Are Virtual Tours for Independent Schools Here to Stay?
Yes, and no. Let me explain.
You’re a school marketer, it’s April 2020, Easter is upon us, the weather is gorgeous and you’re sitting at home in Lockdown thinking “how the hell am I going to recruit families now?!?!” (this would be amongst all the other ‘how’ questions that arose at that time, but we don’t have time to write a book here.)
In early Lockdown, school marketers scrambled for different marketing solutions, what had been ‘normal marketing activities’ were now not viable. We saw ingenious solutions ranging from professionally-made videos to UGC iPhone videos, drone videos, website landing pages, and alas, the emergence of the Virtual Tour.
Virtual Tours are not new to education sector, most Universities have had them for years. It has been COVID and the need for change that has highlighted them as a useful option for the independent sector. Explore this list of universities that have 360 Virtual Tours or 360 Videos. Many of these University tours are beautifully presented microsites that are a marriage of design and technology, and are obviously proving ROI for the schools who are recruiting both nationally and internationally.
Virtual Tours had been on everyone’s to-do list prior to COVID, the issue was, no one ever gets to the bottom of their list – the budget tends runs out well before that!
A shift change in the types of marketing collateral meant more marketers were bringing Virtual Tours to the top of their list creating a spike in demand for Virtual Tours. Because a Virtual Tour was a new (and unknown) product for schools to source and a term used loosely to describe anything that showed images of a school, it meant there were many versions of a “Virtual Tour”. Suppliers from any and every sector took advantage of the demand and created anything visual, called it a virtual tour and were selling at various prices and quality levels, as there was no historical precedent for school marketers to gauge against – videos, still images, 360 images with and without content embedded and so on, were all called Virtual Tours.
School marketers paid a range of amounts for a vast range of products, none of which had been proven as useful or ‘vetted’ by the sector.
There are now 100s of types of Virtual Tour products and just as many variations on quality, versatility and price.
To review an in-depth explanation of what you should look for in a provider and rough budget expectations for different levels of service, visit my Whitepaper here, written in late 2020 as an impartial advice guide for anyone in the sector looking at virtual tours.
Two years on, standards on quality of the Virtual Tours are solidified in the independent sector and expectations are set. Over 35% of schools in the sector have a 360 virtual tour (polled ISS, Nov 2021). Some tours are excellent and are proving invaluable to schools. Some tours are mediocre but were stop-gap solutions that got a school through two very difficult years. What is clear from looking at usage statistics and market saturation is we, as school marketers, now have a better understanding of what a tour should look like, how it should behave, how much it should cost and ROI expectations. Therefore, it’s now much easier to choose a provider and product to fit your needs.
Which brings me onto…
Are Virtual Tours here to stay?
Yes, the good ones are.
No, the bad ones are not.
As with any disruptive technology trend, there will be an emergence of the winners, the standard setters, the barometers of quality and ROI.
“Survival of the fittest” mentality applies!
How Do We Know Good Virtual Tours Are Here to Stay?
Anecdotal Proof that Virtual Tours are here to stay, below are some comments from me about my experiences and conversations with clients, non-clients and other providers:
- Some marketers comment they bought a ‘quick’ solution in 2020 and have since sought out an upgraded tour, because they see the value but need to ‘move on’ from the basic tour they currently have to something that offers an in-depth experience.
- Marketers without a Virtual Tour are still enquiring and booking, quoting they “are late to the game” and “everyone has one” and they don’t want to get caught out in a shortlist with another school that does offer this sort of collateral. Schools without one are becoming the minority.
- Marketers are commenting that a Virtual Tour can do the ‘heavy lifting’ of admissions and gives a blended approach to the admissions journey. “Parents are expecting a blended approach (on-site visit + digital/virtual visit) so be prepared.”
- Marketers in charge of international marketing find virtual tours a miracle tool. Agents overseas can use a Virtual Tour and represent a school so much better than a printed prospectus or website would, one school commented.
- A school has said they have a team of recruiters worldwide and numerous agents; their tour has brought a very simple change to the process and made conversations (and conversions!) much easier and more fluid.
- Regardless of on-site tours now being back in full swing, this hasn’t changed the need for a tool to satisfy parents who are: time-poor, too far to attend an open day, or are abroad.
- Our current clients move schools and take us with them, commissioning a Virtual Tour immediately as they get into post.
- Our current clients book in new tours for their brand’s international counterparts as well as additional spaces to add to existing tours.
- Our current clients see the Google Analytics stats that show an average of 35 clicks per visit, each visit averages 20 minutes dwell time and they know the content within the tour is the key to those figures! As such, most of our tours have been further enhanced with imagery and video content, sometimes provided by us!
- As 360 tours start gaining even more traction, the added benefit of VR headsets (cardboard or Oculus) – even if only for wow factor – has really caused a stir in both exhibition and recruitment fair spaces and for new pupil engagement.
- Other Tour Providers (with high-quality outputs) are busy and we have competition, which is healthy. Other Tour Providers (with lower-quality output) that use the ‘click and go software’ (like Google Street View style), that don’t personalise their tours or add content are in our 360 Forums asking “where has all the business gone?”.
- Finally, we are busy, busier than ever, and is a testament that:
- the demand for Virtual Tours is increasing and
- schools are now certain of what they want from a tour:
- High-quality images
- High-quality design
- A differentiation between other school’s tours – stand out from a crowd
- A reasonable price point
- Image copyright and non-subscription based software
- Ability to control UI, brand, content of their tour
- Ability to make ongoing changes to content
the future of Virtual Tours
Overall, schools simply want their Virtual Tour to behave like a website does for them – it’s design-led, high quality, technologically advanced, creative, analytic-driven, ever-evolving and a strong, prospective-family marketing tool.
As the independent sector grows and evolves its way of teaching, caring for our young people and bettering itself to adapt to a dynamic world, we too must evolve and change. It’s apparent we have all stepped out of our comfort zone to get the job done over the past 2 years, and we’re all stronger for it.
Yes, I think Virtual Tours are here to stay and will be as common as a school website; it will be the norm, not the exception. The sector will demand more from us as suppliers – and I want that challenge! The sector needs that challenge.
The question is – what tools will be in your marketing toolkit when that day comes…?