The Guide to Virtual Tours and Immersive Experiences: Part 1

An introduction to virtual tours

Sheridan College study space (Andrew Klotz/Beyond Media)

Introduction

If you’re exploring ways to increase the impact of your digital presence, one of the questions you may be asking is how to tell your organization’s story from your customer’s point of view. You’re using a variety of media like feature photos and testimonial videos to highlight the different aspects of your business, but so are all of your competitors. So the question is, what’s next? How can you set yourself apart from other companies in your industry and establish a connection with your target audience?

Virtual tours help connect organizations with their audiences through immersive and captivating experiences. They’re designed to compel your audience to dig deeper into your organization’s space and eventually, visit your venue.

Welcome to the first part of our series on everything you need to know about virtual tours. In this series, you’ll learn the ins and outs of the creation process and how to tailor your tour for your audience. Here are some of the concepts we’ll cover:

  • What a virtual tour is and how it can fit into your digital strategy
  • Defining your audience personas and designing for your audience
  • Project timelines and production processes
  • Giving your tour a home and making it accessible
  • Reaching your audience and promoting content
Clockwise from top left: auditorium at St. Andrew’s College, dorm room at St. Andrew’s College, Sheridan College, seating area at Locale restaurant in King City and study area at Knox College (Andrew Klotz/Beyond Media)

Who this guide is for

This guide is designed for marketers who are looking at launching an immersive media project or virtual tour to take their digital presence to the next level. These projects are typically applied to industries such as:

  • Post-secondary education
  • Private and independent schools
  • Fitness and community centres
  • Tourism, hotels and resorts
  • Retail stores
  • Theatres and concert halls
  • Event venues
  • Retirement homes
  • Architecture, custom home construction and office spaces

About Beyond Media

Beyond Media is a Toronto-based digital agency publishing virtual tours around the world. We’ve uncovered best practices for building immersive content experiences, and launched Circuit — shortening the path to real audience impact by making it easier to deploy virtual tours. We wrote this guide to share our learning, help marketers understand the concepts involved, and impart the tools needed to execute a successful project. Let’s get started!

Defining the concept

What exactly is a virtual tour?

A virtual tour is a collection of sensory media like photo, video and audio that is delivered digitally to simulate an in-person experience. It allows the viewer to explore a physical space without physically being in the subject environment.

Whether it be a detailed tour with narration and hotspots or a more simplified experience, virtual tours are extremely beneficial to let customers dive deeper into an organization’s space and learn more about them.

Why virtual tours?

Towers Library at St. Andrew’s College (Andrew Klotz/Beyond Media)

Immersive media is a powerful storytelling tool. It creates a personalized experience for viewers and allows them to engage with content that’s hyper-relevant. By communicating the many details that you offer at your location through a mix of content, stories and interactivity, virtual tours can trigger FOMO (fear of missing out) and motivate a location visit. Following a visit, tours help reinforce the unique strengths of your organization and showcase additional information visitors may have missed or couldn’t see during the in-person visit. They also build valuable data on the interests of your audience. Here are three sets of metrics gleaned from virtual tours:

  • Campaign activity is the response levels from marketing activities, such as email and social media. It often includes metrics like open rates, click through rates, likes and follows. In one of our past projects, we found that an email with a virtual tour link had four times the click through rate versus the control email (YMCA, 2017 case).
  • Site engagement includes site behaviour metrics like session time, the number of pages viewed and bounce rates. Virtual tours have proved a 33% lift versus a venue page without a virtual tour and also showed a favourably low 15% to 25% bounce rate. (YMCA, 2017 case).
  • Conversion rate is the percentage of visitors who complete a defined action from a specific page on your website. Actions are things like submitting and inquiry form, getting an info package, or visiting a page on your site. In the restaurant industry, it was found that visitors who viewed a virtual tour clicked through to make a reservation or booking 50% of the time, which is 20% higher than visitors who didn’t view a virtual tour (Google).

When done properly, virtual tours become the digital equivalent of a walking tour using immersive technology to tell your story. Most importantly, they can generate deep audience insights and conversion.

