• Phil Heusser

How to Hold a Virtual Graduation Ceremony (2020-2021 Guide)

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

In May and June of 2020, college administrators around the world tasked their communications offices with a nearly impossible challenge.

“Go ahead!” they said.

“Plan and deliver a top-notch virtual graduation... with a few months notice... in the middle of a once-a-century pandemic. Celebrate students, recognize their achievements, and make their families happy all at once.”

“Oh, and did we mention? There is no precedence for the only external vendors who can help offer low-quality, outdated products.”


Minus the sarcasm, that really was the situation college communication department employees across the country faced in the months leading up to last graduation season — and unfortunately, the results showed. Thankfully, with much more time to prepare for upcoming Winter ceremonies, colleges have an opportunity to get it right this time.

Without further ado, here is how to do a virtual graduation ceremony the right way.

What is a Virtual Graduation Ceremony?

Let’s start with the basics, since there are some misconceptions out there about what actually constitutes a virtual graduation ceremony.

Technically defined, a virtual graduation is any graduation ceremony that takes place online rather than in-person. A virtual graduation can be a livestream event, entirely pre-produced, or some combination of the two.

If it’s not exclusively in-person, and there is a digital component, it is at least in part a virtual graduation!

What are the Ingredients of a Virtual Commencement?

Believe it or not, the elements that make up a great virtual graduation are the same ones that make a stellar in-person ceremony. Here is an example of a “Run of Show” taken directly from one of GraduateVirtually’s productions. In this case, it was a large high school in New York City.

  • Brief Video Welcome from District Superintendent

  • Opening Video Remarks from School Principal

  • Video Welcome from Class President

  • Valedictorian Speech

  • Awards Procession

  • Student Graduate Procession (Pomp and Circumstance Music)

  • Montage of School Pictures with Music

  • Closing Remarks from School Principal

The only question is whether these elements are pre-recorded, live streamed, or some combination of the two. Besides that, the stages are pretty much identical.

How to do an Online Graduation Ceremony Right

Believe it or not, the elements that make up a great virtual graduation are the same ones that make a stellar in-person ceremony. Here is an example of a “Run of Show” taken directly from one of GraduateVirtually’s productions. In this case, it was a large high school in New York City.

1. Don’t cancel graduation, cold turkey!

This one might seem obvious, but it wasn’t to thousands of colleges last graduation season. If you did this once, don’t do it again! A quick Google search on the subject will show you how college communities reacted. Instead, do one of two things:

A. Replace in-person graduation with an excellent virtual event, or...

B. Supplement a TBD graduation date with a pleasant, fun virtual event, communicating that the in person ceremony will take place at a yet-determined date.

Worst case scenario, reschedule the whole thing for a TBD date.

Just don’t completely cancel!

2. Personalize the Virtual Commencement

If you want students to be engaged in the ceremony, you’ve got to find a way to make them active participants — not sideline observers. Many colleges missed this step last time around, causing them to take a bit of a spill.

There are different ways this can be done. For example, you might allow students to submit a picture and quote, which becomes part of a graduate slide. Better yet, have them answer questions to a prompt. Allow them to submit pictures, or even video that becomes part of the ceremony. Creating opportunities for student personalization is a game-changer for two big reasons. First, personalized content makes the ceremony itself far more dynamic.

More importantly, since students went out of their way to contribute, they will be far more invested in the virtual commencement itself.

By far and away, the easiest way to personalize the graduation is in the “student slide” procession, as in the example above. Most virtual graduations still lingering on Youtube consist of a picture and a name on a powerpoint slide — a fantastic way to lose an audience.

Compare the difference between a static slide which doesn't involve a student, and an animated slide created by a student.

3. Involve students in the decision making

Besides involving students in the ceremonial experience, administrators should do their best to involve students in the decision making process. Not only will student crowdsourcing make the end-product better, it will convey to the community that your institution is taking into consideration the student’s wishes. (Said a bit more bluntly -- it’s good PR).

Involving student leaders might be as simple as having them vote on which vendor to work with. It might mean asking them whether the event should be live or pre-recorded (and therefore likely higher production quality). Or it might mean handing out surveys and crowdsourcing for even higher-level ideas.

4. Build anticipation (lots of it!)

When you’ve got your ducks in a row make a big announcement across all your channels. Get the word out in a major way. This is a big one, so let’s unwrap how to handle it.

