Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
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27th Sep 2012

The power of virtual tours in student recruitment

While a virtual tour can't replace a real tour, it can be a powerful tool to entice prospective students to come to a campus in person or place a school at the top of their list. And it's certainly essential for international students and parents who might not be able to afford the time or resources needed to visit a campus prior to admittance. ICEF Monitor went on a little tour of our own, in search of examples, tips, and best practices for building virtual tours.

The virtual impact

Research shows that students indeed take advantage of these tours. YouVisit, a tour building company affiliated with 150 universities and colleges, claims more than two million visitors to its website since its inception. And a cross-section of students, when queried by college search website Cappex, labelled virtual tours their preferred tool for initially evaluating campuses, with 36% saying they would “really like it,” and 30% calling it a “must have.” Virtual tours bring together the needs of institutions, agents and prospective students.

  • For a school, the accessibility of the web means extending its brand to every corner of the globe.
  • For agents, it gives them a clear picture of campus life and builds upon a familiarisation tour they might have taken in the past. Plus, it gives them an extra marketing tool to show to students when presenting study abroad options.
  • For prospective students, the digital format of virtual tours dovetails perfectly with their desire to have as much information as possible immediately available via the Internet. This is a crucial point, since in the initial stages of a college search most students cast their nets as widely as possible.

Cappex’s research puts it succinctly: “Unlike the earlier college search stages where students preferred mainly traditional means of communication, students who are in the getting-to-know-the-campus stage seem to be more adventurous and open to exploring schools via new and different means.” But even with all the evidence suggesting that virtual tours strongly influence which schools prospective students later give a closer look, and plenty of research and experience teaching us that campus visits are a critical factor in enrolling new students, most schools are behind the virtual curve. According to Cappex, when surveyed only 21% of institutions placed a high priority on virtual tours. So what is stopping universities, language schools, boarding schools and the like from creating virtual tours? Our bet is the usual deadly combination of time and resources such as budget and technology. Luckily, Cappex research also indicated that nearly half of all students surveyed were very much in favour of student-produced videos as a tool to help them get know a school better. So even if your virtual tour isn't Hollywood material, there are other possibilities you can consider to at least get you started on the virtual route.

What qualifies as a virtual tour?

Institutions often apply the term “virtual tour” to slideshows, video presentations, or sometimes even PDF files, but modern students expect more. Today's youth are drawn to sophisticated, informative, and, whenever possible, mobile-accessible virtual tours that give them a sense of what it is like to physically inhabit campus spaces, both exterior and interior. Need some inspiration? Some examples of interactive virtual campus tours can be found here:

Schools that have taken the plunge and built true virtual tours have reaped the benefits. According to YouVisit CEO Abi Mandelbaum, universities and colleges his company has worked with have reported an expansion of their reach to prospective students in more than 100 countries, and up to a 30% increase in physical campus visits, leading directly to increased conversion rates (i.e. enrolment).

What should your virtual tour look like?

Exactly what form a virtual tour should take varies. From a visual perspective, the sky is the limit. Content-wise, much depends on which features an institution wishes to emphasise, which programming language is used, and whether the presentation is built in-house or farmed out to a third party. Of those third parties, YouVisit is an industry leader, but nuCloud, Designing Digitally, and CampusTours are likewise known for specialisation in the virtual tour field. Kyle James, the CEO and co-founder of nuCloud, as well as the founder of .eduGuru, explained in a recent interview with higheredlive.com what a virtual tour must do:

“It comes down to one key aspect. What is your story? What makes you special as an institution? Is it your gorgeous, beautiful campus, because you’re a national arboretum? Is it because you’ve got these few majors that people are all into? Is it your urban setting? Key off those stories, because that’s why people come to your school instead of another one.”

Furthermore, Chris Carson, the head of CampusTours, said the secret to building good tours was to reflect the feeling of the individual universities, offering “tours that break that cold institutional tone.” This is your chance to showcase a more personal, casual presentation of your school, and speak to students in a voice they can relate to.

What should it include?

Key elements in a tour may be special places on campus to study or mingle, the classroom environment or technology used in class, welcome activities for foreigners, sports, clubs, safety measures, accommodation options (particularly if staying with a host family), career centres, as well as the surrounding areas of the school which includes things to see and do, local cultural attractions, etc. In addition, keep in mind that international students may have special concerns about schools, and it’s important to address these whenever possible. For instance, a virtual stop in Anglia Ruskin University’s cafeteria reveals three key words beneath a high-resolution, 360-degree image of the dining area: “halal food available.” For all the heavy-duty tech behind the website, a detail like this can be just as important in placing a university on the wish list. The value of virtual tours in attracting international students has been steadily growing: 11.7% of visits to YouVisit’s sites originate from abroad, and 25% of its campus tours are multi-lingual, with the top languages being Chinese and Spanish. Other factors international students consider are nationality clubs, international festivals, and the availability of international religious institutions and international banks. They are also highly influenced by whether other students from their country have previously chosen the school, and whether that group is thriving. Links within a virtual tour that highlight these factors can be very useful.

Additional tips

For those who want an expert view on virtual tours, the aforementioned Kyle James video interview takes viewers to several university websites while he gives his unvarnished evaluation of the good, bad, and ugly of their virtual tours. Some of the topics he discusses, both in the video and on the nuCloud website, amount to best practices for virtual tours. Important tips include:

  1. Add a “schedule a visit” and/or an “apply now” link. Making it easy for prospective students to take the next step after the virtual tour can pay big dividends.
  2. Allow students to ask questions, just like a real tour would with a tour guide. A virtual tour can feature a question form that generates a response from a faculty member or counsellor.
  3. Make the backend data, both text and visuals, editable. Campuses change, and those changes should be highlighted without needing to tear apart and rebuild the entire virtual tour.
  4. Strike a balance between the visual appearance of the tour and the load times needed for its graphics to render. Exceedingly long load times can be a turn-off for users.
  5. Offer comprehensive content. Visitors are willing to spend plenty of time in a virtual tour provided point 4, above, isn’t violated. George Comeau, director of interactive and digital communications at Suffolk University in Boston, explained in an interview with the New York Times that the average session time for the Suffolk tour was 11 minutes and 50 seconds. “If someone is willing to spend 11 minutes with you, that’s an eternity,” he said.

Loyal readers will know by now how fond ICEF Monitor is of reminding our audience about responsive design, so make sure your tours are accessible via mobile phone and tablet applications. With YouVisit, for example, when students are physically at a school, they can launch a GPS-enabled mobile app, allowing them to walk through the campus, locate themselves, and listen to messages from an automated tour guide. In this way, not only does the virtual tour serve students at the beginning of their college search, but it continues to offer value after they have decided to visit.

Social toolbox

Of course, virtual tours don't detract from the value of other visual channels like Flickr, Pinterest, Facebook photo albums (i.e. Stanford’s “Summertime at the Farm: A Walking Tour”), online photo exhibitions such as Oxford University's, or YouTube videos (stylised like Université de Mocton's), which can also enable prospective students to see your campus through as many lenses as possible. But meeting students' expectations, and promoting your institution in the best way possible, is what it's all about. When carefully built and well implemented, a virtual tour can offer value across many platforms and for many years to come.

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