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A Virtual Visit Welcome

Ensuring the online campus tour opens the enrollment door
University Business, Sep 2008

AT FIRST, COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES WENT ABOUT IT all wrong. In the mid-1990s, special versions of the campus walking tour began appearing online. Featuring a map with arrows, they often followed the same route and offered a peak into the same buildings, explains Chris Carson, president of CampusTours. Panoramic images, with real estate industry roots, began appearing in these tours before long.

Then, around 2000, came a key realization: In person, sharing the school’s story through its facilities, with vignettes from tour guides peppered in, works well in providing prospectives with a sense of the campus. Online, not so much. In the virtual translation, “you got the facilities information but lost all the ambiance of the physical tour. What you were left with was buildings. Not many students are making decisions based on buildings,” says Carson, whose website has provided links to campus tours since 1997. Now the company sells software to help higher ed institutions manage their own virtual tours and has worked on about 450 tours directly.

Missing from virtual tours was the student experience. Through audio, video, and other effects, as well as features such as multiple tour guides and tours geared to specific audiences, the online campus tour is evolving to entertain and engage virtual visitors.

Most IHEs, however, have miles to go with their virtual tours, at least from Ron Reis’s vantage point. As co-founder and digital dean of YOUniversity, a new (and free) provider of campus video tours for invited institutions, Reis estimates that 90 percent of online campus tours are stuck in Web 1.0, with static text links, still photos, and no allocated resources. “Schools are proactive about teaching their students with the latest technology and about having the latest technology, [but] they’re not using that technology,” he says.

Reis sees the tour as “singlehandedly the most important element” of a college website. Research has shown that tour-related buttons get the most clicks, which is not surprising. “Those looking at college now were 13 when the iPod came out,” he says, adding that viewing streaming video is part of their everyday lives.

A bad tour is a barrier, says Carson. Students will “get frustrated very quickly if they can’t get the 10,000-foot view.” The web helps students narrow down potential schools to consider further, and frustration during an online visit leads to abrupt goodbyes.

Or, as a tip sheet on the CampusVT website puts it, “If they find your tour boring, what do they think of your school?” The company, which offers a tool for online tour development and maintenance, advises making visitors feel as if they’ve had an experience, not visited a website. Reis says the slow, monotone narrations in school-produced videos lose not just students but their parents, who are themselves of the MTV generation. Besides being fun, he believes virtual tours should show everything from the traditional tour?and more. One mistake, he says, is thinking, “We need to save a bullet for when they do make their official visit. We need something up our sleeve to show them then.” With many families finding traditional college visit road trips cost prohibitive, that chance may never come.

For Ohio State University, showing more meant interviewing the school’s “biggest fan” inside a full football stadium on game day. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the tour’s “more” is a virtual visit to a clean room holding the world’s largest laser. And for Western State College of Colorado, it’s showing the local flyfishing scene.

Alicia Dawson, lead photographer for eCampusTours, which has created 360-degree image tours for about 500 campuses, has shot a few cadavers in medical school labs. But in general, she says, students are hungry for views of where they would be eating, living, and taking classes.

“A great online tour is your chance to sell what is unique about your location, your architecture, your facilities, your campus, your student culture,” adds Adam Schroeder, co-founder of CampusVT.

Online tours with video and other multimedia experiences can bring a campus to life. But success or failure is all in the execution. In focus groups, says Carson, campus video footage got low marks. “Students complained about length, that they feel canned, that they’re too long, and that they’re really boring.” While students would get through nearly seven minutes of video when it was broken into chapters, colleges tend to post longer videos. Even a few extra minutes can be too much.

On the University of Dayton (Ohio) virtual tour, launched in 2007, visitors can watch up to an hour of footage, but it’s broken into manageable one-to-five-minute chunks. And heading past to Bryant University (R.I.), which launched its tour this summer, visitors can find 25 different vignettes in 30 minutes of video.

