Over the last two years, I've worked with several virtual tour photographers in the Atlanta area. I was always amazed at how bad most virtual tour experiences were, and so in partnership with these photographers, I built a Virtual Tour Hosting Platform for real estate called TourBuzz.
I wanted to share with you some of my observations and thoughts about what makes a virtual tour good or bad, according to my research and thinking. I hope that you find it educational, and I am looking forward to feedback on the ideas as well.
- Picture Quality
The pictures themselves are of course the most important part of any virtual tour.
Everyone knows "a picture is worth 1000 words", but I always add, "which 1000 words?". If you are marketing a $1M+ house, and your pictures are small, pixelated, and overexposed, it's not going to give a favorable impression of the property.
In today's world, there is just no excuse for not having lots of full-screen, high-quality images, even if you take your own pictures. A good professional photographer can always do a better job, as he/she will have better cameras, wide-angle lenses, experience, and software to ensure that your pictures are properly well composed and well exposed.
- Fast Loading Time
The tour itself should load quickly. Remember that many people will be looking at virtual tours while browsing the MLS or other property search engines, and may be checking out dozens of properties at a time. If your virtual tour takes a while to load, the viewer might simply close the window and move on to the next property.
Related to fast loading time is to load the tour right away. I am shocked into sadness every time I load a virtual tour, only to see a relatively blank page with a "Click here to view tour" link. What? I already "clicked here" to view the tour, just show it to me already!
Fast loading time also applies to navigating between pictures. It should feel instant to the viewer, or you're not doing something right.
- Don't Resize the Browser Window
Some virtual tours automatically resize your browser so that the tour "fills up" the browser window. This is done because the tour has only one size, and it's small. So they shrink your window to make it look a little better. This is a trick that violates rule #1 and also is really annoying as it resizes your browser window. This can be a nuisance to fix when you go "back" or switch to another "tab" in your browser.
The right way to deal with this is to have your tour adjust to the browser window size. Although tricky, it is possible, and the result is a seamless experience for the viewer, where the tour automatically uses as much available space as the browser has. This ensures the highest picture quality that the person's computer can handle.
- Tour Navigation
I've always felt that if someone is viewing a virtual tour, they're doing so to get a good look at the property. However, most tours don't have thumbnail galleries, or have them hidden. So all you see is one image, and you have to click "next" a bunch of times to get a feel for the house. With many tours having 10, 20, or 30+ photos, this also often leads viewers confused as to how much there is to look at. It also makes it difficult for them to see the things they care about quickly, instead forcing people to look at every picture.
We spent quite a lot of time trying to create a tour layout that optimizes the ability to see lots of images quickly. Our thumbnail area is always visible, shows 2 thumbnails per row and goes all the way down the left side of the image. On most tours, you can see thumbnails of nearly all images without scrolling at all. This allows viewers to quickly view the images that they care most about.
Creating thumbnails is also a bit of an art. Simply shrinking down a photo typically results in an image that's low in contrast, and it's often difficult to tell what the picture is even of. By digitally enhancing thumbnails with higher contrast and unsharp masks, the thumbnails are much more useful.
- Digital Enhancement
There are a lot of great new software techniques available to improve photographic quality.
Automatic stitching is great for producing panoramas, and enabled the 360 revolution.
There's also a new class of exposure blenders that is producing amazing results. These contrast blenders allow you to get deep blue skies on exterior photos, and preserve shadow detail and prevent burn-out on interior shots. When properly done, you can see right through the windows just like you're standing in the room.
These techniques take time, experience, and specialized (and often bleeding-edge) software. Hard core DIY photographers might be up for the challenge, but for everyone else, it's best to leave this to the professionals.
- No Music, Please!
Maybe it's just me, but I can't stand it when web sites make noise without my permission. I have watched lots of people use tours, and the first thing most people do when a web page makes noise is reach for the volume knob.
Narrated animation I can live with I suppose, but not if it means I can't be in control of the tour navigation.
Panoramas are either your best friend or your worst enemy. Done right, a panorama can provide an amazing 360 degree view of a room. Done wrong, they load slowly, make people dizzy, and distort the image so that straight lines are curved! You'll know your panorama is a good one if it "seems like a normal picture, but just all the way around." Anything else that distracts from the tour-viewing experience and it does more harm than good.
Panoramas should also be viewed right along with photos. It is annoying to the user to have to "switch" to the 360 pictures from the regular pictures. With creative design and software, you can make the two image types work together seamlessly.
I am not yet on the video bandwagon. I agree that there are pros and cons, and in some cases, if done right, they can be great. Here's the tradeoffs I see in video, and it's up to you to decide if it's worth it:
- People like watching TV.
- Since not too many people are doing real estate video yet, it offers opportunities for generating leads since you'll be a big fish in a small pond.
- More expensive equipment is required compared to video.
- It is more time consuming to shoot video than pictures.
- It is more time consuming to edit video than to edit picture.
- It is more time consuming to insert video clips into your online tours.
- Videos are linear... viewers can't jump to the parts they want to see. Do you really think people will sit through 20 3-minute videos of houses when browsing the MLS?
- It's hard to light a video correctly. This means that most of the time, your video will be under- or over- exposed, and you'll be showing off your video in low-quality compared to a photo.
- Quality is lower - a full-screen picture is much higher quality than a YouTube video.
So if you've got a $5M house and HGTV shoots the video, obviously this will be great. Or if you have a $1000+ budget to shoot the video. Other than that, I see video as a "fad" right now that won't ever gain widespread adoption. Even advances in technology can't fix many of the problems associated with a video tour. I think even if done perfect, it's not a replacement for pictures. But used to augment pictures, it has its place.
Well, I think that's going to do it for my first blog post on ActiveRain. I hope that you found it useful and am looking forward to your comments!
In the meantime, check out a sample tour from our platform that attempts to take heed of the advice mentioned in the post.