Interview with Heather Busch by Megan Youngblood
Communications folks in higher ed have all been there: it’s time to refresh your campus photography but where do you even start in recruiting the right students?
How do you find students whose stories best represent your brand — and who’ll actually show up when you need them?
Heather Busch, creative services manager at John Tyler Community College, has an answer. She kicks off photo shoot planning with a casting call. It’s a recruiting tool she used to attract 75 students for Zehno’s recent two-day campus photo shoot as part of Tyler’s rebranding effort.
Find out how she partnered with Zehno to bring Tyler’s new “Next Up” creative concept to life for a brand that puts students on their best path.
Q. Did you always have it figured out or was there ever a time when photo shoot planning was total chaos?
Luckily we have never had total chaos, but there was a time years ago when we did open casting calls. We would set up a large seamless backdrop and let people line up to have their photos taken with props they would bring. We got some great shots, but we also did a lot of “Great! We got it!” cheering, knowing all along that the shots would never be useful because the prop was just too distracting or didn’t connect with Tyler.
Or our team would be roaming the halls begging students who were rushing to class to participate. It was just total luck of the draw because we weren’t thinking as much as we should have about ultimate usage of the photos and timing of the shoot. Now we know we also have to think about class changes, lighting, stories that support the brand, so much more. We’ve lived and learned.
Q. Tell me about how your casting call came to be.
Well, we knew we wanted to broaden our reach beyond those students we always hear about, and we wanted students who were excited to participate.
I was at a CCA (College Communicators Association of Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.) conference in February, and I went to a session about how the University of Mary Washington produced ad campaigns that really focused on individual student stories.
UMW did a casting call with basic questions and asked students to send in a photo if they wanted to be featured, and I just thought that was so smart. And I knew we could adapt the idea for our needs.
For our casting call, we created a form that asked students about their major, availability, interests, future plans (thinking about our Next Up campaign) and favorite thing about Tyler.
And we asked students to send us a picture. That was really interesting. You get a real sense of how people see themselves when you ask them to send photos.
Our web team built us a quick, simple form on our website and we had everything go to our social media mailbox so that multiple staff could manage the information.
Q. How did you distribute the announcement?
We promoted the casting call through the web, social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and posters with tear-off strips at the bottom with the link to submit. We posted the fliers on bulletin boards and doors around campus. We also posted information on our closed-circuit TVs on campus.
Q. Do you really need 75 participants to pull off a two-day shoot?
We were able to connect 38 students with slots for the photo shoot, and I’d estimate about 35 actually came. At a few of our time slots, we had a lot of people. But we tried to be prepared for that. Shannon Bass, our graphic designer, likes to take photos, so we had her bring her camera and take extra shots of students who weren’t working with our photographer, Leah Fasten. So almost all of our participants got a great headshot of themselves from Shannon.
In those times we thought it might be really busy, we also asked for extra staff from our team to come help. It gave us a good chance to connect with students about the information they submitted on their forms, get wardrobe just right, etc. And all those things made students feel like we were using their time well, even when they weren’t in every shot Leah took.
Q. How do you evaluate who’s included and who’s not in the shoot?
In our publicity, we shared that students would be selected based on availability, school spirit and comfort in front of the camera. When we changed our shoot date due to bad weather, availability and responsiveness to our follow up e-mails narrowed our pool, but that actually worked out really well. We were able to connect almost every student who wanted to participate with an available time slot.
We have a big work table in our office space, so I mapped our time slots and needs on different parts of the table. I started laying out the student images in the slots where we had specific needs, like nursing or science students at our Midlothian campus. We filled those slots and then worked through the more general set ups from there.
In all our groupings, we thought a lot about diversity and representing a wide spectrum of our student population in each set up. Having a space to lay out all the photos helped us envision the groups and play with different pairings of students.
Q. When you created the casting call, how did you incorporate Tyler’s new creative concept and brand? And why did you think it was important?
Our new campaign, Next Up, is all about the places Tyler students go and what’s possible through Tyler. So the casting call was a great way to start using that idea. We promoted everything as the “Next Up Casting Call” and said that the photos were for a new campaign.
On our form, we asked a question about where students see themselves in five and 10 years, which gave us a really natural way to talk to students who participated about the campaign and created a great pool of potential student stories to tap into in the future.
We also gave all our participants a bag of giveaways that feature the Next Up campaign.
Often we get really focused on marketing to prospective students, but for us, it’s also really important that we promote the campaign to current students. Bringing the campaign to campus boosts pride in Tyler and helps us build a stronger connection with current students. Especially with a campaign like Next Up, we want them to share their stories and help us bring the campaign to life.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for your giveaways?
