• General Best Practices
How to Host Virtual School Events: A 10-Step Planning Guide for Fall
Mia Major

Questions around virtual events are flooding our inboxes, Facebook Groups, and Summer Camp networking sessions.

How do we make our open house virtual?

What makes a good virtual event?

How do we still get the same amount of people to attend?

What is the follow up strategy?

How can we redirect funds from in-person events to new technology for virtual events?

All of these questions have an undertone of disappointment. Virtual — again. I totally thought we’d be past this by now. Sigh.

Let’s cut to the chase. If you think your virtual event can be the exact same as its in-person counterpart — before you even start planning — you're already headed for disappointment. If you want to host amazing fall events that inspire your families, ignite new interest, and build community you need to do just one thing: stop thinking about your virtual event as the less awesome version of your traditional in-person event. A virtual event is its own kind of event and opportunity that should be leveraged to its maximum potential. And, if you head into the fall thinking about all the new opportunities that virtual events provide, you’re going to find yourself feeling creative and inspired.

It’s that kind of energy and creativity you need to keep going through the fall. But you didn’t come here for a pep talk. You came here for strategy. So let’s talk about how to run successful virtual events this fall in 10 steps.

Step 1: Know your fall event options.

For fall events, we’re talking about the big staple events that public and private schools host each fall, from convocation and welcome ceremonies to open houses and revisit days.

For each event you have planned for the fall, you have four possible scenarios:

  • A small in-person, socially-distanced event that follows CDC guidelines. Depending on the event itself, you will likely still need some kind of virtual option to support it.
  • A 100% virtual event that is live streamed.
  • A 100% virtual event that is pre-recorded.
  • A virtual event that has both live streamed and pre-recorded elements.

Pre-recorded content can be anything you wish and can take on pretty much any form. From introducing new teachers at a convocation, to sharing a welcome from the head of school at an open house, pre-recorded content is a great way to save time and ensure top-notch quality. 

The Hill School’s “Reimagined Revisit Days” website page is a great example of how you can still bring your school’s story to life with entirely pre-recorded content.

virtual admissions example from the hill school

Live streamed content is great for engaging attendees. It is ideal for Q&A and panel discussions, athletics, or small socially-distanced events that families would normally attend in person.

In addition to sharing content, encouraging engagement from event attendees will build community and feedback about your event. Think about the opportunities that event attendees used to have to connect. How can you replicate those in a virtual environment? Many school districts kick off the year with an all staff meeting where new staff are introduced and have the opportunity to connect with one another. While many are shifting to a video that introduces new faculty (and puts a face to a name), new staff are still missing out on that element of human connection. Arrange a way for new staff to meet other new staff and veteran staff in their department virtually — either one-on-one or as a group.

Regardless of the format you choose, you will also need to decide if it is available afterwards for access. We recommend sending a recording of the virtual event to anyone who registered so they can access it again if desired. You can also add a copy to your admissions hub for prospective families to download as a top-of-the-funnel content offer.

Step 2: List out your fall events.

Okay, this is an easy one. Get your academic, admission, fundraising, and athletic teams together and aggregate a list of all of your fall events. It will probably be a lengthy one! Start a spreadsheet or dive into your favorite project management tool. We like Trello and Asana.

At this point, you may want to consider the frequency of each event — and if that has changed in light of virtual events. For example, you may choose to host smaller events more frequently than one big event to accommodate the audience and goals.

Step 3: Write down each event’s audience and goal.

With so much change, it’s easy to let the goal of an event get lost in the way of all the new logistics that need to be configured. Take the time and write down the goal of each event. (It will help you better handle the big task that awaits you in step 4!)

For example, for an all-staff meeting, the main goal is usually to inform and connect all staff. The informational piece is easy to do virtually (and many staff might prefer it!), but connecting is harder — so don’t overlook it. Seek a way to provide that interpersonal connection that builds bonds during this time apart. 

