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How to Host a Virtual Open House: Proven Strategies from Sandy Spring Friends School
Mia Major

“We didn’t want to approach our virtual open house with the mentality of ‘what can’t we do?’” said Julie Méndez, Director of Marketing at Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland, “Rather, we approached it by asking ‘what can we do?’”

It’s that focus on positivity that made Sandy Spring Friends School’s very first virtual open house such a success — with nearly 200 registered families and a 68% attendance rate. 

Goal Setting

As with any admissions event, Julie and the SSFS admissions team worked together to set goals for the event — but not just your typical goals around event registration and attendance. (Those are the easy ones!) They set goals that focused on empowering parents with knowledge to make decisions about their child’s school choice by asking the key questions:

  • What do parents want to know; and
  • What do we want parents to walk away with?

From here, they developed one strategic goal: Use the first virtual open house to create a long-term hybrid model that makes content long-lasting and evergreen. By doing so, they would be able to inform and engage parents at all stages of the funnel — something that has never been possible with just in-person events.

Promotion Strategies

A strategic, targeted, omnichannel approach is the key to driving traffic to any admissions event — virtual or in-person. SSFS used a variety of inbound marketing strategies to fuel event awareness, registration, and attendance, including:

  1. Page Pops: SSFS used Finalsite’s Page Pops module to drive traffic to the virtual open house registration page. They were smart about placement, and focused on adding the page pop only to key pages where prospective or current families might see it.
  2. Social Media Ads: The team didn’t blast the open house ad on social media to just anyone. They focused on retargeting ads for previous visitors to their website, as well as targeted boosted posts for key demographics.
  3. Local Ads: Before COVID, it took about seven impressions for someone to remember, recognize, and take action on a brand. In a totally virtual world, some experts say that the number of impressions has tripled. So, it makes sense that SSFS went beyond their known audiences, and advertised in local digital publications where prospective families spend their time.
  4. Email Campaigns: The team promoted the virtual open house directly to inquiries using Finalsite Messages, Finalsite’s email marketing tool. They also added it to the school’s parent newsletter, encouraging current parents to share the event with their friends. Once individuals had registered for the event, they received confirmation and three additional emails to build hype. The first of those four emails centered on “getting Zoom ready” and tech specs for the day. The second shared “3 easy ways to participate in the day”. The third email shared the full agenda, and the fourth was a reminder email that went out one hour in advance. “In all of the emails, we let attendees know that while the event was live, it would be recorded,” said Julie.

In addition to SSFS’s fully-stacked toolkit, their messaging was on-point — focusing on the event’s most compelling key takeaways, including a panel discussion with current students and parents.

Timing & Logistics

SSFS had a plan for a virtual open house that went beyond your typical Zoom meeting. While the event was run using Zoom and Finalsite’s CMS, Composer, SSFS focused on building anticipation prior to the event. 

Event registrants didn’t just receive your typical “don’t forget to join us…” email. A week in advance, they received “early access” to an open house “hub,” where they could get a sneak peek at the experience and content. The “hub” was a one-stop shop of exclusive admissions content for prospective parents who registered for the live event.

“We received a lot of engagement and click traffic when we released the hub,” said Julie — which shows that registrants were excited and ready.

Tracking Attendance

Tracking attendance virtually isn’t as easy as in-person. “We didn’t want to just rely on Google Analytics data to tell us attendance,” said Julie. “We took attendance using a short form embedded on a Page Pop. The pop up was the first thing they saw when they viewed the open house landing page.”

Those who attended live received a slightly different follow-up strategy than those who registered but didn’t attend — including a waiver for the school’s application fee.

Virtual Open House Content

In a time where everything is virtual, another Zoom meeting can really fall flat. So, the team at SSFS focused on creating all new video content that was driven mostly by faculty, parents, and students. The authentic perspectives from community members are exactly what prospective families want to hear. 

Now, we know how difficult it can be to get participation from already-burnt-out-staff — so, make it as easy as possible for them. “There was some hand-holding involved,” said Julie. 

