A Christmas Lip-Dub at Harding Academy — An Interview with Allen Gillespie

ALLEN_GILLESPIEIt’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is behind us. And now, with just three weeks remaining, the rush is on for Christmas.

In the Christmas spirit, I thought it would be timely to share a blog post about a Christmas lip dub entitled, Merry Christmas Memphis, that made a significant impact last year for Harding Academy.

I met Allen Gillespie at the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools Conference a year ago. Allen is the Director of Advancement at Harding Academy of Memphis. After the conference, he sent me a message about their Christmas lip-dub video that they did last year.

The following is an interview with Allen about this viral video:

Last year you did a Christmas lip-dub at Harding Academy. What motivated you to do this at this time of year?

“Honestly, I think the timing coincided with the TAIS conference in Memphis last November. During several sessions on marketing, people would bring up the idea of video and social media. We had already been using those effectively for about two years, but the conversations energized me to think of doing something bigger than our typical videos.

I had approached some of our students about doing a lip-dub about a year and a half earlier, but didn’t receive much interest at the time. I’ve watched lip-dubs from colleges and high schools from all over the country for about three years and I figured out two factors that where always present in the most successful videos. They either 1. did something technically impressive, or 2. they used a theme that made the video not “about” their high school. There have been hundreds of lip-dubs done by high schools, but the ones that are ONLY about the school never tap into a “shared experience” that makes viewers want to pass it on to friends. Shorewood High School is an example of the “technically impressive” strategy.

While thinking about those two strategies in late November, my wife and others started making comments about being excited for Christmas music and Christmas movies on TV. That’s when it clicked . . . “everyone” looks forward to Christmas songs on the radio and everyone sits around watching Christmas movies for countless hours each year. There’s the shared experience I was looking for. Then it was a matter of brainstorming iconic scenes and characters from favorite Christmas movies.”

Tell me about the process of how you created the lip-dub. How did you accomplish this during a very busy time of year?

“We had just finished our preview day events in November, so from an enrollment standpoint, we were kind of in a quieter time of the cycle (at the end of November). But because the video had to be out during Christmas time, that did put a crunch on the planning. And I knew that the life of the video was limited to December 25, and that after Christmas day not many people would share it online. That meant the video really needed to be ready to post in the first few days of December.

Our president and upper school principal were completely on board with the idea. (Our president is the last person you see in the video playing Clark Griswold plugging in the lights!) Choosing the music, plotting the course and scenes, selecting the performers, and working out the technical aspects all happened within an intense two week timespan. I depended on my assistant directors to handle the tours and inquiries during this time.

By limiting the number of soloists, it allowed me to focus on practicing with a handful of key performers and not need hours of practice with the entire student body. We practiced with all of the students AND filmed it in just over an hour. I’ve told many people that if we could have had one more take, we could have fixed a couple of things and made it even better.

We spent about $2,000 on the video (renting equipment, buying costumes, christmas lights, props, etc). Considering the cost of placing printed ads in publications and how few readers tend to notice them, I felt the cost was well worth it.”

How did you share this lip-dub in an effort to help this video go viral?

“I’ve found that the best way to kick start a video is to email it to your parents, because social media alone won’t give it a “base” from which to grow. However, we did post it on Facebook and Tweeted it. At the time I think our Facebook base was 2,500 (now it is 3,226). And of course when hundreds of students were in the video, they all want to share it with family and friends from other schools. We have a good number of our alumni connected to us through our Facebook page, and the Millennial and college-age alumni shared it like crazy. And if you look closely, there were several strategic placements to help the video tap into audiences outside of our own school.”

What was the response from your students, faculty and parents?

“Many people told us it was the best thing we had ever done in terms of marketing . . . which is funny because it had nothing to do with how our programs perform or what our students learn.”

What was the response in the community of Memphis and beyond?

“We titled the video “Merry Christmas, Memphis” because we truly want to be a private school that brings Memphis together. The video was viewed 20,000 times in one week. Three different news stations covered it and talked about how watching our students just made them feel good. We got a call from CNN and signed a release but it never made it on air for CNN. I guess our 30,000 views makes it viral on a local scale, but I felt it never quite reached its fullest potential. One of the coolest things that came from the video was complete strangers from other states emailing the school saying that our students had cheered them up and helped them catch the Christmas spirit.”

