Going Viral

The video a state or locality puts up on YouTube doesn't have to be wacky, but it helps.
June 1, 2008
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

The voices of the jingle singers are off-key and the words don't rhyme, which is part of what makes the energy-saving YouTube video from Arlington County, Virginia, so amusing. A "Professor Farr," wearing goofy safety glasses and oversized blue-and-white gloves, appears in the 45-second video called "Shower," and tells people how to save water, money and the environment by using a low-flow shower head.

The video programming is part of the Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions, or AIRE, aimed at increasing energy savings. "Let's go visit Pete in the shower," the professor says as the camera follows him out of his lab. "Don't be alarmed, Pete," he says, to the sound of a scream and the appearance of a man in a shower cap holding a back brush. As of early May, some 700 people had watched the silly video with its serious message.

Arlington is one of several governments posting videos to the popular site, using the medium to educate and inform residents -- sometimes with straightforward, serious videos and other times with a bit of zaniness. The idea is that the often wacky and entertaining YouTube style will appeal to digital-generation residents. "You ignore the new media at your peril," says Diana Sun, an Arlington County spokeswoman.

Videos also can help explain complicated topics, giving people a chance to absorb the lessons at a convenient time and at their own pace. But the key question is: Are people any more likely to watch video clips with government news and information than read press releases online?

Marin County, California, hopes so. "Video is more engaging," says Matt Bronson, principal analyst in the county administrator's office. The county sees YouTube videos as a way to reach across both generational lines and government jurisdictions. But there remains the issue of getting people to watch them. Marin, which posted a YouTube video on solar initiatives and then one on disaster preparedness, has received few hits so far because it has not done much to promote them. Arlington County has had more success on this front. It gets out the word through a listserv of several thousand subscribers and an e-newsletter with 9,000 subscribers.

Signing up with YouTube, and producing and posting videos, is relatively simple. Marin County contracts with a video specialist to produce and post its videos. The Virginia governor's office uses its own staff to film news conferences. YouTube normally limits the length of posted clips, but governments with their own YouTube channels are allowed to stream longer videos. A channel also lets them keep those videos together on their own playlist.

Still, videotaping dry-as-toast public service announcements -- or the governor's entire news conference -- is unlikely to go "viral" and draw millions of viewers in the same way that "Battle at Kruger" (30 million views) or "Evolution of Dance" (84 million hits) have. Diana Sun feels fortunate to have reached a viewership in the thousands for some of Arlington's 120 videos, and the governor's office in Virginia was thrilled about 200 visitors to a video of a town hall meeting. Other popular Arlington videos, so far, have been ones on pet adoptions, the Marine Corps Marathon and the demolition of an apartment building. Popular in this case means 1,000 to 2,500 viewers.

Videos on government services don't quite have the intrigue, spectacle or humor that draws viewers to most YouTube entries. But a touch of drama can help. When Michigan was sinking in a budget morass, Governor Jennifer Granholm was filmed having a desk-side chat about the possibility of a government shutdown for all nonessential workers. It got 16,500 views -- many of them were probably state government workers wondering about their essentialness.

YouTube videos are not just for getting the government message out. They also can be used for getting information back. After two bank robberies in Arlington, news shows broadcast surveillance camera videos of the suspects. The videos went up on YouTube as well, giving viewers a chance to study the robbers' faces and report back leads.

Government YouTube enthusiasts see the potential for more widespread viewing of clips -- one that gets beyond the constituent audience. Bronson suggests that some day enough governments will be using YouTube to share video information with one another.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com