Virtual Tours

A few weeks ago, Xingpu Yuan and Mary Madden of the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a memo with the results of a recent survey they conducted about “Virtual Tours.” Although they don’t seem to give a strict definition of “virtual tour,” their data indicate that over half of American Internet users have participated in a virtual tour. They break down their numbers using some demographic variables but there are too many complicating factors to put a lot of weight into the demographic analysis. The authors even specifically mention “colleges and universities” as “areas of personal interest” for which “people are increasingly turning to the internet to get a feel.”

Within student affairs, this may be of the most interest to housing and residence life professionals. I don’t know of any data regarding the prevalence of virtual tours on university websites or as used by various departments on campuses. There do appear to be a sizeable number of institutions offering virtual tours of their entire campus and I also remember seeing several housing departments that offered virtual tours of their residence halls when I researched this topic a few years ago. In my experience, those two “arenas” (the main campus’ web presence and that of the housing department) differ from one another significantly on most campuses are more extensive and focused resources are typically available for the main campus web presence than for an individual department, with a handful of high-profile exceptions such as admisions and donor relations.  I also I imagine that the on-campus housing “market” differs from many other facilities on-campus as operations that are “forced” on students (required housing and meal plans is common on many American campuses, particularly for freshmen) are not necessarily responsive to market forces. In other words, a housing operation that is “guaranteed” occupants each year may not work as hard to advertise their spaces with “extras amenities” like virtual tours. Summer conferences, a (money-making) staple on many campuses, also play a huge role in this but that’s another complex topic altogether with management of and responsibility for those events sometimes resting in odd places or divided among different groups.

This kind of data may also be of interest to others who manage facilities on campus, many of whom are in student affairs. Potential spaces include interviewing space, entertainment venues, meeting spaces, dining spaces, and recreational spaces. As noted above, virtual tours may be of high value for those who manage revenue-generating spaces.

Still, this research seems to be pretty clear: A majority of American users know what virtual tours are and use them. It’s natural to assume that they may come to expect them, too.