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Why Virtual Tours are Here to Stay

Episode 186

March 5, 2024 23 minutes


EAB’s Alice Shindelar and Amanda Kelly discuss how virtual campus tours are created and why they’re so popular with prospective students and university recruiters. They explain the uses for different interactive elements, share basic dos and don’ts, and talk about what differentiates a truly exceptional virtual tour from one that is average at best. They also offer tips to university leaders on how to collaborate with a virtual tour vendor to create tours that are just as useful for the university as they are for prospective students.



0:00:09.4 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we take a look at how colleges give prospective students the ability to take a self-guided tour of your campus from the comfort of their home or local coffee shop. We’re talking of course about virtual tours, which had been growing in popularity for years before absolutely exploding during the pandemic, when physical in-person on-campus tours were suddenly impermissible. Despite travel restrictions being lifted, virtual tours are even more popular today than they were in 2020. Our experts explain how they’re made, how universities integrate them into their marketing and recruiting strategies and what separates an average virtual tour from one that’s exceptional. So, give these folks to listen and enjoy.


0:01:00.5 Amanda Kelly: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Amanda Kelly and I’m part of the marketing and partner development team, specializing in our virtual tour solution. Since coming to EAB almost four years ago at this point, when EAB acquired YouVisit, the company I was working for at the time. Some of you may know YouVisit as one of the most innovative and successful virtual tour companies that has been helping colleges and other organizations share their brand story for years. As part of the EAB family, the team that came over from YouVisit is still going strong and still producing best-in-class virtual tours.

0:01:35.2 AK: I’m privileged to be joined on today’s podcast by one of those team members, someone who I’ve worked closely with for almost a decade. Alice, would you mind introducing yourself and telling the listeners a little bit about your background and the area of expertise?

0:01:48.6 Alice Shindelar: Sure, absolutely. Happy to do so. So, hi, everyone. I am Alice Shindelar. I’m currently the creative director of the EAB virtual tours Studios team. I, like Amanda, I came over to EAB from the YouVisit acquisition. I am traditionally trained as a film maker and a writer, and that’s sort of the capacity under which I started working for YouVisit. I was originally going on-site capturing content, the photos and video that go into virtual tours and now I oversee the creative strategy team. So, that’s our producers that are tasked with guiding our partners through planning their virtual tours and their on-site captures and that’s also all of our writers who help write the tour guide scripts and the action zones, and all kinds of different content that goes into our partners tours, as well as the photographers and videographers that capture all that awesome content.

0:02:51.9 AK: Great. Thanks, Alice. I’m really excited to be here today to talk about Immersive Digital Experience, it’s a topic that I personally am super passionate about, so let’s dive back into that. So, EAB acquired YouVisit in December of 2019, and while we’ve always considered virtual tours to be an important part of the college search process, little did anyone know at that time just how important virtual tours were about to become as we moved into 2020 on the onset of COVID. We can all recall colleges sending everyone home in March 2020 to finish out the semester’s classes, advising and everything else online. And this was all happening just as aspiring college students were trying to make final decisions about where they wanted to enroll and they were looking forward to making those all-important campus visits to help them decide. Suddenly campuses were closed and those students didn’t have that option. So, Alice, question for you, what do you remember about the early days of the pandemic in terms of the spike in interest for virtual tours among both students and university leaders?

0:03:53.1 AS: Yeah, for so many that was definitely a wild time for us, we had just been acquired by EAB, ’cause like we said earlier, we were acquired in late 2019, so kind of still going through that transition period in early 2020 and at the same time that we’re going through that transition, more than twice as many institutions than ever before were contacting us to develop a virtual tour. This was happening because we are seeing two to three times as many high school students engage with virtual college tours in the spring of 2020 compared to the previous year. So, we can expect from something like that that created a sort of rush from our partners on wanting to get a tour up as quickly as possible to show off their campus while students weren’t able to go on campus to tour and so just keep that decision process happening about where they wanted to go to school.

