The Complete List of Ways to Recruit Chinese International Students
In the days before the Internet, student recruitment was done via agents and school-to-school exchange partnerships. When I first studied abroad in Nanjing, I went through an exchange program.
But nowadays, there’s a growing number of options for student recruitment available. From social marketing to live-streaming to study portal websites. I’m going to list them all here!
This is the one and only list you’ll need. As we find and test new methods, we’ll update the list, so bookmark it. If we’re missing something, contact us and we’ll add it.
Agents are probably still the most common method used for student recruitment.
They’re also probably the most expensive, raking in commissions from 10% to as high as 20%. And some of them will charge students as well.
An agents’ greatest strength is their ability to make sales. Education agent companies range from one-person shops to massive organizations, but their core workers are skilled salespeople that can meet face-to-face with students.
They may also remove some of the hassles for institutions and students. A great agent will help with training, preparing the student for study abroad, document preparation, visa acquisition and more.
That being said, they’re also likely to cause some hassle of their own.
The integrity of agents’ recruiting practices has long been debated. Agents are well-known for helping students fake their application documents. This will offend the values of universities for sure. But, let’s be honest, it’s also seen as a valuable service for universities that are willing to look the other way.
The other downside to using agents is a lack of control. Agents are not loyal to your school, they serve many clients. It’s also hard to control how they’ll present your brand abroad. In China, it’s common to see “official” websites of foreign education institutions that are actually run by agents. It’s also common to see posts from angry students blasting agents for misrepresenting a school, agent fees, school housing, etc. A quick search will turn up hundreds of such posts.
Finally, many institutions use over 40 different agents, with many of those agents promoting the school in other languages, so controlling them can be quite a challenge.
One solution to handling complex agent relationships is to work through BOSSA, a membership organization of hundreds of accredited international education agencies (in China).
Another way to help align agents with your interests is to control your marketing message (read on). Once you post your official materials online, agents will tend to use those as well. When agents are really working with you, they can be a powerful force.
2) School-to-School Partnerships
School-to-school partnerships should be more reliable than using agents.
For Chinese universities, programs with 2 years study in China then 2 years in a foreign university are sought-after. These can work beautifully if the programs line up.
One downside is that they can be tough to scale.
We’ve worked with partners that help foreign universities set up such partnerships in China. Such partners can help lay the groundwork for relationships that will remain fruitful for the long-run.
Old-school Vs New-School
I consider agents & school-to-school partnerships to be the main “old-school” methods of student recruitment. It’s the marketing methods below that I’m more experienced with.
Personally, I think the school-to-school partnerships will remain a valuable option for the long run, but the agent system is ready for a change. I believe marketplace platforms and the institutions themselves will become more-and-more involved in the sales & marketing process. Agents will continue to show strong value when it comes to the application process.
Savvy education institutions have learned many new marketing methods to attract students. Why get involved in marketing? It has allowed them to:
- Decrease the cost-per-student-acquisition.
- Improve control of their own brand.
- Better prepare students for life and study with them.
- Better integrate students into their university after they arrive.
But to make good use of these methods, there’s definitely a learning curve.
3) Search Engine Advertising (Baidu and 360)
This is a very common marketing method. Western schools are used to advertising on Google AdWords to drive targeted traffic to a landing page on their website. Usually, the purpose of the page is to get students to enter their contact information so that somebody from the admissions team can follow up with them.
Instead of students contacting an agent, their first contact with the institution will probably be with one of the institutions own admissions team members. This staff member will understand your university better than an agent would and should be able to provide more reliable, accurate information to the student.
In China, instead of Google, we use Baidu and 360 search engines for this type of campaign. The concept is mostly the same, however. Search engine marketers view it as a funnel:
- The student will perform a search such as “study engineering in Australia” and see some ads.
- They’ll click your ad and land on a landing page.
- The landing page will most likely be a simple page tailored just for that campaign. The student will read it and may follow a prompt to submit some information of theirs via a form.
- The information will be sent to your team, who follows up with the student.
In general, we won’t run this as a standalone campaign. Instead, we’ll also interact with students on social media and share interesting content about a university online. We also make other adaptions for the Chinese market.
4) Micro-site Creation
Although a Western university’s target students should have a fairly high-level of English, we still recommend creating a smaller version of the main website in Chinese only. Why is that?
