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 one of these exchange programs.
But nowadays, there’s a growing number of options for student recruitment. 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.
This post was last updated in July 2021.
Old school vs. New School
I consider agents and 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 has already started to change. I believe marketplace platforms and the institutions themselves will become increasingly involved in the sales & marketing process. Agents, however, continue to be useful 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 allows you to
- decrease the cost-per-student acquisition,
- improve brand control,
- better prepare students for life and study with your school,
- better integrate students into your university after they arrive, and
- build a relationship with prospective students early on.
But, to make good use of both the old and the new-school methods, there’s definitely a learning curve.
Agents are still a very 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 agent’s 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 who 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 document preparation, visa acquisition, training the students, preparing them for study abroad, 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 is a direct violation of any university’s code of conduct. But, let’s be honest, it’s also seen as a valuable service for universities willing to look the other way.
The other downside of using agents is a lack of control. Agents are there to serve clients and are in no way loyal to your school. It’s also hard to control how they’ll present your brand abroad. In China, it’s common to see agent-run “official” websites of foreign education institutions. 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 these agents promoting the school in other languages, so controlling them can be quite challenging.
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 two years of study in China then two 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. These partners can help lay the groundwork for relationships that will remain fruitful in the long run.
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 page’s purpose 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 will probably be with one of the institution’s own admissions team members. This staff member will understand your university better than an agent and should be able to provide more reliable, accurate information to the student.
In China, instead of Google, we use Baidu and other 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 be forwarded to 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 personal information 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. As a rule of thumb, Chinese students will do a background check of your school after they see an ad on Baidu. They’ll search for official profiles on WeChat and Weibo, and are likely to check if others shared their opinions on Zhihu (Chinese Quora). Therefore, if your university is not widely known and does not have any presence online in China, we do not expect an exorbitant number of leads incoming from the standalone Baidu campaigns.
4) Mini-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 all speak English).
- It’s easier to grab the attention of students by offering Chinese content. Once they’re 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 (let’s not even mention a machine translation!) of your English site. It should contain some content written specifically for Chinese students and should follow their browsing habits. Chinese students will look for answers to different questions compared to their peers in other countries.
Along with a mini-site, we often use the content to create a downloadable brochure as well. It makes it easier for agents and the admissions team to share information with prospective students. Moreover, 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 SEO for the Mini-site
If you have a mini-site, then it’s best to optimize it for Chinese search engines. This will help more people find it.
Basic Chinese SEO for universities involves a combination of
- tailoring the website content to match the student searches, and
- using link-building to ensure search engines know that your mini-site is the official site. It means: We publish high-quality posts linking your site on authoritative platforms.
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 generic terms are tougher to attract consistent traffic for, but it’s definitely worth considering.
If you need practical SEO advice to help you get started with Baidu, check our full checklist here.
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 coordination 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 directly from those currently studying.
Groups are a great option because you’re basically letting others help promote your school. Additionally, prospective students trust the first-hand experiences of their peers more than your team.
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 dispel myths, correct misinformation and answer yet-to-be-discussed questions. Having moderators watching over groups for several clients keeps fees low. Furthermore, having the right software tools and establishing moderator-procedure streamlines the process.
What’s more, as email marketing is not a to-go strategy in China, we use social groups instead to nurture students with the right content at the right time. Our moderators guide prospective students through the admissions process sharing relevant WeChat articles and reminding them of deadlines.
Finally, social groups are a great way to gather information about student interests. These insights can be used to guide the creation of new content.
7) Ongoing Organic Content Marketing
For us, this is the core of a successful campaign. The one thing on our whole list that should be done for sure.
Consistent content marketing allows a university to spread brand awareness and offerings to the widest user base and in a way that matches their values.
In the West, you might post regular updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. In China, similar tactics work, but the platforms are different. We use Weibo, WeChat, and Zhihu, amongst others.
Weibo – A bit like Twitter and Facebook combined, but with better interaction rates. Weibo has over 200 million daily active users (and over 500 million monthly active users).
WeChat – The “everything” app. WeChat is a messenger, social platform, payment method, and more. They have over 1.2 billion users in China.
Zhihu – Zhihu is a high-end Q&A platform with 220 million users and 130 million answers so far. It allows university reps to answer online questions from students. Apart from Zhihu, we also get on student forums and Baidu Tieba to answer and moderate students’ queries.
Additionally, we spread the content across various platforms to ensure we reach the target audience in multiple places. We choose them on a case-to-case basis: Some will be more generic and related to studying abroad in general; some will be related to the destination country or even a specific article topic.
We covered our content marketing tactics in depth here, but to keep things short: We make the most out of each article we create.
With all these platforms, the key is to
- provide valuable content to students,
- be interactive,
- use a tone suitable for Chinese students, and
- do all this in a cost-effective way.
8) Live-streaming Tours and Webinars
Live streaming is a BIG thing in China. Viewers find it authentic and easy to watch. It’s a particularly valuable option amid travel restrictions if you do not have a team in China to visit schools and connect with students.
