Reality Gone Virtual: Shifting Campus Events in Uncertain Times
As fears of coronavirus dominate the news cycle, universities across the country are forced to contend with many questions on how to operate in the face of a major public health event. Schools are opting to hold classes online, cancel activities, and otherwise limit large gatherings. But at the same time, those of us in higher ed recognize several challenging realities: this is yield season, campus visits are highly influential for students in the college selection process, and we still have enrollment goals to meet. What do we do when extenuating circumstances prevent us from hosting prospective students on our campus?
We’re fortunate to live in an era where technology can be leveraged to make our schools more accessible to our audience, and in moments such as these, we can pivot to the virtual space to provide students an opportunity to experience campus without leaving their living rooms. So how do we pivot quickly in these moments? Here are some ways we can work—and work fast—to deliver an excellent campus experience even when things don’t go according to plan.
Step 1: Know Your Tools
As an institution of higher education, you already have technology resources at your disposal, some of which you might not even be aware of. Take stock of what’s available to you. Many schools have enterprise-wide licenses for video conferencing services and access to the equipment needed to create high-quality video (cameras, lighting, and microphones, for instance), which are incredibly useful for online presentations and sessions.
There are other tools that have been designed with higher ed recruitment in mind that you may also want to consider. Liz Gross of Campus Sonar outlines several of these in this Twitter thread. (Note: we aren’t personally endorsing any of these, but they’re worth knowing about.)
Remember that social media can become a helpful medium for conveying the campus experience as well. Facebook Live and Instagram live video each provide a larger audience with an easy way to engage with your school, and student ambassadors can do Instagram takeovers to give prospective students a “day-in-the-life” experience (one of my favorite ideas from a conference I attended last year was giving students a Go Pro to create a series of first-person videos for your school’s Instagram story).
And if you’re a school that uses Technolutions Slate, consider utilizing the Slate Share platform in these moments:
- Slate Share Webinars: Slate already allows you to host online events via their Share webinar platform. They’re created like any other event in Slate, but with the location designated as “Online”. Attendees access the webinar via a unique link, so attendance is automatically logged. These webinars include the ability to host chat (moderated or non-moderated), record the event, screen share, and leverage all the other useful functionalities of Slate events, including event communications and post-event surveys. These webinars can also accommodate a large number of viewers (some schools have held Slate webinars with more than 3,000 attendees), which offers clear advantage over some other conferencing platforms.
- Slate Share Interviews: Much like webinars, individual interviews and appointments can be hosted over the Share platform using Scheduler. This includes two-way video, as well as the opportunity to use Scheduler features like notes forms and event communications.
Step 2: Do Some Advance Planning
As you begin to see evidence that circumstances beyond your control are putting your campus visits and events in jeopardy (and remember, this goes beyond the current public health scare—let me tell you about the massive snowstorm that hit Seattle in 2019 and closed my campus for a week), start thinking about the worst-case scenario and get the following basics established:
- Who are the critical staff you would need when pivoting from an on-campus to an online event? Who would their backups be if they weren’t available? Make sure those who would be on point, as well as those who might be called in to help, are aware of their responsibilities and effectively trained.
- What tools would you need to pull this off? What other departments or offices would you need to collaborate with in order to utilize these resources? Determine how you would access technology and equipment, including the support that would be required.
- What communications would you need to send? Build out templates for these now, before you’re under the wire to send them. You’ll fill in the details later, but get the general copy nailed down first.
- What do your visitors need to know now? Proactively reach out to your registrants to let them know that you are monitoring the situation, considering options to address it, and will be in further communication to share updates. This will stave off some anxious phone calls and emails, and it will also help establish trust with this group. Make sure you include some version of this messaging on your website (both your homepage and any page highlighting campus visits and events).
As a side note, depending on what events are in jeopardy, you may consider surveying your registrants to identify what their travel plans are. This can give you useful insights for working with individual visitors who may need additional assistance. If you’re using Slate, build a form asking for this information and send it to your registrants using query string parameters; that way, you’re only asking for the details you need at that moment.
