Reach and engagement are more important than ever in 2019. Crafting viral content is the key to long-term success in non-traditional student marketing. Once perceived as a matter of luck, viral content requires thoughtful storytelling through visuals, relevance, and emotion.

In our latest podcast, Christoph Trappe speaks with Dr. Wes Sumner, VP of marketing and communications at Florida Institute of Technology, about creating viral videos that help achieve your business goals.

Dr. Sumner will lead the breakout session Lightning in a Bottle: How Your Viral Video Can Spark Media Attention at the Adult Student Marketing Conference in San Diego, in February 2019.

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Going Viral With Your Non-traditional Student Marketing transcript

Christoph Trappe: Hello everyone, it’s Christoph Trappe with another Stamats podcast. And today, I’m actually joined by Dr. Wes Sumner who is the VP of marketing and communications at Florida Institute of Technology. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Wes Sumner: My pleasure to be here.

Trappe: And we’re still going through the topics at this year’s Adult Student Marketing Conference and yours, very interesting. You will be talking about video and more specifically, viral video.

Dr. Sumner: Well, that’s right, Christoph. And it’s something that has interested me for a number of years. I’m now 20+ years in higher education, but previously had worked as a journalist and had worked particularly in television news. And the power of the visual medium, particularly when we’re talking about video, to be able to engage people has always been particularly interesting to me.

And the marketing and communications unit that I oversee here at Florida Tech, been here about 10 years now at Florida Tech, really has an eye toward how can we communicate with our various constituencies using video?

And so, that’s something that we’ve paid particular attention to and thankfully had a couple of really neat success stories over the last few years.

How to Achieve Viral Success: Good Storytelling

Trappe: So, you are an expert at the viral videos. What can you share? How did you achieve the viral success?

Dr. Sumner: Well, honestly, and I have compared notes with some of my colleagues in higher education and so many of us the last few years, on one hand it’s been trial-and-error when we’re dealing with social media and the evolution of social media and how folks are consuming content.

But really at its core is good storytelling. At its core of a viral video is some kind of story or information that folks want to know more about, that they want to connect with or feel a connection with. And so, in the session in San Diego, we’re going to walk through several different aspects of viral videos and what they have in common.

But three that I hope we could talk about today in our conversation are:

1. Visual

When we think about viral videos or videos that gain attention across a wide spectrum of individuals, you’re thinking about something that’s visual. And that really goes back to a principal of quality video production, no matter your purpose, no matter if you’re creating a viral video or a news story for the 6:00 news or what have you. Is it something that is visually interesting to the audience?

2. Relevance

I would say in terms of common elements of viral videos would be universality or relevance I should say. How relevant is what you are trying to demonstrate with your video? Is it something that people can understand? Or is it so completely abstract that it would never connect?

3. Emotion

Does your video spark some kind of emotion? Often times when we’re all looking on social media, our eyes are caught by something that engages our heart really. And in many cases, that’s animals and in other cases, that is a story that is told in a compelling way.

So, those are three of the seven real aspects that we’ll dive deeper into during our breakout session at the conference, to really understand what’s behind a viral video and to help storytellers at colleges and universities understand sort of the basic pieces, so that they can then turn around, go back to their institutions and think about crafting videos that will resonate with their particular audiences.

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Sharing the Video on Social Media

Trappe: That’s fantastic. When you started these video productions, did you plan on getting a viral video? Or how did that all come about?

Dr. Sumner: Honestly, no. What we were trying to do was craft a video that would engage our audience in new ways. And so, to tell the story of our big success with viral video, about two years ago, here at Florida Tech, we had a professor who was doing lightning research. And through his lightning research, he captured amazing video of lightning in slow motion coming down from cloud cover to strike the ground.

And this professor shared this brief video clip on our internal email, here at the university. He shared it across faculty and staff with internal email. He said, “Hey look, everybody, look what I achieved with my recent experiment.”

Well, the marketing team in my office saw that video and said, “Hey. This is something that should be shared far beyond just the campus population.” So, we put it up on YouTube and then we shared it across Facebook and our other social media channels, Twitter for instance. And before we knew it, we were getting media inquiries about it. And Facebook as of last check had scored over 1.7 million hits on this lightning video.

So, it was just a great progression of having this idea of, “Hey. Could this be something bigger? Could this be something that is enjoyed more widely?”

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And then it turned into its own sort of life of its own I guess, with what we shared across social media. And then the second part of that was all the media groups that then began to contact us and want to find out more information. And that was really where we felt like we had hit a home run.

Trappe: Yeah. What’s interesting about that is once the media gets a hold of it, right, that does help with the virality even a little bit more, because people still look at the news and people still read some of those channels.

