Advice

What I Learned From YouTube

Brian Taylor

April 19, 2010

I am a middle-aged, balding college president. I am not on Facebook. I do not blog. I have never "tweeted" and only learned to send text messages so that I might be able to communicate when at a distance from my children. The largest crowd I have ever addressed has been about 4,000 people at a Macalester College commencement ceremony. And the number of folks who actually read my regular column in our alumni magazine is, I suspect, relatively small, despite the considerable care I devote to its composition.

Some might consider me a Luddite; I prefer to think of myself as comfortably old-fashioned when it comes to information technology.

Yet now, after agreeing to make a self-parodying video, "President's Day at Macalester College," and posting it on YouTube, I have been seen more than 39,000 times in about a month by people on every continent except Antarctica. Our video—intended to engage alumni—has been reposted on multiple Web sites, generating hundreds of positive comments, "likes" on Facebook, tweets, and retweets.

I have received several hundred e-mail messages from alumni, parents, current and prospective students, as well as from other college presidents and from folks I simply cannot identify, and from countries including Pakistan, Japan, Spain, Singapore, and China—where one alumnus, from the class of 1950 no less, managed to circumvent the national blockage of YouTube and get the video directly from the college's server. Amazing.

Generally I practice strict avoidance of the blogosphere, but it has not escaped my notice that the video has been reposted and reviewed numerous times on blogs of various sorts. One blogger referred to me as "Brian Rosenberg aka the President of Macalester College aka your new hero," a description that provoked expressions of astonishment and skepticism even in my own home. Maybe chiefly in my own home.

While the value of this surge in visibility is difficult to measure, the increased rate of gifts to our annual fund since the video was released is not. We never imagined the video primarily as a fund-raising tool; rather, our goal was to entertain and engage people and capture something of the spirit of the college. Yet positive responses to our annual-fund solicitations spiked after the video's appearance, reminding us that reputation, institutional pride, and general good will can have as significant an impact on development efforts as projects that are more deliberately focused on raising dollars—and are far more expensive. The video cost about $3,500 to produce, which translates at this point into less than 10 cents a view.

With this project, I have begun to learn about the nature and power of the social media that are reshaping the way we communicate with one another and should be reshaping the way organizations of all kinds communicate.

In the end I have drawn from the experience a few lessons that are more significant than what I learned about my own limited gift for deadpan comedy.

First, the longstanding notion that colleges can carefully shape and control their public image is antiquated.

Things that happen on our campuses assume a life and meaning of their own in the public sphere more rapidly and unpredictably than could have been imagined even a decade ago. Messages we send out, if they are not ignored, are reshaped and restated as if caught in an increasingly elaborate game of "telephone."

That does not mean our initial messages are less important. To the contrary, we must devote more care to them than ever as we try to anticipate the ways in which they might be adapted and reinterpreted. We also need to consider how best to convey those messages through forms of media that can almost instantly reach thousands of people. More than 10,000 viewers watched our video within the first 72 hours of its posting.

Second, the notion that new social media are exclusively the province of the young or the technically savvy is mistaken.

A large number of the positive responses to the video have come from alumni from the 1950s and 1960s and from parents of recent students. New forms of social media have more potential to connect audiences across both generational and geographic boundaries than do virtually all previous forms of communication. I suspect they can be as useful in planning 50th-reunion celebrations as in appealing to recent alumni. For an institution such as Macalester, with a strong focus on internationalism, the possibility of knitting together, rapidly and at low cost, an alumni community that is dispersed around the globe is enormously appealing.

Third, we should never underestimate the power of humor and of positive messaging, particularly during periods of great social and economic stress.

Like most campus presidents, I have spent a lot of time in recent months explaining and responding to the financial and political pressures that have been brought to bear upon higher education. That is my job, and it is important. Yet a recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reveals that people are most likely to forward online articles that are about good news. I would add (based upon absolutely no research) that I believe people respond more positively to those of us in positions of authority when we demonstrate convincingly that we do not take ourselves too seriously.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, I learned about the potential rewards of risk. Colleges and the people who lead them tend to be highly risk-averse. That makes sense. On an institutional level, the dangers posed by a risky strategy that goes wrong can be enormous. On a personal level, presidents devote so much energy to placing the right face on their colleges and to cultivating particular images—unruffled and articulate, poised and polite—that the notion of letting down your guard can begin to seem unimaginable.

Yet it is precisely that meticulous cultivation of image that can make the occasional moment of self-parody so powerful and so liberating for both the community and the president. While our primary audience was alumni, I have been moved by the number of faculty and staff members who have expressed pride in working at an institution that was willing to risk, even in this seemingly casual way, being both authentic and distinctive.

I'm still not sure if people who watch the video are laughing with me or at me. But in the end, if they laugh, does it really matter?

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.