaking at Confab Higher Ed in Atlanta, GA this November.

Student on OSU's racing team

“Relentless” is a documentary film about Oregon State University’s student formula racing team.

Video content is a powerful tool for higher education marketing and communications. When done well, it can turn your brand into a channel and connect with your audience at an emotional level. Add technological developments that make advanced digital cinema tools accessible for any budget, and the potential is huge.

Yet, most higher ed websites stumble with making video content work. To be successful, we need to step up to the plate and treat video as an integral part of our content strategy.

The good news: As colleges and universities, we’ve got a rich universe of content to draw from. Our researchers study climate in Antarctica, shape public policy and explore genetic mysteries. Our students are world travelers, Olympic athletes and community organizers. It’s hard to walk across any campus without running into a compelling subject.

The bad news: Many colleges and universities fail when it comes to video content. Entire cable networks dedicated to university programming fizzle and fade or plod along unwatched. Higher ed YouTube videos languish as brilliant lectures online take a backseat to cute cat videos.

But video content for marketing, when done well, can earn views and build your brand. You need to tread the fine line between marketing and storytelling — include your message subtly, and surround it with a great story. University of California Davis illustrates this in “The art and science of beer”:

One of the keys to creating great video content is finding the right talent. There are a few routes to take when staffing up, but they all start with finding a great visual storyteller.

Option 1: Grow Your Own Talent

Filmmakers always put the story first, and stories are what you want for content marketing.

The era of the Flip camera turned us all into Francis Ford Coppola wannabes. Though only a few years ago, it seems like an earlier age. Before our phones all had amazing HD video capability, those simple, one-button Flip cameras — barely larger than a pack of chewing gum — made it seem so easy. Sure the handheld video was shaky and the audio was low-quality, but the image was stunning and better than anything we’d seen before.

We even invented a conceptual framework that allowed us, as digital marketers, to embrace this amateurish video: It’s more authentic, low-fi is in, too much polish smacks of untrusted commercialism, it’s what is popular on YouTube, and so on.

But the fact of the matter is that most of what we created in the Flip Camera Era was unwatchable. Looking back at our 2008 video content today, it feels dated. It’s more unrefined than it is authentic. The notion that we can turn anyone into a web video producer turned out to be fantasy.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t grow your own video content marketing talent.

The next big video innovation after the Flip camera was the advent of the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera. When Canon added HD video capabilities to its prosumer and high-end still cameras, the power of a good quality lens gave an instant cinematic look to the video it produced.

Add an affordable audio device like the Zoom H4N, and DSLRs remain our mainstay for video production. Even broadcast producers use these cameras on major television programs. With the right talent, DSLR cameras allow users to bring a photographer’s sense of composition and a photojournalist’s knack for storytelling to the arena of digital cinema. And that’s where great content marketing begins: with the story.

Despite what many like to think, however, you can’t just hand a Flip camera, an iPhone, or even a DSLR to anyone on your team and expect to capture watchable content. Sometimes you might get lucky, but much of your content will drift aimlessly in the ether of YouTube.

Odds are, though, you’ve got someone in your group who’s an avid photographer with a strong sense of composition. Pair that person with a writer who has interviewing skills, hand them a Canon 7D and a tripod, and you have the makings of a documentary film crew.

The key to growing your own talent is to seek out team members with a passion for the craft. They can’t learn it all on the job — there just isn’t enough time. But if they have enough passion to learn the needed skills (and conduct much of this learning on their personal time), then you just might be able to cultivate a homegrown Michael Moore.

Option 2: Hire a Filmmaker

The key to growing your own talent is to seek out team members with a passion for the craft.

Filmmaker might seem like an odd position title. I bet that title doesn’t show up on your institution’s HR website.

But if you don’t have the time, or the right mix of interest and ability on your team, hiring a filmmaker might be the best way to go.

There is a difference between a marketer, a videographer and a filmmaker. Great marketers know advertising and messaging. Videographers are detail-oriented technicians. But filmmakers always put the story first, and stories are what you want for content marketing.

When hiring a filmmaker, ask to see each applicant’s demo reel. If it’s a technically precise collection of shots from various commercial or professional projects, that person may not have what you’re looking for. But if you see some visual poetry, experimental footage, time-lapse sunsets, interviews with a grandmother or a local mechanic, you may be onto something.

