Leading Through the Lens

As COVID-19 drives us apart, video can bring us together.

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: July 24, 2020

As COVID-19 drives us apart, video can bring us together.

For most of us, the current COVID-19 crisis means physical separation. We’re staying isolated in our homes, connecting with our loved ones and coworkers mainly from afar. But while we’re all dealing with the loss of face-to-face communication, an exciting opportunity is emerging.

Now, more than ever, video is an important tool for connection—not only between friends and family, but between school leaders and their communities. And video-conferencing apps like Zoom aren’t the only way to build connection through the camera. At a time like this, pre-recorded addresses, personalized video messages,  and other video content can keep school leaders visible and present in their communities—even as they’re isolated in their homes.

Even before the novel coronavirus hit the U.S., video had become an integral part of the average American’s day-to-day life. When we’re bored, we turn on the TV or scroll through YouTube; when we need to work, we jump on video conference calls. Today, video makes up about 80% of all consumer internet traffic, and the amount of mobile video we consume increases by 100% every year. The growing demand for video naturally means that marketing using video will be more successful. Research shows that web pages with video are 53 times more likely to reach Google’s front page than those without. People stay on pages with video nearly three times as long, and the presence of video increases a site’s organic search traffic by 157%.

For Kristen Bryant, who manages Strategic Partnerships for video-software company Wistia, it isn’t hard to see why video is so impactful. “Video is the most human way to be in a room with someone when you can’t actually be there,” she tells us. “Seeing someone’s face and being able to leverage  body language and verbal communication—that is really powerful in building connection.”

What’s more, “parents now are a younger, more millennial audience,” Bryant says. She’s right. According to a report from the National Retail Federation, 50% of today’s children worldwide have millennial parents, and more than a million millennial women become moms every year. This demographic needs something more engaging. “A lot of them often expect video to be part of communications now,” says Bryant.

More importantly, video presents a great opportunity to follow a cardinal rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. “If you can show people the faces of the kids, show people that impact, it pulls at a totally different place from a viewer’s perspective,” says Bryant. “They’re more likely to share it, too. Just think about it—if your fifth-grader is in this video, you’re going to want to put it on Facebook. All of a sudden you have more people working to spread your message, and that’s a huge opportunity.”

Slowly but surely, school leaders are catching on. “We find in this day and age of ‘TLDR’—too long, didn’t read—that if we send out a video message versus an email or letter, it can come across a little bit differently,” says Dr. Susan Enfield, superintendent of Washington’s Highline Public Schools. “It can touch people in ways that words on a page can’t.”

What should I use video for?

The way we see it, schools can use video for two primary purposes: storytelling and communication. For many districts, storytelling through video comes more naturally; they know they should be telling student stories, and they instinctively understand how powerful clips of smiling kids can be. But because it’s so personal, because it conveys dimensions like tone and body language as well as words, video can also be an extremely effective method for communicating the information your community needs to know.

Dr. Charles Dupre, superintendent of Fort Bend ISD in Texas, was reluctant to introduce video into his communications. “I’m a prolific writer, so I’ve always written lots of emails to staff and to parents,” he says. “But over the years, my communications team has told me that nobody reads past the first couple of paragraphs.”

Dupre’s staff wanted him to switch his communications to video—and for good reason. According to a report by market research company Forrester, the clickthrough rate on emails that include video is 200-300% higher than those that don’t. People won’t necessarily read a long email—but they’ll watch a two-minute video. Plus, 2019 research from video marketing firm Wyzowl suggests that consumers retain 95% of the information they receive from a video, but only 10% of what they read as text.

Dupre wasn’t convinced at first, but an encounter with a parent changed his mind. “I had a mom one time say, You know, I love hearing from you on a regular basis, but you really need to stop sending such long-ass emails,” he tells us with a laugh. “So I finally started listening to my team.”

Now the long emails have disappeared, replaced by “Checking in with Charles,” a monthly video update. It looks much like something you might see on ESPN—Dupre works down a list of topics, hitting the highlights of the district’s news. “That’s what people need to know, it’s what they want to know,” he tells us. “And I’m telling you, I’ve gotten constant positive feedback about that little touchpoint.”

