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9 Best Practices for Moving Your In-Person Student Events to an Online Experience

It’s the same, but different.

Everything is in the process of moving online: classes, office hours, health services—and all of your prospective and admitted student events.

The move to online makes sense. The need for your prospective and admitted students to experience your campus and meet the people who make up your great institution remains intact. The visit day or campus tour is often where magic happens, where a student can feel and sense that “I belong.”

As a parent of a graduate student, it was not long ago when I went on a campus tour-tour. We drove across Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee looking at schools and going on campus tours. The campuses and tours were all very different, as were the cities and their surroundings.

On this trip, leaving one school in particular, my daughter said the magic words, “I can see myself here.”  By Christmas she was accepted by that school and she posted her acceptance letter on Facebook. The search had ended. The future was here.

This is why we hold visit days, campus tours, and meet-and-greets. It’s why we build Welcome Centers and invest in those wonderful student ambassadors. We want a connection to happen between our institution and the student and their family.

Doing a good job on these events takes effort. It takes planning, a budget, a great team, promotion, and follow up.  When done well, it’s a shining example of what makes your institution special.

So now the question is, can you recreate this magic online?

Yes and no.

Yes, you can create a student experience online where students get to connect with your campus, your people, and your programs. They can, in time, get to that moment of feeling “I belong here.”

No, it won’t happen in a day. Instead, it will be an ongoing relationship that builds over time.

Building a relationship online is a process. Let’s review nine best practices for moving your student experience online:

1. Good preparation is still required.

  • Everything you did to prepare for your in-person events still needs to be done.
  • Develop an agenda, set topics to cover, and identify the right speakers and guides.

2. Set a schedule: not a day, but instead a set of live events held over two to three weeks.

  • Drop the idea that this is a one-day event that will run like a day on campus.
  • Instead, break up your key components and make each topic an individual event.
  • Schedule these individual events consistently over two to three weeks, such as every day at 3 p.m. A schedule might look like this:

Week 1
Monday at 3 p.m. – Meet our President
Tuesday at 3 p.m. – Meet Financial Aid
Wednesday at 3 p.m. – Meet Student Life
Thursday at 3 p.m. – Academics panel
Friday at 3 p.m. – Meet a student

Week 2
Monday at 3 p.m. – Tour a dorm
Tuesday at 3 p.m. – Tour the dining hall
Wednesday at 3 p.m. – Tour the campus
Thursday at 3 p.m. – Tour Athletics
Friday at 3 p.m. – Meet an alum

  • You should line up the events in a schedule that allows you to get through about 10 individual sessions over a two- to three-week period
  • BIG CHANGE IN THINKING: as exciting as the live events are, getting these authentic sessions recorded is the key. 
  • You won’t get a large audience to attend live: no worries. Remember, online is about building a relationship over time, not a one-time event. Think in terms of nurturing that relationship over a couple of months.

3. You have the tools you need.

  • Facebook Live is a great tool to use for one-on-one chats and tours. You already have a Facebook channel; Facebook will promote to your followers automatically when you are live, and it’s easy to record the sessions.
  • Zoom is a great tool for panel discussions. It’s easy to set up and the panelists can all be in different locations. It enables an easy way for viewers to submit questions and your host can monitor the questions while facilitating conversation with the panelists.  It’s also easy to record the session on the platform.

4. Video recording quality is good “as is.”

  • The goal is not to make a marketing-produced school video. Instead, limited editing, no production touches such as intro graphics, no music overlay, and no placed messages are required.
  • When you use platforms like Facebook Live or Zoom, viewers are comfortable with and expect the recordings to simply be live, authentic sessions.
  • That does not mean you should have a poorly-executed live session. You still must select engaging and clear-minded speakers, have key points prepared, and hold a practice session or two beforehand.  These practice sessions can be right before the event, but you don’t want the live event to be your first walk-through. Remember, it’s the video recording or asset that we want.

5. Live events are great, but the value comes after.

  • This is a key point. Unlike your in-person student event where the magic happens on that day, this is not the case online.
  • Building a relationship online takes time.  It’s not one live event or one live recording. It’s the accumulative relationship that builds over multiple viewings and interactions. 
  • In a live event you can move a student through the phases of uncertainty, to comfort, to trust, to excitement throughout the day.
  • Online this will take time. You need to help answer their questions, earn their trust, then build their excitement, and eventually develop affinity. This is how you should build your agenda, your marketing plan, and your follow-up.
    • Establish credibility. Build trust. Create excitement. Develop affinity.

6. Spend little promoting before the event.

  • Of course you should send out some communications before each live online event. 
  • However, before the events, spend more time focused on preparing and practicing the live event.  Focus on the delivery and getting comfortable with the tools. Practice the tour, practice the discussion, practice recording.
  • The quality of the event is more important than pre-event promotion.

7. Optimize.

  • Now that you have a good set of video assets, think about where and how to post them.
  • Pick a place to post the videos as a series and brand the series (give it a name).
  • Likely you will post this series on YouTube.
  • Connect all of your other online locations to this channel:
    • .edu prospective student pages
    • .edu admitted student pages
    • Landing pages
    • Online resource center
  • Make sure all your video assets are properly tagged and optimized for the YouTube search engine.

8. Spend most of your budget promoting these video assets all summer.

  • These should be part of campaigns to drive apps, drive deposits, and limit melt.
  • Build a multi-channel, integrated campaign, including:
    • YouTube advertising
    • Email
    • Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
    • Social media advertising
    • Social media content on your channels

9. Measuring impact is different and not different.

  • You typically measure in-person events by attendance; you should not measure your live online events by this measure. 
  • Engagement with a clear call-to-action is the measurement.
  • After you build the YouTube Student Experience Channel, promote it aggressively.  Measure your core marketing engagement metrics; this is what’s not different:
    • Email open rates
    • Email click-through rates
    • Social media referrals
    • Video asset views
    • Length of viewer time watching the videos
    • Organic website traffic
  • “Meet with an admission counselor” is an excellent call-to-action: explain how to do it and measure the number of meetings you generate from this program. 

Create a good set of recorded live events, turn them into a branded series, optimize your posting of these assets, and drive engagement and meetings all summer. If you can achieve that, you will turn interested students into excited students who have a strong commitment to your institution, improving your applications, deposits, and enrollment.

Jim Rogers is the CEO of 3 Enrollment Marketing.