How to host a dynamic virtual open house.

Cancelled. The one word we’ve heard one too many times in the past year that’s left us doubled-over, empty-handed. In the higher education space, we’ve watched with helplessness as everything from orientation to graduation has suffered the same fate, leaving students feeling jilted at the altar and administrators scrambling for some kind of worthy alternative.

We’ve seen institutions pivot from in-person classes, social clubs turn into Zoom parties, and even research labs go digital. Such audacious adaptability has been necessary for the continuity of quality education and the higher ed. experience as a whole. Existing students are not getting the experience they signed up for, but hey, they’re making lemonade out of lemons, aren’t they? 

Well, what about new and prospective students? Who has thought about them? With the normally in-person open houses and campus tours being put on hold for now, how are prospective students and their families supposed to get a true, boots-on-the-ground feel for what it’s really like to attend your institution?

Before you give in to despair wondering how on earth you’re going to pull this rabbit out of your hat, know that there really is a worthy alternative that doesn’t come with the logistical gymnastics of social distancing. Of course, we’re talking about a virtual open house. But this isn’t a bland PowerPoint and stale Q&A session where people sign off prematurely out of boredom. Now is your chance to make a lasting impression and wow your prospects with the best virtual open house they’ve ever (virtually) walked through. Here’s how.

For students, your virtual open house needs heart. 

The significance an open house holds for prospective students and their families shouldn’t be understated. After all, you’d take a few test drives before investing in a new car. You’d walk through a house, inspecting it down to the last floor tile, before signing a mortgage. For students and their families, higher education is a similar (read: big) investment. A prospective student expects to be able to walk around campus, peek in the dining halls, sit in a lecture hall, and witness the student culture play out right before their eyes. A parent expects the same, especially if they’re the one cutting a cheque.

The decision to attend your institution is an emotionally and experientially-driven one. Walking through campus and taking part in an open house tour can make or break a decision, especially if nearby institutions offer similar selling points. This aspect of your prospects’ decisionmaking doesn’t just go out the window because of the current environment. And that’s where you come in.

Bottom line: You need to create a virtual open house with heart. Even with the potential limitations of online, you can still provide a life-changing first impression of your institution, leaving your prospects with something to cling to. Grab them emotionally, and guarantee you’ll hold their interest.

The do’s and don’ts for producing your virtual open house.

Before you put on your producer hat, know that there are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to putting together a virtual event. If 2020 has given us anything, it’s been an opportunity to learn how to effectively infuse a digital event with some definitive charm.

  • Do mix in recorded and live elements — You can have the best of both worlds when it comes to hosting a virtual open house, really. Think about it: You can craft a perfect recorded video where you can control the editing and other elements. Then, you can incorporate a live portion like a campus walkabout in real-time. Is it snowing? Great! Students will get to see what campus is like in winter. They’ll be able to imagine themselves shivering as they shuffle to the next building for class. If your live portion can emulate any part of your original open house experience while still being high energy, by all means, use it.
  • Don’t forget about the parents — High school students’ parents are going to pay attention to certain things that their child simply won’t. Remember, parents have a say-so too. So, highlight key safety features of your campus, like the proximity of residence hall advisors to students in the dorms. Talk about campus security and what your campus is doing to keep an eye out for students walking out of the library late at night. Think like a parent! But, you know, play it cool. 
  • Do keep it real — Ditch the notion of perfection. Some of the best, most juicy and memorable moments come when you’re just being real. Let things happen! Beneficial to all of us, 2020’s Zoom culture has steered us away from being perfect to just showing up and being ourselves. The real, unscripted moments are when we emotionally connect. That’s exactly what you want from your prospects. And technical glitches? Practice everything beforehand, but if a speaker forgets to unmute themselves, don’t sweat it. Fix it, and move right along.
  • Don’t show everyone in masks — For your recorded footage, make sure to include shots of students, staff, faculty, etc. not wearing masks. We’re thinking of the future, here. And you’re going to want to use this footage in the future. No one is going to need a reminder of the mask mandates down the road. Keeping local restrictions and social distancing in mind, you can make this work. It just may include some social distancing logistics and some editing. 
  • Do show off culture and student spirit — This doesn’t need to be a buttoned-up presentation about academics. Your prospects have probably already vetted your institution for their own academic path. Now they wanna see if they’d be able to find a place. Feel a connection. Belong. So throw in an Easter egg or two like your mascot interrupting the shot by riding in on a skateboard. Show professors wearing school colors. Don’t hide what makes your school fun and uniquely you.
  • Don’t make it too long — Your virtual open house does not need to last as long as your in-person open house would. Keep an eye on the time, and remember how Zoomed out people are. Keep it engaging to hold their interest and put the most appropriate personnel out front — the ones who will interact most with students. Don’t insert anyone who will risk reenacting Bueller?….Bueller?
  • Do connect with attendees before and after — Registration for the virtual webinars will be necessary, so reach out to invite attendees to connect and provide more information beforehand. Then, when all is said and done, show them you’re still there. Continue to follow-up with prospects to further enhance that sense of connection. Record all the sessions and edit for posting after the event for those who could not attend. 

Put your host hat on: hit the ‘record’ button and get going.

Because there will be some production element involved, your virtual open house might require some extra expense. But consider it an investment that can support decision making for your prospects long after COVID leaves us (and not a moment too soon). 

Pretty pictures and words on a screen aren’t going to entice your prospects. Showing them an unexpectedly fun, perfectly informative, and thoughtfully engaging experience will. Consider it your very own virtual lemonade.

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