Back in March, we were all hoping things would be back to “normal” in a couple of weeks. It’s October, and as states urge families to avoid Trick-or-Treating, it’s pretty clear that Zooming in, masking up, and spreading out is our new normal.
While our new normal isn’t what we were hoping for, it is prompting everyone to get creative in their personal and professional lives. From drive-through birthday parties and trunk or treats, to socially-distanced offices and virtual events, I think everyone can add “Professional outside-of-the-box thinker” to their resumes.
And of course, this creativity extends to admissions offices — as they are required to pivot their big open house events to something virtual.
But, that isn’t a bad thing.
The Benefit of Virtual Open Houses
As the saying goes, “if we can just get them to campus, we can get them to apply.” But we all know that at the end of the day, your school’s campus isn’t the make or break for families. No — it’s the people, education, community, activities, and financial aid (among a list of other unique, personal qualifiers). Sure, a beautiful campus may help you seal the deal, but by the time a family actually visits your campus, they’re already pretty far down the admissions funnel.
Virtual open houses allow you to reach more families earlier on in the funnel — which is a huge plus in today’s competitive market.
Pre-Recorded or Live — What’s Better?
That’s a tough question! But, here’s what we know:
- Families are busier than ever before — so providing on-demand and live options can help appeal to more families without adding to your workload.
- If you host a live event, families will expect access to it after, so have a plan for it.
Our recommendation is a hybrid of both live and pre-recorded content. On the day of your virtual open house you will likely present pre-recorded content, such as a campus tour or welcome from your head, and invite families to participate in live content, such as a variety of Zoom rooms where prospective families can meet with current community members.
Whatever you decide to do: share the details in advance on the registration page! Have you ever attended an event without knowing how long it would be, or what to expect? Virtual open houses are new to everyone — so be sure to outline exactly what’s happening at your school’s virtual open house (if it’s live) and an agenda for the time.
What Makes a Great Virtual Open House?
It’s now mid October, so many schools have already hosted virtual open houses. And while each of the eight examples we’re sharing below are all different, they do have some key traits in common:
- Easy-to-Browse Content Experience: For both live and on-demand content, the user experience should be logical — as if your website is the virtual tour guide showing them around campus. Don’t let them get lost!
- Two-Way Communications: Don’t let your open house be a series of talking heads — invite families to participate by asking questions and meeting with current community members. In addition to Zoom rooms, you can also incorporate live polling to keep your finger on the pulse of your attendee's sentiment, concerns and priorities.
- Authentic Content: I spoke to a colleague who said “I attended a virtual open house for my son and it was pretty bad — just a bunch of administrators talking about how great the school is — yawn.” And I think that sums up what not to do pretty well. The value of in-person open houses was the authentic perspective presented by catching students and faculty living a day-in-the-life. Of course your Head of School thinks the school is great — but save his or her remarks for the opening address. Content about the campus experience should solely come from parents, students, alumni, and faculty.
- On-Demand Afterwards: After you’ve hosted your virtual open house, sharing the on-demand content with registrants is an obvious must — but you can also use it to power an virtual admissions hub that families can access at their convenience.
Virtual Open House Examples
Fairfield Prep (CT)
Why it Works: Previously, a family’s ability to attend an open house depended on coordinating work and school schedules. Now, they can attend a virtual open house when they want — and Fairfield Prep takes advantage of this.
Their virtual open house experience is a self-service experience. In a time where families prefer to “choose their own adventure”, Fairfield Prep does an excellent job of allowing families to make the most of their visit by choosing the content most interesting or relevant to them.
Dubai College (Dubai, UAE)
Why it Works: During a time where everything is virtual, doing something different to stand out is important. Dubai College created a week-long experience complete with pre-recorded and live content to appeal to families
Shalom Christian Academy (PA)
Why it Works: Shalom Christian Academy opted for an entirely live open house experience — which is a great way to gauge the interest of prospective families. But, what we love about this approach is that even though the events have concluded, there are still ample ways to learn about the school. We love the short form docked on the left hand side of the screen — it’s only asking for six pieces of information, and that’s definitely the shortest form we’ve seen. Kudos!
Walnut Hill School for the Arts (MA)
Why it Works: Two words: community voices. With content driven by students and faculty, prospective families get an authentic perspective of life on campus. The content used for the school’s virtual open house now lives on their permanent “Virtual Admissions Center” page — which is a great way to repurpose content you’ve put time and resources into!
Bishop O’Connell High School (VA)
Why it Works: There are so many elements of this virtual open house experience we love. First, the countdown: for those viewing the page before October 4, it built hype. And for those viewing after, there is an element of FOMO. Second, the “Welcome to Our Open House” video, which tells a story from a variety of perspectives. And third, the “choose your own adventure” style experience, where families were promoted to choose from more than 50 zoom rooms to have real, conversations administrators, teachers, coaches and students.
While the live event was on October 4, the school’s virtual open house experience continues to live on the website with livestream content replaced by pre-recorded content. Each page also has key calls-to-action to logical next steps, which is likely to help increase the number of families in their funnel.
St. James School (MD)
Why it works: Families want options — and St. James School clearly understands that. The school isn’t just offering virtual open houses, but also virtual Q&A opportunities and virtual meetings. The Q&A sessions are hosted weekly at the same times — and predictability makes it easy for families to plan ahead. And for those who can’t seem to make a Q&A or open house, the admissions team gets personal by offering to set up a meeting most convenient to the family — perfect!
The page has a clean and logical layout, with other great content to help prompt a conversion, including a virtual tour and campus video.
Hebron Academy (ME)
Why it works: Everything about this virtual admissions hub just works. It’s clear to see that you can get to know Hebron Academy in more ways than one without visiting campus — which has always been essential to this rural New Hampshire boarding school. The school also has a completely self-service virtual admissions center, complete with virtual open house dates and registration, opportunities to visit campus or attend a virtual coffee, explore the campus, and our personal favorite — Herbon Academy FAQs answered by the student community.
One thing we know is that virtual admissions experiences are here to stay — Covid-19 may have expedited the necessity to get them in place, but it’s just plain best practice. Virtual experiences give families options to learn about your school in their own way, on their own time — and they allow you to make connections with more families earlier and more often — fueling your funnel throughout the entire school year.
If you're feeling inspired by these pages, ask about our Digital Campus design assets for admissions, which can help you create a complete virtual admissions experience for 2020 and beyond.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.