0:04:50.1 AS: What’s really interesting about that is that there has still been no letup in how important a virtual tour is in a prospective student’s college search. Virtual tours are as popular today as they were at that time, both as a tool for families that can’t travel easily, but also as an expected part of that college search process, like I was alluding to. I would say that often prospective students will even use a virtual tour to decide which campuses they want to visit in person, so they use it as sort of an elimination tool as well. And students who inquire through our virtual tours when compared to students who did not, also have almost a four times higher rate of ending up visiting that campus that they viewed initially through a virtual tour.

0:05:37.8 AK: Yeah, and I think it’s really important to kind of hone in on that point that the virtual tour is not meant to replace the physical visit, it actually encourages that physical visit, so it really can meet all needs and circumstances. And moving along, Alice, I wanna talk today about what makes a good virtual tour, what goes into the process and why they remain such a powerful recruiting tool. Let’s start with some basics. Could you explain exactly what a virtual tour is? I think people have a general idea, but maybe they don’t know about all the features and functionality for a modern virtual tour that resonates with today’s students. Could you talk us through the various interactive elements and talk a bit about the kinds of information students and families are looking to gain from a virtual tour that take us beyond a sense of the physical campus space?

0:06:23.6 AS: Yep, absolutely. This is actually one of my favorite things to talk about when it comes to our tours. So, traditionally, we like to think of a virtual tour as something like Google maps street view, but for a specific location, so where you can walk from point A to point B on campus, you can see the exact steps that you would take between the quad and the Science Center. But with our virtual tours, what initially started is YouVisit or now our EAB virtual tours, we have designed them with a different goal in mind, which is to give prospective students a sense of what it’s like to be on campus, but we don’t just translate that as what it’s like to physically be on campus, it doesn’t just mean, like I said, that walk from the quad to the dining hall, it means getting a sense of things like who are you gonna go to class with, what is the community that you’re going to be a part of like and is that a community that you identify with, what are the brand, mission and values of this institution that you’re considering?

0:07:28.8 AS: In a nutshell, what makes this school unique that would push it to the top of your list of prospects? And all of these are elements of being able to picture yourself there on campus as part of that community. So, to that end, I would say that we design our virtual tours to be more curated experiences. We wanna make sure that we’re serving up the information, the spaces, the locations that resonate most with those messages that communicate who this institution is and the identity of this institution. So, in our tours, users can hear from other students, they can hear from professors, they can peek inside active classrooms, they can learn in depth about programs that are unique or priorities to this institution, they can see where they’re gonna eat and sleep and we accomplish all of this through a robust set of tools that allow us and our partners to include videos, photo feeds, motion graphics, voice over, quotes from faculty and students, all in a sort of choose-your-own-adventure type format so that users can explore exactly what they’re interested in and sort of skip over the rest if that’s not as relevant to them.

0:08:48.7 AK: And Alice, you actually, you had started with what people think about, or might think about when they think of a virtual tour, and it’s clear that tours go well beyond buildings and just one location at that, it seems really based on what you, ’cause you kinda went over there that the sky is the limit. Let’s say a university wants to go further than just the one big picture view of campus and maybe focus on a popular program or a specific aspect of campus life, how do you help schools work through the decision on how many different tours they might need or what they should focus on, all while kind of achieving the consistency with the overall messaging and vibe that the university wants to convey?

0:09:25.4 AS: I would say there’s actually two different, there’s a couple of things that come to mind for what we offer both to our partners and to prospective students for helping them prioritize different messaging and find content that is most relevant to them. So, for partners, we offer different types of virtual tours, different packaging to our virtual tour, so the standard is more of what we call a main campus tour, where you’re gonna see all of your key locations on campus, things like the quad, Residence Hall, Dining, key programs, etcetera, but then we also offer opportunities to create specialty tours, so if athletics is particularly important to that institution, we could create an entire tour around athletics that takes more of a deep dive into all the different athletics programs, we might include the Athletics Director themselves in that tour.

0:10:22.4 AS: On a similar note, we also have created specialty tours that might be focused around specific programs or colleges, so a College of Business or a College of Law tour, residence life tours, specialty tours are very popular. Those are some of our most visited destinations. In any tour, everyone wants to get a deep dive into where they’re gonna sleep and where they’re gonna eat, so this really helps them make those decisions. So, that’s sort of like on the, what can a partner do with the different types of tours that we offer and how might they make those decisions on if they’re important for them, but then on the prospective student side, we have also just recently launched what we call AI personalization. So, all of our tours come with the ability for visitors to share information about themselves when they initially visit the tour and also to share key words about what they might be interested in.

