How to Plan and Execute a Virtual or Hybrid Graduation Experience that Truly Honors Seniors
Mia Major & Connor Gleason

This blog has been updated since its original publishing in April, 2020.

Given the dramatic shift in how we gather, celebrate, and commemorate (coupled with rising expectations...), it’s hard to imagine going back to just purely in-person events, especially your school’s 2021 graduation.

Last year, most spring school events were held entirely online. This spring as gathering restrictions loosen, there will be both virtual and hybrid celebrations (each with its own challenges) as we head into graduation season.

Zoom fatigue (it's a real thing) will be a huge consideration, as well as involving your community and your graduates in the planning process and celebration. The goal for your 2021 graduation should be to make a meaningful and memorable event while ensuring all audiences are connected and engaged. 

Steps for planning and executing a 2021 graduation experience that truly honors seniors:

Step 1: Decide on the Type of Graduation: Virtual or Hybrid

Step 2: Determine What Traditions You’ll Keep From 2020

Step 3: Promote the Event with a Virtual Graduation Microsite

Step 4: Start the Celebration Now

Step 1. Decide on the Type of Graduation: Virtual or Hybrid

Did you notice that we didn’t include “in-person” as an option? It’s not because we don’t think you’re going to have the opportunity to be in-person — most schools likely will have that opportunity. But, in-person can’t be the only option. Most schools will opt for a hybrid graduation ceremony.

What is a Hybrid Graduation?

A hybrid graduation incorporates components of a virtual graduation with portions of in-person experience. Keeping social distancing and health protocols in mind, a hybrid graduation offers the best of both worlds; a chance to connect, but also an opportunity to expand your reach and celebrate with an additional online presence.

A recent report released by Splash, an event marketing tech company, reinforced the idea that hybrid and virtual events are here to stay. While 79% of those surveyed now expect to host events that include an online component even as in-person events resume, the report also says less than 7% of event attendees believe virtual events should be longer than an hour. 

One of the greatest advantages of a virtual or hybrid graduation event is the ability to bring in additional speakers or invite attendees who may not have been able to travel or attend in-person. Expanding your reach to recruit noteworthy alumni, parents, and other community leaders to complete an epic speaker line-up will make students feel inspired about their next chapter. 

When choosing your event — whether totally virtual or hybrid — you’ll want to consider the costs and feasibility around graduation ceremony content and technology. Let’s take a close look at the primary options, including live streaming, pre-recorded content, and crowdsourced content.

Live Streamed Ceremony

Live streaming is a great option for virtual and hybrid events. With live streaming, you avoid the capacity limitations of in-person events and invite all your constituents to celebrate your graduates through live streaming. Plus, you avoid spoilers!

Tech Tips for Success:

Technology:
  • Partner with a reliable livestream vendor. While Finalsite partners with LocalLive to offer Finalsite Streaming, live streaming connects your extended community and offers the ease of watching events unfold on-the-go, or at home.
  • Is a strong and reliable internet connection available?
  • Do you have the technology to help produce the event? (microphones, speakers, projectors, LCD panels, computers, etc.)
  • Do you have a team of people to help?
Know Your Audience:
  • Keep it on the shorter side. Many people will be multi-tasking as they view your event (cooking, cleaning, exercising, etc.) 
  • Consider if people will be viewing the event on different screen sizes. Present the material in a way that’s easy for everyone to view.
  • How will you handle interpreters and subtitles if languages other than English are spoken in your school?
Screenshot of Minnetonka Graduation

Despite a disruption to their spring schedule, the class of 2020 at Minnetonka High School was able to hold an in-person graduation last July. In keeping with Minnesota state guidelines, the school held a series of eight, 45-minute mini-ceremonies throughout the day. School district staff then worked to compile footage from the commencement events for a virtual graduation ceremony that was shared on social media. While there are plans to have an in-person ceremony this spring, the school is broadening its viewership and inviting its community to watch the 2021 graduation ceremony live online, too.

Pre-Recorded Ceremony

Who says every graduation ceremony needs to be streamed live in real-time? Schools and districts can follow social distancing practices and still allow students to walk across the stage in their cap and gown without the pressure of “being live.” How exactly?

Your ceremony can be pre-recorded in advance using the following steps:

1. Hire a video company, use your in-house videographer, or get a volunteer within the community with video experience to film the ceremony in advance.

2. Set up time slots for seniors to come to the school and be filmed walking across the stage, following social distancing best practices.


3. Interview all students about their favorite memory about the school, or their senior year.

4. Compile the video clips into a video to be posted online at a set date and time, or broadcast on the big screen at a safe facility — such as fairgrounds or a drive-in theatre.

Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia had a nice mix of pre-recorded and live programming for their 2020 graduation. The pre-recorded portions featured some fun celebrations with singing and dancing, while the live speeches and the awarding of diplomas showcased the more poignant moments during a live-streamed graduation ceremony for the day. Afterward, all the content was hosted on their graduation landing page.

