As college campuses open their doors after a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, virtual tours are more vital than ever. How can schools stay up to date with the latest trends? While Zoom fatigue became a significant issue among students and their work-from-home guardians during COVID-19, the abundance of digital exposure subconsciously trained the public to expect more options. No longer are information sessions, college fairs, Open Houses, and campus tours mandatory in-person events. Institutions of higher learning are now needing to give tours in-person and on-screen in order to remain competitive.
The future of campus tours is trending virtual:
In the 1990s, before YouTube, Instagram, smartphones with unlimited storage, and handheld video cameras, few could predict the power of video in college student recruitment. Not only is Generation Z the most tech-savvy generation in history, but many of them also visit college campuses with more advanced video technology in their pocket than may be available on campus.
Virtual tours may not have the same impact as seeing a campus in person, but they are about as close as one can get to the real thing with today's advanced digital technology.
Benefits of a virtual tour:
You probably have an email campaign to attract prospective students from early high school engagement to first-year enrollment. Is the "visit now" message enough, or would you benefit from a virtual-tour-specific marketing strategy?
The only way to bring students to your campus is to communicate through various channels. Email campaigns, digital ads, blogs, tour guide stories, visitor reviews, and campus updates in the news are all a part of virtual tour engagement. Here is some messaging to consider when attracting students to a virtual visit:
Families save money
Travel expenses like food and gas can get costly for families touring multiple college campuses. Tack on airfare and multiple nights in a hotel for long-distance domestic families or international students, and now the college visit can be as expensive as the first-semester tuition.
A+ tour guides
Use only the most enthusiastic and experienced campus representatives. While current students commonly give on-campus tours, virtual tours can be flexible, allowing various community members to play a role. Choose from the campus president, deans, professors, mascot, or famous alumni.
There is no need for visitors to bring an umbrella, wear multiple layers, and cover themselves with sunscreen on a virtual tour. A single forecast can ruin a college search. Plan your pre-filmed virtual tour on a picture-perfect day, or pivot live tour sessions inside.
Where there is a laptop, there is a tour. This is particularly exciting for international students that couldn't see their future campus otherwise.
Families won't need to take off work to schedule a specific date and time. Pre-filmed and interactive virtual tours are available 24/7.
One behind-the scenes-benefit is the ability to capture prospective student data. Give a survey at the end of each virtual tour and make sure every family is registered through an online form. This is not always the case for an on-campus tour giving to a last-minute visitor.
The 2021 virtual tour landscape:
Virtual tours in 2021 are not one-size-fits-all. Here are a few styles of virtual tours to consider depending on budget, production time, campus update frequency, and campus representative availability.
Pre-shot campus tours
YouTube and Vimeo are fantastic platforms to us at the introductory level. They're free. Videos are easily sharable. And you can see how many people commented on and watched your video. Embedding a link in your social media post, school-branded website, or outreach email is also a breeze with a simple copy/paste.
- Produce the highest quality film using advanced technology and professional editing.
- Shoot different videos specific to popular college themes.
- Access content around the world with a decent WiFi connection.
- No app download or login is required (optional).
- Scripted material, background music, and the ability to use campus representatives from various areas.
- The inability for personalization. If a prospective student-athlete is only interested in seeing the fitness center and sports complex, your pre-shot video focusing on residence life and academic buildings will not be very beneficial.
- The inability for frequent updates. Unlike a real-time campus tour or interactive maps, your pre-shot video may contain outdated information within months of completing the project.
Point-and click tours using 3D mapping and 360° filming:
Sites like eCampus Tours are now home to nearly 1,300 college and university tours. The popular YouVisit site hosts 1,000s of schools, and Concept 3D is solidifying its place in the higher education virtual tour space. Sites like Kuula allow you to host your virtual tours, and Google Tour Creator can help you build them. It seems like every day, new virtual tour companies are signing up institutions, and it is only a matter of time before every college on the planet has a 3D interactive map or 360° view of the entire campus.
- Students can spend one minute or one hour viewing precisely what they want to see on campus.
- Generation Z prefers interaction, and 360° views make virtual tours feel more realistic than static images.
- 3D maps help viewers navigate the campus, and specific information about each building can provide even more insight than an in-person tour guide.
- Add music, short videos, virtual tour guides, and Q&A bots to each tour.
- Available 24/7
- Budgetary restrictions for smaller institutions.
- Traditional admissions offices may lack the technology to shoot 360° views.
- Time- and labor-intensive to map out larger campuses.
- Virtual bots can feel inauthentic to a generation of students that expect immediate personalization.
Virtual tours in real-time.
Outside of mobile live streaming apps like Instagram Live, Facebook Live, and PopLive, companies like Live Campus Tours directly target higher education marketers. Created by Nylie, this platform offers a "totally different kind of tour experience." This highly personalized approach to virtual visits puts you front and center with a current student on the go.
- Authentic Q&A throughout the tour, just like an in-person tour.
- Hear current student stories and perspectives.
- Conversate with other students on the virtual tour.
- Network with a current college student as a prospective student.
- A set time and date means scheduling flexibility is reduced.
- Visitors must be social media savvy (not idea for grandma and grandpa)
- Campus WiFi must work flawlessly, so tour guides don't lose their digital group
- Weather can be an issue.
Advancements in technology, comfortability with digital communication, and visit-from-home visit present many questions for virtual campus tours. What role will virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) play in the future of virtual tours? Can students expect a hybrid virtual experience while visiting campuses in person? Will video and production quality make or break college decisions soon? When will we start seeing 24/7 live streams of campus from a drone view?
One thing is for sure; prospective student preferences will continue to inform enrollment marketers' decision-making. As the world awaits the next big trend, there are some campuses to visit. Here is Princeton Review's list of Colleges and Universities That Offer Virtual Campus Tours.