Virtual Research, Real-Life Meaning

As part of our continued research and discovery efforts, we’ve been holding virtual Circles of Influence for clients, via Zoom. Circles is a proprietary research method that is a variation on the idea of a focus group in which a pivotal student tells the story of their journey at a college or university through their relationships. Pivotal students invite other students, faculty, staff and administrators to participate because of their positive influence. These Circles are some of the most emotional, fun and profound experiences we have. We compare what we hear to what students are told to expect. Often, we have the lucky experience of getting to tell our clients about some incredible stories of which they are unaware, which give them a new insight into a context with which they are already intimately familiar. 

We use gaps between the said and the expected to help clients bring these into alignment in products like enrollment marketing materials and much more. Perhaps your students consistently mention that your core writing course changed how they perceive themselves as writers, or they introduce us to a professor who helped them learn they really could do math or learn a new language. We can use that information to give shape and specificity to what you claim is the transformational nature of your education or to clarify your market position. We can trace how students find you during their college search processes, why they chose you over others and how to use those stories to engage and attract potential students who may have never heard of you before. We can also use this information to make sure your virtual tours highlight winning spots on campus, or so that your yield campaigns speak persuasively about forming a lifetime relationship with your campus. We can also use this research to help structure student panels, admissions interviews and other campus events by refining the content and focusing on the right students. The goal is to help you represent yourself most coherently, truthfully and authentically by discovering what is coherent, truthful and authentic.

Different communicative modes create affordances and challenges. “Affordance” is a term for a capacity that a technology or communicative mode allows you. Speaking an oral or signed language face-to-face has certain affordances around privacy or direct communication but lacks the ability to broadcast to many others. Technologies like newspapers and books can afford wide distribution. However, they can be just as ephemeral as spoken conversation, because they can be destroyed rather easily. Remember car phones—the ones in a bag that had a real handset and plugged into what used to be the cigarette lighter? I look back on the days of that Jurassic predecessor to the Cretaceous entity that is the smartphone and think about the affordances of being able to work on the road. I also think about the challenges of being able to work on the road. I think there’s a lesson there about the human desire for novel technologies, and yet, we here at RHB are relying on novel technology to help our clients.

Typically, we hold Circles on campus, but they have ready applicability to virtual channels. 

I’ve compiled some observations here about these Circles drawing on my training analyzing how people organize their communications. 

Facilitating Circles on Zoom requires retraining eyes and ears to pay attention to different cues, as well as becoming comfortable with conversational dynamics that might feel uncomfortable. We all have some ideas about how successful communication is supposed to go. Zoom can feel like a challenge to those ideas at the same time it can challenge preconceptions about what is “virtual” and what is “real life.” You’ve probably noted a lot of the phenomena I will describe during your own virtual meetings. If you feel exhausted from using Zoom, know that you’re not alone in that. Hopefully having someone recognize that this can be incredibly taxing, even when it’s fun, will help you give yourself some credit for the hard work you do during meetings. 

So, in no particular order, here are some of the most important lessons we have learned from our Zoom Circles.

1. Zoom’s affordances interact with politeness behaviors in interesting ways.

After a year of online or hybrid course options, students are pretty well steeped in behavioral norms for Zoom classes. They may have to be repeatedly coaxed to turn their microphones on, no matter how often we assure them it’s fine to stay off mute. I have a hypothesis that the little red muted microphone is a literal symbol of politeness toward whomever is speaking, and to go off mute signals an intention to speak that might challenge the current speaker. Coming off mute when it is actually one’s turn to speak is followed by a brief silence to ensure the previous speaker is finished. It can also function as a bid or an ask to take a turn in proper order, much like raising one’s hand.

While orderly turn-taking reads as polite and helps regulate conversational flow, there are also elements of institutional character that influence who speaks when. For instance, when we spoke to students at a women’s college that touts empowerment and collaborative efforts, participants were very careful not to take turns improperly and to redirect a turn back to someone who they feel didn’t get to be properly heard. In this case, Zoom’s affordances interact with other ideas about how students are to treat each other respectfully.

2. Cues and displays of interest rely on different techniques.

If you’re telling a story to your friends, you may expect them to say, “uh huh,” “yeah,” or “really?” to show their interest. Called backchanneling, making these comments signals interest and a desire to hear more. If no one backchannels while you tell a story, you may feel pressured to drop it and turn the conversational floor over to someone else.

