Creating Authentic Media in Education Marketing

How many images pass before your eyes on a daily basis? How many of those images do you actually remember? Odds are that the number of images you remember is astronomically lower than the number of images flashed before your eyes on any given day. As an example, the illustration below is from my own Facebook feed.


Think about how many images you see just through your social media channels. Now combine that with what you see on television, banner ads, billboards, magazines, etc. The volume of images we see everyday is mind-boggling.

With so much competition for our attention, powerful, story-driven media is important for the survival of any organization. Visual media, whether it’s created by professionals or amateurs is at the heart of any good communication. In order to communicate your institution’s key message and story with your audience you need to be able to grab their attention. Imagine you only have 15 seconds to tell your story. How will you tell it? Will you try to force the entire history of your institution into that time frame? No. You will use visual media that stays on message and touches on one, maybe two, important points.


As a society, we spend a lot of time on the internet. We are media-savvy and know when we’re being lied to. If your image is not honest, authentic, and emotionally-driven, then we’re not going to give it the time of day. Your image and brand will be one of the thousands that are forgotten.


As a professional photographer, I have learned over the years that my perception of an image may be much different from that of my audience. That’s what makes visual communications so fascinating. We all perceive things differently based upon our own history, personal experiences, and mood. This is why authenticity is so important. Our culture is more media-literate now than ever before. Visual media is ingrained in the youth of today and continues to be a powerful mode of communication.


If there is only one piece of advice I can give to a communications professional regarding visual media it is this: Above all else, make it authentic. The days of marketing a vision of a utopian school are disappearing. And rightly so. It’s all about authenticity these days. Maybe your brand is based on rigorous academics. Maybe it’s based on global leadership or community action. Maybe it’s all of these, but if you are trying to communicate with images that don’t represent your institution’s core beliefs, you may not be reaching who you need to reach.


Social media offers us a perfect place to create an authentic dialogue. We are not just talking at our audience, but creating a dialogue with them. We are listening, responding, and building important relationships through social media channels. These relationships are the starting points for authentic communications and visual media.


There are a number of ways to create authentic content that resonates with your audience. One option, and one I recommend doing, is to harness the image resources that already exist on campus. This includes images that have been filed away for a while. You may go back to these images with a fresh perspective and find something you didn’t realize you had. This also includes the constant stream of media being produced by students, faculty, and staff on a daily basis. These may not maintain a professional quality level, but there may be a few gems floating around that truly capture the essence of your institution. The message is what’s important. Encourage participation among your community. It’s important to still maintain control over what to share, but by including your community in the image-making process, you are helping to create enthusiasm while maintaining a level of authenticity.


When you need a higher level of image quality and your budget permits, hire a professional. Make sure their style of photography and filmmaking fits with your brand. They need to be problem-solvers who understand the nuances of education marketing. They need to be able to put students and faculty at ease while shooting. There is probably nothing worse than hiring a photographer or filmmaker who doesn’t deliver what they are asked and paid to deliver.


Here are a few key questions to ask when hiring image professionals to create content.

  1. Does the style of their work fit with your brand?
  2. Is their expertise diverse and can they be flexible on the shoot day?
  3. Does their personality mesh with the culture at school?
  4. Are they professional in their approach to image making? Do they ask questions and do they budget appropriately?
  5. Are your shoot scenarios realistic? If you don’t see students in a certain area of campus on a regular basis, then it’s probably not an appropriate place to shoot, no matter how beautiful it is. Remember, authenticity is king.
  6. Do you have a realistic budget to hire an outside professional?
  7. Have you created a bulletproof plan? Do you have a backup plan? Make sure the professionals you hire are willing to improvise in the event of unforeseen circumstances such as bad weather or unplanned opportunities.
  8. Are you being realistic about quantity vs quality? Are you building a gigantic library or are you planning to focus on a few key images? Make sure the person you hire knows what your expectations are and ask yourself if those expectations are realistic.

Finally, one of the most important things I can suggest is to be nice and have fun. If you treat the shoot as a chore, then it’s much more difficult to create a relaxed environment. If it feels staged, then it will look staged. Remember, you can create authentic-looking scenarios by paying attention to the seemingly mundane, everyday activities. It might be that the most mundane scenario provides the most memorable images. And isn’t that the goal? To create images and stories that your audience will remember amidst the vast clutter of our image based culture.

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is a professional photographer living in beautiful Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Ryan works with an array of clients across the country including schools, corporations, design firms, ad agencies and editorial publications. He is represented by Wonderful Machine in Philadelphia and also owns the fine art printing company, GlowArtworks. When not creating images he can be found rock climbing, snowboarding, playing music and spending time with his wife Larissa and their son Boone. Check out his work at and drop him a line via Twitter @ryansmithphotog.