We try to bring branded items as thank yous for students who participate in shoots because participants tend to be students who are really excited about Tyler and will use whatever we give. Those students are some of our best marketing. And this year it was especially fun to put the bags together because the new giveaways were some of the first items to use the Next Up campaign (which included reusable totes, collapsible water bottles, lanyards, pens and stickers).
Our photo release also gives students the option to share their social media handles, and we’re hoping to be able to tag them when they use the images on social media, promote banners going up on campus that use the images, etc. It’s just another way we can thank them for participating and boost engagement with Tyler.
Q. Is a casting call enough to get students interested? Do you do anything else to recruit students for photo shoots?
After we got the promotions out, I reached out to colleagues who coordinate our student ambassador group and the academic resource center, because I knew they both would have a lot of reliable and engaged students who would likely be interested in participating. I also contacted faculty and staff from certain academic or student support areas like nursing, EMS and our military and veterans education office because I knew we wanted shots of students in uniform. I asked them to share the opportunity with their students, and we got some great students from that effort.
Q. Style-wise, what did you want to get from the shoot?
We really wanted everything to feel very personal, casual and natural. There’s a lot of joy and energy on our campus, and we wanted to feature that in our general photography.
For the hero shots, we really wanted to convey that confidence that Tyler instills in our alums.
Leah was so good about helping participants in all our shots feel relaxed and engaged, and that makes such a difference in how much emotion comes through in the shots.
Q. What’s your favorite shot? The biggest surprise? The most touching story you learned about?
It’s so hard to pick a favorite. I love a lot of the individual shots that Leah took of students. They all just look so confident, and I love that.
I’m also thrilled with the shot we are using on the cover of our new viewbook. That was another set up where I wasn’t exactly sure who was going to show up or even where we would shoot, but that student just came and lit up the lab prep space we were using. She had such a great smile.
I also really love the lumber yard shots for our architectural engineering program, because we actually made that work. Our original set up for that shot fell through — less than a week before our shoot date. I was on a call with Kathy Cain, Zehno’s president and art director for the shoot, and she said to me, “Just see if you can find a lumber yard.” I laughed — like in a nervous, are-you-kidding-me? kind of way. But thanks to a few phone calls, one of our board members and a generous local business, we had this amazing set up. It definitely reminded me that it can’t hurt to ask.
Q. What did you value most out of the recent photo shoot?
Just how much I learned. Working with Zehno on this shoot was a whole different experience, and we got a much stronger sense about how to do shoots in a smart way going forward. We had a lot of the pieces already in place — like the casting call — but now we know how to go from good to great by thinking about usage and planning for wardrobe, too.
Q. What are some tips you’d give about working smarter for photo shoots?
There’s value in really spending time on the front end thinking about what you want to get out of the shoot and planning well.
We had binders with us at all times on the shoot. They had details on times and locations, inspirational shots for each set-up we did, wardrobe details, casting call participants forms and more. The binders were such good tools for showing the photographer and our participants what we wanted to accomplish and keeping us on track. We even had our mood boards for the campaigns, so we could give students a sneak peek of what’s to come.
Wardrobe was another big aha moment for me. We had sent our color palette to students in the past, but creating an actual wardrobe document with colors and ideas, and investing in extra wardrobe made such a difference. Kathy brought a suitcase full of additional clothes and bags that were all in our palette. Lots of students brought great options, but the suitcase helped us add those finishing touches, involve spontaneous participants or get our mix of colors just right. And students loved it so much.
Q. How do you prioritize shots for your photo shoot plan?
For photo shoots, we start by thinking about what we already have that works. And then we think about what we need to add to that mix. I keep a running list of photos we wish we had or get lots of requests for, and refer to that as a starting point for upcoming shoots. That’s how we ended up knowing we needed shots of students in nursing, EMS and military uniforms for this shoot.
And then it really is a balancing act of being sure you are getting a diverse group of student participants, that you are thinking about adequate coverage of majors and campuses, etc.
We think about balance on every project we do, but we also try to keep in mind how projects fit together and represent Tyler as a whole. That’s important to remember when you feel like you can’t get the mix just right for an individual project. Hopefully that web page or print piece will just be one part of a prospective student’s experience with Tyler.
Find out how we’ve perfected photo shoots over the years through advanced planning, production and art direction. Read our two-part white paper.
Note: On July 22, 2021, John Tyler Community College was renamed Brightpoint Community College.