Fundraisers are another big fall event for private schools in particular. The goal? Raise funds. For many schools, shifting to a virtual option has actually led to more donations and engagement because of a greater reach.

And of course for private schools, fall open houses and open days are one of the most important school-wide events. The goal of the open house is first, get the information from new families, and second, showcase life on campus in-person. The first goal can still easily be accomplished — and, as a matter-of-fact, virtual open houses and virtual admissions events offer an opportunity to get in front of families earlier and more often. Shorter, more frequent, “micro” admissions events reside closer to the top of the funnel because they are a lower commitment — providing an opportunity to get information from families earlier on in their research.

For example, Blair Academy offers weekly zoom information sessions — smaller than their typical open house, and more accessible to families just beginning their research.

blair academy weekly zoom sessions

Step 4: Choose an event experience.

Now here comes the time-intensive (and tough!) part. Go through that list, and for every event, mark whether it will be:

  • Cancelled
  • Postponed
  • Virtual - 100% recorded
  • Virtual - 100% live streamed
  • Virtual - recorded and live streamed hybrid
  • Modified in-person with virtual option

With things changing by the day across the country, we know it feels impossible to set anything in stone. Uncertain times yield all sorts of emotions, and we encourage you to focus on thinking virtual-first. It is easier to communicate something that is definite, than to promote something that may be, and then need to change the event and pivot, again. (Although by now, you can likely add “professional pivoter” to your resume.) 

For these event experiences, you’ll also need to choose platforms for hosting them. Here are some suggestions: 

  • Zoom and Google Hangouts are the easiest and affordable platforms for connecting your community during these events for person-to-person interaction.
  • A password-protected landing page on your website is another great way to display all of the information for a virtual event — including access to pre-recorded content and live content.
  • Facebook Groups are another great, free option to facilitate discussions and information for a particular event.
  • Finalsite’s live streaming platform powered by Local Live provides a flexible and affordable option for live streaming classroom lessons, sports, and small in-person events.
  • This example of a virtual tour done via Instagram Stories from Phillips Academy  proves that you don’t need high quality equipment or an expensive platform to do something that makes an impact,

Step 5: For longer events, list out the typical agenda.

Each event has its character and requirements. Take a look at each event’s traditional agenda and ask yourself: 

  • Which of these elements should be eliminated?
  • Which of these elements should be a video recording?
  • Which of these elements should be a live video?
  • Which of these elements requires person-to-person interaction, and how will we facilitate that virtually?

Here’s an example of a hybrid open house.

WHAT?

WHO?

HOW?

WHERE?

LENGTH

Welcome from the Head of School

Head of School Name

Pre-Recorded

Recorded on Campus using Social Distancing

15 Min

Admissions Q&A

Admissions Team

Live

Zoom Meeting

25 Min

Tour

Student-Led

Pre-Recorded

N/A

25 Min

Lunch Break Outs

Attendees broken out into groups of 10

Live

Zoom Break Out Rooms

25 Min

Student Speaker

Student Name

Pre-Recorded

Recorded on Campus using Social Distancing

25 Min

Student Q&A about Hybrid Learning

Panel of Students

Live

Zoom Meeting

25 Min

Closing Remarks

Recent Alumni

Pre-Recorded

N/A

10 Min

 

Step 6: Find your event differentiators.

 

For each event, consider what those big event differentiators are, and focus your creativity and attention there. This will help your event stand out from the other virtual event your school (and other schools) are hosting.

I recently spoke to an admissions team who was trying to figure out a way to re-create their open house, virtually. They said their annual open house usually draws about 1,000 people to the campus in a single day to explore. Throughout the four-hour event, the two things that stick out to families are 1. Seeing the campus in action (not empty); and 2. Meeting with faculty. This is pretty similar for most schools.

A virtual event can still accomplish these two things — and those should become the focus of your creative efforts. 

For example, create a virtual tour video that shows your campus in action this fall if you’ve chosen to have students return in a modified format. While to you this isn’t your “normal campus,” parents want to see what it looks like now — masks, social distancing, smaller classrooms, and all. 