Screenshot of Germantown friends graduation site

Save Time by Using Community-Produced Content

Crowdsource content from your seniors to highlight all the good memories from their senior year, and compile the videos and photos into a single 3-5 minute video to show at the beginning of the graduation. In addition to crowdsourcing content from your community, you can also ask parents to send in well-wishes.

Need inspiration? This completely crowdsourced video diary from Blair Academy’s Instagram compiles 1-second video clips from their academic year—talk about a trip down memory lane!

Screenshot of Blair Academy Instagram

The good news — whether you choose virtual, hybrid, or in-person, you can incorporate elements of live streaming, pre-recorded content and community-sourced content to make your event original and engaging!

Step 2: Determine What Traditions You’ll Keep From 2020

2020 introduced quite a few new creative celebrations, many of which students and families loved. This spring, embrace those new traditions and celebrations and incorporate them again this year.

Graduation Cap Decorating Contest

Allow seniors to still order their caps and gowns, and encourage them to decorate them, and wear them for your alternative celebrations and post them on social media.
 

Deliver Diplomas

Take note from Southern New Hampshire University, which has famously delivered degrees to graduates across the country for years now. While the university’s degrees are delivered to groups of about 20 graduates, it’s an inspiring idea for day schools and districts where all graduates are local. While this feat might be easiest for smaller graduating classes, we can’t help but feel inspired by the personal approach. 

Deliver the diplomas prior to the ceremony, yearbooks if they are ready, along with a graduation cap for students to decorate and wear during the virtual ceremony. We know it’s not the same, but the extra effort will be duly noted — it certainly was for Briarwood Christian School's Class of 2020.

Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham, AL surprised 143 seniors with hand-delivered party packs that included yearbooks, caps and gowns, cookies, alumni event passes, and a Briarwood beach towel for their summer days ahead. Watch the video here.

Discover how Finalsite can Celebrate seniors by adding a Graduation Microsite to your Digital Campus

Incorporate Senior Traditions

If possible, seek ways to incorporate normal senior year and graduation traditions into your virtual celebrations. For example, if your school normally does a group photo of students donning sweatshirts from their college acceptances — ask students to take their own photo and submit it to be featured on the website.
 

Host a Graduation Parade

For nearly 230 years, Derby Academy in Hingham, MA made their annual procession to a church downtown as part of their graduation exercises. Last spring, they reimagined their traditional walk with a car parade complete with signs, streamers, and balloons while families and friends cheered from the sidewalk. Consider how you can honor graduates with a celebratory parade that goes the extra mile.

Derby Academy Car parade
 

Create Senior Care Packages

Finding a way to give back to the community while also lifting the spirits of seniors is a win-win. Partner with a local bakery to create “senior care packages” to be sent to graduates on graduation day. We’re seeing small businesses across the country partner with both schools and first-responders to offer this service.

Step 3: Promote the Event with a Virtual Graduation Microsite

If your team simply sends an email with a Zoom invite for a virtual graduation, engagement will be flat. What better way to create excitement and engagement with a dedicated graduation page on your site? This can extend the life of your celebration, and provide a go-to hub for community members (near and far) who want to partake in the celebrations.

Screenshot of Finalsite Graduation Microsite

First, give the virtual graduation ceremony its own area of your website—a communications hub and one-stop-shop for all-things graduation. Whether it’s a built-out microsite or graduation landing page, add it to your main navigation or create a call-to-action for it. You want to show your prospective and current families that you’re delivering a high-quality experience for graduates that everyone can be excited about.
 

Here’s what your microsite or landing page should include:

Featured Graduation Speakers

Promote your ceremony speaker line-up. Aside from walking across the stage and receiving a diploma, speeches by guest speakers, faculty and students are the second most anticipated part of the day.
 
Most importantly, proceed as usual with selecting student speakers, and highlight them with the same respect as you would guest speakers.

Because hybrid events open up new opportunities to bring in guest speakers from across the country (or world), bringing unexpected voices can be a big draw for your community. Time to tap those famous alumni!

Leysin American School in Switzerland showcased their graduation speakers, which included their valedictorians, members of the school administration, and parents of alumni. By including biographies, photos, and some context about their speeches, it helps build excitement and set the scene for what’s to come.

Screenshot of Leysin Graduation microsite

Class of 2021 Graduate Photos and Bios

Give seniors the recognition they deserve! At this point, many seniors have already had their senior photos taken (and shared with the yearbook committee), so ask them to submit them along with a bio, and fun facts. Think of it as a living, breathing yearbook!

If you use Finalsite, you can use Posts or Constituent Manager to easily share graduate photos and bios. If you opt to use Posts, you’ll be able to add some additional filters, such as student-athlete, National Honors Society, membership in other clubs, awards, etc. Another cool feature for using Posts — enabling comments! Then, parents, friends, and family members can leave (moderated) comments to one another.