Make a Big Announcement on Social

Create an engaging social campaign announcing your virtual graduation. On Facebook, do all the things you’d normally do when delivering a seminal Facebook post. Facilitate some early organic interaction. Share it on relevant Facebook groups like alumni pages, athletics pages and relevant networks. Similarly, make big announcements on Instagram, share on Twitter, and LinkedIn. You know your social audiences best, so target your message to the right demographic.

Send newsletters

Naturally, you’ll want to take full advantage of your email marketing powers. Send out newsletters to all your lists, including parents, students, alumni, donors, local community members, administrators and more. Put your best foot forward, show empathy, and don’t leave out any key details!

Contend with Blowback

Before you create you make your announcements to the world, anticipate complaints students may leave in the public comment section, preparing answers in advance. If you do get a negative comment about your virtual graduation, respond politely, keep it brief, and show empathy. Remember, the vast majority of your audience understands the difficult position your university is in. Don’t blow negative feedback out of proportion — some students are understandably emotional, but 95% of your audience will fully comprehend the situation you are in. Here’s a tone we recommend.

“Hi {name}, thank you for expressing your concerns. We know that nothing can completely replace an in-person graduation. In the meantime, we’re working very hard to make the virtual commencement a unique and memorable experience for you and your classmates.”

5. Communicate Empathy

At GraduateVirtually, we believe in the power of high quality and student-powered digital graduation.

At the same time, we aren’t so naive to think that many students prefer a virtual event over an in-person one. A fantastic virtual event is far better than a cancelled graduation, and it’s a great placeholder for a future in-person graduation.

But it’s still making the best out of a difficult situation.

That’s the very same tone you should be taking with students, parents, and families when communicating with them. Take this as an example:

“We share the disappointment of our students and families that the in-person graduation must be postponed (or cancelled). While we appreciate that an online graduation ceremony cannot completely replace the power of a live event, we are very excited to invite students back into the graduation procedure. We will share our plans with you very soon! Stay tuned and congratulations Class of 2020!”

This is just an example. The key is to simultaneously acknowledge the difficulty of the times, but convey excitement about the solution.

6. How to Host the Commencement

There are several platforms your ceremony can be posted on, and several methods of delivery. Let’s review the basics.

Delivery Methods

  • Livestream

Livestreaming your event is a great option if A. You have enough time to prepare B. You have access to a camera crew, and C. If your budget allows it. The benefits of having a true live event are clear. Hosting your graduation in real time means everyone is “gathering” in one place at one time, experiencing a ceremony in unison. On the downside, livestream events can be expensive, and leave you at far greater risk for technological malfunctions.

If livestream is necessary and resources are tight, we recommend using a free software available online, like Open Broadcast Software.

  • “Live” Video Premiere

This is the approach the vast majority of our clients choose, and for good reason!

Completing your graduation in advance and premiering it at a specific place and time on the web achieves nearly the same thing a true livestream does, but with considerably less resources and risk of technological error.

In video premieres, those watching the video can comment, react and celebrate in real time, in a chat box next to the video. Allowing participation is a wonderful way to bring students and families back into the process.

  • Traditional Video Post

A third option is to simply announce when and where the virtual graduation will be up. This is the simplest way to do it, but leaves much to be desired in terms of experience. One benefit of this as that the video having a permanent URL means that it is now sharable across multiple pages and groups. However, the same thing is true after a livestream or video premiere.

Delivery Platforms

Let's get one thing straight. You do not need to pay an expensive vendor to livestream your ceremony.

Platforms for hosting your video include Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and Zoom. In some cases, software companies create login areas on their own websites to access a livestream, but this usually causes an extra step in the process and is better for their marketing than your audience experience.

Of the most popular options available, we recommend Youtube. The reason is that Youtube is the easiest to use, it is the least likely to unexpectedly block background music, and it can easily be shared directly to Facebook. Instagram is not popular enough with audiences over the age of 40, and Zoom (even Premium accounts) have viewer limits that can be dealbreakers. Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram all offer live chatting abilities, which forges a great experience.

Conclusion: How to Hold a Virtual Graduation Ceremony (2020-2021 Guide)

We've said it a few times already, and we'll say it again. The reality is that no virtual graduation can completely replace an in-person experience.

But the good news is, that’s not the job of a virtual ceremony.

A virtual graduation is meant to bring students back into the fold, create a unique experience, and communicate to them, their families, and the community that no matter what happens, they will not go unrecognized or unappreciated. By inviting students to participate in the process, you will re-frame the experience as one that they are a part of — not one they are watching from afar.

Need Some Help?

If you're interested in hiring an experienced production company to create your student ceremony, reach us at, or watch the video below to view a demo.

#virtualgraduation #graduatevirtually #motifmotion

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