University virtual open days: the how, what and why

Nicola Yeeles analyses how institutions can make the most of this evolving events technology

As international students become an increasingly crucial proportion of the student body, ways to attract them grow ever more innovative. Enter the virtual open day. Whether a video-led web tour, a regular webinar with a Q&A or a scheduled all-singing all-dancing web-based affair, UK universities are queuing up to offer the very best in student recruitment events. Carys Wyn Roberts, director of marketing and recruitment at Bangor University, said: “Research shows that prospective students are increasingly looking for online content that gives them more of a feel for a university campus, with 360-degree images as well as video being popular.” In this respect, UK universities are ahead of their international counterparts who frequently offer virtual tours but not live events.

There are various reasons to offer virtual open days. Firstly, they can help you speak to hard-to-reach students, those unable to visit in person whether for reasons of health, distance or cost. Lee Wildman, interim head of international student recruitment at Queen Mary University of London, explained: “Queen Mary staff travel to over 50 countries each year to engage with prospective students face to face. Virtual open days complement that activity and also allow us to reach out to students in parts of the world we’re not active in.” The ability to view UK universities online is an unrivalled tool for overseas applicants thinking of moving to the UK. But, of course, a virtual open day is open to all and the University of Hertfordshire has found wider benefits, as Chris Dunks, marketing and recruitment manager, said: “Our virtual open days were originally created to reach people that were unable to visit the campus in person, but as technology usage has increased over the years we’re now finding that some of our local students are using our virtual tours as a way of getting to know the University in advance of a site visit.”

Roberts explains that at Bangor University, they have noted that that a good event can also have an impact further along the application process: “If prospective students like what they see on a virtual tour or open day then they’re far more likely to decide to visit the campus for a real-life open day as well,” she said. Not only that, but the University of York reports that the quality of applicant is better; prospective students are more likely to accept an offer because they’ve had the opportunity to ask all the questions they need and can revisit content at a later stage to refresh and reassure themselves. Louise Young of Ivent, which created the University of York’s virtual open day, said: “One of the key benefits is that all this is delivered while avoiding much of the time and cost limitations for both students and universities of a physical event. Additionally, we find that virtual events result in much greater engagement than physical events with many feeling more comfortable in an online environment. However, text, audio and video chat are all possible.”

When it comes to what to offer on such an occasion, virtual open days vary, and many institutions do use outside companies to design and manage what could be a complicated process for their in-house team. In fact, Young said: “There is a common misperception that the university tech team needs to be involved, which is sometimes viewed as a challenge – with Ivent, this isn’t the case at all, though we often brief relevant team members so that they know what to expect.” 

By way of example, the University of Hertfordshire has been offering an opportunity for students to view the campus online for the last five years, when it introduced the first 360-degree imagery to give those who live further away the opportunity to view the campus. Over the last few years the offer has increased into a hub of collected content that people can use to pull together to create their own bespoke open day, depending on the courses they want to study and the level they want to study at. Potential applicants are able to explore the accommodation, teaching facilities and campus using 360-degree videos, Google street maps and drone footage on the University’s YouTube channel. They can enquire about the booking process, student life and course content via Q&A sessions on social media including Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook, the world in which many prospective students are already immersed. Furthermore, they can interact with the open days on Facebook Live, where welcome talks and campus tours are condensed to suit the web audience.

Alongside these features, Roberts has found that visitors to Bangor University’s open day value academic content: “Our prospective students like the easy access to course information and videos featuring students on those courses – as a result we’ll be looking to increase the course videos in particular over the coming months.” Some institutions like QMUL offer taster lectures so that prospective students can get a feel for the course. Beyond course information, Lee Wildman at QMUL explained that virtual open days “connect international students with support services staff who can offer advice on visas, accommodation, careers, finance and life as a student in the UK, amongst other things.” Getting these different departments on board is a key factor ensuring that prospective applicants can really start to visualise arriving at the university.

Once the content has been decided, it’s time to tailor the platform behind the scenes to ensure that each visitor receives a personalised experience. Events creator Ivent has some suggestions for making the day more useful for visitors. One is the creation of a sound alert when logged into the chat function, allowing visitors to continue doing other things at the same time as their chat session. What’s more, the University found the response to an online visitor has to be immediate or they lose interest. So with that in mind they have developed an icon of someone typing so that the prospective student knows that someone is responding to them. The process is one of fine-tuning, achieved by working with a creative agency who can respond flexibly to requirements as they emerge and turn that wish list into reality.

It’s vital, too, to set up analytics that measure visitor data effectively during and after the event. This is even more accurate for an online than an in-person event, as the university can see real-time attendee lists and track people as they log in and out. Universities can also do qualitative analysis on the actual questions that visitors have asked during the day. Using such data, the University of Hertfordshire know that their 360-campus tour video received more than 20,000 views in the year up to December 2017 – evidence of the need to reach potential students, parents and other influencers in a format they like to use, at a time that is convenient to them. Virtual open day suppliers Revolution Viewing say that the virtual tours, open days and experiences they create gain an average of 7,000 unique visitors each month per solution with session times of up to five minutes. In their survey of 550 school pupils, 93% said that they would be more likely to visit a university after viewing one of their solutions, and 87% want virtual tour and open day content accessible 24/7. Perhaps more importantly, 70% of prospective students expected universities to have the type of solution the company produces.

If virtual events reach prospective international undergraduates and postgraduates so effectively, and are expected by UK pupils too, then what else could universities be doing in this way? Some are beginning to utilise these sophisticated platforms for other purposes. For example, the University of Sheffield wanted to better support their 4,000 students from east and south-east Asia. Many of these students were planning to go back home to start their careers, and traditional careers fairs weren’t attracting enough Asian companies, especially not Chinese ones. As a result they hosted their first-ever virtual careers fair. Run over five days, the event included presentations, live chat with employers in their booths and information on the various companies. It was deemed a great success by the University.

As ever, it’s not a change in technology that will drive change, but how we use it. 

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