Dr. Sumner: Oh, absolutely. Your precisely correct because we can account for 1.7 million hits on the YouTube link, but all the other many thousands of places that it appeared when it got picked up – and then another sort of cherry on top of the pie, if you will, was what happened the next year.

This video brought attention to our lightning expertise that we have here at the university. So that we got called and the CBS Evening News sent a crew to campus the next year to interview one of our professors about our lightning expertise. And so, we’ll talk about that in the session too and share the video that aired on the CBS Evening News that was a result of the year previous, us coming to other people’s attention in having this particular expertise on our campus.

Fitting Videos Into Your Business Goals

Trappe: And so, the business goals, what business goals is it helping you reach specifically?

Dr. Sumner: Certainly. And we have an overarching goal. And our president Dr. Dwayne McCay has made it clear that he wants our university, which is 60 years old this year, to get more widely known for the strengths of our programs. We do not have a broad national reputation as a university. We have pockets of awareness and we want to expand that.

So, the overarching goal is that gets us attention for the university. And then what does that relate to from a business perspective, well, certainly enrollment. We are looking to always attract high achieving students and undergraduate students for our program.

Our undergraduate students can take part in a range of STEM degree programs. And our graduate students have an opportunity to be involved in some graduate-level research. We are just down the road here from the NASA Kennedy Space Center. Our university was founded by NASA scientists in 1958. And we have maintained those kinds of science and engineering connections through the decades.

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And so, from a business perspective, having a viral video to tell your story and tell it across audiences that you might not otherwise have been able to connect with has just really been a tremendous resource for us.

Storytelling Vigilance, Planning and Distribution

Trappe: You know, what’s interesting to me too, of course, I’m a storyteller myself and been in marketing for a while, is that certainly brainstorming meetings can be good, and they can help us reach out goals. But it sounds like in your case, a professor posted the video, and somebody was paying attention to say, “Hey, we need to distribute this further.”

Dr. Sumner: Well, you’re absolutely correct. And that’s something that we talk about in our story planning meetings as a marketing and communications team. I’m all for planning. I’m all for careful consideration and sort of creating things that we think will do the job.

But there is no substitute for vigilance. And one of the things also that we’ll go through in the session at the conference is, is talking about how can we be better aware as storytellers on our campuses of what’s going on?

One, you’ve gotta know what’s happening in the various departments and units of your organization to know that there may be a story there. And so, whether you’re putting on that old journalist hat or what have you, you are being sensitive to the idea of, “Hey. This could connect with people, this could accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish from a storytelling aspect.”

And it’s not necessarily a press release. And it’s not necessarily a story in the university magazine or newsletter. It’s something else that can be crafted. And one other point that I wanted to make and over the last several years, those of us in communications, I know you’ve experienced it, there are folks out there who say, “Well, to have a viral video, let me help you. I can craft for you a viral video.”

And what I tell people and what we talk about within our team here at Florida Tech is, it’s gotta start with a story. And who knows the stories best than the folks inside your institution?

Now, help in telling stories that you authentically have as a part of your college or university, that’s fine. But it’s gotta start with the heart of the story to be able to achieve any kind of impact I think with an audience.

Trappe: That’s fantastic. And what was the training for the person who actually spotted the story? Or was it just true journalistic instinct? Any tips you can share with other teams?

Dr. Sumner: Oh, certainly. And so, the video clip was initially spotted by our assistant director of marketing. And she’s been with us now for 10 years as well. This team came together about 10 years ago, we’ve been together ever since. And she herself had a communications background. Ultimately a master’s degree in business from here at Florida Tech, and is just an eye for content. Her name is Erin Fox. And she is always thinking differently about how to tell stories.

And that’s something that I think can be taught to a degree. However, I always tell other managers I encourage managers to have that eye when evaluating their staff. And say, okay, who on your staff looks at things a little bit differently and can bring that perspective to the table? Because that’s worth its weight in gold when you’re trying to figure out what’s going to connect with others beyond your own immediate sphere of influence.

Trappe: Fantastic. And what were the first channels of distribution? At what point did you know you had a viral video at your hands?

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Dr. Sumner: At first, the first hits that really were significant for us were on Facebook. We were involved in a very intentional growth period for our main Facebook presence for Florida Tech at that point. And we began to see all the likes and reshares that were coming in to that. And then the hits started coming on the YouTube channel. And then we started getting the media calls.

And as we’ll go through in the presentation, I’ll share some of the clips and the places that it aired. We had media attention coming in from the UK. It was clearly beyond any kind of United States or domestic story, because hey, you know, it’s lightning. Lightning can impact and affect anyone. And that really sold the idea I think to the world out there that, ‘Hey. This is No. 1 cool video and then hey, look. This is done by some pretty smart people at this university down there in Central Florida.’

Trappe: And this professor, how did they shoot the video? Was it a camera or a phone? Or talk about that a little bit.