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 on-site information session. Indeed, you can live stream to a broader audience in an open broadcast or choose to organize a smaller session (e.g., a short Q&A) for participants of your social group.
On a tour, you can take watchers around the campus and student accommodation. As we’re on the opposite side of the fence, we often forget that choosing to study abroad is an emotionally challenging decision for students. Many of them may be going abroad for the first time, to a different place where everybody speaks English and everything is new and strange. Giving students a virtual tour gives them a chance to get a more casual and authentic feel for the university.
9) Video Creation
Have some videos of your institution on YouTube? Great!
YouTube is blocked in China, but those videos can be subtitled and shared on Chinese video platforms such as Bilibili and 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.
However, not all your videos must be promotional and created by a professional team. Especially on Douyin (TikTok) and Bilibili, you can (and should) share more authentic and less “staged” content.
One way to produce video content efficiently is to crowdsource it. Have current students submit their videos as part of a social campaign.
And, do not forget to record your webinars and other live-streaming sessions! Turn them into informative clips to share on social media when students ask questions.
10) In-China Tours (Online and Offline!)
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 universities and courses all in one place and at the same time.
In 2021, offline expos are still organized in mainland China—although they’re smaller—so your local reps can meet face-to-face with students. However, many expos and fairs have been moved online. Thanks to that, through live-streaming rooms, your team can connect with prospective students all over China. The events are organized regularly and there are many to choose from.
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 applicants.
Another option is attending events organized by New Oriental. They’re often country or continent-specific or address a certain aspect of the study-abroad process.
China Education Expo is (for now) organized as a hybrid event. There are offline exhibitions in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but your team can also attend a virtual event where students scan a QR code to join the broadcast.
11) Permanent Offices in China
Some schools have a permanent presence in China and set up offices with admissions team staff.
Offering a face-to-face service to prospective students within China can really help improve sales rates, but can also be a considerable expense.
There are a couple of 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 a partner. We actually have university admissions & customer support staff working in our office, so the school requires very little regulatory or HR support.
- You could use the assistance of a professional staffing service.
The younger Chinese generation doesn’t use email very much, but that doesn’t make it completely obsolete.
I recommend focusing on WeChat rather than email, but also provide 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 focal 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. That could mean:
- Micro-influencers: Students already in your country who have gathered a significant following for their study-abroad content (mostly vlogs).
- Study-abroad focused accounts run by agents and businesses (for example, Europe Today Online 欧洲今日在线) who are present on multiple platforms and share the content to their social groups. The advantage: Their audience is often within a specific geographical location and is interested in studying abroad.
- Full-time influencers with millions of followers may not be focused enough. For example, travel influencers may be targeting the right country, but how many of their followers are ready to apply for university at this given moment?
Personally, I am quite picky about this type of marketing.
It really can be done right, but only if the target audience is right, the content is great and tracked properly, and the price is reasonable. It’s really not uncommon for KOLs 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) Social Advertising
This is our go-to method for schools that want to make a splash or need to drive a lot of inquiries soon. Depending on the available documents, we recommend looking into Zhihu and Weibo for advertising channels.
Weibo advertising allows various targeting options. We generally narrow it down by interest and/or geography.
However, for the schools with a registered China office or other relevant documents, we set up advertising accounts on Zhihu. Zhihu allows for great targeting options in terms of demographics, but what’s better—you can target users based on the keywords and questions they ask. And you can pay to make sure your answer ranks first.
Social advertising also works well together with search advertising. While social platforms are 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 hire agencies with the right expertise. For this type of thing, I can’t say I recommend going at it alone.
Many students see wikis 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 as it ranks top on the search results page, usually right below ads. 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 perform a search, they see various information sources that add to the feeling that the university is a respected institution well set up to receive Chinese students.
Basically, when a prospective student searches for one of our university clients on Baidu, we’d like them to see:
- A Chinese website.
- Zhihu Q&As.
- Weibo account.
- Baidu Tieba.
- Baidu wiki.
- Additional articles on authoritative education news sites.
Note: WeChat accounts do not show up on Baidu, so students will do additional in-app searches.
16) Super Precise Geographic-targeted Advertising
In some cases, it makes sense to run precise geo-specific ad campaigns. We can use multiple ad networks to target people within areas as small as five kilometers.
Why might we do this though? We can target people in or near certain universities in China. For example, imagine advertising an MA Bioengineering program to people who are very likely studying a related bio-science 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. But besides QS rankings, most of these platforms have little to no presence in China and do not have a Chinese interface. And, there is no straightforward equivalent of these platforms.
Chinese portals are different from what you imagine. They’re a collection of articles covering rankings, admissions, immigration, and everything else related to studying abroad. They come in handy for your content marketing, but they’re nothing like StudyPortals.
Liuxue86 is one of the most popular platforms focused on studying abroad.
Almost all of the currently available portals can be classified more as “agents” than as real platforms (which allow direct connection between students and schools). Getting set up with an intro page requires know-how and negotiation with the platform owners.
These platforms have their own unique rules and business models, so it could be challenging for one institution to figure out each one and use them effectively. We’ve taken the approach of providing them to higher education clients as a bundle.