0:11:24.9 AS: So, there’s a prompt at the beginning of the tour asking them if there’s anything that they’re particularly interested in seeing in the tour and they could enter the program they’re interested in, again, they could say residence life, or the dorms or dining and our AI tools will re-sort destinations in the tour to move those towards the front so that that visitor sees those right away and doesn’t miss those locations. But also I would say we don’t stop there, no matter the tour type or your ultimate goal as a partner with your tour, we take all of those interactions with the tour and use that data to provide insight to our partners and that’s actually something that Amanda is really an expert in. So do you wanna talk a little bit more about that, Amanda?

0:12:10.2 AK: Absolutely. So, in the same vein as a student wanting to learn more about a campus and its differentiators, recruitment and enrollment teams naturally wanna learn more about the people exploring their school. So, going back to what a virtual tour is, I think, well, it’s an interactive experience that can help convey your brand and story. It should also drive students to take that next step. From those that might not be familiar, a visitor’s interactions with the tour can range from clicking around within scenes, submitting their information for follow-up, or applying really then and there. So, whatever those interactions are, a good virtual tour should provide your team with insights into visitor behaviors to inform your outreach and content strategy. So, for example, our tours boast an average inquiry of about 17%. And our analytics portal not only allow schools to feed those inquiries right into their CRM, but also see what those inquiries expressed interested in.

0:13:03.4 AK: Alice, like you were talking about the personalization prompts, we can see this student was interested in X, Y and Z, and we know that through our portal. Additionally, we can see the other school types a student is looking at, other large public or regions, and then lastly, just the general information about that inquiry so that you can have personalized outreach.

0:13:28.5 AK: On the other side of the coin, visitors spend an average of about eight and a half minutes exploring our tours and we’re pretty proud of that because in internet world, you only spend really about two and half minutes on a piece of content and move along, so eight and a half minutes is pretty impressive. So, our analytics portal allows schools to track how their content is performing, not only in time spent, but down to the stop level. So, for example, if it’s TourStop is getting a ton of visitors, let’s say we’ve been using residence life a lot, your residence life tour stop, and maybe only one of them, it might be worth adding more relevant content, but then that seems that students can explore more or maybe adding another tour stop on that topic into your tour, or even creating one of those specialty tours that focus on residence life, because we know it’s such a popular topic. But I can really go on and on about this all day, but I think at the root of our inquiry rates and our time spent is engaging content that expires. So, let’s bring it back, Alice, to what separates a mediocre virtual tour from an outstanding one? In other words, what constitutes an effective virtual tour by today’s standards?

0:14:36.2 AS: The first thing that I would look at when it comes to this question is just, are all of our high expectations as internet users when it comes to any kind of content that we’re coming across and also how we’re going to hold a viewer’s attention span with content, so we are all aware of the fact that we all have very limited attention spans when it comes to content these days, and that in order to keep that attention for as long as we can, we need that content to be as high quality and relevant as possible to the viewer that we’re serving it up to. So, to that end, I would say we really stress keeping our tours fresh with updated content and have provided tools to help our partners do that, so that they have… If they’re building a new building, they can talk about it in the tour, if they have held a student event recently, they can share photos or videos of that in the tour and we have two different key ways that we allow our partners to keep their content up to date independently, that is through both Instagram integration, so they can share their Instagram posts in their tour. And then we also just recently launched a super user-friendly CMS for our partners to upload new updated content.

0:16:10.4 AS: Okay. So, then also when it comes to considering what separates a mediocre virtual tour from an outstanding one, we’re really intentional about how we instruct our partners in creative strategy, sort of the thought process behind what content belongs in the tour, how they are organizing that content, how they are naming the various destinations in their tour. All of this is to the purpose of keeping navigation very intuitive for the user, so if you go into the… If you know they are specifically interested in science programs, rather than seeing a destination that is named after a building that doesn’t include anything about the science programs and making sure that that naming convention is front and center and clear, so you just can navigate directly to the information that they’re interested in. So, that’s sort of taking the ethos of intuitive navigation that is very important to any type of web content. And then we also advocate a less is more mentality when it comes to content in general. You could easily fill one of our tours with 30 photos of the same building from many different angles, but you’re gonna lose users as they’re clicking through those photos, so we’re always looking for the one or two best pieces of content that tells the story as fully as possible.

