The Pocket Project

Authenticity. It’s what we’re all after. Every article I read and study I see about higher ed marketing these days is all about this “buzzword”–and the irony of calling it that is almost too much to bear.

But there’s no escaping it: it’s trendy right now to tell real stories in genuine, relatable ways. Especially when targeting Gen Z.

Some people call Gen Z “millennials on steroids” but that’s not true or fair. As a millennial, I’m completely susceptible to polished, targeting advertising. It’s almost shameful how many of my favorite products found me through instagram ads. And while I want to tread carefully when I refer to them as a marketing cohort (because many of the assumptions made about millennials genuinely offend me), Gen Z does not seem to gravitate towards the airbrushed, perfect advertisements my generation fell in love with.

These guys? They’re savvy. They don’t want your bull version of the world, or to picture themselves as models on the pages of a glossy magazine. They want inclusivity. Activism. Reality. They want brands to show who they are–warts and all–and to prove they actually care.

These days we are speaking to a generation with a true belief that they can change the world. We are speaking to influencers.

But authenticity… what does it really mean? How do you even begin to harness its power? I have nine student workers that I manage here at Colby, and it’s a question I pester them with constantly. “Does this feel real to you?” “What’s your take on this?” “Are we missing something here that’s obvious to you?” I never went to this school. I don’t know what it’s like to be them, to live and learn here, and yet it’s my job to show the world exactly that. My students, therefore, are my greatest resource. And you know what they kept telling me was missing from Colby’s web presence and social media strategy?

Day in the life content.

Ugh.

Those videos are so BORING.

I’ve spent a lifetime making short, digestible, powerful bits of content for an audience without an attention span for social media. Youtube is not one of those platforms–people there like to watch stuff! But day in the life videos are just… I’ve never seen one I actually wanted to watch. So, honestly, producing a series like that sounded like my own personal hell. So I dug deeper. Even they admitted that those videos are boring, so what was it about ‘Day in the Life’ content that they loved and wanted?

Authenticity. They wanted to see real students, living real lives at Colby. Warts and all.

Duh.

The next question became “How?” Not with cellphones… definitely not for youtube content. It’s a lot to ask someone to fill up their phone memory with videos for a communications project. Plus, every phone has different camera quality. And I don’t have any extras lying around. Definitely not with GoPros, ugh. We’ve sent GoPros out with students before, and the video that comes back is always a mixed bag. Usually it’s insanely shaky. And GoPro batteries? Notoriously unreliable. For a consumer camera they’re also undeniably counter-intuitive and not super easy to use. They’ve really evolved over the years but, man. You’ve got to be familiar with GoPros to feel good about shooting with them. And most students seem to have zero experience.

How the hell were we going to do this?

And then, in November 2018, DJI released the Osmo Pocket. And with that, every concern I’d ever had about the quality of user-generated video content just went… poof.

Easy to use. Stabilized gimbal footage. Great battery life. Some serious ‘Wow’ factor for your average person. Beautiful 4K footage. It even has a square screen, making it optimal for cropping the final product both vertically and horizontally! Oh, yes. Now we’re in business.

Equipped with my students' directive and a brand new piece of technology on the market, I convinced my boss to let me do what seemed like a crazy project. I wanted to test a theory about user-generated content and embrace the idea of authenticity. We rented 10 Osmo Pockets and selected 10 students to distribute them to. And then I told them to go forth into the world and record their lives for an entire week.

No instructions besides:

  1. Pretend you’re a Youtube vlogger

  2. Record everything

  3. No seriously, everything. Your whole life. Nothing is too “boring” for this project.

This was an experiment at its core. I wanted to see how different kinds of students would naturally used this new tool. I made sure our group had a range of previous video talent, from the technologically impaired to my own student videographers. We covered every class year and department of study reasonable for such a small group. We had athletes, members of student government, museum interns and people with no official extracurriculars.

The footage that came back to us?

Pure gold.


Of course, anyone who’s familiar with video editing knows that a ton of professional experience went into the final “anthem” video (as we so affectionally call it within the office.) I had 1 hour and 15 minutes of selects on my initial run through–after watching at least five hours of footage. 10 students. One week. 4K video. Thank god my computer is equipped to handle things like this. Colby could have never done this project before a recent major upgrade of the video editing station.

I both loved and hated sorting through the footage. It was like a treasure hunt–for most of them, 80% of what they shot was just fine. Nothing amazing, nothing terrible. But that other 20% was just so satisfying to collect. I couldn’t believe some of the clips I was getting. Dancing in a dorm room? Studying in the library at 3AM and expressing real frustration to the camera about not understanding what you’re looking at? Nobody acts like that around the communications videographer.

They were being themselves. They were having fun. It was a real authentic glimpse into their lives as… students.

