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Gone Baby Gone: When School Videos Go Viral

Wednesday, February 3, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

The month of January is famous for the New Year’s resolutions, NFL playoffs, snowfall, and, for better or worse, school delays and closings. With that comes an almost absurd dependence on weather predictions, stress, and hassles for parents who have to reshuffle their schedules often on short notice. It’s a good opportunity to try to relieve some anxiety and make people smile, perhaps in the form of a video.

It was about this time two years ago that the city of Durham, NC, was repeatedly pelted with snow, ice, road closures, hazardous conditions, and thus, school delays or closings. Enter Durham Academy’s Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner and Assistant Head/Upper School Head Lee Hark. “We had had a lot of cancellations and delays, and people were tired of it,” said Ulku-Steiner. “We needed some levity injected.”

On a February afternoon, the two penned new lyrics to the popular Vanilla Ice song “Ice Ice Baby,” donned ski goggles and a winter Olympics sweater, sat down in front of a computer, rapped the new lyrics, and recorded a short video about the next day’s closure. They posted it to the school’s YouTube channel at about 3 pm that day and were pleasantly surprised that it made the local news that night. 

By the next morning, the video had gone “viral,” with 1 million views and a social media explosion. The school received almost overwhelming attention. “For about 72 hours it was thrilling,” Ulku-Steiner said. “We would have practiced a lot more if we had known how much people would watch it!”

Then came national attention, including an invitation to appear on a national talk show, which they declined. Almost two years later, the video has had almost 5.5 million views on Youtube, and there has been no apparent down side.

“We’re very academic and the video leavens our reputation a bit,” Ulku-Steiner said. “We think joy has a place at the heart of our school, and it does reflect who we are as a school. Formality and distance [from students] are not what we want our teachers or our administrators to be about.”

For months, students asked when the administrators will produce another video. They followed up in September 2014 with “Lice Lice Baby,” a health-related announcement, but that garnered only about 12,000 views.

It’s difficult to top the initial success of a unique video gone viral, and imitations are common. A YouTube search produces several videos similar to Durham’s, using the popular song “Let it Go” from Disney’s “Frozen” or others. Some totaled views in the six-figure range while another has reached more than 3 million views.

“We were very wise to stop our video after 1 minute,” Hark said. “They can be painful to watch.”

Going viral is just a bonus to something that was typically intended for an internal audience – a phenomenon can’t be planned. “It’s hard to script a viral video and it’s hard to get people’s attention and figure out what’s going to resonate,” Ulku-Steiner explained. “What the Internet is proving is that only original, new, and fresh makes an impact.”

Sports “hype” videos are not particularly new; for years, many schools have created videos to promote a football game or other sports event, typically releasing them the week of a big game, such as rivalry matchup or playoffs. Some are very amateur and others draw on the expertise of a school employee for a higher production quality.

When an alumnus in the music industry approached administrators at McCallie School in Chattanooga, TN, about creating a video for their annual football game vs. Baylor School, also in Chattanooga, the school supported the idea, not fully realizing how elaborate the plans were. Using Jay-Z’s song “Run This Town,” the alumnus, along with current McCallie students, wrote new lyrics and recruited a student from sister school Girls Preparatory School (GPS) to sing Rihanna’s portion of the new song. Several boys took turns rapping the other portion of the song.

They filmed on campus and around the city, including on top of Lookout Mountain using a drone-mounted camera, over a two-week period. They recruited a large group of students from both McCallie and GPS to appear in the video as well.

“The video was a great merger of students’ energy,” said McCallie Director of Communications Billy Faires. “It went bigger than we ever thought.”

The video was released on YouTube on September 30, 2015. In a normal week, the school web site sees about 1,400 to 1,700 Google sessions. On October 1, the number jumped to 4,300 and on October 2, it was 6,800. For about 36 hours, #mccallie was among top activity on Twitter. posted a link on its web site, as did The Sporting News, USA Today, and Bleacher Report. NFL player Reggie Bush retweeted the video link from @ESPN with the comment “Swag,” creating much excitement among the student body.

During the flurry of activity, the school admission office received inquiries from people in Texas, California, and Germany. Faires watched the web site traffic and the YouTube views continue to climb, and to date, nearly 600,000 people have watched the video.

Baylor School released its own hype video prior to the rivalry game, but the school’s real response came during game itself on October 2, in which Baylor triumphed over McCallie, 38-14.

“You do what’s fun and what makes sense, but we would have been proud of that video if only 10,000 people had watched,” Faires said.

When schools produce a video that excites its own community, going viral and the attention that comes with that is merely icing on the cake. Sometimes a video can make a permanent impact. Faires reported that the new normal for McCallie’s web site sessions, even months after the game week, is about 100 higher per week. At Durham, admission-related inquiries have been higher in the last two years, but they do not attribute that increase to the video. “It’s a conversation starter for a lot of people,” Hark said. “For faculty recruitment, it did impact us. It showed that Durham Academy is a fun place to be and to work.”

Whether it’s a snow storm or a rivalry game raising tension on campus, humor might be the best medicine. When there are students or faculty or administrators willing to try to entertain others, a school can be an overnight star in a video gone viral.



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