Best Practices for Virtual Tours in Higher Education
Date posted: September 5, 2013
Admissions teams have long known that visiting a campus is the most important factor in solidifying a student's decision to attend a university. A virtual tour can't replace the physical interaction with a college or university but it is an increasingly important student recruitment tool, particularly for international students and parents who lack the time and resources to visit a campus prior to admittance. Prospective students are casting their nets widely before considering whether a school is even worth applying to, and a recent Cappex report showed that virtual tours were the number one tool used to initially evaluate a campus. In getting to know a campus better, 36 percent of students said they would "really like" virtual tours, while 30 percent called it a "must have."
The cost of travel prevents most prospects to limit their campus visits to a few colleges, if any. For a student visiting 20 college websites, exploring the campus virtually helps narrow down the list to the handful they can physically visit. The costs are obviously exponentially higher for international students, and recruitment experts commonly report that students in this lucrative market rarely visit a school before moving in the first day. Their experience of your school amounts to what they can find online and virtual visits are a valuable method of bringing your school to them.
Virtual campus tours are the initial test that more prospects are expecting before conducting a detailed investigation. Online tours can be done at a prospect's leisure, and repeated as necessary for uncertain students who may have already visited multiple campuses and seek a reminder about specific features. They may also reveal aspects of campus missed on physical tours, accentuated with informative details that provide context for a deeper understanding and appreciation for a university. It is an opportunity to emphasize the strongest features of your school while presenting the essence of campus life.
Convinced? While fast becoming an essential component of student marketing, limitations in time, budget and technology prevent many institutions from making the leap. A wide variety of slideshows, video presentations and even PDF files have been labeled as "virtual tours," but today's youth are attracted by sophisticated, informative, and, ideally, mobile-accessible virtual tours that give a good sense of where they may be spending the next two to four years of their lives.
What is your story?
There are no real limitations as to what constitutes a virtual tour, except to ensure potential students get an accurate portrayal of campus life. The majority utilize an interactive map where users can click on identifiable campus landmarks for a closer look with photography, videos and text. Many use the services of virtual tour specialists like nuCloud or YouVisit to integrate interactive elements, such as 360-degree views. "It comes down to one key aspect: what is your story?" explains Kyle James, CEO and co-founder of nuCloud. "What makes you special as an institution? Is it your gorgeous, beautiful campus, because you're a national arboretum? Is it because you've got those few majors that people are all into? Is it your urban setting? Key off those stories, because that's why people come to your school instead of another one."
Provide a window into your world - an inside view of classrooms, labs, stadiums, libraries, dorm rooms, cafeterias and student union buildings. Consider including special study areas, unique student activities, cultural attractions and community interactions that set your school apart. Some tours come in multiple languages, as 11.7% of visitors to YouVisit sites originate from abroad.
Example: The Art Institute of Vancouver features a guided walking tour in English, Portuguese or Chinese, with additional descriptions, videos, photos, and 360-degree panoramas of selected locations. An inset window shows your location on a Google Map, and call-to-action buttons (Request Info, Schedule Visit, Apply Online, Learn More) are always prominent on the left side.
Provide action-based next steps
The virtual tour is the gateway but it should be leading towards deeper engagement. Encourage prospective students to take the next step by providing links to schedule a visit, ask questions, find more information, interact on social media, and even apply online.
Example: McMaster University features an interactive map that visitors can click on to analyze specific areas in the "free explore" option. There are "guided tour" and "your tour" options to display narrated videos with additional descriptions, and "Ask McMaster" is a clever approach to a website search function.
Remember the basics
Virtual tours with broken images and links are a quick way to deter further investigation. Make your tour easy to find on the website, such as in the "Admissions" menu or even the home page, and keep it easy to use. Find a good balance between a compelling visual appearance and the load times necessary for graphics to render. While prospects are as impatient as anyone regarding load times, they have been proven to spend plenty of time on well designed virtual tours. After all, it's a lot less time than actually visiting the school!
Make the back-end text and visuals easily editable to integrate new information without having to rebuild the whole tour. Some colleges have built virtual tours into their social media marketing, such as Facebook pages, in addition to their websites. A virtual tour can be effective for lead generation as a simple system of photographs and relevant information as long as it is easy to navigate and provides a sufficiently appealing vision of your school that prospects wish to visit the campus physically.
Example: The University of Windsor's tour offers different parts of campus to explore, each featuring short videos, a 360-degree tour, Google map, photo gallery, related links and further details.
What has been your school's experience with virtual tours?