June 29

The Future of College Marketing: Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality


Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) aren’t exactly new anymore, but these technologies are still full of innovative college marketing potential.

Let’s check your knowledge. How might your institution stand out with VR and AR?

First off, let’s go over the essential differences.

    • Virtual reality is a fully artificial environment (or real environment reproduced in virtual space) in which the participant is immersed through the use of a headset.
    • Augmented reality is computer-generated content that appears to be superimposed over the real world through your device’s screen.

While similar, these technologies offer different experiences of varying complexity and cost. 

Let’s examine the role they have come to play in the marketing world, then take a closer look at applications for college marketing.

Closing the Experience Gap

The primary purpose of VR/AR for marketers from a variety of industries is to remove as many barriers as possible to the buyer’s journey.

Enable prospects to experience a product or event virtually, and you can propel them much faster toward a purchase or commitment.

Goals of AR/VR

To this end, marketers utilize AR/VR to accomplish several goals:

    • Demonstrate the product more thoroughly than you can through traditional marketing.
    • Communicate the brand mission closer to the point of sale.
    • Provide an immersive entertainment experience.
    • Increase excitement and engagement with the brand.
    • Add a new, compelling dimension to storytelling.

Despite being around for the better part of a decade, AR/VR experiences are still a novelty, which makes this technology an effective pull tactic. 

To supplement the usual push tactics to drive motivated buyer traffic – digital ads, retargeting, email marketing – marketers are using AR/VR to create experiences that pull in users motivated by the sheer fun of participating.

How Retailers Are Using AR/VR

Retailers are using AR to allow you to virtually put furniture in your house before you buy; try on shoes and glasses; apply makeup to your face, and more, before you’re anywhere near the product. Car manufacturers are even bringing the showroom to you.

Others are taking it a step further with VR, letting you “walk through” virtual retail spaces, tour an airplane, or sit in the front row for a fashion show

It’s not only a fun way to reinvent the fun of window shopping. AR/VR shopping may see increased demand for people who want a similar experience but would prefer not to go out while COVID-19 is still a major public health concern.

But how does any of this apply to college marketing?

Let’s take a look at how institutions are currently utilizing these technologies, then consider what applications might be next.

How AR/VR Has Been Utilized in College Marketing

Over the last few years, higher ed institutions have taken a few cues from the world of retail. Their goal for AR/VR is to close the college experience gap for prospective students and donors.

College Tours

The most popular applications of AR/VR I’ve seen are innovative variations on the traditional campus walkthrough.

Virtual Reality

In the VR version, prospective students put on a headset that transports them to campus.

Simple viewers like Google Cardboard have made this experience far more accessible, as most smartphones can play the content. 

    • As a participant, you only need to put your phone into the viewer, open the VR application and put the viewer on like a pair of glasses. 
    • Two videos play simultaneously side by side, one for each eye, each with a slightly different aspect to create forced 3D perspective when combined. 
    • This allows you to move your head to look around, while a button on the side enables selection (like clicking with a mouse) and virtual forward/backward movement.

While several schools have created these experiences, the technology remains largely untapped. 

The transition into VR tours can be an iterative one with lots of near-VR creativity on the way. Oral Roberts University, for example, decided to show off their Global Learning Center by building a model inside Minecraft.

While it appears to be a one-screen interface built for traditional screens, VR Minecraft is an available technology. I wouldn’t be surprised if ORU will be expanding their VR capabilities to develop more fully immersive 3D Minecraft tours in the near future.

Augmented Reality

The AR version of this either involves media superimposed over a real-world marker, or media imposed over location-based markers. 

Marker-based augmented reality involves a physical object, kind of like a coupon with a QR code, that triggers an image or video viewable only as your smartphone camera is pointed at it.

This is not a simple QR code, however. QR codes are essentially links that usually trigger the opening of a website in your browser, or maybe an app download page in the app store.

AR actually makes what you’re looking at appear to transform.

Way back in 2014, the University of Scranton was already doing this with an AR-enabled poster. You downloaded the app, pointed your smartphone camera at the logo, and it transformed into a video that appeared to be playing on the poster.

Location-based augmented reality requires no coded object to trigger it. The experience is already happening in an exact geographical location, ready for you to approach it.

Made popular by the smartphone game “Pokémon Go,” which places virtual creatures at various physical locations for users to find, colleges use this technology to enhance the physical tour experience.

