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The Evolution of Virtual Tours: Not Your Queen's Tool

June 6, 2019 by Sam Slater

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What are virtual tours? It's a seemingly simple question with an increasingly complex answer. In the abstract, they're virtual substitutes for a real-world tour through any type of physical environment.

Of course, in today's business world, that doesn't mean much. Too often, we think of virtual tours as little more than pictures to click through as we view a real estate listing. In reality, virtual tours can be training tools, recruitment opportunities, and fully immersive experiences. Their nature is in many ways bound only by your imagination.

Technology barriers are lifting, allowing virtual tours to become more comprehensive, and expanding their use in an everyday business environment. The result is far removed from anything you would have found online even ten years ago. Welcome to the evolution of virtual tours.

A Modest Start

Believe it or not, the origins for what we consider an online virtual tour today actually started 25 years ago with the British Queen. In 1994, Queen Elizabeth II opened an exhibit in Dudley Castle, England, that showed what the castle would have looked like in 1550. 

Back in the early days of the world wide web, the possibilities seemed endless. If animations could transport tourists and history buffs back 450 years, how fully would we be able to take advantage of newly emerging technology that would make the system even more immersive?

Of course, it wasn't that simple. For years after that experiment, we were treated to real estate agents simply showing a series of images in the way you would walk through a home, and calling it a virtual tour. Over time, the vision of grandeur finally began to take shape.

With improving technology came the expanding use of virtual tours. And again, real estate agents were leading the way. Increasing online bandwidth led to moving images gradually replacing static pictures, making the tour that much more attractive. Fast-forward to today, and 360 video along with virtual reality have caused the medium to make yet another leap. 

From Visual Showcase to Serious Business Channel

For the consumer, virtual tours are exciting. They turn a simple screen into an immersive experience where they feel like they have agency. Of course, customer satisfaction is a core reason behind so many businesses having embraced the concept within the past decade.

First, and most importantly, these mediums offer interactivity on a website otherwise dominated by static images. That explains why according to one study, visitors stay on a website between five and 10 times longer if it has a virtual tour. The National Association of Realtors commissioned a survey that found more than 50% of online users have gone through a virtual tour experience in the past month. 

That doesn't even consider the business benefits of a virtual tour. As capabilities have begun to increase, so have use cases. We'll cover some of these use cases in more detail below; especially 360 tours, which offer a variety of opportunities to engage both internal and external audiences.

Leveraging Virtual Experiences to Promote Your Message

Are you looking to get your message out to your audience? A virtual tour can offer you that opportunity—especially if you have more to say than a sentence in a digital ad. You need a medium that engages your audience thoroughly and stands out from the competition. That's exactly what 360 tours can provide.

They're visual, allowing you to say more with images and video than you ever could with words. They're interactive, continuing the tradition of a 'choose your own adventure' style that has been popular among people as long as stories have existed. And of course, they're flexible, allowing you to conduct any activity from telling stories to training your employees.

Modern digital marketing stands out specifically because of its emphasis on value. Simply pushing a promotional message to your audience is not enough in an age where one-third of all internet users around the world actively block ads when browsing online. Instead, if you want to get a message across, you have to make sure that you do so in a way that is actually relevant to your audience.

Think back to the origins of the modern virtual tour of the medieval castle in England. Sure, it was famous because it was a novelty. But it also offered something that alternatives simply couldn't. A technological showcase combined with an actual, real-life benefit to add value for all of its users.

The same is still true today. Add modern capabilities of virtual reality and fast internet speeds to the equation, and you get an immensely powerful medium that's ripe for new possibilities. Already, businesses are beginning to leverage the full power of virtual tours. It's a perfect way to modernize your digital marketing.

Tour Builder-1

Real-Life Examples of the Modern Virtual Tour in Action

Don't take our word for it. A variety of industries have begun to embrace the concepts of 360 tours as they look to achieve core business goals. Let's take a deep dive into some of these examples, and what they can tell us about the modern state of virtual experiences.

HR Recruitment

Especially in competitive industries, attracting top-end talent can be the key to success (or failure) of your business. From the moment you present yourself to potential applicants, you have to be sure they feel a connection to your organization and its culture that makes them want to become a part of it.

Modern virtual tours can be a core tool in building that employer brand. As we detailed in a different blog post last year, one of our clients specifically used virtual tours to accomplish that goal.

It's easy to imagine the possibilities here:

  • Highlight work spaces to allow your potential applicants to envision themselves working for you.
  • Showcase social spaces and the restaurants around your building to build a fuller vision of your work environment.
  • Leverage videos of employees to communicate core truths about your corporate culture.