Dr. Sumner: Sure. He had some specialized slow-motion camera equipment that was placed in an outdoor area where he was monitoring lightning. And so, trying to really understand how lightning manifests itself cloud-to-cloud lightning and then cloud-to-ground.

You know, we are the lightning capital of the world down here in Florida. And so, it’s a very robust area to be able to see lightning particularly in the summer time. And we’ve worked with him on a couple of media relations projects ever since. But it really all started with this idea of look how visual what you’re doing is. And I give such great credit to our professorial expertise here. And you think about professors who are teaching and researching at universities around the world. They are very focused on their teaching and their research as they should be.

And often times it takes the intervention from those of us from a marketing and comm perspective to help them think differently about how truly valuable from a mainstream content standpoint, some of the work they may be doing really is.

Trappe: And was the intention by the professor to actually publish it? Or just for internal use?

Dr. Sumner: He was using it for part of his research for ultimate academic publishing, yes, was what he was doing. And he was also sharing it with his students in class. And then as I said, we came about it because he shared it on the email list serve for the university and said, “Hey, look at these great shots that I got of this lightning.”

Trappe: Yeah. What’s amazing to me about this story too, is that sometimes we plan and plan and plan what kind of video production we should do, what kind of video storytelling. And then some of the best videos happen just like how you were describing it here.

Dr. Sumner: They really do. It’s a matter of you gotta do that planning. All of our marketing and comm teams at our various shops, we need to be looking for those kinds of stories. But we really have to be vigilant about these sorts of off the wall things that could pop up.

And really, going back to your earlier question about how you know you’ve really got something, it’s a bit of experimentation as well. We share things on social media for our university. We don’t know if it’s gonna be a hit. We don’t know if five people are going to like it.

And certainly, if you are going to have success with video online and social media formats and have any chance at a viral video, you’ve got to get out there and try some different approaches.

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Tailor Messages to Fit Different Social Media Channels

Trappe: And the one thing that you kind of mention very briefly, you still use it on a number of channels, right? I heard Facebook, YouTube. Any others?

Dr. Sumner: Yeah. Twitter as well. And ultimately, we shared it on Instagram and we have continued to grow our Instagram program as well. We have been also working on our YouTube channel and trying to make that more user friendly.

And if you look at how other colleges and universities utilize YouTube, there’s some out there doing a great job of storytelling. And there are some that per their academic mission are posting more lectures and speeches and those kinds of things.

Celebrity speeches, particularly commencement speeches do very well on YouTube. Some other things do less well. And so, really finding a mix on the YouTube platform for your college or university is a challenge and something that requires a great deal of experimentation as well I would suggest.

Trappe: And what was the thinking behind using all the different channels versus just one?

Dr. Sumner: We were in the mode of just wanting to get it to as many people as we could. We wanted to really have it as broad-based as possible. And we feel like that was helpful and that was successful.

One of the things that when I talk to colleagues is, we discuss is should you focus on one particular social media channel? I think that you need plans for a couple. And you’ve gotta decide what that mix of social media is for you. And remember that in your social media planning, if you’ve got something that’s getting traction, you may want to equally share it across all the channels.

But more likely, you’re gonna treat Instagram very differently than you’re going to treat Twitter or Facebook. And you need customized plans for each platform that may include some of the same content but packaged in different ways to connect with specific audiences and different demos, of course, on each of those platforms.

Timely Stories. Seize Opportunities.

Trappe: Remarkable story and really the takeaway that I’m hearing here is for this kind of use case to get a viral video, the key really is for people to pay attention and seize the opportunity.

Dr. Sumner: That’s right, Christoph. To be vigilant, to be connected with what’s going on within their organization, within their college or university, and to be ready to act quickly to leverage something that may come across your desk – if you find out about something weeks or months later, it’s sometimes a challenge because there could be some freshness if you will lost there. Being able to say, “Hey, here’s something that happened yesterday or the day-before-yesterday or today,” is best.

Then you’ve got an immediacy that’s so important in social media that you can communicate. And then I would also add to that, empower your staff to be out there, collect that information, bring those stories, bubble them up so a decision can be made about it. It’s a story that’s within your strategic best interest to tell.

Trappe: Very interesting and congratulations again on the success. And of course, we’re looking forward to hearing you at the Adult Student Marketing Conference in San Diego, in February 2019.

I was joined by Dr. Wes Sumner, vice president of marketing and communications, Florida Institute of Technology.

Thank you for sharing the story.

Dr. Sumner: Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to San Diego.

Trappe: Great. Thank you.


Dr. Sumner will lead the breakout session Lightning in a Bottle: How Your Viral Video Can Spark Media Attention at the Adult Student Marketing Conference in San Diego, in February 2019. Registration is now available.

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