The California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, for example, treats visitors to historical stories about buildings on campus, including images of what they looked like, triggered by pointing your smartphone camera at them.


College recruiters have long been interested in ways to convey the excitement of sporting events virtually. COVID-19 has made it imperative as prospects can’t attend events in person

Virtual Reality

Iowa State University is ahead of the ballgame.

A few years ago, football coaches worked with Iowa State’s on-campus Virtual Reality Applications Center to create a VR experience for student-athletes

Designed for the HTV Vive headset, the app put prospects in the stadium during a game with cheerleaders, screaming fans and a marching band.

This concept of recreating sporting events (and other events) is a powerful storytelling tool for recruiters and college marketers. It gives prospective students and donors a sense of what it’s like to really be there long before they can make a physical visit.

Augmented Reality

The University of Washington is reportedly working on the next frontier in augmented reality sports: a 3D soccer match you can watch on a physical tabletop.

An AR experience like this would be an appealing development for recruiters and development officers. Whereas immersive VR experiences take all the participant’s attention, AR experiences can be more social, perhaps better facilitating a conversation.

New Construction

Similar to the way the automotive industry has utilized AR/VR to showcase new vehicle designs, higher ed has utilized it to showcase new campus developments.

Speaking of the University of Washington, this is exactly what they did prior to the construction of their new $105M computer science building.

Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality Hybrid

The app they developed to allow users to virtually tour the space was an innovative AR/VR crossover.

    • As an AR app, you could access the 3D model either by pointing your smartphone camera at the construction site, or by downloading a marker to print out and place anywhere. In either case, a “hologram” appeared on your screen.
    • The VR component allowed you to navigate the space from inside as a 3D image through a VR headset. You could also view the interior space by holding your smartphone in front of you (in a sort of AR/VR hybrid view.)

Applications like this help make the argument that this school, this program, is forward-thinking and cutting edge. That’s a powerful argument to prospective students and donors alike.

What’s Next for AR/VR in College Marketing?

There is still a lot of room for innovation here. Your institution could not only stand out, but make big waves and drive serious enrollment by embracing AR/VR. 

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

    • Put STEM prospects in the lab or in the field. 

Bring them into a project your students have done. Make them an observer or participant, either in a fully virtual (VR) space or allow them to manipulate or measure objects superimposed on real space (AR).

    • Put education or communication prospects in the shoes of a student teacher, journalist or intern. 

Re-create a real-world internship experience you provide for students that allows them to interact and make decisions in real time.

    • Simulate a medical procedure for pre-med/healthcare prospects. 

Put them in the OR where they can stand right next to the surgeon, or let them get hands-on with an AR dummy.

    • Let art and design prospects create something in virtual space. 

They might be immersed in a virtual art class, manipulating virtual materials on a real-world surface, or operating a 3D printer that only exists within the app.

    • Let kinesiology and physical education prospects play coach. 

Let them walk around a virtual client who needs help with swinging a bat, shooting free throws, weight lifting techniques, etc., so they can see all angles and provide a critique.

Think Beyond Marketing

Ideas like these are just seeds. 

What grows out of them depends on your available budget and how these applications might be used. Creative uses beyond marketing may reveal additional funding sources.

    • A “virtual trainer” experience could be developed as both a marketing tool and educational content for distance learners. This would help justify the cost.
    • Development of a virtual internship experience could be integrated into various curricula as an interdisciplinary project for technology, language arts & drama students. Marketing students could help source 3D video capture equipment.
    • Examining engagement with virtual STEM projects, even simple ones designed primarily for marketing, could be incorporated into an educational or psychological research study for which funding may be available.

AR/VR presents exciting opportunities to take your college marketing efforts way outside the box.

Of course, the greatest obstacle to innovation is the tyranny of the urgent.

You have systems, channels and people with certain specializations in place to keep up with your organization’s pressing marketing needs. It’s difficult to get beyond that.

I’m challenging you to try.

Why? Because higher education will only get more competitive, the demand for virtual experiences will grow, and your approach to digital marketing will have to evolve to keep up.

Technologies like AR/VR represent that evolution.

What is a novelty today will be the language of the future as some form of AR/VR becomes an essential gateway to higher ed.

Let’s get you ready for it. Whenever you’re ready to start this conversation, just reach out. Let’s explore – and get ahead of – the future of college marketing together.

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