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A Forbes article from late 2020 started making the rounds on higher ed Twitter last week. Essentially, YouTube -- a for-profit multimedia platform owned by Google -- will play pre-roll advertisements ahead of video content, even for channels that have chosen not to monetize their content, unless a channel meets certain standards for a number of subscribers and views.

The issue for higher education marketers is the alignment of their institutional brand with content that is out of their control. Using YouTube as a primary vehicle for video content, particularly for student recruitment, has always made sense. Research dating back to early editions of The Social Admissions Report (retired in 2018) consistently pointed to YouTube as a primary vehicle for college research by prospective students. And they certainly consume huge numbers of YouTube videos in their personal lives.

Until now, the primary challenge with YouTube has been ensuring your institution’s brand is not aligned with the automatically generated videos featured in the sidebar or “up next” section. These videos are recommended by an algorithm designed to provide content of interest to the viewer. With this latest switch, marketers must consider the potential for ads that may be counter to their institutional brand … or worse, ads from competitors.

Easy Reuse Means Easy Loss of Control

In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher ed marketers began to understand the value of video in student recruitment, and its use exploded. The greatest challenge is developing the best methods for reusing and repurposing video content. What do you do after your amazing Zoom information session? Typically, the easy solution is to post it to YouTube, where it’s easy to find and view.

While making the video content available on YouTube (and using their embed code to easily post to your site) may seem like the best solution, you now have to seriously consider the drawbacks. YouTube advertising is reliant on many factors such as IP retargeting (seeing the ad for that outdoor pizza oven you just looked at for weeks) and lookalike audiences (advertisers focusing on an audience that is similar to a provided list) -- in higher education marketing, this is oftentimes a list of enrolled students to target more prospective students. Starting now, if you use YouTube as a platform for your video content, your institution’s brand is for sale to any savvy advertiser looking to reach the same audience your page reaches: your competitors, vacation rental providers and everyone in between.

What to Do About It

When you host your website on a platform like WordPress, you pay to ensure “powered by WordPress” doesn’t appear in the upper left-hand corner under your institution’s logo. We know that this investment helps protect our brand. Yet, when given the opportunity to do the same with our primary recruitment content, why do we take the cheap way out?

Any good marketing and recruitment plan in 2021 requires the use of video to reach and engage our audience. In a landscape dominated by brands like Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max, we need to take a step back and look at why more and more services continue to be added to the marketplace.

Why do Paramount+ and Peacock exist? It’s all about the branding of the content, owning the experience and, most importantly, being able to take action on the data. When NBC allowed Netflix to license The Office, the network lost the opportunity to learn about the viewing habits of its audience. By moving all of the Office episodes into NBC’s proprietary platform, Peacock, it regained control.

Can we still find clips of The Office on YouTube? Sure. This is by design. All of these clips act as promotional tools to encourage subscribing to Peacock for the full experience. Higher education marketers should be using YouTube in the very same way -- give away snippets of your experience on the free platform while building and owning your own branded and interactive destination. This approach will provide a wealth of data on your audience that you do not get from YouTube or even from in-person experiences. Use this data to improve and refine your outreach each cycle to maximize your outcomes.

A leader in enrollment marketing strategy, Gil Rogers has published numerous studies on digital student engagement and presented at dozens of national conferences on enrollment strategy. He currently serves as executive vice president at PlatformQ Education.