Education Marketing

Over the last few years, higher education has become one of the most competitive marketing spaces around. An increasing number of colleges and universities are fighting for an increasingly limited number of high school graduates. Recruiting these students is expanding to wider territories. That makes a core truth in this industry—getting potential students to campus is a major factor in their final decision—difficult to achieve.

Enter virtual tours, which can approximate the same benefit without any physical travel required. Countless schools around the country are now using the medium to showcase their campus, emphasize core areas of focus like sustainability, and build nostalgia among their alumni.

One of our favorite clients accomplishing these goals is Arizona State University. Various tour options showcase different areas of campus as well as the downtown. Meanwhile, live data integrations allow for a more immersive experience that gets as detailed as traffic information. From giving potential students and their families a first glimpse at campus to directing traffic at major campus events, the full power of modern virtual tours is unlocked.

Employee Onboarding and Training

Let's go beyond the obvious marketing benefits of the above for a second. True digital marketing focuses on your internal audience as much as your current and potential customers. Employees who are onboarded from the start and trained the right way can make your operations run more smoothly, perform better in front of customers, and help to drive your business forward.

You might be surprised how much virtual tours can help to accomplish that goal. They can offer immersive experiences to build scenarios that are easier to understand and act on than any static images, text, or even linear videos. Consider the case of this Virginia Data Center, which showcases a complex facility in a way that's easy to understand and learn. From our blog post:

We are excited to launch the virtual tour, it will be instrumental in driving sales conversations and providing content for marketing campaigns," said Brenda Van der Steen, Vice President of Marketing at CoreSite. "The virtual tour can also serve our training needs, giving employees and partners a way to explore a facility remotely.

Interior and Exterior Wayfinding

If marketing is a comprehensive experience, helping your audience navigate their way through a physical visit has to be part of that experience. Especially industries that rely on these physical visits—from higher education to health care providers—need to provide wayfinding opportunities for anyone on the premises.

wayfinding-1

Most noteworthy, hospitals need to rely on wayfinding opportunities to improve patient experience. As our own Brian Rehkopf highlighted in a recent interview,

Geo-location and real time-location services will play an important wayfinding role for hospitals and health campuses, but the accuracy of these services is still a challenge. As wearable devices become more and more common—like the Apple Watch with haptic direction indicators—there's a lot that can be done to help people find their way around. However, I anticipate that even with greater use of geo-location and RTLS, digital wayfinding kiosks will remain an important and useful tool for hospitals as part of a complete wayfinding solution.

We're already seeing these types of solutions integrated into hospitals, hotels, and college campuses. Real-time data, fed to mobile devices your audience can use even as they're trying to find their way, will only make them more relevant in the near future.

Real Estate

Let's not forget about real estate as a powerful opportunity to leverage virtual tours and the full suite of their capabilities. Yes, this industry has made limited use of the concept for decades, as described in detail above. That doesn't mean its possibilities end there. Far from it.

Consider the impact 3D renderings can make on commercial rental property. Companies looking to rent tenants even as the building is still conceptualized can show off the space to their audience regardless of distance. They can virtually stage the space to build an idea of what it might look like once finished and furnished. And of course, interactive features allow potential tenants to 'build' the space themselves before it's ever more than an idea in the architect's head.

Though on a limited basis, the same is true in residential real estate, as well. Here, virtual tours are beginning to replace full-blown in-person tours because of their increasing possibilities. Potential buyers can quite literally 'walk' through the space, check out individual items, and get an overview of the neighborhood. Tangential information about the property and its surroundings only adds to the feeling of this being a real—though virtual—experience.

union station data vitrual tour

Are You Ready to Leverage the Full Power of Virtual Tours?

We're moving into a new era. Virtual tours have long moved from static images to more immersive experiences, and the movement is not about to stop anytime soon. As technology capabilities increase, experiences like virtual reality and custom-built tours just for individual audiences are just some of the possibilities on our immediate horizon.

In other words, this has become a powerful communication medium in its own right. Far more than a simple gimmick, the modern virtual tour allows marketers in any area to leverage the power of online communication in immersive ways.

Take content management virtual tours as an example: Rather than having to rely on a pre-built solution that competitors in your industry may take advantage of as well, the medium is becoming increasingly customized. CMS solutions allow you to build increasingly specific, custom, personalized experiences to ensure you're meeting and surpassing audience information on a regular basis.

Are you ready to leverage that power? It's not inherently simple. Especially if you haven't dipped your toes in the water before. Moving to digital marketing based around digital tours requires adjustments that are both technological and philosophical in nature. And of course, you need the right platform to make it happen.

The queen was impressed in 1994. Imagine what she would say now that she can see some of the 360 tours businesses across industries use today. The evolution of virtual tours is continuing to impress, and we can help you make an incredible first impression too. Contact us to talk about a potential partnership.

Topics: Interactive Virtual Experiences, Content Management System

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