0:17:41.5 AK: Yeah, absolutely, and I think one click deeper into that about an effective virtual tour is placement and promotion, I think content is very important, but also students need to be able to find it and find it easily on your website, so I think making sure it’s in your header, it’s in your footer. We also, within our virtual tours, have the flexibility to kind of separate certain destinations to launch directly on relevant web pages. So, for example, you were talking about athletics before. If you have an athletics stop in your tour, you can actually embed it on your athletics page to launch right into that stop and get that relevant content to the visitors sooner. So, I think, yeah, it goes all within content and placement, promotion, all that good stuff. But yeah, Alice, going back into just the creative process, can you tell us more about the process of creating a tour, how much time does your team spend working with leaders developing the outline or structure for the tour and how much time is really spent on campus capturing the visuals and then post-production, how much time is spent or processes around those interactive developments? Can you share more about that?

0:18:54.8 AS: Absolutely, yeah. When we’re standing up a new tour for the first time, we are definitely meeting regularly with our campus contacts, usually that’s members of the marketing and admissions team to plan all the elements of the tour and sort of the big picture creative strategy and messaging behind the tour that I’ve been referring to. And then we’re also planning the on-site capture at this time. This is usually a couple of months process where we’re meeting off and on with those campus content contacts, but I don’t want this to come off as meaning that our partners have three months’ worth of work to do when they’re putting up a virtual tour. This is very much a collaborative effort.

0:19:34.6 AS: Our team is made up of creative producers and writers who help plan all of that content, who attend those meetings with the assigned project manager to think through the strategy with the partner and everything that goes into the tour, and we’re really there to guide you every step of the way through both scheduling the on-site capture and when our photographers and videographers arrive on-site, and by the way, many of these photographers and videographers have been capturing this type of content for us for over a dozen years, so they have a lot of experience choosing the best locations on campus, what the best time of day is to capture the photo, where they should set up that photo, but they also…

0:20:20.1 AS: And I think this is very valuable and unique in photography crews, they have a lot of experience working on college campuses, specifically with students and faculty, so they understand sort of the ethos, the politics, etcetera, of campus, and how to make everyone as comfortable as possible in front of the camera and make your spaces look as beautiful as possible with being the least invasive as possible. Yeah, that’s some sort of the creation process in a nutshell.

0:20:51.4 AK: Awesome. And Alice, I know we’ve only scratched the surface really, but our time is limited, so I guess I’ll end on what advice would you share with university leaders who may be thinking about creating a virtual tour?

0:21:03.7 AS: Sure. Yeah, two things there. A virtual tour can be an incredibly strong, robust marketing tool and, frankly, prospective students who have come to expect them, like you heard me mention at the beginning, as part of their college search process, but of course it can also be really daunting to think about adding a new platform to your marketing arsenal, so, for example, we’ve seen various partners take steps to sort of help them make this decision and get ahead of the creation process. One that comes to mind is University of Nottingham who, when they were faced with this question, they decided to do a survey of students who both enrolled or, both enrolled students or students who didn’t choose to attend their university to get a sense of what they wanted to see most before they chose to enroll. And this survey both demonstrated that they needed the tour, but also gave them a jump start on shaping the content that went into that tour. My second thought on this is that much like designing a website, a virtual tour is really its own kind of beast. There are many best practices and unique design questions that go into a successful virtual tour. You know you might be able to build a WordPress site on your own, but do you also have SEO and web design experts on your team that can turn that website into the type of high-quality content that consumers expect? And a similar thing can be said about virtual tours, they are…

0:22:39.1 AS: It’s a sort of unique beast of its own and working with a team of creatives with years of experience in this area, it’s just what’s required to achieve those high-quality results that we have all come to expect of what draws our attention and what we spend time consuming on the internet.

0:22:57.9 AK: Positive advice, Alice. I really appreciate it. And I thank you for taking the time to join me today to share your expertise.

0:23:05.0 AS: Absolutely, thanks for having me.


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