“Does a virtual fair even work?”

Prior to COVID-19, if you’d asked this question about a virtual fair to a room of admissions staffers, the results would be mixed.

In-person, you and prospective students can make connections. You know the likely students who are there are a little more committed because they showed up in person. You can get a real vibe for people.

Admissions and recruitment teams tend to agree: Virtual events are a good idea, in theory, but they simply aren’t as good as “the real thing,” an in-person event.

However, since COVID-19,  a virtual fair has become one of the few opportunities for students to “tour” multiple programs.

Programs have offered online information sessions for years, but virtual college fairs are a whole new beast for many.

Normally, you’d set up in an expo hall alongside other participants. However,  a virtual fair comes in many forms from meeting agendas with drop-in, 30-minute webinars about each program, to robust, a virtual fair experience that recreates online expo halls.

From the perspective of your applicants, this is one of the best chances they have to explore and shortlist where they’ll be applying next year. And student fair providers, such as QS, Poets&Quants, and NACAC, are adapting to make this happen.

Early data from QS, the organization responsible for the World Grad School Tour and World MBA Tour, is looking strong for schools using virtual events to connect with students.

Since COVID-19 stall in-person events, QS* has seen:

  • 6,000 prospective students attend events
  • On average, schools are reporting just as many connections as they were reporting at in-person events
  • More than 70% of students in a pulse survey indicated they were interested in attending virtual events, many saying they had never attended a virtual event before.

*Data provided by QS

Recruitment and admissions teams will need to adapt their in-person tactics to the web. Here are nine tips for standing out at virtual affairs.

Nine tips for recruitment teams at a virtual fair

Looking ahead at this fall’s recruitment season, you’ll no longer be hitting the road.

You’ll be polishing your webcam and trying to make virtual events work better than ever before.

Check your connection

Make sure you have a fast and reliable internet connection when participating in a virtual event. This is always true in any webinar environment, but a virtual event is even less forgiving than your online information sessions.

Students have multiple programs to explore in one day, if your presentation is lagging behind or you’re experiencing any technical issues, it could just be enough for a student to close your session and hop into another one.

Having internet woes at home?

  • Head into the office. If you’re able to safely work from your office, work the duration of the fair from your office to ensure a secure and stable connection.
  • Upgrade your bandwidth. If you can work with your school to get an upgraded internet connection at home, great… for so many reasons!
  • Sharing is caring. Your internet connection may be slow if you have multiple members of your household all using the internet at the same time. If all else fails, send your household out for a long walk during the most pivotal points of your virtual fair to free up some bandwidth.

Upgrade your video and audio equipment

Tech will help you be competitive.

Fortunately for your expense budget, you can upgrade your tech stack for less than one cross-country flight. A high-definition webcam and a high-quality microphone will make a world of difference for all of your online presentations and videos, but especially in a virtual fair.

Unfortunately, technology bias is real. When communication with your school sounds better and looks better than your peers’, students will leave feeling more positively about your program.

What to buy

Microphone & Pop Shield: A decent USB microphone and a pop shield can turn your presentations from dreary to dynamic.

We aren’t microphone experts. Check out Wirecutter’s “The Best USB Microphone” to find a recommendation.

Webcam: As a rule, look for an HD webcam above 1080p. Your built-in laptop webcam was never intended to be the way you showcased your school, after all.

Not a webcam expert? Check out TechRadar’s “Best webcams 2020: top picks for working from home” for a recommendation.

Invest in pre-marketing

Unlike an in-person event, where you can lure people in with giveaways, swags, and compelling signage, at a virtual fair – you have less of an opportunity to jump off the screen. For some events, students merely must sign up to talk to you based on your school name and nothing else.

  • Work with your vendors. Many virtual event providers will have upgrade options to send an email out or advertise on the fair’s website before the event.
  • Be active on social media. Use the event hashtag, tag the event name, and “comment” on posts on the social channels where your future students are most active. Getting that name recognition out there will make a difference when students “arrive” at the event, overwhelmed by school options.
  • Build a dedicated landing page for the fair. If this event is a significant recruitment opportunity for you, create a dedicated landing page for before, during, and after the event, that you can manage, update, and track visitors on.

Read: Four ways graduate schools can be better at social media

Think about your digital assets like you do your booth

Instead of needing to have the most compelling backdrop, you need to have the best digital assets. Depending on the fair set up, you may have an opportunity to show a video, an image, or a small subset of text.

  • Adapt your messaging. This isn’t a time to just use the same boilerplate you always do when you sign up for an event: Think about how you can use the space you have to set yourself apart.
  • Have fun with the format. Think about how you can make a digital offer that inspires or delights. At an expo, maybe you’d give out chewing gum next to the coffee stand. Think about your online equivalent? What can you do that’s a little bit different.