For meeting with faculty, arrange a series of zoom meetings that students can pop in and out of organically, almost like they would in person. You could also set up live streaming cameras in a few different classrooms to allow students to see learning happen in real time. For schools that are 100% hybrid, set up a few virtual classrooms that event attendees would be able to join with video and audio off on their end.

This example from Trinity Christian School shows how you can also connect parents outside of virtual events when it's convenient for them.

trinity christian school "connect with a parent" page

Step 7: Set a time limit.

Virtual events don’t have the same gravitas as an in-person event. Attendees have the distraction of their kids, pets, significant others, UPS deliveries, neighbors popping by, the oven timer going off...and that’s important to keep in mind.

For virtual events, the recommendation is about 60-90 minutes — especially when the content is entirely pre-recorded or live streamed without any person-to-person interaction. Adding person-to-person interaction can extend the event by 30 minutes or so, depending on what is planned.

Step 8: Get personal.

It’s easy to lose human connection when everything is virtual, so it’s essential to find new ways to make the event feel personal and inspire person-to-person connection.

Some ideas include:

  • Asking parents to “customize” or “personalize” their virtual experience when registering as Canterbury School does here.

customize your virtual visit example
  • Set up a “random coffee” for your virtual events. “Random coffee” is a fun add-on to any event, and offers an opportunity for event attendees to connect randomly via a Google hangout or Zoom meeting to discuss their questions, comments, concerns, and goals in a quick 10-minute discussion. Your virtual events can set aside time for multiple “random coffees” or just one. All you need to do is use a random pairing generator to pair up event attendees, and then provide a virtual medium for them to connect. 

  • Send direct mail. Whether it is before or after the event, sending a piece of direct mail to their house gives them something tangible to take away from the virtual event, giving it more impact.

Step 9: Develop a follow-up strategy.

Follow-up strategies are key to ensuring your virtual events have positive outcomes. For each of your virtual events, determine how and when you will send email communications — and of course, how many. 

  • For admissions, enrolling virtual event attendees into an email drip campaign can improve engagement and save time. Have that “next step” such as inquiring or applying ready to be sent to their inbox.
  • For fundraising, sending a direct mail “thank you” piece for donors above a certain threshold makes an impact. 
  • For all-staff meetings and back-to-school events, direct mail is also effective. Think about sending some school swag that is helpful on campus and at home, such as a branded mask or a laptop case.
  • Another consideration is following up big virtual events with smaller in-person events that can follow CDC guidelines on or off campus.

Again, there is no silver bullet — you have to do what works for your school or district.   

Step 10: Ask for feedback and improve for the future.

Post-event surveys for attendees and staff participants can help you improve future virtual events — so don’t forget to have them ready to send out immediately as part of your follow-up strategy. Keep the surveys short to ensure a high response rate — no more than 3-5 questions. If you use the Finalsite Platform, Forms Manager is a great and easy tool for surveys. For those not using the Finalsite Platform, Survey Monkey and Type Form are great as well.

In addition to surveys, keeping an eye on the following KPIs is key:

  • Registration total
  • Attendance total
  • Length of engagement during virtual event
  • Post-event conversion (did they inquire, donate, apply, fill out a survey?)

Key Takeaway

Back in March when we hosted virtual events, we all were hoping that was the end of virtual everything — and by now things would be back to normal. Even for schools returning in some fashion, it doesn’t “feel” normal — and, we’re not sure when that’s going away. It’s time to plan ahead, get creative, and feel inspired about the new opportunities that virtual events provide, instead of worrying about what they may take away.

Good luck! 


Click here to take the Admissions quiz to see if your website is ready for fall admissions!


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Mia Major

As Finalsite's director of demand generation, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, eBooks, and reports, including Finalsite's Inbound Marketing Benchmark Report.

  • Admissions
  • COVID-19
  • Marketing/Communications
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