Online vs Real World Open Days

COVID-19 has left universities with no option but to turn to virtual events as a replacement for their real-world events. But they’re not a like-for-like replacement. This post looks at some of the key considerations for those looking to run virtual events.

When it comes to student recruitment, open days represent one of the best sales opportunities for universities. Research undertaken by YouthSight in 2018, showed that almost half of prospective students considered the open day to be very important in their decision-making process. 

The same YouthSight report showed that more prospective students were attending open days with at least one of their parents. The cost of a campus visit has grown as a result of travel costs and even overnight accommodation being required.  

Over recent years, the popularity of online events has grown. But, virtual versions of events have been considered as an addition to a university’s real-world recruitment efforts. That is until the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. University campuses across the globe have been shut down, putting an abrupt stop to any open days and applicant visit days. 

Read the Youthsight case study!

Recent updates from the UK Government suggest that a return to normality for universities is not close yet. Large scale events, in particular, are not likely to be happening soon. In the US, Boston University has suggested that their entire campus could remain closed until 2021, and a little closer to home Cambridge University have confirmed that lectures will be online only for the remainder of 2020.

With COVID-19 making real-world events impossible, we asked our team for their top five considerations when running virtual events:

  1. Run small events with a clear focus. Real-world events involve more planning, more resources and more budget. As such, it makes sense for these events to cater for as many people as possible. Doing the same online means you run the risk of watering down your message and not engaging as effectively with your audience. Online events should have a smaller focus allowing you to tailor content more accurately and ensure visitors remain engaged more actively and for longe.
  2. Change the time constraints of your events. Users engage with online events in a very different way to real-world events. Your users are less likely to alter their schedule to attend, so running events over a longer period allows them to drop in at a time that suits them. This way, you’re not losing them to a Netflix boxset or browsing TikTok. Some elements of your events may require monitoring such as Live Chat. Scheduling 30-minute chat sessions twice a day over a few days will allow users to digest information and return with those burning questions at a later date.
  3. Get your academics, students, alumni and wider university staff involved. Whether it be hosting a live chat session, live streaming a sample lecture or producing video content for your events, sharing the load will not only allow you to produce a wealth of content for your event, but will also result in a more engaging experience for your users. Consider the things a prospective student might be exposed to at a real-world event and think about how the same messages can be communicated online. Run a live chat with existing students for social validation. Have a lecturer live stream a sample lecture. You could even run a Q&A around writing a good personal statement.
  4. Promote your events. In the same way you would with a real event. A good attraction strategy will help create successful events. Send emails. Run social campaigns. Send reminders as the event nears. And if possible, personalise it. We have some exciting developments in the personalisation on the horizon. Come back in the next couple of months to learn more.
  5. Attention spans are different – adjust your events accordingly. Real-world events take more planning from the institution, but also from the visitors. The investment it takes to attend an online event is nowhere near what it is to attend a real-world event. As such, don’t expect the same level of engagement. For a real-world event, visitors will plan to spend an entire day on campus. If you’re lucky you might get 20 minutes of their attention online. We recently ran a hugely successful event with Queen Mary University London. The event saw over 2,000 visitors from 84 different countries. Over 90,000 interactions were recorded in the system and almost 750 questions asked. And perhaps most impressive of all, was an average session time of almost 15 minutes.

With the impacts of COVID-19 looking as though they will last for the foreseeable future, uncertainty over when or how restrictions will be lifted fully, and the potential loss of confidence from your prospects, we believe universities should build online events into their recruitment cycle in the long-term.

In recent weeks, we’ve helped a large number of universities adapt to uncertainty. If you would like to hear more about how we can help, or would like some advice on how to run effective online events, then reach out to

Need help setting up your own online event?

Matt Lees
Matt Lees

Co-founder at SMILE and Prospectus Plus.