What we learnt taking our study fairs online
“It’s certainly not all been smooth-sailing, but we’ve had some successes, and have learnt a huge amount”
With our events calendar regularly topping 18 events per year, I feel well versed in running physical study fairs, but virtual fairs were a new venture for myself and FindAUniversity.
Between deciding to run a virtual study fair and the actual event, we had just six weeks – to secure exhibitors, get to grips with the software platform, plan a talks programme, promote the event to students, and run it.
After being thrown into the virtual fair world, we’ve come out the other side having achieved some fantastic successes, including having over 70 universities exhibit, over 3,400 visitors attend, and our exhibitors receiving an average of over 200 leads.
We’ve also had some hurdles along the way, learnt what’s really important for exhibitors, visitors and ourselves in virtual software, and have come away with more knowledge, experience and feedback to help us shape how we run future virtual events.
I didn’t think a virtual fair would replace a physical fair for me, and to be honest I’m not there yet. However, I do think there is a lot of value in virtual events, and some real advantages of being online:
1. Geography is not a problem
Virtual fairs remove the distance, time and cost restraints of actually attending physical fairs, which meant our university exhibitors were based all over the world, as well as the fair attracting an international visitor audience.
This facilitated university and prospective student interactions which may never have happened at a physical fair.
2. More subject specific knowledge
The platform we used allowed exhibitors to have up to 10 representatives take part. This meant that universities who might normally send one representative to a physical fair, could have specific representatives covering admissions, funding, student support and experience, specific faculties, current students, or even alumni.
3. Recorded conversations & analytics
Our exhibitors were able to gain lead data from all visitors who accessed their stand, as well as visitors who were interested in their programmes, and view their public and private conversation transcripts.
Having this data gave our exhibitors clear records of their conversations and a ready-made list for easy follow-up.
My take homes after running our first virtual fair
1. Choose the right platform
We always knew this would be hugely important, but our first experience has only reiterated the significance of this. The platform you choose controls the event aesthetics, user-experience and functionality for universities and students, as well as the support and response you’ll receive if something goes wrong.
Probably the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that all software will have merits and limitations, and software may not be able to deliver every item from your ‘wish-list’. The important thing for me is knowing these limitations from the start and being able to make informed decisions based on what’s most important for the event, your exhibitors and visitors.
Getting to grips with the intricacies of the software is another key takeaway for me, as the quicker you know the software inside out, the easier and more efficient troubleshooting will be.
2. Make things easy for exhibitors
For some exhibitors this was the first virtual fair they had taken part in, and for most, the first on the platform we were using, so there were lots of questions about the software from the offset.
Our events team were always on hand to assist, and one feature of the software that was particularly useful was the demo function, which enabled exhibitors to view their stand and test the software before the fair.
We’re now armed with a whole host of questions and queries that exhibitors asked this time around, which not only fed into our software ‘wish-list’, but also will shape our communications in future.
3. Think about the users
You can create exciting graphics, or excellent chat functionality at a virtual event, but if users can’t navigate around the fair, find universities, or access useful content, then something isn’t right.
We created four different exhibition halls for Masters, PhD, MBA and Online Study and exhibitors featured in these depending on what programmes they offered.
This allowed visitors to find universities that they might not have necessarily known about and clearly signposted universities as offering various levels of study.
It’s certainly not all been smooth-sailing, but we’ve had some successes, and have learnt a huge amount from our first FindAUniversity virtual fair. We’re now looking forward to putting our experience and feedback into practise to create bigger and better virtual fairs in the future.
About the author: Nikki Hodgson joined FindAUniversity six years ago, where she runs the ever-expanding portfolio of dedicated B2C postgraduate study fairs and B2B conferences for HE marketing colleagues. Prior to this, Nikki completed a PhD at The University of Sheffield, giving her first-hand experience of the postgraduate study world. She is passionate about creating and developing valuable event experiences for universities and prospective students.