Step 3: Launch Your Response
Alright, your event’s officially been called off. Now what? Time to get your boots on the ground (figuratively). Once you’ve gotten word that you’re moving things online, do the following:
- Nail down your talking points: Develop a clear, cohesive message to share with your audiences, including an explanation for this decision, what alternative has been developed, how you’ll assist visitors with extenuating circumstances, etc. Vet any and all statements with your PR team to ensure that everything aligns with official university messaging.
- Rally the troops: Let your team know that the scope of the event has shifted. Make sure that they understand the rationale clearly and that their questions are answered before reaching out to external audiences—you don’t want to run the risk of staff members contributing to confusion by sharing inconsistent information.
- Notify your audience: It’s time to let your registrants know about the change in plans. You’ll want to follow a few guidelines here:
- Keep your message succinct. It’s easy to say too much here; it’s a strange situation, and you want offer your guests reassurance. But it’s most important to share the essentials now, then follow-up once the dust has settled a bit.
- That being said, don’t lose the human element in your messaging. Acknowledge your audience’s experience and validate the frustration or disappointment they may be feeling.
- Use multiple channels for your message. Definitely send an email, but utilize text messaging as well (use texting to direct recipients to their email, as this is a message that requires more than 160 characters). If you have the bandwidth, follow-up phone calls would also be appropriate here.
- Remember parents. If you have parents’ email addresses, be sure to, at a minimum, cc them on the messages you’re sending your guests.
- Post your announcement prominently in multiple places on your website: on the university homepage, your admissions homepage, and the section of your site promoting events.
- For any students with unique circumstances (e.g. they’ve already arrived on your campus and come a long distance or traveled alone without their parents), prepare to step up and offer additional assistance.
Step 4: Get Ready to Go
Your pre-event preparation will look different than it would for the event you’d planned, but it should still be just as thorough. An online event is still a major recruitment opportunity, and you need to approach it with the same mindset that you’d have if you were welcoming students physically onto your campus.
Start by thinking about your event content. Remember that students don’t just come to your events to meet admissions staff; they’re looking for a fuller campus experience. This means that you’ll want to think about enlisting others from outside the enrollment office. Find ways to incorporate the individuals your visitors would encounter if they were physically on your campus in order to provide a robust, authentic experience.
As you create your program, here are a few opportunities to consider that go beyond the standard information session:
- VIP welcome message: Invite a representative from your university’s senior leadership to offer viewers a short, personal welcome.
- Video tour: Enlist a student ambassador to guide your viewers on a virtual walk across campus.
- On-the-street interviews: Grab a few students and/or faculty members and record video Q&A sessions. Give viewers the opportunity to submit questions in advance to create a more interactive experience, and broadcast this on your social channels as well.
- Mock class visits: Recruit a few of your faculty members from your most popular majors to offer short mini-lectures in their areas of expertise. Utilize live chat or video conferencing to enable your attendees to participate if desired.
- Artistic productions: Livestream a portion of a music, theatre, or dance performance or rehearsal, or offer a video presentation of an arts installment featuring students and their work.
- Athletics events: If your university’s games aren’t featured on national television, offer a virtual broadcast of a sporting event, or consider highlighting your intramurals or club sports programming.
While certain components of this experience will be best to do live, remember that you can also include some pre-recorded elements as well. This will give you more flexibility in terms of transitioning from one segment to the next. If you have existing video assets, use them to your advantage.
Once you’ve identified your event programming, take time to ensure that everything is properly aligned and that you’ve attended to all the details. In preparation for a livestream presentation, here are a few tips to make sure things go as smoothly as possible:
- Develop a clear script and sequence: Construct a run sheet just like you would for an in-person event. Make it clear who is responsible for what tasks and elements of the program. Help your presenters stay on message; create cue cards if you need to.
- Set things up: Configure your equipment so that it’s as simple to operate as possible. Mounting your camera to a tripod is a million times easier than holding it for an extended period of time. If you have a lavalier mic available, use it—it will offer a better audio experience than relying on whatever’s built-in to a camera. When possible, stream with an ethernet connection so that you aren’t foiled by spotty Wi-Fi.
