Improving the Virtual Experience for Prospective Students
I’ve spent countless hours exploring college environments virtually. Following recent searches, I thought it would be helpful to provide a few suggestions. If you’re looking to improve the virtual experiences for prospective undergraduate students and families, here are ten tips:
10. Check your links
I’ve been on a number of virtual tours recently with broken images and links. Once I see broken links I assume the site isn’t up-to-date and is, therefore, not a productive use of my time. I’m off to the next website on my list.
9. If you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, do it better
The vast majority of virtual experiences utilize an interactive map: a series of identified campus landmarks where users click on individual locations to reveal a modal overlay with photography and text. Interactive maps have a long history in higher ed web and have a tendency to feel flat. If you’re going this route, you need to breathe some life into the interaction. Eckerd College, for example, pulls in videos, an events calendar, 360 degree tours, and photo galleries to their virtual tour. American University’s interactive map is also a twist on traditional with a collection of video tours by six campus community members. Yale has the best interactive map I’ve seen – the combination of media and high quality imagery puts it on top of competitors.
8. Think beyond the physical campus
After the first couple of college tours, campus spaces and facilities all start to look alike to prospective students. What they remember most from on-campus visits is the way they felt about the people around them and the hum of daily life. Virtual experiences need to find a way to replicate the vibe on-campus. This means online tours need to showcase more student faces, campus traditions, and day-to-day life. Both Rice University and Dickinson College push beyond structures in their photo tours.
7. Rethink live webcams
Along with interactive maps, webcams have been a standard bearer for virtual experiences in higher ed web. I’ve seen less of them lately, thankfully, and I think most remaining live cams need critical thought. Webcams are not the best visual representation of your space; they distort the image, lighting is unreliable, and users are usually looking down from a high installation at the floor. Moreover, it’s a sad sight in summer months to watch an empty space for hours on end.
6. I can’t explore it if I can’t find it
Oddly, a large number of institutions have virtual tours buried several levels into the information architecture. The students most in need of these web experiences are your prospects at the very top of the admissions funnel, those trying to decide whether they want to use the time and resources to visit your institution in person. These students are the least likely to dig deep into your site. Surface the virtual experience and find an intuitive pathway for a novice audience. Wofford College places their virtual tour in the primary navigation’s “Admissions” dropdown; here it is easily found by a first-time visitor.
5. Provide action-based next steps
The point of a virtual experience is to move a student and family towards deeper engagement with the institution: contact, visit and apply. Help lead web visitors by strategically including action-items within the virtual experience. Earlham College gives viewers the option to “Contact Admissions” and “Apply Now” in each of its tour videos. Similarly, the Agnes Scott video series encourages scheduling a visit and applying with clear task-based navigation.
4. You can’t give tours 24/7, but the iPhone can
Family travel schedules don’t always align neatly with admission office hours. However, a few institutions now have an app for that. These aren’t just useful for families who miss office hours, but also for a student hundreds of miles away. I took the College of Charleston’s historical walking tour during lunch yesterday. Harvard University also offers an iPhone walking tour. Hanover provides their viewbook in app form and I was able to swipe through the opportunities there during a coffee break.
3. Imagery is king
It becomes clear as your sort through multiple virtual tours that some institutions focus in on great photography and video… and some don’t. In the resources tug of war, this is something you want to win. Stanford University’s design features some of the cleanest, most appealing photographs in higher ed. Baylor University also strategically selected images for its virtual tour. Although approaching a virtual tour with a traditional map, the images in Carnegie Mellon’s tour make it one of the more appealing online experiences.
2. Consider device-agnostic experiences
It’s pretty difficult to experience most college campuses from your smart phone. I’ve tried navigating dozens of college sites on my iPhone and I can usually read the text, but images and videos are more difficult to access. From my own experiences, I would argue that the vast majority of virtual experiences currently offered do not work on tablet or mobile devices. Check out the presentation on Device-iveness: Delivery a High Fidelity Experience on Desktop Browsers, Tables, and Phones by my colleague, Doug Gapinski.
1. A great virtual tour doesn’t need a map
Increasingly I’ve seen institutions abandon a technically involved interactive map in lieu of a more subtle virtual experience. View Chicago is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s not an interactive map and it’s also not a social media splash page, rather it reminds me of those “choose your own adventure” books. Above the fold there are approximately ten different ways to experience Chicago and the opportunities multiply as the page scrolls. Boston University and Texas Christian University also offer map-less virtual experiences that are worth a gander.
How does your institution approach the virtual experience? Do you know of other great virtual tours?