10 Best Practices that Will Define Virtual Tours in 2020

December 4, 2019 by Sam Slater

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We're starting to move past the point where virtual tours are the cool new tactic to promote your campus. Almost every college and university now has their own version of a virtual experience that supplements (and in some cases supplants) the campus visit. When simply implementing your own virtual tour no longer counts as a differentiator, what's the next step?

That's easy. Just as the technology has evolved over the last few years, so have the potential opportunities that come with implementing a virtual tour in your recruitment and marketing efforts. It's no longer about simply having a tour available on your website. It's about featuring a tour that's specifically designed to meet and exceed audience expectations while keeping visitors on your page.

We're in the midst of the fall 2020 recruitment cycle, but it's not too early to plan ahead. As you begin to strategize for 2020, now is the time to build your virtual tour to become a centerpiece of your recruitment efforts. These 10 best practices can help with that effort and build your virtual campus experience into a true differentiator.

1. Start With the Needs of Your Audience(s)

The competition is too intense. Anything even remotely related to higher education marketing, today and in the future, has to be centered around your audience. That includes your virtual tours, which should be built not with a mindset of showcasing your beautiful campus but meeting and surpassing audience expectations.

hands of woman form viewfinder over the shoulder

Who these audiences are, of course, varies based on the use case. Every higher ed professional knows about the variety of stakeholders involved in any marketing effort:

  • Potential students
  • Parents of potential students
  • Current students
  • Alumni
  • Members of the local community
  • Internal faculty and staff
  • Potential faculty being recruited
  • Members of the board

No single tour, of course, can satisfy all of these audiences. Instead, any experience built has to be nuanced for each of them, finding commonalities and embracing differences. That typically means layers, built specifically with audience segment in mind. 

2. Functionality Comes First

Yes, a virtual tour is cool. It looks great in any presentation made to the board of directors about new marketing and recruitment initiatives. But, as other universities are turning to the same tool and turning it into the status quo, it's about more than just looking good. Going into 2020, it's time to go back to the basics: the functionality of your digital experience has to be just right.

Again, that starts with your core audience needs. But it goes beyond that. The visuals and text need to be current, accurately describing the state of your university as it stands right now. Yes, you might need to update that construction site or change the number of dining opportunities on campus from 10 to 8. Basic maintenance has to be part of the regular management of this tour.

Modern possibilities have begun to enable more nuanced functionality, as well. We'll discuss the details of live data integration below; ideally, the tour needs to be user-friendly, offering anything from parking information to bus route timing.

3. Start Telling Your Brand Story

Other than live data integration, a static digital map could accomplish much of the functionality mentioned above. What makes your virtual tour unique is the fact that you can tell your college's unique story through its various capabilities. 

The average high school student now applies to five or more universities in their college search. Meanwhile, the average American donates to four organizations in the course of a typical year. It's difficult to break through the clutter and present your institution as truly unique and worth considering, even when it comes to your own alumni.

Difficult, but far from impossible. The key is storytelling, a concept just starting to take hold in higher education. Telling a unique story makes your university brand memorable, emotional, and real. In fact, social psychology research shows that stories are 22 times more memorable than simple facts. Use your virtual tour to tell your brand story, highlighting the parts of campus that make your school unique and worth diving into.

4. Align Your Virtual and Physical Tours

Within a traditional recruitment funnel, virtual tools fit somewhere between the initial inquiry and the physical campus visit. It entices your audience just enough to want to learn more and actually stop by. Unfortunately, the traditional college recruitment funnel is dead.

prospective college students tour campus

Students apply to multiple colleges. They may visit before or after the application, or not at all. They apply before they become an inquiry, and take a virtual tour after they're admitted. Rather than taking a linear, prescribed journey, they're increasingly relying on their own research and becoming more difficult to track for recruitment professionals.

As a result, your students may take your virtual tour at any point in their college journey. That means it has to align perfectly with your physical tools, offering a true virtual alternative to that actual visit. From the same script and language to the same general path, building these similarities can go a long way towards a successful virtual tour.

5. Integrate High-Quality Visuals

Let's get into the technical details. A tour that tells a great story while aligning with your physical tour is great, but will not be successful if you don't get the visuals right. This type of experience, as you might expect, is all about the visuals, from 360 photos to VR videos.

Static images that are simple squares on a computer screen probably won't be enough anymore. Instead, these visuals need to be immersive enough and realistic enough for your audience to be able to dive right in. The fly on the wall approach in which the camera lens simply happens to be there during a typical campus or classroom scene is becoming especially popular.

Even within those visuals, it's crucial to get the details right. The camera should be at eye-level, and the lighting needs to be just right. For a 360 or VR photo, the entire panorama (including the space behind the camera) suddenly becomes crucial. Building these visuals requires skill, but that work pays off significantly in the long run.

