Virtual Open Days – Top Tips for Converting Your Online Audience

Since March 2020, when the global COVID-19 pandemic sent the UK, along with rest of the world, into a state of stillness, schools, colleges and universities have had to rethink how Open Days are run. Some of us rose to the challenge and started offering alternative solutions in the form of “virtual open days” to welcome prospective families to our institutions. Some of us outsourced the process to companies that specialise in organising virtual events. Some, amongst us, are still (re-)thinking and reluctant to dive into the virtual world for fear that it might dilute the rich experience, which physical Open Days offer.
Whichever category of response you find yourself and your school in, virtual open days are here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. Let’s spend some time on this subject to ensure that we make the most of this opportunity and allow the world to see us- in the best possible light, and maximise the chances of converting your online audience into actual enrolments!
Having attended and hosted a number of online open events, I will be sharing the key ingredients that will make your online open day a huge success, leaving a positive impact on your audience and keep them talking about it for months after! If you are looking to improve your virtual events, or finding ways to maximise conversions from virtual open days, or about to host your first one, here are our top ten items for your Virtual Open Day Checklist:
  1. Pre-event communication: Virtual Open Days is a relatively new concept for the families that you’re trying to attract and engage. Some might have heard of e-conferencing tools such as Zoom, only some might be familiar with MS Teams. The large majority might be anxious about how they will access your online event. It is therefore vital that regular communication is sent prior event, with simple instructions on what they can expect from the event and how they can log on. Schedule your communication to go, for instance, three weeks before the event, then two weeks, then a week, then a day before. Handhold and nurture your families through the process, which will undoubtedly be new to them. Whatever you do, don’t send everything the night before. Busy working parents/ families won’t appreciate that and will sadly start your customer relationship on the wrong note.
  2. Simple & structured & share schedule: This is my 3-S mantra for a virtual Open Day schedule. Keep the programme simple and don’t be afraid to make it as structured and well-timed as possible. Most importantly, share the schedule with your colleagues and participants ahead of the event. Whilst this seems like a minor point, your families will greatly appreciate knowing the “what” and “when” of your event to enable them to organise their time and know what to expect.
  3. MC: In addition to the schedule that you’ve shared with your online audience, they would also appreciate to be guided through the process. The clearer and easier the process, the better their online experience. (If they have a positive online experience, they are more likely to convert!) An MC (master or ceremony or compere) can really help to put your audience at ease, get them enthused about the event as well as set the structure and pace of the event. Choosing the right MC will help with participants’ engagement. When they are engaged, they will enjoy the event and develop a positive experience with your school/ brand.
  4. Visuals: With an array of digital media available on our screens (from Netflix to Youtube), our expectations of on-screen, digital presentations have taken a giant leap. Not only is there an implicit expectation to be “entertained”, our relatively short online attention span requires any form of online presentation to be engaging, inspiring and attention-grabbing. To help with that, always accompany your speech/ talks with captivating visuals. This reinforces the message(s) that you’re trying to get across and also helps to focus your audience attention on the all-important speeches!
  5. Students & Teachers: Involve your students and teachers who can give families a different perspective of school life. Variety, whilst still sticking to the theme of school promotion, is necessary to keep your audience interested! If you can include the voice of the parents in your event, that would be even better!
  6. Interactiveness: When people get actively involved and interact with the process, they personalise that experience. And when you have a personalised experience, you connect with and trust that brand. Families are more likely to enrol if they trust a school. (Read the article on ‘How to Build Connections and Establish Trust With Your Customers’ for more on this topic!) So, how do you get people to “interact” in a virtual open day, I hear you ask. If you’re using MS Teams, for example, utilise the Q&A function to allow your audience to ask questions. If you’re using Zoom, you might want to break up the audience into smaller groups based on their interest that allow for better dialogue and discussions. A great example was delivered by the Oxford College of Marketing, in which their smaller, online breakout “rooms” enabled participants to delve deeper into the course of their interest through a very dynamic and interactive exploratory session!
  7. Script: Have you ever watched and been in awe of presenters like Philip Schofield, Holly Willoughby, James Corden, Richard Hammond…etc… who seem to have such an engaging, on-screen personality, and wonder how their words just seem to charmingly and effortlessly flow? The answer: a script. It may sound tedious, staged and a little too pretentious with a pinch of Hollywood-ness for a school/ college virtual open evening. The fact is, however, a well-written script will help everyone in involved in your virtual open day (from the technical support person to the main presenters) know exactly their part and where they fit in to the big picture. It will help your online event run seamlessly and smoothly. Let’s face it, most of us are camera-shy and can get a little tongue tied or experience momentary brain-freeze, resulting in word block. A carefully thought-out and written script will help your MC sound more eloquent and potentially avoid those embarrassing stumbling moments!
  8. Role: As a relatively new activity, your colleagues may feel somewhat nervous and unsure about their roles in delivering a virtual open day. Getting everyone enthused and energetic about the event will make your event not only more effective but can unite people in your organisation, building that strong team spirit. This can be achieved when you assign people clear and specific roles. For example, your Admissions Manager will take the role of MC. Your marketing manager can co-ordinate the technical functions of the online webinar, transitioning slides or screens. Your IT officer can ensure the sound, camera and network connections are all working to perfection. Your Headmaster can deliver the opening speech, and so on… Everyone wants to feel that they were involved and indeed instrumental in this new, revolutionary frontier that is ‘virtual open days’. Let’s make our virtual open days as much about team building as they are about school marketing.
  9. Call to action: By the time you’ve reached the end of your virtual event, you and the team will either be exhausted or elated, and by this point it is so easy to forget that your job is still not over yet! In order to finish with impact and increase your chances of conversion, give your online audience an action to take away with. This can be visiting to a specific page on your website for further information; it can be to download the latest school magazine; it can be to watch a video from your teachers; it can be to register for a one-to-one tour with the Head; it can be to submit an application before a deadline… Whatever it is, have a call to action. You’re more likely to get your audience to do something for you immediately after they’ve been inspired by your event. This would be a huge opportunity missed if it wasn’t built into your script, as part of a closing speech.
  10. Follow up: No matter how confident we feel about our virtual open days, there’s always room to get better. How was the experience for your audience? Which part did your audience most enjoyed? Was our message clearly conveyed? Are they able to see their child fitting into your school? These are such important questions to ask to measure the success and effectiveness of your event. And there’s only one way to know: follow up with your audience! Their feedback will help you refine some of the things that you do well and perhaps consider things that you’ve not thought about. It’s a priceless exercise.
Finally, our last tip: enjoy your virtual event. You’re doing something extraordinary and revolutionary. Embrace being part of this “new wave movement” in school marketing.

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