In recent years, the world of virtual tours has undergone a significant transformation. We all saw how the pandemic led to a sharp rise in the creation and utilization of virtual tours, but EAB data shows that virtual tours are just as popular today as they were at the height of the pandemic. This rise in virtual tour popularity also coincided with heightened expectations around digital content—cue TikTok and ChatGPT.
To get a better understanding of the current virtual tour landscape, we sat down with Alice Shindelar, Creative Director of Enroll360 Virtual Tours. Before coming to EAB, Alice worked in a variety of roles in the independent film industry from writing, to editing, to producing – and even acting! She has been a virtual tour creator for over seven years now, traveling to dozens of campuses and launching hundreds of virtual tours. During our conversation, we discussed virtual tour trends, mistakes to avoid, and exciting virtual tour innovations.
AK: What are the top trends you’ve witnessed in the virtual tour space over the last several years?
AS: Gone are the days of virtual college tours being used to get people from point A to point B: that’s what maps are for! There is a new standard for the kind of information that students and families are hoping to find within a virtual tour. Students are looking for that undeniable connection point to your institution. They want to hear stories from current students and alumni.
This has created a shift in tour priorities for our partners. It’s not just about orienting students to a physical space or beautiful amenities. Schools want to show prospective students that they’re investing in the things that matter most to them: mental health and wellness resources, affordability, career services, DEI efforts, etc.
Schools are also taking advantage of innovations in virtual tour capabilities to help get those messages across more effectively. For example, leveraging the ability to link directly to important resources that might otherwise be buried on their .edu.
AK: What are some mistakes you’ve seen schools make with their virtual tour?
AS: There are a handful of mistakes that I see over and over. Crafting an exceptional virtual tour isn’t easy, but avoiding these mistakes is a great starting point:
- Using outdated content. Audiences today can tell a five-year-old photo from a current photo in a split second. Low-resolution and poorly edited photos and videos will make your tour appear dated and cause user fall off within seconds of arriving.
- Failing to hook your audience from the beginning. First impressions matter. I think the riskiest moment for losing your audience happens between the first and the second tour stop. If a user isn’t instantly pulled in by your content and value propositions, they’re going to click away.
- Lack of interaction. Many schools fail to make their tour interactive. Instead, they piece together 2D images, videos, and text to tell their story. Too much text and lack of gamification is a recipe for drop-off.
- Burying the tour on your website. The more clicks it takes to find your tour, the less likely visitors are to experience it. From my perspective, students should be able to access your tour within two clicks.
AK: What are some “must haves” when creating content that will resonate with students?
AS: I think, above all else, prospective students want two things: answers to their most pressing questions about your school, and an authentic look at what life would be like on your campus. They want to hear from their peers and they want to feel like what they’re looking at is real and not staged. (There’s a reason YouTube is full of dorm room tours created by and for students!)
For virtual tours, this means collaborating with current students when deciding what to feature in your tour and even involving them in concepting and scriptwriting. I also recommend showcasing live classes, athletic events, and dorm rooms decorated by actual students.
You want to showcase your campus and community in its best light, but you also want to be careful about how much you “airbrush” the experience. You want students and families to step away from your virtual tour feeling like they got a genuine sense of what it’s like to be part of your school community. (Albeit, if campus were frozen in time forever on the most gorgeous day of the year.)
AK: What are your most memorable on-campus shooting experiences?
AS: Probably one of the most memorable for me was interviewing a PhD student at CalTech who pilots a mars helicopter for NASA. Does it get any cooler than that!? Then there was the time our photographer and I fell off the back of a golfcart when our campus escort decided to show off her off-roading skills. Let’s just say no humans (or cameras) were harmed, but my dignity took quite the tumble that day.
AK: How do you enable your Creative Team to stay innovative and at the forefront of technology?
AS: First, let me say, I am very lucky to be part of a talented team here at EAB. On paper, everyone on has a BFA or BA in a creative field (filmmaking, immersive design, etc.) or are recognized industry professionals.
Beyond the independent talent that folks bring to the team, I would say our platform also allows for a lot of experimentation and innovation. We rely on best practices, but we also have a good amount of creative freedom, which has resulted in some incredible innovations. Just this past year, experiments within our platform resulted in a new product offering. As you may know, many young people watch videos without the sound on, relying instead on closed captioning. We decided to lean into text and visuals a bit more and now we offer Immersive Motion Graphics, which are motion graphics embedded into 360-degree images.
AK: What excites you about the future of virtual tours?
AS: I am very excited about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential to revolutionize virtual tour experiences. We’ve already begun to leverage AI with our audio guides and are working on using AI to deliver personalized virtual experiences in 2024. By leveraging AI, we will be able to deliver virtual tours that are not only informative and engaging, but also tailored to the unique preferences of each visitor.
With AI, the possibilities are endless. I’m excited for AI algorithms to become more sophisticated, so that we can deliver more bespoke experiences. It’s an exciting step towards transforming the way we explore and learn about places and institutions.
Amanda Kelly serves as an Associate Director on the Product Marketing team, specializing in virtual tours. Amanda has been a member of EAB's virtual tour team since 2014 and her primary focus is in product enablement, go-to-market planning and execution, and effective marketing and promotion strategies.
Alice Shindelar is an award-winning filmmaker, author, and immersive content creator. Her VR documentary Four Walls, featuring Rashida Jones, premiered at the Vanity Fair Summit and was honored with a Webby. Her short films have been optioned by AMC, and screened at festivals worldwide. In addition to her work as a writer and director, she has worked in many capacities on award-winning films, including as a producer and editor on two films recognized by the Academy Awards. Her poetry has been recognized by the Jerome Foundation and she previously worked as the Program Manager for Film Fatales, and as a post-production assistant at Company 3. Today, she is the Creative Director of YouVisit Studios, an immersive content studio under the umbrella of EAB.