It’s almost 2022 and China’s education industry has gone through a lot of late. First, it was hit with COVID-19, and then the government introduced regulations that hampered the operations of China’s own training companies.
So, is it a good time to promote a foreign online-training business in China? We still think it is.
In this post we’re going to look at how the recent trends have affected online training businesses, then we’ll explain what we recommend for marketing. It will be part data, part professional marketing experience, and part personal stories.
Just How Big is China’s Online Learning Opportunity?
According to the US-China Institute, private classes and tutoring are a 120 billion USD industry in China, and the online education market was worth about 40 billion USD/year in 2020.
Another report expects the global e-learning industry to reach 458 billion USD by 2026, with China making up 23% of that market (106 billion USD).
So, if you were to treat the Chinese and Rest-of-World (RoW) markets equally, you might spend about $1 on China for every $3 you spend elsewhere. Although, your success in one market doesn’t necessarily translate into success in the other. It can be a challenge for RoW companies to break into China, just as it can be a challenge for Chinese companies to expand abroad.
Recent Changes to the Education Industry in China
There have been four major trends lately that have shaped the current educational landscape.
First, Internet usage has increased dramatically over the past decade.
While China used to be behind in this regard, it’s now the forerunner in many respects. Essentially all young Chinese people are online now, with the only laggards being older people, and sometimes people living in rural areas (the Internet penetration rate in these areas is now about 60%).
However, this isn’t to say that everything was being done online. Much of the out-of-school tutoring was being done physically, in person.
Then came trend #2: COVID-19.
When COVID-19 hit, it caused people in China and elsewhere to go into various levels of isolation. Where I am in Alberta, Canada, there was social distancing, face mask requirements, and limited shut downs of restaurants and other social gatherings.
However, in China there were shorter, but much more stringent lockdowns. People would stay inside their homes for long periods of time. Eventually, the major restrictions were lifted, but then subsequent measures were put back in place selectively based on the location of new outbreaks.
During lockdowns, workers still needed to work, and students still needed to study. So COVID-19 reinvigorated the online sphere, encouraging people that weren’t quite yet ready to study online to jump on in.
The third major trend (or trends) is on the regulatory side.
The Chinese government wants its citizens to have a good life and…more babies. That is, the one-child policy was relaxed to two and then a three-child policy in an attempt to get people to have more children. But women haven’t been persuaded. In fact, China’s birth rates only went up a tiny bit.
Now, I can’t say what everybody in China was thinking, but my Chinese Popo (my wife’s mother’s mother) had three children when she was young. She told my wife, “Two is enough. Don’t have more than that or it will be bitter for you.”
Many middle-aged and young married couples in China feel that they have enough pressure already, so they don’t want to have more kids.
One of those pressures is schooling. The exam system in China is intense, and students are expected to memorize a tremendous amount of information and be able to regurgitate it perfectly.
Parents have been providing their children with plenty of after-school tutoring opportunities. And when I say “providing,” I mean “forcing.” Unsurprisingly, kids don’t like it. Parents don’t like it either, but societal pressures means they have to.
To keep up, parents have to spend a lot of time and money. By some estimates, parents were spending on average 17,400 USD/year on tutoring for their children. But, to be honest, this number is so high that I’m having trouble believing it.
The Chinese government also realized people were putting too much time, energy, and money into tutoring, so they released a series of regulations in 2021. As it stands now, for-profit tutoring isn’t allowed for students in grades K-12 for any field that is taught in the country’s core school curriculum. The regulations aren’t affecting university-age students or adults in general.
It’s totally unclear what will happen next.
Finally, many Chinese consumers have generally been distrustful of both online and physical schools.
This is not a new trend, but continues to be an issue. However, if you provide a quality service, it’s an opportunity for you.
I once briefly worked at an English-training startup full of white teachers. The problem was that I was the only native English speaker and the most qualified—and I wasn’t even very qualified. I was 22, had no experience teaching, and startup organizers provided no guidance. Although the other teachers were chosen because somebody thought they looked like native English speakers, they were actually only native speakers of German, Russian, etc.
This is my personal experience, but I’m sure many Chinese students have had similar experiences with low-quality education.
In fact, foreign English teachers have even become the butt of jokes by Chinese stand-up comedians. They’re characterized as the refuse of the West, arriving in China to work for schools that care little about the quality of education, then focusing more on partying than on teaching.
Is It a Good Time to Promote an Online Training Business in China?
If you aren’t targeting children in grades K-12, the current regulations don’t affect you.
It’s business as usual, but with a positive upwards trend. Plus, people have become more accustomed to accessing education online and will continue to do so.
Finally, as I mentioned, if you have great service, you can gradually build up trust and win market share.
If you are targeting K-12 students and focusing on core curriculum subjects, it’s a chaotic situation, which means there are both risks and opportunities.
Many of your Chinese-based competitors have had to massively shrink their operations. But the specific regulations aren’t preventing you from running Chinese marketing campaigns online.