How do I start?

Many school leaders hesitate to jump into video simply because they’re intimidated. There’s the cost to consider, not to mention the technical know-how they assume they need to get started. But here in the digital age, the process of creating a video is much simpler—and cheaper—than it once was. According to Bryant, there’s no reason to hesitate.

“I think the first takeaway for anyone who wants to get started using video is that it is definitely doable without a lot of budget—as long as you have a lot of intentionality,” Bryant tells us. “You can get started with just a phone or a webcam if you really want to.”

The way you set up your shoot, she says, is more important than having the best equipment. “You have to be thoughtful about light,” Bryant advises, “but that could be as simple as facing a window. Make sure the camera is eye-level. And make sure you’re in a quiet place.”

Like any other part of the video process, getting started takes more planning and forethought than anything else. “If you’re intentional about what you’re going to say and where you are—a quiet room that’s well-lit—that alone is enough for a talking head video in a lot of instances,” says Bryant.

Of course, if you want to get more sophisticated with your video production, you can take it a step further. Wistia’s website includes a do-it-yourself equipment guide for even better self-made videos: they recommend an HD camera, a recorder, a boom mic and stand, and a softbox lighting kit. If you’ve got the budget, you could even hire a full-time videographer for your communications team, or at least hire someone for a few days to get the footage you want.

The bottom line is that a successful video strategy has no startup cost—you can spend or save as much as you want.

How do I get comfortable on camera?

Asked about her comfort level on camera, Dr. Enfield is very frank. “Nobody’s comfortable being on camera,” she says. “It’s awful!”

But like Enfield, you can get better over time, provided you’re intentional about it. She tells us about a segment of her superintendent training program which involved giving a speech three or four times—on camera. “Then we would have to sit down with a speech coach and watch the video and get critiqued,” she says. “Brutal! Absolutely brutal, but incredibly helpful. I think it’s just practice.”

There’s another ingredient that makes Enfield’s time on film a bit easier: passion. “I’m a big believer in speaking genuinely and from the heart,” she says. “Obviously we have to be knowledgeable when we’re talking about our work, but I think you need to be able to talk about the work of your district without notes. I find that I do better when I’m not using notes or a prompt, and I can speak about the work that we’re doing—make it a little bit more natural.”

According to Bryant, Enfield’s hesitation is pretty common. “I meet people all the time who are excellent public speakers, who are giving keynotes to thousands of people, and then they get on camera and they clam up,” she tells us. “I do think that there’s a disconnect for some people, where they’re like, I’m not an actor.”

The trick, she says, is remembering that as a superintendent, you probably already have the skills you need to succeed on video. “Being on a video is almost like public speaking in some ways—particularly if you’re communicating things that are important to people,” Bryant says. “You don’t have to think about yourself being really good on camera as much as feeling like you’re a good communicator.”

And if you’re already a good communicator, you already know how to prepare. “I would encourage people to create some talking points beforehand,” says Bryant. “I personally don’t like fully scripting something—that can throw people off if they feel like they’ve missed a line. Just have your bullet points, prepare for the conversation that you want to have, and pretend like you’re talking to a friend, even though you’re looking into a camera.”

While being the face of the district isn’t always easy, Enfield says it’s more important than ever that districts engage with staff, students, and families to broadcast calm during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There are some days now where I am so preoccupied or exhausted that the last thing I want to do is be ‘on’ for a video message,” she tells us. “I always want every message to be perfect, and I can’t even come close to perfect right now. Then I remind myself that what people need at this moment is connection, not perfection. So ready or not, I keep hitting the record button.”

How do I build an effective video strategy?

Know the difference between brand awareness and brand affinity.

Before you can begin building your video strategy, you need to decide “what growth means for you and your school system,” says Bryant. What are you hoping to accomplish through video? Are you looking to build greater brand awareness or greater brand affinity?

Brand awareness is exactly what it sounds like: you want people to be aware of your schools. After all, your community has to know your schools exist before it can support them. Charter school leaders, in particular, might be concerned with developing brand awareness and introducing themselves as an option.

