The Shift from On-campus to Virtual Events: Out of Necessity Comes Opportunity

Plato is often credited with the quote, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” While the origination of this famous saying may be in question; the meaning is not.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly created a new framework that we have not only had to adapt to, but rapidly learn from as we plan for the future (and what that might look like). Within higher education (similar to most industries), institutions initially found themselves in a state of necessity; making decisions for the health, safety, and well-being of their students and staff and quickly working in parallel to figure out the rest. Now, after a month of responding to the challenges brought on by the pandemic and making changes to replace all in-person interactions with virtual ones, colleges and universities must make a conscious effort to continue what necessity started.

In the upcoming sections, we outline a few key tactics to consider (better yet incorporate) with your virtual event strategy if you haven’t already. These ideas stem from collaborative discussions we’ve had with our partners about the challenges and opportunities that come with creating and capturing virtual events. We also highlight what is important from a data and advanced analytics perspective and why the details matter.

  1. It’s redundant to discuss the need to shift to virtual events, however, it’s important to establish your institution’s approach to defining virtual events. Are you replacing each of your in-person events (e.g., admit days, tours, interviews) with a virtual replication or do your virtual events serve as an alternative, separate from the previously established in-person events? The approach your institution takes allows you to make a more relevant comparison between these two event types. Content, measure of student engagement, duration of event, definition of attendance, and individual or group-based options are examples of the details that help to distinguish and compare your events before and post mid-March. This information becomes critical as your institution looks to draw conclusions from virtual event attendance as it relates to the fall class. The reality of this comparison can also help your institution address the gaps as you continue to look for ways to engage the students that need it most.
  2. Accurately capture your virtual event data separately from your in-person events regardless of your approach to #1. By collecting event data in this manner, you are establishing definitions of your in-person and virtual events. These two distinct forms of engagement and attendance at these events can in and of themselves have different implications. It’s much easier to access a tour or program from the comfort of your home. Travel time and costs no longer become obstacles or signs of commitment and can functionally change the meaning of the event. From a data perspective, the work to clearly define virtual event variables and track them effectively can save your institution time down the road. This also allows your virtual event data to be considered in predictive and prescriptive models even now to best understand the potential impact of these events. Last but not least, your institution will have the content to analyze the effectiveness of virtual events compared to in-person events post-September 1. Advanced analytics models can go beyond comparison and into the segmentation of regions or markets to potentially identify areas more impacted by virtual events than campus-based events and open the door for new opportunities.
  3. Create drip campaigns that look to engage potential students beyond a one-time event. Even the virtual events that replicate in-person events are missing key components that could change the impact of that event. As referenced above, attending a virtual event removes the associated time and cost of in-person attendance (both of which are measures of engagement). Attendance in the virtual world has also become as simple as clicking a link. The true objective of virtual events and better yet campaigns is to engage students not only once but consistently. Building a virtual drip campaign can engage individuals over time which is a needed measure, especially now in the face of uncertainty. Take this as an opportunity to expand beyond necessity and create a virtual experience (rather than event) that is sustainable, impactful, engaging, and truly distinguishes your institution from others by focusing on the criticality of the relationship between student and institution.

The truth is the future looks brightest with a hybrid approach to events that personalize a student’s experience whether in person or virtually. Let necessity turn into invention and take advantage of this time to lay the foundation for the future, not only for the upcoming fall class but beyond.


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