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Virtually ideal

They've become a common part of university recruitment, but how are virtual open days evolving? Helen Dorritt investigates

Posted by Hannah Vickers | February 03, 2017 | Higher education

It’s a well-documented fact that an applicant is more likely to choose a university if they’ve visited it. But what does a student do if their preferred university is the other side of the country or, in fact, the world? Step forward the virtual open day (VOD).

Since their arrival in the early 2010s, VODs have been the means by which universities around the globe have given applicants a digital shop window for their offerings. Among the many international universities offering VODs, particularly in the US, Canada, Australia and France, UK universities have also eagerly embraced this methodology. UCAS now has a dedicated page on its website listing the virtual events that applicants can attend, where you’ll find 96 institutions offering undergraduate VODs alone – that’s nearly two-thirds of UK universities.

A window to your wares

The benefits to VODs are obvious – a potentially unlimited number of applicants can ‘visit’ a university and find out more about what it can offer them. There’s also a huge advantage for international applicants, a lucrative group that UK universities are keen to woo. With Brexit looming, attracting EU-specific students is going to be trickier and, according to Demetra Katsifli, Senior Director of Industry Management at education technology company Blackboard: “With Brexit creating some concern amongst students about the ease with which they’ll be able to secure a visa to study in the UK, universities are having to work hard to explain the benefits and the process for becoming a student.” VODs can be a simple and, more importantly, cost-effective way for an institution to demonstrate such benefits and processes.

For those who believe VODs lead to more work for not enough gain, the results from universities who have adopted them disprove this. For example, digital agency SMILE worked with the University of Birmingham on a virtual open day specifically targeted for the North American market. As stated in a recent blogpost: “[The university] operated this entire day with a core team of only three people. The results were fantastic. Overnight they saw a 245% increase in applications.”

“VODs are definitely not a drain on resources,” reports Sarah Brown from tech company Meet and Engage. “Staff find they slot in well with general recruitment admin, and can tap into a wider audience.” This could be an audience that a university might not even be aware of – in the same blogpost, SMILE also noted that “the beauty of anything online is that through analytics packages, insightful user data can be fed straight back to you. You might even stumble across a new section of prospective applicants. One of the universities using our Virtual Campus platform… received a large number of unexpected hits from Colombian students. As a result of this information, they pushed more resources into recruiting in this region.”

Choosing the right experience

There are several ways that universities run VODs, from a webpage offering videos and 360˚ tours to a more immersive experience with live chats and interactive elements. It’s therefore vital for a university to decide at the outset what objectives it wants its VODs to achieve, and tailor the content accordingly. For the University of Winchester, which began running VODs three years ago, the target audience is UK undergraduates. “We’re therefore focusing on 17-year-olds, so we decided to go with pre-recorded videos that are similar to YouTube, which they’ll relate to,” explains Heidi Williams, Student Recruitment Manager. 

Winchester’s videos, which are produced in-house by its film department, include tours of the campus, talks about accommodation and information about student support, although course-specific content is not included. “Our main ambition is also to get people to visit in person so we don’t view VODs as an alternative to our real-life open days, but rather as an added extra,” says Heidi. While Winchester’s VODs are currently focused on home students, she notes that international students are accessing the resource.

Introducing a live element to the day can add further interest, such as the live chats run by Meet and Engage’s Uni Meet-Up platform (www.meetandengage.com/unimeetup). The company creates a landing page on a university’s website to advertise events, which can be tailored to specific departments or courses, and a moderated chat is then held with applicants. “The moderator is what makes Uni Meet-Up different to a normal live chat,” explains Sarah. “They have to approve any question before the answer is published.” Applicants can also access extra content such as videos at the same time, and once a chat has happened, the transcript can be published for other applicants to access in their own time.

Uni Meet-Up’s platform allows universities to set up separate landing pages for target groups, so its client Leicester University, for example, has distinct pages for undergraduate, postgraduate, international and distance learning in order to target specific groups. It’s also very easy to link in with a university’s CRM and track the progress of an applicant, noting at which point they come into the cycle and then tailoring communications regarding specific events they might be interested in.

For some universities, the aim of a VOD is to create a truly immersive experience, and this is what Goldsmiths decided on when it created its first VOD in 2013, using a specific microsite that encompasses live chats, videos and 360˚ tours. “We didn’t just want it as a repeat of the website,” explains Ben Fowler, Head of Student Marketing. Goldsmiths’ aim was to recreate the unique elements that an applicant would get from a real-life open day, from the talks with staff to the picking up of leaflets. 

Created with agency Enigma Interactive, Goldsmiths’ microsite uses software that’s compatible with tablets and phones and that’s also ‘swishable’ – as you go on a tour, for example, you move your device and the images moves with you. Applicants can create a virtual shopping basket and put in information to take home with them, such as PDFs and images. After entering their details, the university then sends all this to them, ensuring that precious contact details and information are saved and used for targeted marketing later on.

Goldsmiths initially offered its VODs on an exclusive, invitation-only basis and only had them live for 48 hours, but quickly found that this was limiting the VODs’ reach and soon made them available on demand. While the on-demand VOD can lack the authenticity of a real-life open day, Goldsmiths has mitigated this by advertising live chats on specific days. “This has worked really well for us,” reports Ben. “For the first two years, when our VODs were live for 48 hours only, we had several hundred users. Once we opened them up for access throughout the cycle, we jumped to 3,000–4,000 users.”

Content balanced with technology

With technology ever evolving, the possibilities and potential for VODs are too. Deakin University in Australia, for example, has gone one better than the 360˚ campus tour and introduced a two-minute drone-led virtual reality ‘flight’. A video was created by stitching together the drone footage from tours over the university’s four campuses, which was then projected onto the walls and floor of a specially-constructed viewing cube.

Now that technology is so good, however, it can be easy to forget about the quality of the actual content, but a university needs to ensure both are up to scratch in order to get the most from a VOD. “The experience itself is vital,” says Ben. “Think about what makes a real-life open day unique and special and apply this to a VOD. If an applicant can also find all this information online, what’s the point of them attending a VOD? There needs to be something more.” 

Ben also firmly believes that the people involved are key. “Just as people make a real-life open day, it’s the same for a VOD, so make sure you get good ones staffing your live chats. We use a rotating group of lecturers, support staff and students, which we’ve found to be a good balance.” Sarah agrees. “You definitely need to bring the right people on board.” She also advises being creative with the chat topics. “Think about reaching other groups as well as students, such as parents, and also having useful advice like tips for the application process.”

In an ever-competitive higher education marketplace, there’s no doubt that the VOD is here to stay, and Demetra posits that universities not on board with this new technology will end up being left behind. “Universities that don’t offer VODs will soon be in the minority and they’ll find it difficult to compete for students, especially foreign students, if they don’t find ways to show off their credentials to a remote audience.” The future, it seems, is virtual. 

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