- Practice, practice, practice: Livestreaming can be a weird experience if you haven’t done it before, so make sure to do a test run first. Ensure that your slides display correctly, verify that your audio is balanced, and check to be sure your video comes through clearly. But beyond that, make sure that your staff understands how to use the tools you’ll be leveraging, especially when it comes to things like moderating a live chat or monitoring participant engagement.
Step 5: Go Live
It’s finally time to get started. As you hit that “broadcast” button, you may be navigating uncharted territory, but you’ve got to shake off that uncertainty and forge ahead. Some things to remember during your event:
- Stick to the script: You’ve already improvised enough by converting this to a virtual experience; now you need to adhere to what you’ve mapped out. Follow your script as closely as possible. If things go wrong (and something probably will), acknowledge it, then keep going.
- Enlist quality control: Have staff on hand who can alert you to any issues you need to address. They should view the event with a very critical eye and ear toward audio or visual issues, problems with connectivity, or anything else that will inhibit the viewer experience. Identify a method and a point of contact for them to easily but unobtrusively report concerns that need to be corrected.
- Control engagement: A rogue participant can really throw a wrench in things, so make sure that there are team members closely moderating any interactive elements for your event. This may mean issuing warnings, deleting chat messages, or removing participants if needed. Develop a set of clear community standards in advance of the event so that those attending understand both expectations and consequences.
- Record it: As a content marketer, my mindset always centers on how to repurpose what we create. Remember that there may be elements of your live broadcast that you can use again, be it on your YouTube channel, split up into an Instagram story, or rebroadcast on your website. Make sure you record everything so that you can reuse those stellar moments.
Step 6: Wrap It All Up
The event has concluded, you’ve turned off your camera, and you’re probably breathing a sigh of relief that you pulled it all off. But before you close the book on this adventure, you’ve got a few last details you’ll want to address:
- Follow up: First and foremost, engage with your attendees and no-shows. Send follow-up messaging to both, acknowledging that circumstances were less-than-ideal and expressing regret that you weren’t able to welcome them onto campus. A few details to consider here:
- Offer to facilitate additional connections these students may want, such as a short phone video call with a current student or faculty member.
- Invite them to return to campus for another visit. Highlight other upcoming opportunities for them to enjoy the full experience of attending your school, and do what you can to make re-registration as simple as possible (for instance, in Slate, include query string parameters in any registration links so that basic fields are pre-filled).
- Request feedback on their virtual experience. A post-event survey will provide you with insights on how to better orchestrate future online events to optimize the participant experience (because once you’ve done one, odds are that you’ll be asked to do more).
- If bandwidth and budget allow, consider mailing a thank you note and a small gift, such as a vinyl decal, to those who attended. These small, personalized details can be incredibly impactful.
- Extend good will across campus: It takes a lot of work, and a lot of buy-in, to pull something like this off on short notice. Depending on the circumstances of why your event was canceled, those who supported you may be experiencing significant personal stress. Take the time to acknowledge those who played a role in this endeavor.
- Carry the experience forward: In project management, we talk about building a Lessons Learned Repository throughout the course of our projects so that we can refer back to what helped us to succeed as well as what got in our way. It’s a good practice for all of us. Make notes of any challenges you had with technology, your program, or other elements of this experience so that you can apply your knowledge to future endeavors.
I’ve hastily rearranged a full-tuition scholarship competition when 9” of snow walloped the region 48 hours before it was scheduled to begin. I spent this Sunday morning in the empty sanctuary of my church, livestreaming an online-only service as the threat of coronavirus here in Seattle has brought daily life to a standstill. I know that these moments are fueled by adrenaline, frustration, anxiety, and, generally, a lot of caffeine. These are the situations that we’ve never fully imagined until they hit, and even then, we’re not completely sure of what we’re doing.
We’re in uncertain times right now, and stress is significant as we work to make our class while keeping our students and guests as safe as possible. Canceling on-campus events is never ideal, but in difficult circumstances, we often have to shift past what is ideal and into what is attainable. You have resources within your grasp to pivot and still deliver an experience that will both educate and engage.
And remember, you matter too. You’re not just protecting your visitors in these moments; you’re also working to ensure the safety your campus, your team, and you. These hard choices have been made in everyone’s best interest. So keep going. Give yourself grace. Be well.
You’ve got this.