6. Build True Virtual Experiences

Just like storytelling sells in today's age, so do experiences. Just take this intro to an Adweek article on the topic of experiential marketing:

As brands see more and more people use ad blockers, tune out TV spots or cut the cord altogether, it's easy to see why Jaguar, Absolut, Mastercard and more are turning to experiential marketing, which they say has the potential to create direct connections and more meaningful relationships with consumers.

That article talks about in-person events, which draw in consumers and can build these meaningful connections. However, technology is finally catching up and now able to replicate these experiences in a virtual environment. Virtual tours, in fact, are the perfect example of how to accomplish that — if applied the right way.

The modern virtual tour is immersive. It allows your audience to dive deeply into your campus life, making it feel almost as if they're a part of it. It's a continuous experience, from the moment they dive in all the way until the end. Build this type of experience, and you're on your way to a deep connection with your audience.

7. Leverage the Power of Live Data Feeds

The interactive nature of modern virtual campus tours doesn't stop with the visuals. New systems are allowing for live data to be fed straight into the map your university is using, and other institutions are already leveraging that feat in mapping in a variety of ways:

  • Bus schedules and timings, so no one has to miss class.
  • Live parking information, so no one gets left out for commencement or move-in.
  • Social media feeds that showcase the activity around campus.
  • Computer lab availability, so students know when to stop by.

college professor teaching in computer lab

It's easy to see the same type of concept extends to virtual tours, as well. We're not that far away from a tour that simulates the current weather at the campus or even feeds in live footage from regular hang-out spots. Again, this data can make the tour more immersive and 'real' in the eyes of your audience.

8. Extend Beyond Your Campus

When potential students go on their college search, they look for more than just a great campus. The environment surrounding that campus is just as important. After all, this will be their home for the next 4+ years, and they need to make sure they can be comfortable here.

Unfortunately, too many colleges and universities still take an isolated approach to their virtual tours. They highlight only their campus, neglecting to show the greater community that is so important to potential students. Those who don't, on the other hand, can extend far beyond campus in showcasing the full breadth of the student experience.

Imagine being able to show the local downtown, with all its shopping and dining spots. Imagine showing popular study abroad places around the globe. Why limit yourself to your own campus when the scope of the tour could be the entire world? In that sense, the virtual tour can actually become more comprehensive and valuable than its physical counterpart.

9. Offer Next Steps to Move Your Audience Down the Funnel

What happens next? It's a common question that higher education marketers have to ask themselves on a daily basis. That brochure, web page, or digital ad may be great in isolation. But if it doesn't lead to the application, the donation, or that all-important campus visit, how successful have your efforts really been?

It doesn't hurt to be explicit. In fact, it can actually be quite beneficial. Modern virtual tours benefit when they incorporate calls to action naturally into the progression of the stops, which can occur in a number of ways.

Imagine, for instance, showing the construction site of that new residence hall or academic building. Naturally, a button pops up to donate or learn more. On the other hand, the virtual representation of the admissions suite may lead to an application button. The context has to be right, but these types of CTAs can be immensely effective. And of course, the end of the tour can allow for a natural call to stop for a physical visit.

10. Build a Virtual Tour Communication Plan

The final best practice for higher education virtual tours is not actually about the tour itself. Instead, it's about what happens when the project is complete. Following all of the above tips allows you to create an experience that's just right for your audience. Now, you have to make sure that the audience actually sees the tour and engages with it.

It's not an easy undertaking, but there are a number of natural integration points for promotions of the tour into your materials:

  • A prominent spot on your website, ideally close to the registration form for physical campus visits.
  • Regular emails and text messages that prompt your audience to visit you virtually.
  • Integration into your university's mobile app, which makes for a natural transition to VR, as well.
  • Links in printed materials, particularly admissions materials like your viewbook or visit invitation postcards.

That last opportunity is especially intriguing. Some colleges are now mailing out virtual reality classes as part of their recruitment plan, driving directly to the virtual tour and embracing it as a core part of the strategy. The integration possibilities here are almost endless.

Ready to Build a Virtual Tour for 2020 and Beyond?

It's time to go beyond the basics. As more and more universities are embracing the concept of a virtual tour, building one that actually helps your institution stand out only becomes more difficult. Fortunately, with best practices like the above, it's far from impossible.

You might just be jumping into the topic, or you might need to update your existing tour. Either way, we can help. Our experience in higher education has enabled us to build a large range of experiences that help colleges and universities across the globe recruit students and engage alumni. Contact us today to start a conversation. Let's work together to prepare your marketing for the next recruitment cycle.

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