The final product ended up so much more melancholy than I originally expected. I love that, though. College is melancholy. It’s hard to start a whole new life, learning all these new things, leaving your family and your friends behind. Being in College is taking your first few tentative steps into adulthood. There are definitely ups and downs to all of it.

This isn’t the only video we will be producing from this footage. For me, that’s kind of the most exciting part. Of the 10 students who participated, I’ll be able to spin off around four of them into full length “Day in the Life” videos for youtube. We’re dubbing the project “Inside Colby,” taking the name from an old communications office project from the early 2000s where students produced short vlogs about life at the College (fitting, no?)

We’ve also decided to completely restructure our weekly Mule Mondays feature on Instagram to produce more videos for the Inside Colby series. We’ll give an Osmo pocket to either a student, a staff member, a faculty member, or an alum, every single week. From that we’ll get our regular weekly Instagram story, but also, sometimes, a full length youtube feature. It’s such an efficient use of resources I practically dance with glee every time I think about it. Not only have we introduced a whole new youtube strategy to feed students’ desire for authenticity, we’ve also upgraded a series we were already doing well.

I always say that I don’t tell other people’s stories: I help them tell their own. I am just an instrument at their disposal. That's never felt more true than with the Osmo Pocket Project.

Recognition for what I do

What I want most from my content is for it to be seen. And, concurrently, appreciated. There’s nothing more aggravating to me than a project that I’ve invested time, creativity, and energy into that never sees the light of day. What’s the point of what we do without an audience?

I spend most of the year thinking about students (both prospective and current) and what content really speaks to them. Alumni are mostly a bonus (some of them truly love seeing what’s happening on campus), and donors become front and center at different points throughout the year. I’ve yet to create any content that focuses specifically on parents, but I do have a project in the works this summer that’s a bit of a double hitter. These are my audiences, and every day I spend here I get to know them better and better.

You know what audience I don’t create for? My colleagues in this field. It never crosses my mind that someone from another institution might find my work innovative or inspiring (although those are definite goals of mine.) But their attention means the world to me—a fact that became painfully apparent this week after I had the distinct honor of receiving a CASE Silver award for my ongoing academically focused Instagram series at Colby: Crash Course.

There aren’t many organizations that allow friendly competition and recognition among colleges and universities of all sizes and geographies, so CASE’s Circle of Excellence awards are a big deal in this industry. This year’s competition boasted over 2,856 submissions this year from 611 schools from 20 countries. My boss is actually calling us the ‘North American Champions’ because University of Nottingham took the Gold in our category.

It’s always rewarding to receive positive view counts, retention rates, engagement, and face-to-face feedback on your content. It’s satisfying to see and understand your success, to be able to back it up with data and refine your product as you go. But there is nothing quite like recognition from your peers for the work that you do. To really know that putting your heart and soul into a project is apparent to any audience (and that they find your numbers just as encouraging as you do.)

I really love this job. And, damn it, I’m good at it. It’s nice to have that recognized outside of my institution every now and again.

Adventures in Vertical Video

What tool does the average person use to shoot videos?

It’s not a DSLR. It’s not a video camera. And we are obviously long, long past the age of film.

You’re probably reading this blog post on yours.

Like many in my field, I took this basic fact for granted for years: smartphones are everywhere. So even as vertical videos on Facebook and Twitter became more and more commonplace, even as Snapchat and then Instagram Stories took the world by storm, I toed the party line on horizontal video. “Don’t forget to turn your phone,” I’d yell out to reporters scurrying out of the office to one meeting or another. Even so, they’d forget to turn their phones from the natural, ergonomical vertical position to horizontal roughly 60% of the time. It was exasperating. I had been taught that I couldn’t do anything professional with vertical video. Video was supposed to be horizontal. There was no room for debate. Right? How desperately wrong I was.

But I didn’t have the time to think about it during my time in journalism. All of my energy was dedicated to making online video a respected medium in my newsrooms. Just video. Period, end of sentence. I can only imagine the looks I would have gotten if I had began my vertical video lobby back then.

The first time I could really catch my breath and think was when I entered higher education. The offices at Colby in my first weeks were in that state of quiet restfulness you get between semesters. I didn’t have much to shoot, so my boss set me to strategizing instead. My ideas about digital media were what stood out to him when he managed me at the Bangor Daily News, and he knew given the time to ruminate he could get some crazy ideas out of me. And I had an entire social media strategy to consider before my partner in crime (the Assistant Director of Audience Engagement) began work the following month.

I started following every prominent higher educational institution with a solid Instagram account I could think of. Instagram is by far the most active social platform for people aged 34 and younger, with 64% of people between 18-24 presenting as daily users. It became abundantly clear from the start that Instagram Stories was an untapped tool I could really sink my teeth into. While gallery posts on Instagram are limited to reach whatever the algorithm decides (exactly like Facebook), with stories you have the potential to reach anyone in your entire following who uses the stories feature (which is appealing mostly to the younger contingent of users still).