To me, this seems like a good opportunity. Personally, I expect some of the regulations to be relaxed in the future. If you wait a year, things will be different, but Chinese competitors will already be ahead of you again.
There’s something important to note. Not many foreign companies eyeing the Chinese market get this—to do business with Chinese customers, you don’t always need to do business from within the country. So long as you’re not in a straight-up prohibited industry (such as gambling) you can most likely run your marketing, have a China-accessible website, and even accept payments from Chinese payment providers all without having a Chinese business entity or physical office within China.
How to Enter the Chinese Online Training Market
Here’s the three-point overview:
- You’ll need to build trust with your future students. Chinese consumers can be suspicious about the quality of the education offered, especially if it’s from a company they haven’t heard of before.
- For marketing channels, you should use advertising (such as Baidu ads), your website, and social marketing (such as WeChat).
- I predict it will cost you 10–50K USD to launch properly in China. There are ways to reduce the upfront costs though (more on that below).
PREPARE YOUR WEBSITE CONTENT
To persuade Chinese people to sign up for your course/program/one-on-one sessions or whatever type of learning service you’re offering, you’d better use Chinese-language content. You probably don’t need your entire website translated, but the more Chinese material you have, the easier it will be.
Of course, this requirement varies based on who you’re targeting. Of the training businesses that have contacted me, the most common service they offer is English-language training. The targeted students have enough experience with English to handle an English-language interface. However, at that point where they first meet your brand, you want to really motivate them to move on to the next step. We recommend that you at least use Chinese to introduce your offer and persuade them of the key benefits.
MAKE SURE YOUR WEBSITE LOADS QUICKLY IN CHINA
From the point-of-view of the Chinese marketing team, the best solution would be to create a separate website hosted in China. This provides reliable speeds for everybody within “The Great Firewall.”
However, I realize this can be a hassle because you’d need to manage two different websites, pay for hosting, get an ICP license, etc.
A shortcut to getting your website to load quickly is to
- fix only the components that don’t load well within China, and
- use a CDN such as Cloudflare.
OFFER REAL-TIME SUPPORT
Chinese consumers are accustomed to having real-time support available, which is very often offered by most types of businesses. When we take a client that has “email us” as part of their sign up process, we always try to offer a real-time “chat with us” option too, and it typically increases conversion rates by about 3X.
Using this method, you don’t necessarily need to handle all the future customer’s questions upfront. Instead, you can answer a couple questions, then point them to the appropriate next step.
If you can offer a convenient Chinese payment method such as Alipay, you should expect another boost to your conversion rate. Alipay is not only convenient and trusted, but it’s almost second nature to many Chinese consumers. In any situation where money is about to be handed over, you’ll hear the cashier, waitress, taxi driver, person on the opposite side of the desk ask, “WeChat or AliPay?” If you ask for a credit card, it won’t kill your chance of succeeding, but it adds an extra hurdle.
Alipay is the one I recommend first because many of the online service providers I’ve talked to have Stripe, and Stripe has Alipay integration available.
Websites with Alipay should display it on-site.
Once your website is ready, you’ll need to send some targeted traffic to it. One option is to use organic content and social marketing, but that takes time to build a following. So it’s best to advertise first.
You might choose to advertise via Weibo, Baidu, Douyin, or many other platforms. You might even choose to run promotions via influencers.
For us, the first place we go is Baidu. With Google blocked, Baidu is the top search engine in China. We use it to place ads in front of searchers, based on what they’re searching for.
For a couple other projects we recently started, we saw a cost-per-click of 0.7–1.8 USD.
For us, the second-best performing advertising option has been Weibo. Weibo’s ad system allows us to boost content, attract attendees for events or gain followers.
We use WeChat to keep in touch with current fans and their friends. It takes time to build a following, but we tend to get strong open rates and share rates. Compared to advertising, the following tends to start off slowly, but it just keeps growing and growing over time.
WeChat articles support text, image, and video. Since you probably already have those resources available, it probably isn’t too hard to adapt them for the Chinese market. Again, Chinese-language content is often best, but for the niche of English-speaking users you can also use English content directly.
USE AN IN-HOUSE INFLUENCER
This last idea might be harder to pull off, but I do like to ask myself what I would do if I were the owner of a training business and wanted to promote it in China.
The answer: I would turn somebody in my company into an influencer—preferably me. I’d get on WeChat, Douyin, Weibo, or another platform and start creating content. Then I’d very consistently continue to push content, while varying the topics and style based on feedback and growing my fan base.
If you have a teacher within your company up to the task, it could grow to become a wonderful asset to your marketing campaign.
GIVE IT A TRY
Now you know how to approach the Chinese market. Don’t be scared to give it a go. The Chinese market can seem an intimidating place and success is not always guaranteed, even for the experienced. However, one thing that’s sure is that the companies who do make it will be the ones that try. The information I’ve given you above should give you a headstart and a better chance of succeeding.
To learn more, check out our Digital Marketing 101 guide or contact us to discuss the opportunity for your business.