Content elements

Let’s look at the three basic content elements of a virtual tour:

  1. Visual content
  2. Text and descriptive content
  3. Audio content
Student working in a lab in the Faculty of Science building at Ryerson University (Andrew Klotz/Beyond Media)

Visuals

We are naturally visual learners. In fact, 90% of what we learn is obtained through observing something. Visual content — such as photos, videos and 360° content — is the base ingredient of a virtual tour. It helps visitors visualize the space they’re touring and strikes a sense of immersiveness. Visuals also create a lasting impression. On average, the human brain can link an image to its meaning in a fraction of a second. Your audience is more likely to remember a concept or an idea if you link it to a visual of some sort. Lastly, visuals make the idea or service you’re presenting more persuasive. Pairing visuals with text or even having a visual as a stand-alone has proven to be 43% more influential as opposed to having no visuals present. Some different types of visual content are:

  • Photos
  • Video
  • 360° photo
  • 360° video
  • Gifs

Text

The role of text in a virtual tour is to help clearly convey the story to your audience. Text guides your viewers through the content and explains key information, things to look out for in a scene and points out hidden content inside images. Portions of text can often be found on the side of a visual component or can even be placed in hotspots to provide more detail on a particular item or area in the scene. For users with accessibility needs, text is important to give context about what’s being shown in the tour.

Audio

The audio component of a tour helps with the narrative. Integrating sound effects and a guide’s voice increases the feeling of immersion and can be very powerful. For example, a music hall could benefit from having sound files playing in the background when viewers tour the auditorium. Audio allows your viewers to feel the environment they’re in and brings an emotional element to the tour. This also creates a more inclusive experience and ensures that you meet your audience and their needs. Google’s Inside Abbey Road Studios is a great example of how audio is used in a virtual tour.

Visuals, text and audio work cohesively to create an experience for your audience that stands out against the functional nature that they have come to expect from a website. By weaving these elements together viewers are more likely to engage with your content.

Use cases

A virtual tour is an effective tool for organizations with a brick and mortar presence that plays a role in product or service delivery. They’re also helpful utilities to solve many end user pain points. Here are a few common use cases.

George Brown College’s bake lab location in the virtual tour

Post-secondary education

Campus visits are a hugely influential step in swaying students towards shortlisting a particular post-secondary school. However, they’re not always a feasible option when students live a fair distance from campus. For George Brown College, a comprehensive virtual tour provides a detailed glimpse of facilities, student life elements and learning environments for nearly every program. This increases interest in an on-site tour or can even replace it entirely for students who live abroad and are not able to visit beforehand. By also making the content accessible through smartphones, even the “stealth visitors” who show up on campus can follow along and benefit from extra context and narration.

Travel and tourism

Planning a trip can be exciting yet overwhelming when sorting out all the little details. Often others are depending on your decisions, such as booking accommodations and excursions. Mistakes can be costly. Virtual tours can help plan out elements of your vacation. For example, hotel tours can show you the amenities and services they provide and help resolve feelings of skepticism by showing you what to expect during your stay.

Exterior of YMCA Cooper Koo Family Cherry St. branch (Andrew Klotz/Beyond Media).

Health and fitness

There’s a lot of different factors that go into deciding what gym membership is suitable for you. You’re committing to a particular gym for an extended period of time, so there are often feelings of hesitancy as to whether or not a gym is for you and if you can commit to a long term membership. Health and fitness centres benefit from virtual tours because rather than telling customers what services they can expect, they can show customers their space. Implementing a virtual tour in a health and fitness organization gives customers confidence in the service they’re buying into. Many gym memberships provide monthly or yearly plans, so being aware of what you can exactly expect and what you’re committing to helps reassure customers.

Retirement homes

A family could use a virtual tour to scope out a retirement home for their parents or grandparents. Families often ask questions surrounding the living environment, meal plans, recreational activities and medical support. They want to make sure they’re leaving their family member in good hands, so providing a virtual tour in this industry gives families an inside look on the organization and its values. A virtual tour of a retirement home helps build trust between the organization and their prospective customers and creates a sense of comfort.

Whatever the case, virtual tours are suitable for all types of audiences for the reason being that they can be personalized. Viewers can navigate freely with virtual tours and can see what they want to see at any given time. They help your organization tell a story in an innovative and engaging way and show your audience places in detail.

Goal setting

Another thing to consider before you begin the shooting process is to set a goal. What do you want to accomplish with this virtual tour? This is a key question to keep in mind because your goal and purpose for creating this virtual tour will be the driving force in maximizing the effectiveness of it. You’ll have a set of measurable actions such as:

  • Physical visits: driving users to visit your organization in person
  • Purchase conversion: converting users to take action, like booking a hotel room
  • Lead generation: asking users to sign up for email communications or to follow you on social media
The games room at Hotel Rangá in South Iceland (Andrew Klotz/Beyond Media).

You will also have a list of “soft” actions and qualitative dimensions which are less tangible to measure. For example:

  • Imparting the sense of community felt by your customers, members or residents
  • Communicating your mission and purpose to the local community
  • Displaying your values by exhibiting diversity and support for different cultures

Preparing a short list of goals will serve as guidelines for your project that can be measured against later.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss defining target personas and creating content tailored to them. Stay tuned!