- Parents will want to read about it too, and they don’t speak English.
- It’s easier to grab the attention of students by offering Chinese content. Once they’re quite interested, they can dig into the details in English. A full & complete Chinese-language version of a university website would be great, but we recommend balancing the cost and benefit.
- The Chinese site shouldn’t just be a translation. It should contain some content written specifically for Chinese students.
Along with a micro-site, we often create a downloadable brochure as well. Students will sometimes print these out for their parents or grandparents to read. For the older generation, a brochure seems much more legit and accessible than a website.
5) Organic Search Engine Optimization for the Micro-site
If you have a micro-site, best to optimize it for Chinese search engines. This will help more people find it.
Basic Chinese SEO for universities involves a combination of:
- Massaging the website content to match what students are searching for.
- Using link-building to ensure search engines know that your mini-site is the official site.
A more advanced SEO campaign could involve targeting terms related to the type of study and location. For example, “Canadian universities” or “study biotechnology abroad”. These types of terms are tougher to attain traffic for, but it’s definitely worth considering.
We ran one of our first Chinese education SEO campaigns back in about 2010 and attained top rankings for a bunch of terms like “study English in the UK”.
For my own business, SEO has always been important. For educational institutions, it is a hugely underutilized marketing method. I think there are two main reasons for that:
- It can be challenging to have an organization embrace SEO. It requires co-ordination with the web tech team, Chinese content writers and other staff.
- Organizations often have a short-term mentality, but SEO is a long-term play, especially for Baidu.
6) Social Media Groups
This is a great one. We recommend this marketing method for pretty much every education campaign we work on.
We create chat groups on social media platforms such as WeChat and QQ, then fill the group with current and prospective students. This way, future students can get reliable information direct from current students.
Groups are a great option because you’re basically letting others help promote your school.
It does require some oversight. The way we do it, we set up moderators to watch over the content of these groups. They jump in to correct myths or answer questions that others haven’t answered. By having moderators watch over groups for several clients, it keeps fees low. The right software tools & careful processes help further.
Finally, the social groups are a great way to gather information about what students are interested in. Those insights can be used to guide the creation of new content.
7) Ongoing Organic Social Media Marketing
For us, this is the core of a successful campaign. The one thing on our whole list that should be done for sure.
Social marketing allows a university to spread awareness of their brand and offerings to the widest user base. And do so in a way that matches their values.
In the West, you might post regular updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms.
In China, similar tactics work, but the platforms are different. We use Weibo, WeChat and Baidu Tieba, amongst others.
Weibo – A bit like Twitter, but with better interaction rates. Weibo has over 100 million daily active users.
WeChat – The ‘everything’ app. WeChat is a messenger, social platform, payment method and more. They have over 700 million users in China.
Baidu Tieba – Kind of like a forum, users can post questions on Tieba. We create official Tiebas which gives us a chance to moderate the content about a University.
With all these platforms, the key is to:
- Provide valuable content to students.
- Be interactive.
- Use a tone that suits Chinese students.
- Do all this in a way that is cost-effective.
8) Live-streaming Tours and Webinars
Live-streaming is a BIG thing in China.
Viewers find it to be an authentic and easy to watch.
What we recommend is having semi-regular live-streaming sessions.
There are two ways to do this:
In a webinar, you can introduce the university and its offerings. It’s the same as an information session that you might hold on-site. Indeed, you can live-stream those sessions.
In a tour, you can take watchers around the campus and student accommodation. Choosing to study abroad isn’t just a decision to reason through. It’s an emotionally challenging decision. Students may be going abroad for the first time, to a different place where everybody speaks English and many little things are different. Giving students a virtual tour give them a chance to get a feel for the university in a casual and authentic way.
9) Video Creation
Have some videos of your institution on YouTube?
YouTube is blocked in China, but those videos can be subtitled and shared on Chinese video platforms such as Youku.
Better yet, new videos can be created specifically for Chinese viewers. Of course, videos can be expensive to produce, so I can’t say we recommend every institution create custom videos for the Chinese market. Especially since we can attain similar results via subtitling or live-streaming.
Another way to produce video content efficiently is to crowdsource it. Have current students submit their videos as part of a social campaign.
