Virtual Event Planning Best Practices

“If I can get a student on my campus, that seals the deal.” That mantra gets a lot of airtime, but does the data back it up? And even if it is true, how do you get students to experience a college campus during a global pandemic? 

Gil Rogers, Executive Vice President at PlatformQ Education, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about recent trends and best practices in virtual event planning during a pandemic.

“Can I Picture Myself Here?” During COVID-19

The mantra about student visits equalling enrollment isn’t always true, but the data does support the assertion that at most institutions, an on-campus visit increases the probability of a student coming to that school.

So pre-pandemic, we had our traditional calendar of events that included open-house content. If you’re talking about graduate programs or adult learners, maybe you had a different calendar, and off-campus events have always been a cornerstone of a recruitment process. That’s for sure not going to go away anytime soon. Recent global events, however, have shifted the role of online connection for the long term. 

“It (COVID) shifts the paradigm a little bit,” Gil said. “Virtual events were always a side-of-the-desk component for a lot of people…but I think that that’s going to change in the future.”

The Stats on Virtual Traffic in 2020: Who’s Showing Up & Why

Inside Higher Ed is reporting institutions seeing 4X higher virtual tour traffic this year than in the past. According to Gil, virtual events are ramping up even higher than tours and some institutions are seeing 5-10X the attendee numbers for virtual programs than they saw last year. 

“What’s interesting,” Gil said, “is we always get questions about what’s the best time of day for a program. And, traditionally, it’s evenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But in April, it really didn’t matter, right? And a big part of that was because students were locked up at home with nothing to do.”

While a 5-10X increase is unlikely to be next year’s norm, virtual event attendance is going to be higher than it was the year prior because we are now dealing with an audience that’s trained to know that virtual options exist.

Live Events vs. On-Demand Virtual Tours

You need to think about virtual tours and virtual events like you think about emails, letters, and advertising. One does not replace the other, right? The same goes for live and virtual tours.

Ask yourself: What’s the expected outcome for the audience you’re marketing a program to? Do you want to generate more applications? If so, then host content that helps students understand the application and financial aid processes. 

“It’s really looking at where you want to boost conversion and creating content that aligns with helping students to understand that next step,” Gil said. 

When we look at the data for institutions that do it that way, we see around a 35% lift in app generation and a 25% lift in app completion. Those schools are focusing the content specifically on those audiences. 

So it’s really important to think about how we incorporate content at each phase to support conversion of the audience at that time and segmenting the marketing appropriately.

Creating Content for Virtual Tours

Authentic content resonates a lot better with a prospective student audience than highly produced content. So go ahead and invest effort in your three-minute student campus overview video, your 20-minute testimonial video, and the drone footage of your campus that you put on YouTube.

But you can produce a much more meaningful event with your student ambassadors dialing in on webcams from their living rooms at home than you can giving a tour of campus.

Showcasing your community in an authentic way creates a much more meaningful experience for your audience because they get to really hear what that person has to say without all the other distractions. 

So, yes, it’s good to leverage your existing content and assets. That’s why you have your videos on YouTube and why you have content available on your virtual tour. But when you’re generating a live online engagement experience, the authentic voice wins.

Next Steps to Maximize Student Engagement from a Distance

The typical fall recruitment process just isn’t going to happen in 2020. No high school visits, college fairs, open houses, daily visitors, or large-scale events. These are all going to be cancelled — or most of them will be — this fall just like they were in the spring. 

Here’s the difference: In April, we didn’t have the convenience of time to really think strategically about moving an  in-person event online in a meaningful way. So people just cobbled things together with help from IT, marketing, and admissions. It was all hands on deck, right? 

In the fall, a lot of those hands are going to be supporting the faculty with distance education type of resources and content. They’re going to be doing their own day-to-day work. There will be fewer hands on deck. 

“That’s where we’ve got to start,” Gil Rogers, “establishing what our content plan needs to be. Then it’s what software platforms do we use, what resources do we do, what can we do with our CRM?” 

This post is based on a podcast interview with Gil Rogers from PlatformQ Education. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.