During an in-person Circle, we frequently hear stories that are co-constructed, meaning that participants will feed comments or questions to a pivotal student to prompt more detail or a plot diversion. As well, it is common during in-person conversation and storytelling in friendship groups that speakers will overlap for a few words or a few syllables. To be clear: overlaps are not interruptions per se, but rather audience-engagement metrics—encouragements to continue, not to stop. 

Friends may also latch, a phenomenon in which as Speaker A finishes a turn, there is neither pause nor overlap before Speaker B begins. To latch indicates a high level of attention to what’s being said and ability to predict when a turn is about to end. Latching and overlap can demonstrate that speakers know each other pretty well or think they can predict each other’s conversational patterns.

We can see less overlap and latching on Zoom because it’s hard to transmit several voices simultaneously, and because users know there can be a lag between when someone claims a turn and the actual onset of their voice. It seems that not latching or overlapping are the signs of attention, often paired with a gesture like a thumb up or eyebrow raising.

Because faces are visible in ways they may not be in all conversational or in-person settings, it is also possible to see facial responses when Zoom is set to the gallery view. Members of the RHB team have noted that in our own Zoom events, we may rely more on exaggerated facial responses as backchannels. One can also “read the room” by scanning several faces nearly simultaneously for a mood or attention change without having to see much individual detail. 

3. Zoom is no barrier to the expression of emotion.

I mentioned previously that Circles is an emotional experience. That’s underplaying it. While an individual Circle might last an hour to 90 minutes, we may hold five to six of them per client. A day in which there are three Circles on the calendar is a day that will have us laughing until we can’t anymore, getting teary-eyed several times, and sharing the excitement and exhaustion students feel. We will have felt almost the entire scope of human emotions because each Circle takes its own emotional tone and experiential theme.

We were mighty curious how that would play out when we held Circles over Zoom—would we still be completely wrung out at the end of the day? Truly, we were. On one recent day, we got to go along for the ride as an epic love story was co-constructed over several minutes by participants in one Circle. What seems to matter more than the communicative channel are the personalities involved and the precious time when they can all meet together.

These emotional contours of Circles are where we learn that the virtual is the real. Zoom calls are “real life” and so are their effects.

4. An enthusiastic conversation leads to an active chat.

I thank RHB principal Rick Bailey for helping us realize this last point. When asking how we thought the virtual Circles were going, he asked whether more-measured conversations would lead to active chats. We realized the opposite is true: the more enthusiastic speakers are, the more active the chat function is. The chat offers the possibility to backchannel and to overlap both speech and other chats as an expression of audience involvement. Chat comments were often full of sentiment, including affectionate teasing. We kept a close eye on that feature because there could be cross-modal conversations happening.

It’s clear that Zoom and in-person Circles offer different affordances. Zoom calls mean not sharing a conference room with eight or ten of our new favorite people, which is something I can’t wait to get back to doing. But it does mean we have the chance to join those new favorite people in the contexts of their familiar spaces at the same time we are sharing ours. One benefit of Zoom Circles is that we are humanized and familiarized by virtue of what appears behind us or on our laps demanding a cuddle. 

We get a new way to get to know students and clients, differently, but no less fully, so we can provide expertise and creative services that help you reach new students. We can apply the lessons we have learned from holding Circles with your students to evaluating and improving the virtual events you already have running, like tours, student panels and admissions interviews. Rather than viewing virtual events as second-choice options, remember that your virtual events are just as much an opportunity to model your campus’s culture—your virtual events are, in essence, taking place on your digital campus. Since we hear a lot about campus tours and first impressions during all of our Circles, we want to help you make sure communication flows smoothly and respectfully, making room for all who want to speak, no matter how prospective students meet you.

Search season is underway again. We look forward to seeing you soon, on Zoom or in person, to help you align what is said and what is expected—to get to know yourself and your institution in new ways. The virtual will continue to be real life for many of us, and your ability to embrace this reality is key to filling a class and delivering on what you’ve promised. We’re ready to introduce prospective students to the real you, the one that speaks to who they are and helps them become who they want to be, from the first email in a drip campaign through virtual events and all the way across their lives.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.