The team at SSFS created a presentation template for participating faculty and staff, who simply asked them to talk about what they love about their job and the school. “When you ask someone to talk about what they’re passionate about, you’re going to get better responses than if you just ask them to answer some questions about what they do,” said Julie.

The virtual open house content was split into two areas — the “hub” and the live event. 

Within the hub, registrants could access:

  • A welcome from the head of school
  • A 360-degree virtual tour 
  • 50 faculty and staff-led pre-recorded videos
video screenshot of Sandy Springs Friends School virtual open house

On the day of the event, participants were invited to join into live sessions and discussions, including:

  • A welcome from the Head of School
  • A current student/parent panel discussion
  • Presentations from the Lower, Middle, and Upper School Heads
  • A Financial Aid presentation
  • Q&A Virtual Fair rooms, hosted by SSFS faculty & staff
video screenshot of Sandy Springs Friends School virtual open house

“Quick and easy communication for parents is key to a successful virtual event,” said Julie. Live Zoom meetings made this possible.

Beyond live sessions, SSFS also included downloadable content for attendees, including:

  • Curriculum guides
  • Additional resources for Covid-19 safety, bus routes, lunches, and more

In addition to the open house content itself, Julie and the team focused on making the user experience as easy as possible, which included:

  • A help desk, which was available for the full 2.5 hours of the event. This was simply done by providing an email and using a Zoom meeting which participants could easily hop in and out of from the main event page. “The visual cue that someone was around to help was a nice touch,” said Julie.
  • Numerous animated GIFs to showcase “how” to participate or engage with content. 
screenshot from an accordion on Sandy Springs Friends School explaining how to participate in virtual open house

Tying it All Together on the Finalsite Platform

After researching some expensive virtual event platforms, Julie and the admissions team decided that Finalsite’s software, specifically the content management system, Composer could offer an immersive virtual experience without an added cost using a combination of content blocks, video embeds, and the extremely flexible Posts module.

Julie and their team were inspired by the ease of use of Finalsite’s School Marketing Day events and sought to mimic the user experience of those events using Finalsite Composer. 

  • Accordions and tabs were used to organize content by type and division.
  • Finalsite Posts was used to display each session happening that day. “We were able to set posts to expire, and that would automatically populate the next session of the day at the top of the page,” said Julie.
  • Using a combination of Page Pops and the beta of the new Finalsite Forms module, they were able to track attendance.
  • Finalsite Posts also empowered participants to browse a virtual fair, which had filterable content by division. 
screenshot showing a grid of Zoom rooms for SSFS's virtual open house

The “What kinds of questions can I ask?” pop up was also a nice touch.

Campus Operations & Health virtual tour room example

Next Steps

SSFS has some of the typical next steps in store for your standard in-person open house, including converting attendees to applicants. But, they have other essential next steps too, including:

  • Build more hype around Discover Days: Discover Days are SSFS’s smaller admissions events that occur on a regular basis. Based on the success of the virtual open house experience, they plan on adapting these strategies to their Discover Days.
  • Use the Admissions Hub for future events: Whether in-person or virtual, Julie says the hub will be used for all admissions events, as it is loaded with excellent evergreen content.
  • Offer a student and parent panel to future events: The parent and student panels have been a hit at every school — and SSFS is no exception. Even when the school is able to return to in-person admission events, they plan on live streaming the panel discussion to make it accessible to families online.
  • Keep virtual open houses an option: “Virtual is a huge courtesy that didn’t exist previously,” said Julie. So, even when things go back to normal (whenever that may be) the team at SSFS plans on keeping virtual events on the admissions docket. 

Key Takeaway

Virtual open houses — while new to your school’s admissions toolkit — are likely here to stay. So, if you haven’t hosted your first one yet Julie says “Don’t be afraid of hosting your first! Part of being successful is being willing to take a risk.” And for SSFS, that risk certainly paid off. 

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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.

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