Virtual college tours need storytelling component now

With the demand for virtual campus tours surging as coronavirus closures eliminate in-person visit options, admissions administrators are seeing the importance of offering prospective students a robust online visit experience.

Between March 13 and April 13, nearly 1.4 million people viewed a virtual campus tour produced by YouVisit. High school seniors are taking these tours at a rate 228% higher than they were at this time last year, according to EAB, which works with colleges and universities to apply proven best practices (and acquired YouVisit in 2019).

The surge is of course due to COVID-19-related campus closures removing the in-person campus visit for the time being. Virtual tours can serve as an introduction to schools for prospective students as well as a substitute for orientation and other on-campus activities for admitted students this spring and summer.

EAB is also seeing a big increase in inquiries from colleges and universities in need of a virtual tour, with more of them coming in daily than the firm would typically see in a week pre-pandemic. And that’s in spite of the fact that “almost every school has some form of virtual tour, depending on how loosely you define the term,” says Emily Upton, EAB’s vice president for agency services. “What brings partners to EAB’s doorstep is the desire for a virtual experience that immerses a student in the culture of the school, allows them to envision themselves interacting with peers in specific settings, and teaches students about the school or a specific program in a way that pictures and videos simply cannot do on their own.”

Students staying close to home?

Recent surveys have indicated students may be more likely to attend schools closer to home this fall in light of health concerns and rising economic uncertainty. Yet EAB’s web traffic data show little year-over-year variation in the percentage of students who view virtual tours of in-state schools (31 percent did so in 2019 versus 29 percent in 2020) compared to out-of-state schools (69 percent in 2019, 71 percent in 2020).

What this data may indicate about where students ultimately decide to attend college this fall is not yet clear, but the numbers do show that interest in out-of-state schools remains strong.

“Like anything else, virtual tours can be done well, or they can be done poorly,” Upton adds. “Particularly now, ‘good enough’ options just aren’t good enough.”

Some schools consider an interactive map to be a virtual tour, but the idea is to go well beyond showing facility locations and toward building a “storytelling platform,” says Upton. “This is what will allow a college or university to convey what makes them unique.”

What does she consider a top-tier tour? It’s one that showcases on- and off-campus destinations, allowing visitors meaningful exploration of each space through 360-degree photos. Colleges may layer interactive media on top of a 360 image to increase visitor engagement.

Including an inquiry form with a tour allows institutional leaders to capture data that can be reported and analyzed.

Also read: How colleges are marketing to admitted students during COVID-19

With travel restrictions in place, getting a production crew to a campus to capture content for a tour is a challenge that’s compounded by campuses lacking activity now. So EAB has been supporting partner schools by leveraging existing photo and video content. “A ‘temporary tour’ can be created in three to five weeks,” says Upton. Once travel resumes, a crew could capture more powerful content and allow an institution to take its tour to the next level.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

See UB’s complete coverage of coronavirus and its impact on higher education.

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