But I was befuddled by a lot of what other people posted on stories. It was mostly so-so graphic design and ceaseless selfie videos of students droning on about things that didn’t really interest me. To be fair, I am not the target audience of 99% of the accounts I followed, but these same exact schools sometimes had beautiful videos on their Facebook and Youtube accounts. Why weren’t they using those creators for their Instagram strategy? Why was nobody producing vertical video content? The answer was a clear to me as the memory of yelling, “Turn your phone!” across a newsroom.

Which is why my next move felt insane, even as I pitched it to my boss. I would spend my first semester at Colby College making exclusively vertical content. He was respectfully skeptical, but trusted my judgement and gave the okay. This was why he’d hired me: I’ve never been the kind of person who likes to do what other people are doing. I want to do it better.

Crash Course was my first foray into this medium. It already features heavily in my portfolio with a good description, so I won’t dive too far into the whys of this particular topic. If you work in higher education, that might already be obvious to you.

This was one of my first-ever attempts at highly produced vertical video, and it shows. I turned my DSLR completely vertical on a monopod to shoot these, with the settings at 1080p and 60fps. Creatively, my mind was blown by the challenges of vertical video composition. I had always loved switching back and forth between horizontal and vertical as a photographer, so I fell in love almost immediately. The medium is truly beautiful for showcasing people—you crop very tightly onto their faces for full impact. But this is a double-edged sword, because it's a tight box to move within, and often forces you to pan and slide the camera to fully fit your subject matter.

I have loved every minute of learning what works and what doesn't in a vertical space. The process reminded me a lot of how I learned to adapt my photography to fitting into Instagram squares. It's just a different crop to fit your compositional skills into.

A semester shooting vertically taught me what I needed to know about both the medium’s strengths and weaknesses. A major thing I learned is reflected in our content on other platforms: you won’t see anything I shot those first few months in any of Colby’s Youtube or Facebook videos because it’s all vertical and those platforms are horizontal. I realized quickly that the video quality would diminish far too much if I cropped it horizontally. So now, in the interest of hitting all our platforms, I shoot the series exclusively in 4K. That way I can produce both vertical and horizontal versions of all my content. Don’t get me wrong—I shoot with vertical cropping in mind, so we’re still vertical-first here. Horizontal is a bonus for other platforms, not a main goal. But it has been nice to be able to put my camera on a gimbal now that it’s turned the “right” direction. I could make an argument at a larger institution (who may be able to spare a multimedia person) to produce strictly vertical content for just one platform, but that is not the situation I am in at Colby. Instagram is still my major concern, but we can’t let everything else sit on the wayside for my entire tenure here.

Crash Course’s immediate success made us step back and figure out how we could further optimize vertical video production. Inspired by Youtube Vloggers and Instagram influencers, we decided to open up this medium to our student workers. Remember those boring selfie clips of droning students I mentioned earlier? Try It was our remedy. A fun, fresh take on the student experience at Colby. Produced to maximize impact on Instagram without falling victim to the 30-plus story panel experience.

We purposefully kept production value a bit lower on the series to make it accessible to student workers of all ability levels, and also lend it an air of authenticity. Shot on a smartphone and edited in Premiere, it’s more polished than content fresh from the phone without leaning into Crash Course territory. Now when I yell, “Don’t forget to turn your phone!” after someone leaving the office, I’m looking for entirely different results than my days in the newsroom. For the love of Instagram, we usually can’t use horizontal footage, so I need them to shoot vertically. Thankfully, shooting vertical feels completely natural to this generation, so my reminders are generally completely unnecessary.

Because of my students, I know I’m not alone in my love of vertical video, but those of us who truly enjoy this medium are an exceedingly small portion of the professional video field. Major complaints from videographers include comments like “it’s awkward” and vertical composition is “limited.” But it’s just like any skill you build in this profession: when you don't work in it often, when you don't commit to it, it feels weird. When you are learning how to do something that is so different yet so similar to something you're already good at (i.e. horizontal video) you're bound to feel frustrated. Especially when we’re already such chameleons, with most of us boasting production, editing, audio, photography and After Effects skills on top of our pure shooting talent. I understand on some level why people are exasperated, but I don’t feel any of it.

The point of this craft for me has always been for people to see what I create and experience the stories I tell. We’re working in an era where distribution platform effects the overall look and feel of our content. And in some ways that is terrifying, but in other ways it is exciting and revolutionary. We now shoot in rectangles of all shapes and sizes, in lengths from mere seconds to hours. We have so many creative outlets at our fingertips—which one suits our stories the best? What will reach the most people?

It’s invigorating.