10) In-China Tours
Students like to compare multiple options. One great way to do that is for them to join a tour/fair where they can see a variety of similar education options all in one place.
One such service provider is The MBA Tour. They round up several MBA programs and set them up in events in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, then invite a few hundred prospective MBA program applicants.
Students like it because they can learn about a handful of great opportunities all in one day and meet with admissions officers face-to-face.
11) Permanent Offices in China
Some schools set up a permanent presence in China. They set up offices with admissions team staff members.
Offering face-to-face service to prospective students right within China can really help improve sales rates, but can also be a considerable expense.
There are a couple twists to this method as well:
- Some agents offer to provide dedicated full-time staff. They are only responsible for promoting your school.
- If setting up an office is tricky, you could piggyback off of a partner. We actually have some university admissions & customer support staff working in our office. So the school requires very little regulatory or HR support. Plus, it’s more fun to work amongst a group of people.
- You could use the assistance of a professional staffing service.
I admit that young Chinese people don’t use email very much. But it isn’t completely out of the game.
I recommend focusing on WeChat rather than email, but also providing email communication as an option.
WeChat updates can then be integrated with the CRM or content marketing campaigns.
In other words, I consider email marketing as an “add-on” for other campaigns, rather than a focus point.
13) Influencer (KOL) Marketing
Another super hot type of marketing in China now is to pay influential social media personalities to post content or do live-streaming.
Personally, I am quite picky about this type of marketing.
It really can be done right, but only if 1) the content is great, 2) it’s tracked properly and 3) the price is right. It’s really not uncommon for ‘key opinion leaders’ to overcharge. Picking the right ones is a challenge.
I recommend only using this method if you have a partner with enough experience. Also, make sure they have a robust tracking method that will help compare the influencer marketing results to other marketing methods.
14) Weibo Advertising
This is our go-to method for schools that want to make a splash or need to drive a lot of inquiries soon.
Weibo advertising allows various targeting options. We generally narrow it down by interest and/or geography.
Weibo advertising also works well together with search advertising. While Weibo is useful for spreading the word to the right student demographic, search ads can help drive them through to your admissions team.
When it comes to running multi-faceted online advertising campaigns, universities will higher agencies with the right expertise. I can’t say I recommend going it alone on this type of thing.
Many students see wikis are seen as an authoritative source of information.
Baidu’s wiki is particularly powerful. When readers search for your university, they’re likely to find a Baidu wiki. It’s possible to gain control of that wiki to make sure it has comprehensive and accurate information about your university.
Wikis are part of an overall strategy we use to make sure that when people search about a university, they see various information sources that all add to the feeling that the university is a respected institution that is well set-up to receive Chinese students.
Basically, when a prospective student searches for the brand of a university client of ours, we’d like them to see:
- A Chinese website
- Weibo account
- Baidu Tieba
- Baidu wiki
- Additional articles on authoritative education news sites.
16) Super Precise Geographic-targeted Advertising
In some cases, it makes sense to run very precise geo-specific ad campaigns. We can use multiple ad networks to target people within areas as small as 5 kilometers.
Why might we do this though? We can target people in or near certain universities in China. For example, imagine advertising a Master’s bio-engineering program to people that are very likely studying a related bio-sci undergrad degree in China.
17) Education Portal Websites
Portals allow students to easily browse through a large number of institutions and course offerings. Some examples of English-language portal websites are QS Top Universities, Chegg Schools and StudyPortals.com. But these platforms have little to no presence in China. Even Chegg’s Zinch.cn was closed in 2016.
Here are two examples of portals in China:
- 51offer.com, which lists study abroad opportunities for USA, UK, Australia and a few other markets.
- Jiemo (Wasabi), which is strong with Japanese study abroad opportunities.
There are many platforms (up to 25 that we have checked), but not one platform that is both dominant and modern. Few of these platforms have an English interface. Almost all of them can actually be classified more as “agents” than as real platforms that allow direct connection between students and schools. Getting setup requires negotiation and know-how.
It could be quite a challenge for one institution to figure out all these different platforms, each with its own rules & business model and use them effectively. We’ve taken the approach of providing them to higher education clients as a bundle.
Nanjing Marketing Group specializes in Chinese education marketing.
We provide most of the services listed above and otherwise have partners available to provide the rest.
If you provide a solution we missed, let us know, maybe we can work together!