But for public schools, you ultimately want to drive brand affinity; you want your community to develop affection and even preference for your brand. “Are people referring their friends to your schools? Is every family having a really great experience? What does teacher retention look like? Is this a great place to work? All those things are really affinity-driven metrics for school leaders,” Bryant says.

So what does all this have to do with video? “A lot of video now is being shared on social media, and a lot of that content coming from businesses is for the purpose of brand awareness,” Bryant says. “But we think this community aspect of affinity is really the future of video, and you’re just not able to do that in two-second clips.”

Bryant believes that one of the keys to building brand affinity through video is “understanding that not everyone is going to watch the whole thing.” Though the latest marketing wisdom says that shorter videos perform better (two minutes is generally considered optimal), reports from Tubular Insights and BuzzSumo indicate that the top-performing YouTube videos and Facebook Live streams clock in at around 15 minutes.

“What we really care about is that the people who stay actually get value,” Bryant says. “If the people who do stay become advocates, people who are really invested in you—that’s going to be a more powerful way for you to grow in the long term than chasing after that viral video.”

Wistia doesn’t ignore the kind of shorter content meant to drive brand awareness. They post short ads on Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn. But they’re not afraid to make longer videos geared toward driving brand affinity, which are hosted on their site. “If you’re on our website, we want you to spend time with us,” Bryant says. “We’re doing longer-form videos so that you can spend time with the brand and get to know us better.”

Think about possibilities for episodic content.

If you’ve ever binge-watched a TV series, you know how easily you can get attached to a show’s characters. It makes sense; you’ve spent so much time with these people, over hundreds of episodes, that it feels like you know them personally. In the same way, episodic video can make your audience feel as though they know you and your schools on an intimate level—even if they’ve never met you personally.

“Episodic content is a great way for people to spend more time with your brand,” says Bryant. “It’s a great way to build longer and stronger relationships with your customers and your community.”

Of course, for this strategy to work, your content has to be engaging, relevant to your audience, and a good reflection of your district’s personality. At West Bridgewater Public Schools in Massachusetts, Dr. Patty Oakley had to learn this lesson the hard way. She’d been interviewing staff for “Superintendent Spotlights,” but the Q&As, clocking in at about twenty minutes, weren’t getting much attention. “Twenty minutes of just an interview… people weren’t watching it,” she says. “And if they were, they were really bored.”

So Oakley mixed up the format; instead of conducting a traditional interview in a classroom, she hit the road. “We started the Carpool Karaoke version of Superintendent Spotlight,” she says, “which is just like James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. I pick up the people, and we drive around the town of West Bridgewater. We share information, and then we’ll sing a song, then we share more information, then we sing a song.”

This offbeat strategy has worked wonders. Even though the videos haven’t gotten any shorter, “everyone wants to see the silly things that we’ll do, so they watch the whole interview,” Oakley tells us. “We get great information out there, but it’s in a fun way.”

That sense of fun—and the frequency with which she appears on her viewers’ screens—makes Oakley a more approachable figure, too. People feel like they know her. “I think if you show your personality, people really like that,” she tells us. “They want to know you—they want to know you’re human—and social media gives you that outlet to show who you are and that you care. You’re not just the superintendent sitting behind a desk.”

Incorporate personalized video.

It’s easy to think of video as a broad medium, a way to reach hundreds of people at once. But as Bryant says, “targeted messaging is a pillar of marketing in a lot of ways”—and a medium as personal as video can help you focus your message on one person at a time.

“Our inboxes now are so cluttered. People reach out with all these automated messages all the time,” says Bryant. “Personalizing a video is really an awesome way to break through the noise.” And like any other use of video, personalization is a way to build a deeper relationship—and therefore cultivate brand affinity. “I think that in the context of schools, it’s another entry point. What is this community? What do people care about? How do they carry themselves? It’s just another insight that they have, and as a recipient of that video, I then feel like I know a little more about you and therefore can really build a stronger connection.”