Any web-savvy filmmaker should have an online portfolio of professional work and personal experiments. I look for a Vimeo account. Vimeo is a video sharing community that tends to attract a more artistic following than YouTube, where cat videos still rule the day.

Browse through their portfolio to see what they’re producing. Based on their work, you should easily be able to learn if you’ve got a committed storyteller on your hands. Look for flashes of artistry, but also watch for play and experimentation. Video technology on the web is a rapidly evolving environment, and your filmmaker will need to continually adapt and learn.

Film schools churn out budding filmmakers by the thousands every year, and more of them wind up on their parents’ couch than in a Hollywood director’s chair. If you can turn one of them loose on your school’s amazing stories, you might have the perfect combination: You feed them with great stories and a steady paycheck, and they’ll feed you well-crafted content marketing videos to carry your brand to an engaged audience.

At Oregon State University, we chose this route. When we became serious about video content, we hired a filmmaker. Our filmmaker, Justin Smith, has film industry experience and a film degree. He’s also earned an MBA and has marketing sensibility. During the week, he produces amazing content for OSU — this has included two longer documentaries (Kel Wer and Relentless) that have screened in a local IMAX theater and on public television, as well as on the web. On the weekends, he sharpens his filmmaking skills with side projects and experiments.

Option 3: Look to the Outside for Talent

The tools are getting better […] But telling a great story is just as challenging as ever.

A third option for creating video for content marketing purposes is to hire a freelancer or agency. You’d want to use the same evaluation criteria that you would apply to bringing full-time staff on board. Do they have a professional portfolio? Does their work reflect their passion? Can they tell a story?

If a freelancer or agency portfolio contains only traditional broadcast commercials or dry corporate video, you probably want to look elsewhere. But if you spot some strong, compelling examples or experience working on documentary films or broadcast content, then that freelancer or agency probably has some of the story sense you’re looking for.

Agencies that specialize in video content marketing are cropping up more and more. (Disclosure: I know this because I started one called Slipstream Cinema.) Such agencies should give you a higher production value than a lone freelancer. At Slipstream, we’ve developed aerial camera platforms that allow us to get dramatic shots that add a big film look to campus tours or documentary films. A good agency approaches your project with the vision and resources of a feature film crew.

But if you’re working on a budget, a lone freelancer can also be a great option. Local Corvallis, Oregon, filmmaker Eric Buist is an excellent example. Eric’s portfolio site and Vimeo account highlight the perfect combination of story sense, artistic quality and technical competence. At our campus, we work with Eric frequently and trust him to find the right balance between message and story. When we need someone to supplement our team or to recommend to an organization on campus, Eric tops our list.

Cinema-quality video is now par for the course when it comes to content marketing. It’s hard to grasp the transformation that’s taken place over the past four years. The tools are getting better, smaller and cheaper, and the distribution channels are free. But telling a great story is just as challenging as ever.

The good news is that you can choose from multiple paths when it comes to building a video content marketing team. And the potential and power of video content is inspiring. I’ve seen a film, produced by a single staff member with a humble DSLR camera, leave an audience of hundreds breathless.

Universities and colleges have amazing brands and stirring stories. It’s time they found an audience.

Here are a few strong examples of video content marketing in higher education and beyond:

(If you notice a craft brew theme to this selection, it’s reflective of the innovation found in that industry, the predilections of the author, or both.)

How do you use video content for marketing at your institution? What examples of compelling video content have you found?

About David Baker

David Baker is the Director of Web Communications at Oregon State University. He’s also co-owner of the video content marketing agency Slipstream Cinema and is finishing a feature-length documentary about wine. When he’s not building websites or sampling Oregon craft beers, he’s usually roping his wife or daughter into a film experiment for his Vimeo channel.

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  1. Thanks for writing this: “The notion that we can turn anyone into a web video producer turned out to be fantasy.” With iPhones and cheap video devices, I hear this a lot — that all you need is a thumb, an eye, and a phone to make video. But it’s more complicated. Video is not just shooting; it’s producing, it’s creating a story, it’s marketing with movement and color.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anna — you’re absolutely right. Just because some of the new, exciting tools make aspects of the storytelling process easier, it doesn’t change the fact that telling compelling stories still needs to be approached as a craft.

    The same talent and skills our Pleistocene cousins used to keep audiences enthralled around the campfire are still applicable despite the technology. The best content marketing on the web merges both.

  3. Great Post, This blog is very nice and interesting and best information.
    Thanks for shraing

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