Looking back to last year, can you track any increased awareness or enrollment interest as a result of this lip-dub?

“Going into it I was pretty sure it wouldn’t generate more applications, because as we all know, increasing enrollment is much more complicated than making a video. But we did find that several tours took place because the video helped nudge them to take action. In the big picture, it accomplished my two goals. 1. Get people across Memphis to see the areas we had renovated on our campus. 2. Show everyone how diverse our student body is while watching our students have a lot of fun. People fell in love with our students. Prospective families build their impressions about schools over a long period of time. Hopefully this video helped make a few positive impressions that will help in the long run. Maybe the most concrete results we saw from the video were alumni telling us that after showing the video to their preschool-aged children, their kids said ‘I want to go to THAT school!'”

What have you done this year to top last year’s lip-dub?

“We will have a Christmas video this year, but it won’t be a lip dub. The details aren’t final yet, so we’ll see how it turns out. But, about two months ago we had another video get covered on the news, Live The Dream. It was a video that coincided with the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Memphis carries the weight of being the place where Dr. King was killed and we still deal with quite a bit of division today. We complied a video with footage that was shot over three school years with the purpose to encourage dialogue among our families about the speech. I feel it’s the most important video I’ve made over the past several years.”

Do you have any advice for enrollment and marketing directors wanting to create a lip-dub?

“In some ways the lip dub genre may have run its course. However, I think the strategies I mentioned earlier about either being technically impressive or themed around a shared experience are what can help any kind of video make it outside the circle of your own families.

But THE most important factor in a lip dub is the music. It has to be good. Many lip-dubs get boring because only one song was used and the entire song may not keep the energy up. Some of the songs we used weren’t necessarily the absolute most popular Christmas songs, but they all kept a certain amount of energy going so that there was never 15 seconds where something interesting wasn’t happening. Many lip dubs drag on past 7 minutes. I tried to keep ours down to around 5 minutes. We misjudged the speed of Frosty running down the hall and that is really the only moment that lagged as we stalled to let the music catch up.

The second most important factor for a lip dub is your soloists. If you noticed, we didn’t have 30+ students “sing” solos. That was one of the major flaws I identified with most high school lib dubs – too many soloists leaves way too much room for error and frankly half of those soloists just aren’t that interesting to watch. I hand selected 4 students I knew would keep people’s attention.

Of course lip dubs are about doing it in one unedited take, but in order to cover all of the areas I wanted to show in the video and to keep it shorter, I decided the best way to accomplish that was going ahead and doing just one transition with the Christmas present. I found the audience will forgive that “cheat” if you keep them engaged and don’t let the energy drop.

Oh, and if you ever use fake snowballs in a video, they are REALLY slippery on tile floors!”

Do you have any other general tips for schools wanting to use video?

“I learned the hard way that every 15 seconds you lose more viewers online. If you don’t give viewers a reason to hang on in the first 15 seconds, you lost them. Then you have to be aware of the pace and honestly ask yourself at every 15-30 seconds in a video “would I have just lost someone with this part?”

Always keep videos as short as possible with the goal of making the viewer want to rewatch it.

I think a video spreads faster on Youtube, but Vimeo provides a little less crazy viewer experience.

I’ve found that photos are four times more effective on Facebook (likes and shares) than video. I think it has to do with the algorithm Facebook uses – it promotes its own content (the picture you uploaded to Facebook) more than links that take a user off-site.”

One of the things that stands out to me about the result of this lip-dub is the positive exposure and awareness that this video provided for Harding Academy. No ad, billboard or direct mail campaign could provide this level of exposure (And ironically, these strategies cost much!).

Allen, thanks for sharing your experiences last year with your Merry Christmas Memphis lip-dub video. I will be interested to hear about what you decide to do this year (it will be difficult to top last year’s video!).

What do you think about this marketing strategy that Allen implemented at his school?

How are you using video creatively to build awareness for your school?