Imagine sending a short, personalized video to welcome a family who’s just enrolled in your district, or to encourage a star teacher to apply for your job opening. Actually, that’s “one of the latest best practices” in hiring, says Tom Darrow, founder of recruiting agency Talent Connections. “Even just with your phone, make a little video and tell them about the opportunity at your school.” If you send a job posting in an email, your candidate might disregard it as spam, but with a custom video, “they can see you. They can hear you. They don’t think it’s a scam. They don’t think it’s just a volume game. They really feel like you’re pinpointing and targeting them,” Darrow says. And it works. “Studies have shown that when you send an email with a video, the response rate is three times what a normal response rate can be.”

Where should I post?

When it comes to where to post your videos, the obvious choice, of course, is social media. It’s not a bad option—posting to social media is a great example of meeting parents, students, and community members where they are. According to research from TechCrunch, Facebook garners over 8 billion video views per day, and last year, AdWeek discovered that Facebook Watch receives 75 million visitors every day, most of whom stay for 20 minutes or more.  If you already have a steady following on your Facebook page, you’ll want to include video in your social media strategy—while also keeping the platform’s downsides in mind.

“Sometimes things on Facebook or on other social channels are a little bit more fleeting,” says Bryant. As your videos disappear down your feed, they can become harder to find—plus, she points out, who knows whether Facebook will be around forever? On the other hand, “you have full control over how you want your district’s website to grow over time.” Social media video is still a great tool for building brand awareness, one you should definitely utilize—but you’ll probably want the bulk of your video to live on your own site.

What about a district YouTube channel, you might ask? Well, a YouTube presence will certainly make it easier for people to discover your content. The site has more than 2 billion users—that’s about one-third of the internet. For some districts, YouTube has presented an opportunity to grow a strong following. In Colorado, Jeffco Public Schools’ channel, JPS-TV, even won the district an Emmy.

But there’s a potential catch: “YouTube wants people to stay on YouTube,” says Bryant. “People are going to get lost on YouTube and see other things that are way more related to their interests and their search history than the topics you want to address.” Ultimately, “you want people back on your website”—not lost down a rabbit hole.

A platform like Wistia, on the other hand, allows you to embed videos directly onto your site, giving you the chance to build affinity for your own district brand. You won’t have to worry about moderating Facebook comments, keeping videos from drifting down your Twitter feed, or losing viewers to their YouTube recommendations. You’ll even be building your website’s search volume, which will boost your search engine optimization (SEO) results.

Following a multichannel approach, you may want to include videos on your website, on social media, and on YouTube. Just know the pros and cons of each platform, and decide what will work best for you.

Build brand affinity through video.

When Dr. Oakley put together West Bridgewater’s first flash mob-style Back to School video, she knew she was once again projecting her personality, but she didn’t realize she was also beginning an annual tradition.

“A few years ago, I decided to do a Welcome Back dance video and surprise everyone,” she says. “My friends say that I dance like Elaine on Seinfeld, so I’m not the best dancer—but I’d seen other people do things like this and thought, Why can’t we do that?” Parodying a Justin Timberlake song, Oakley and her team of district office administrators danced and serenaded their students and staff into the new school year. The video garnered nearly 7,000 views.

“Well, you’ve gotta be careful,” Oakley tells us, “because the next year, all the parents were like, We can’t wait for the Welcome Back video!” Though initially intimidated by the pressure to one-up their past efforts, Oakley and the West Bridgewater team have learned to have fun with what’s now a tradition four years running. “Each year we’ve been doing it, adding more people—teachers, kids,” she says. And the payoff is more than just engagement.

“It just promotes so much great camaraderie and school spirit, because everyone’s looking forward to the video when they come back to school,” says Oakley. “It gets parents excited. It gives people this feeling of pride. At the end of the day, what we do isn’t all about the scores we get on assessments. It’s about making people think, I want to send my kids there. I’m excited about getting back to school.”

At its best, video is more than just a way to communicate. It’s more than a way to spread brand awareness. It’s a window into your school culture, “an onramp for people to feel like they can get to know you,” says Bryant. And the more they know you, the more your audience will love you.


SchoolCEO is free for K-12 school leaders. Subscribe below to have a digital copy of the most recent edition of SchoolCEO sent to your inbox.