While studying at his small liberal arts college in New York City, Rob Carroll had big ideas.
At 18, he entered his college’s annual entrepreneurship competition named “The Entrepreneurs Fund Summer Accelerator,” hoping to seal a grant that would spur his start-up concepts.
“My first idea was very niche. Like a Craiglist for college campuses,” said Carroll.
With hard work and determination, he won the competition. Balancing his winning project with a bachelor’s degree in environmental economics, however, proved a struggle for the student because he lacked a like-minded, motivating team to develop the business as he juggles coursework.
In 2017, Carroll entered the competition a second time with his friend Nick Freud. They put forward another college-based concept, but with a virtual twist.
He won it again and this time, the 27-year-old’s idea became a reality.
“That was actually the first funding we ever got for our company,” he said.
Carroll is now the co-founder of CampusReel, a student-generated video platform that lets viewers stroll through college and university campuses at their own pace.
Putting the college applicant behind the lens
Unlike one-dimensional virtual tours that lack a narrator, Carroll’s campus content allows learners to share their perspectives on the student journey.
“We first had to test hundreds of videos and content styles to find the right fit. Then we placed the students behind the camera and let the narrative flow naturally,” said Carroll.
Once they decided on student-led content, the CampusReel duo knew they had stumbled upon something different.
Carroll said, “Real students make our videos. They own their campus story, and it’s authentic. That’s why we get great engagement on our videos.”
Yet it’s not as simple as handing a student a video recorder and asking them to film around the campus. It takes time to find willing and motivated individuals to showcase their learning environment, as sometimes students can be camera-shy.
For Carroll, watching students share their individual stories is an exciting part of the process.
As he explained, every student is different. Giving someone time to conduct a campus tour through their eyes helps college applicants see what happens behind the scenes in daily student life rather than presenting generic videos of the campus grounds.
Virtual tours: Changing the face of business and society
In less than three years, CampusReel has reached users in 140 countries and raised US$1 million. With the COVID-19 pandemic, they are growing in popularity as high school juniors and international students planning to start college in fall 2021 are not able to visit campuses in person.
For this novel idea conceived at the right time. For this, Carroll and his co-founder were named in this year’s Forbes 30 under 30 for the education category.
“That was the first dose of us realising that our work is getting noticed. From winning entrepreneurial competitions at Colgate University to landing a feature in Forbes, I knew that our ideas had finally come to fruition,” he said.
Gen Z’s growing appetite for visual content
“Gen Z only consumes video,” Carroll said, “so it was clear to us early on that there’s a missing link in the college search process, where video content was just a total void.”
At a time of thinning attention spans and instant gratification, the videos need to be short, snappy and attention-worthy too. They make the “ideal marketing method” for colleges and universities, according to Caroll, especially if they feature relatable students that can be contacted.
“I believe a lot of internet consumption this year is going to be largely video content, so if universities want to keep up, they need to turn the camera on,” he said.
The future of campus virtual tours and videos
If there’s one piece of advice Carroll has for universities and colleges around the world, it’s that their campus is always changing, so their content needs to too.
“Virtual tours need to be flexible, adaptable and reflect the campus in real-time. The community is always evolving. You need to be able to keep up,” he said.
From his perspective, the biggest drawback of traditional virtual tours is that they are a one-size-fits-all approach.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re from Malaysia or New York or Florida. If you go on a college virtual tour, you’re getting the same experience and what we need to move towards are customised and catered experiences.”
For Carroll, virtual experiences must feel personal to the viewer. Generic content would not work — Carroll said colleges and universities need to put the “right content in front of the right student at the right time,” because everyone has a different path they’d like to take. What works for a science student looking at labs may not work for a nursing student who studies at the on-campus hospital.
“During the pandemic, it is even harder for universities to get their marketing across without using video or virtual content. By going online, they can access a diverse pool of students simultaneously.”
And if colleges and universities haven’t transitioned to virtual resources yet, “the time is now”, said Carroll.
“The future is virtual.”