Content is key. Administrators at Western State College of Colorado have put a lot of thought into video lately. Early this year, they worked with YOUniversity on a video featuring satisfied students and alumni, explains Brandon Boyd, former director of marketing and communication. When selecting people to interview, the project team looked beyond just finding “beautiful people,” he says. “You want authenticity. Can the viewer relate to this person?”

Another aim was to capture the college’s scenic Gunnison Valley location, with nearby hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and fly-fishing. The YOUniversity film crew was asked to shoot extra footage of the surrounding area so the institution could use it in future video efforts, says Boyd, who is now CEO of Boyd Creative Marketing, an Illinois-based firm that helps higher ed clients develop direct marketing campaigns.

In the near future, Boyd adds, the college will launch a YouTube-style website, for which the school purchased handheld digital cameras to loan out to people on campus to encourage content creation. “The aim is to make video a staple for helping prospective students and their parents experience WSC.”

Reis is an advocate of showing campus traditions in tour videos. One example is the University of Central Florida’s homecoming tradition footage. “You don’t get the feel of 14,000 students in a fountain chanting ‘U-C-F’ for homecoming from a photo.” Also effective is including more frequently done traditions?such as Florida International University students spinning the 20-foot-high “Marty’s Cube” sculpture before exams for luck.

For still and 360-degree images, CampusVT suggests including an audio track of the hustle and bustle to communicate each spot’s unique vibe. Dawson of eCampusTours advises use of a special lens to enhance panoramic images?so that viewers can look up and down, not just left and right.

Although maps may seem old-school, some IHEs are bringing them into the 21st century. The interactive map of Wesleyan University (Conn.), for instance, allows visitors to find places to eat, wireless zone information, and events. The University of San Diego launched a database-driven component to its interactive campus map this May. Going beyond explaining campus locations, it draws data from an event-scheduling system to populate the map with real-time information about campus happenings.

Providing multiple tours is another way to create a personal experience. Carson has seen tours for international students, transfer students, and parents, as well as multilingual tours, ESL tours, and tours in Spanish. Wesleyan’s day-in-the-life tours approach the multiple tour concept in a slightly different way, sharing six students and their campus routines.

While the goal of virtual tours is getting prospective students on campus, the online visit does have its own edge. “It lets them flit from stop to stop on the tour at their own pace,” says Kenneth Aaron, director of communications at Paul Smith’s College (N.Y.). Marie Blakey, director of public relations for Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, agrees, adding that a revisit is easy as well.

Virtual tour project teams typically consist of members from across the university?from admissions and public relations to web design and IT. These departments bring different skills and resources, and they “all have a big-picture view about the institution and its strategic goals,” says Blakey.

At Bryant, despite the project being outsourced to a division of CampusTours, an eight-person in-house team worked to create and launch the tour, meeting biweekly and even weekly throughout the yearlong process, explains Michelle Beauregard, director of admission. On the vendor side, a project manager, web developer, designer, video producer/director, and video editor were involved.

The University of Dayton’s in-house project team also tapped student talent. Built in Adobe Flash, the virtual tour was developed using Avid Media Composer (for video editing), Adobe After Effects (for special effects), Adobe Photoshop (for graphics), and Digital Rapids Stream Software (for encoding videos for the web), according to Communication Specialist Kim Lally in UD’s enrollment management office and Michael Kurtz, director of the Media Production group. The project took a total of 462 hours of production group staff time and 84 hours of student production assistant time.

Despite their use of so many tools, Lally and Kurtz say it’s important not to focus on the technical side and lose sight of the content. It seems they followed their own advice, because the tour was recognized in June with a Bronze Reel at the 39th annual Media Communications Association-International Festival (one of only two universities to take home honors).

As with just about any project, the work doesn’t end with launching a tour. At Villanova University (Pa.), Director of Web Services and Technologies Marybeth Avioli is already thinking about an overhaul of the virtual tour launched in 2004 to incorporate new web tools available today.

