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We’ve probably all done it. We’ve certainly all been impressed and a little jealous when someone else has done it – been taken in by style over substance in the form of a big, swanky video. The cinematic showreel is fine, but what about getting to the essence of your institution? In this guest post by Nik Higgins – founder of The Access Platform – we make a case for embracing student YouTubers, looking in particularly at how one inimitable vlogger in Cambridge has brought his unique style to that particular institution.

There’s a particular postmodern tyranny that is unique to the overproduced university marketing video. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think it’s the just perceptible note of consumerist hysteria that’s belied by the diligent man-hours of some poor video editor. Now, not naming any names, in preparation to write this article I have just watched a ‘Discover [insert name of university]’ video. It was 62 seconds of epic cinematicity. A luxuriation of 4k visuals. A triumph. I was left with the feeling that my degree would be a kind of transcendental panacea. I thought of Cannes nominations, the poems of Keats, and the axiomatic relationship between good and evil.

And then I realised it had told me absolutely zilch about the university.

Jokes aside. Who are these kind of videos for? I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the meeting that ok’d this particular project. Purely out of a, strategically macabre, fascination with its supposed intentions. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m Northern, but I prefer to get my information honestly and in the most uncomplicated way possible. I think (and I’d be very happy to hear alternative views) that young people, and university applicants in general, want the same thing when they’re researching university. I worked in FE for a number of years and, overwhelmingly, my experience was that students applying to university were less interested in fancy marketing and more interested in getting honest answers to their questions.

It’s for this reason that I think student YTers are great. One in particular, IbzMo, is my personal favourite (you absolutely need to check out his channel). Ibz was a student, and latterly a tutor, at a Sixth Form in Hackney where I worked. He’s an inspirational figure who battled all kinds of adversity to secure a much deserved place at Cambridge University. He’s now a YouTube star and very much at the forefront of the central university’s digital and social output. It wasn’t always such a harmonious relationship though. After a few months of vlogging his college found his channel and were a little skeptical to say the least. Ibz’s response?

I can do this on my own or we can work together and we can blast this ting.

Photo of YouTuber IbzMo

And you know what? The university chose to work with him. Good on Cambridge, and more power to Ibz. What Ibz is doing at Cambridge is hugely important. He is saying what universities can’t or daren’t. He is talking about the experience of BME students, about bullying, about mental health, about ‘whiteness’, and he’s doing it his way. It’s courageous and, in the context of the paltry improvements to widening participation, it’s of huge social expedience. The comments section on his videos are an effusion of praise and thanks – young people directly citing his uploads as the the thing that gave them the confidence to apply to university. How many open days get that kind of feedback?

There’s a broader lesson for university marketers here too. Yes, you should absolutely embrace vlogs. And yes, you should let students record them themselves (nothing worse than faux-authenticity and a maniacal mock-Indie soundtrack), but there’s also more. Ibz’s has a hilariously brilliant philosophy which is neatly encapsulated in the title of this article. It’s all about spicing things up your way: bringing your seasoning. But, inevitably, with spice comes a little burn. Cambridge have been pretty brave and more than a little savvy in the way they they have embraced the heat. The home of martyrs has taken a daring bite of the reputational habanero. Not everything Ibz says about his university is positive, but it is accurate. It resonates because it’s honest, and the embrace of this critical honesty reflects more positively on the university than a thousand glossy prospectuses ever could.

Capsaicin is the thing that makes chillies spicy. On its own its a chemical irritant. As part of the fruit it creates the delicious heat that makes the chili an exciting thing to eat. You probably have lots on institutional capsaicin flowing through educational and social arteries of your university. The kind of stuff that marketing teams shy away from. The bits that aren’t photographed for your website. In his videos Ibz talks about these less favourable aspects of his university, and so he should. He shows Cambridge as complex and full of paradoxes, but he shows it to be real and, most importantly, he shows that there is an extant debate there about these things. What Ibz proves is that there’s a huge power in institutional transparency and in letting your students openly discuss these kind of issues

Capitalising on the power of authenticity can be an incredibly effective marketing tool. Universities don’t have to be cinematic utopias. They are places of learning and places of people. They have histories, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings. They also have futures, uniqueness, and highlights. If you’re a university marketer then honesty is the best policy (and probably the one most likely to help you meet your KPIs). Speak about your institution as it is, and if you’re ready for the seasoning then go a step further and let your students do it for you.

Ibz said it best:

This uni can either help me and support me and do it with me and we can ride together or, like, BYE!

Nik is the founder of The Access Platform. You can follow them on Twitter and find Nik on LinkedIn. Nik is also running an ultramarathon at the end of this month to raise money for MIND, the mental health charity – something he cares about passionately. You can sponsor him here.

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