Scan the virtual floor

At a fair, getting there early and scouting out the competition is standard practice. But at a virtual fair, it’s not as simple as “walking the floor.”

  • Make sure you know who else is at the event. Participants will likely be coming from one school to another, so you’ll likely face direct questions comparing you to the other programs at the event. Don’t let the virtual nature of the event catch you off guard.
  • Make sure you know what other schools are doing. Research what your peer programs are doing for the virtual event, so you can see how you can complement their offers or differentiate your own. Social media can be helpful, as well as doing some ‘secret shopping’ of your own to check out other presentations.

Modify your typical information sessions

It’s easy to take the in-person pitch script that you’ve mastered and throw it onto a virtual presentation, but it may not be effective. People learn differently online. One of the biggest “enemies” of online events is multitasking. You can’t tell if attendees are paying attention, or checking their email in another tab.

  • Integrate polls and check for understanding often. By having interactive elements such as quick pulse polls, pausing to have audience members share an experience, or even integrating break-out groups, can help keep engagement high.
  • Rather than pausing for questions, build in discussion. When you talk about what you’ve learned, it can help boost your understanding and content retention. Rather than having students always ask questions, ask them questions about what they’ve heard. Having prospective students reiterate their takeaways or apply their personal experience, will help ensure your presentation is more memorable.
  • Invite applicants to talk about themselves. People love to talk about themselves. In fact, one study revealed that talking about oneself activates the same parts of the brain as other gratifying activities. For any open drop-in sessions or one-on-one meetings, ask your applicants to share their story. Speaking about themselves will make them more comfortable and more confident in the conversation. Plus, you can use what you hear from applicants to personalize your follow up.

Have a clear call-to-action

In any fair, it’s critical you have a next step for you or for a student to ensure they continue in their application. But in a virtual fair, you need to push that call-to-action even further.

Because the student isn’t physically moving from booth to booth, they’re likely taking in a lot of content in the same format, in the same way, you need to make your “next step” stand out.

Don’t just send students to your homepage and hope for the best.

  • "Upsell” the next step in the process. Do you have an amazing virtual tour on your website? A great admissions guide that’s just a few clicks away? A wonderful free lecture series from your most popular professors? Work on simply getting students from your virtual fair to that next stage in the funnel, rather than focusing on getting them to the end of the funnel.
  • Have an offer. Why should students join your mailing list or start their application? Since you can’t give away swag or enter students in a traditional ballot draw, you need to do the digital equivalent.
  • Leave them wanting more. As you consider what that "next step" might be, make sure it builds and adds on to everything you've shared in the fair. A super compelling video or alumni story, that further articulates the value of your program, is a great way to keep the momentum going.
  • Make a time-sensitive offer. Whether you want to do a giveaway, like a book by an esteemed faculty member, or a value-add offer, such as a one-on-one admissions consult, make sure your offer gives true value, or it simply won’t work. Link your “offer” to some sort of next step, like signing up for another session or an applicant mailing list.

Personalize your follow up (and follow up more than once)

With everything going virtual, it’s quite easy to take a list of attendees and put them on a multi-cadence email follow up list.

But the other schools at the fair are doing that too.

  • Make a personalized, thoughtful follow up with students you meet. Include specific references to the conversation you had in your emails. If you can, make the subject line a question that they asked to cut through the clutter of every other automated email.

Some examples:

Re: What to expect moving from LA to Toronto

Why engineers like you benefit from our MBA program

More info on the sustainability association at {school.name}

  • Follow up more than once. You know how many emails you get after a conference, your future students are getting bombarded with information. They may need a couple of prompts to take that next step.

Read: How to maintain student interest from apply to admit to enroll

Track engagement

How will you know this virtual fair worked? Hopefully, fair vendors will be able to send you the names and email addresses of everyone who attended your session or checked out your booth.

But this isn’t always an option. And even when it is, just “showing up” won’t tell you intent.

  • Use a landing page. To capture the most interested students, you can use a specific landing page for interested students to leave their contact details. You may be unable to share a click-able hyperlink directly with attendees, so make sure the URL is short and easy to type in.
  • Count your connections. If a landing page isn’t an option, lower “tech” options to track engagement include:
    • Give students a “promo code” equivalent, such as a specific subject line to send your office
    • Contact you through LinkedIn
    • Send your program a message through a specific social media channel

If you have any more tips for a virtual fair, we want to hear them! Leave your recommendations in the comment section below.