The design of Paul Smith’s tour, launched in 2007, will aid in the update process, says Carson of CampusTours. Video tour guides appear in one window and the content appears in another. When administrators want to include a new program, the guide can be reshot while the on-location video?which is more expensive and complex to produce?stays the same. “You simply pull in the footage and sequence it together,” he explains.

The video “episodes” produced for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Real Nebraska project, which take about two hours to shoot and eight to edit, have become a regular part of Dave Fitzgibbon’s job. The videos, featuring on-campus interviews, give prospective students a taste of campus life, says Fitzgibbon, who, as manager of broadcast services for the university’s communications office, is the videographer and editor. Two staffers serve as hosts for the episodes, which are also aired on local community access television.

With expense in mind, many institutions choose to work with companies offering free services, like eCampusTours and YOUniversity, on their virtual tour projects. Those who outsource are looking at upwards of $10,000 for a virtual tour, Dawson says. But as administrators at Bryant know, costs can really add up; that university’s total price tag was about $100,000, Beauregard shares.

But because virtual tours help get the attention of prospective students, there are no regrets about investment in these projects. “Several new students have said these Real Nebraska videos are what sealed the deal on their decision to come to University of Nebraska,” Fitzgibbon says. How’s that for high-impact recruiting?

Ready to create or upgrade your institution’s virtual campus tour? Here’s some advice from those who have already made that journey.

Having campus leaders agree on the need for a good tour will help in getting the time and other resources needed to get there. Having that buy-in also helps “when changes and additions to the tours aren’t met with universal approval across campus,” says Marie Blakey, director of public relations at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles.

“The production of the tour itself is a tremendous undertaking,” says Michelle Beauregard, director of admission at Bryant University (R.I.). “To produce the tour while also developing strategic branding could be overwhelming.”

Dave Fitzgibbon, manager of broadcast services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, points out that the fact that most of the communications staff there has a background in news media has been of great benefit in the creation of projects like their regular video interviews of people on campus, or any project “where information needs to be highlighted, sound-bited, and condensed.”

“You are smarter than your service provider or web developer thinks,” says Beauregard. “If you don’t feel a certain piece of functionality in the tour makes sense, it probably doesn’t. Trust your instincts and push back when necessary.” After all, she adds, “If it’s confusing the user is just going to click right out of the tour.”

Blakey says it’s important to be willing to look at the project “with a new set of lenses. The external audience will not have the same view as any one internal person may have.”

Brandon Boyd, former director of marketing and communications at Western State College of Colorado, advises, “Plan for much more time than you think you’ll need to move the crew around and get the ‘right’ shots.” When working with YOUniversity on a six-minute video, two eight-hour days of shooting was needed.

Why should all that footage wind up on the cutting room floor? “All that other b-roll can be repurposed for other videos or the audio can be captured to be used in radio advertising,” Boyd says.

Overbooking the number of students you think you'll need to provide video testimonials is worth the extra effort, says Boyd, adding that it's also a good idea to arrange for alumni to share their thoughts on the school. “Testimonials are power marketing tools.”

Including a huge form for web visitors to fill out is “a giant turn-off,” says Chris Carson, president of CampusTours, which helps institutions create virtual tours. But asking prospective students for their contact info incrementally, and giving them a reason for it, can work. According to CampusVT, creators of the Campus Virtual Tour product for schools, it’s all about enticing visitors to want to continue with the tour and then take action when they’re ready to do so. Don’t make it difficult for them to figure out how to contact the school or schedule an on-site visit.

Why take the time to create a tour that people will only stumble across? Nearly all online tours can be found through the admissions office page, but including a link to the tour right on the institution’s home page is also a good idea. Blakey at Mount St. Mary’s says they send prospective students e-mails with links to their tour as well.

“Even when you outsource, a good tour takes time,” says Kenneth Aaron, director of communications for Paul Smith’s College (N.Y.). And that’s not just the initial creation he’s referring to. “Be sure that somebody on staff is prepared to take care of maintenance and other upkeep,” he advises.