Screen shot of Academy of the Sacred Heart Graduation page

 

Academy of the Sacred Heart featured their grads and a chance to learn a little bit about where they’re from, where they’re headed, and some of their favorite memories. It’s a great way to capture the personalities of the class and give each student their well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

Create a Place for Parents and Friends to Share Well-Wishes

One way to create a sense of community, even when far apart, is to provide more open avenues of communication. We’re seeing many schools use tools like Kudoboard, or Padlet, which allows website visitors to write notes to one another on a public board. 

The content can easily be embedded on any website and provides parents, family near and far, and friends to all write heart-warming public messages of encouragement to one another.

Washingtonville Central School District took that approach and welcomed messages from their extended community. The outpouring of love and overwhelming support for the graduates bring all the feels!

Screenshot of Washingtonville Kudoboard

Share Livestream Details

Give your community an easy way to register and save the date. (This means avoiding a very long form for them to complete!) By submitting their name and email, you can add them to a list to receive automated emails with event updates, login information, and more.

congratulations class of 2020

Social Media Integration

If you already have a hashtag for your senior class, encourage seniors to use it on their social media channels to automatically aggregate content for your Class of 2021 website page. If you don’t already have a hashtag, create something new so your community can share their experiences with one another via social media.

Gilroy Unified School District in Gilroy, CA shared moments from their schools’ 2020 graduations using branded hashtags. By following #GilroyGrown, their community helped capture the spirit of their cap and gown decorating, car parades, and virtual celebrations. 

Screenshot of Gilroy Unified School District Instagram

Loomis Chaffee cross-posted their senior celebrations and encouraged their community to show their #PelicanPride. They also hosted a ton of fun content on their graduation landing page for their students and families to download and share, including branded Zoom backgrounds, wallpapers, phone backgrounds, and more.

Screenshot of Loomis Chaffee instagram

 

Make the Announcement

Messaging is everything. So, when you announce your school’s plans for your graduation ceremonies, it’s important that you focus on the celebration of an extraordinary accomplishment, rather than “what could have been.”

For making the announcement, we recommend creating a video, instead of just sending a plain text email. Once the video has been sent via email to your community, post it on your website. You can use a PagePop on your homepage and in community portals to ensure it's seen by your constituent groups. And for social media, make a slightly different version of the video that invites everyone to view and join in on the celebrations.
 

Step 4: Start the Celebration Now

Last year, schools were in a crunch to provide some kind of experience last-minute and when campuses started closing, there wasn’t much time to plan. Regardless of the format for your graduation (virtual, hybrid, or some resemblance of in-person), the celebrations don’t have to wait.
 

Honor Seniors on Social Media

We hope you had plans in place to do this anyway, but use the time now to honor your seniors (daily!) on social media. It's a great way to build community during a time of isolation and provides a sense of "normalcy" — which is what everyone is craving right now.
 

Screenshot of Grace Christian Academy Instagram

For example, Grace Christian Academy in Knoxville, TN features a senior ”Takeover Tuesday” of their Instagram stories, sharing some "get to know the senior" information and a little behind-the-scenes peek of their daily schedules. It's a great way to celebrate their time at the school — and it's going to get a ton of organic engagement.
 
Screenshot of Rotterdam Instagram

Rotterdam International Secondary School in the Netherlands started some buzz and excitement ahead of graduation and even continued a tradition started last year— creating a "Hall of Fame" for their seniors on their Instagram, complete with seniors’ quotes, favorite memories, what they’ll miss, and what’s next.

Screenshot of Rotterdam Instagram


Key Takeaways

Virtual and hybrid events are here to stay, and the sooner you incorporate the ideas of creating memorable and meaningful graduations, the better.

As your school implements this year’s graduation plan, we encourage you to think about how these changes are not just for the class of 2021, but for future generations of students. Everything you do now will impact the success of your school in the future and that includes how you handled graduation ceremonies.

With a little pomp and circumstance, students and their families will celebrate each other, say their goodbyes, and look to the future with hope and resilience.


Learn how Finalsite can Celebrate seniors by adding a Graduation Microsite to your Digital Campus

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Mia Major

Mia is a creative and passionate school marketing thought-leader. Since joining the Finalsite team in 2013, Mia has produced hundreds of pieces of content with one goal in mind: helping private, public, and international schools improve their online presence. In her current role as director of demand generation, Mia focuses on full-funnel inbound marketing strategies. She's also a co-host on The School Marketing Show, a frequent blogger, e-book author, Expert Course consultant and webinar host. She loves putting storytelling at the heart of all communications — and before joining the Finalsite team, Mia was a TV and radio broadcaster, wedding cinematographer, and author for various online magazines. She is an army wife, mom, and rookie photographer currently living in southern Georgia.

 

Connor Gleason Headshot

Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Web and Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, story-telling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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