How universities are adapting from physical to virtual events during COVID-19 – Hootsuite

Student at a college graduation ceremony

Alex Wedderburn is the account director & higher education lead for Hootsuite in North America.

Alex has worked in the US and the UK helping higher education organisations use social media to achieve their goals. 

In this blog, Alex gives us some inspiration and examples of how universities have been able to respond with virtual events during the pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic in the US, when universities here began to realise that schools must close not just for the term, but for the rest of the year it took a while for many students and staff to adjust to the new reality. 

I remember watching videos of the many students who simply did not want to accept that they could not have the party they deserved in the form of spring break. They justified their actions with the belief that this was their ‘right of passage’ and COVID-19 was being blown out of proportion.

They also truly believed that they would also be going back to university shortly after to finish their studies and close out their year. Little did they or the institutions know themselves that the measures they had to follow up with would be so severe, neither could predict the long term impact they would have.

Suddenly the reality dawned on everyone. Students would not be coming back, not just after spring break but for the rest of the academic year. We now know that there is still a serious reality that many schools may not even be open to students at the start of the fall term of 2020. 

There is naturally going to be some nerves around shifting to virtual events but the reality is that every team and department still has targets to meet, whether that be tied to enrollment figures, student satisfaction or alumni and development. The virtual space still presents an opportunity to help universities overcome this challenge.

We’ve seen some wonderful examples of the sector getting ahead of this by bringing the value that comes from a physical event, such as a campus tour or an information day, and bringing it to life through lo fi, authentic and genuine experiences. Often without having huge budgets or a team of engineers behind them.

Virtual tours are not necessarily new but the format and content is something that you can have so much more control of than ever before. From webinars with professors through to interviews with leadership teams. 

Some US universities have shown that there is still a way to capture the school spirit through virtual events for prospective students and the wider community alike. You can see some of my favourite examples below. 

This is a time for innovation and creativity whilst also creating an opportunity for everyone to pull together and do something unique and special for the many students and parents who are entering or leaving higher education.

Commencement and graduation 

Many universities have or are looking to live streaming of commencement. Whereas it is hard to ever replicate the full experience of being there, I’ve seen some amazing things such as universities sending care and graduation boxes to their students, so they could still feel special during the online event. 

A wonderful example of this is the sending out graduation caps to each student, so they can dress up on the day, feel proud and then share some amazing UGC content for  the university to repurpose.

Purdue University’s commencement boxes are tightly packed and will go to 2020 spring graduates.

Nothing will quite replace that feeling that many students and parents dream of. It’s not to say that still can’t happen in the future, but in the short term, providing a virtual commencement is a wonderful way of still celebrating their success.

There is a real sense of grieving among parents and students now the reality of a physical commencement has settled in. 

That sentiment is often directed to the universities and the social media teams who manage their respective social channels. There is a feeling that the students need to be listened to too but balanced out with the fact that expectations don’t always match reality. 

Yes, students may want the university to wait and hold the commencement at a later stage. For some, this may still happen but for many it is not a realistic option and an alternative needs to be offered.

Fortunately universities in the US are digital first, they are savvy and adaptive. They have access to cameras, editing software, graphics and designers. Nimble and lean teams have the experience of making a lot happen with not a lot of resources and when times like this happen, it is hugely inspiring when we see them full of significant events such as a virtual commencement. 

Some of my favourite higher education virtual events.

The University of Central Florida pulled off a major feat by conducting 12 ceremonies in one day via their Virtual Commencement. If you’re looking for inspiration then I would definitely recommend checking this out. 

Many universities are looking to stay connected to their students and a really wonderful example of this is by the University Of Chicago offering virtual events nearly every day, with featured events on research, ideas & town halls to keep students connected no matter where they are.

SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology decided to be very proactive in the virtual event space and focused on building a Virtual Information Day for their prospective Students and Parents.

The results are brilliant as they pull together a combination of pre-recorded videos, UGC images and live streaming all in one hub. This provided their target audience with all the vital information they needed to make their decision on whether SUNY FIT was indeed the right fit for them. 

The University of Leicester in the UK led from the front with their approach to Virtual Open days by hosting ‘Digital Offer Holder Days’, which I thought was a very smart way of proactive looking to overcome some of the inevitable student recruitment challenges for 2021 and beyond. They complimented this smart strategy by providing a Spotify playlist for their audience which I thought was a clever blend of digital engagement.

Many universities have had to postpone their Annual Day of Giving events, which for many is the most important day of the academic year. 

However, many have worked around this by providing virtual events and digital experiences such as Virtual Donor Walls, which combine recognition with UGC, pre recorded videos and live streaming. Chamberlain University are running a fantastic campaign at the moment.

Hopefully these examples will have provided some ideas and inspiration. and gives you the belief that you can execute something of huge value to your target audience.

I’m always happy to discuss this exciting topic with anyone, so please do not hesitate to get in touch. You can find me on Twitter @hootwedd

Recents tweets