The Chinese market is an exciting one for education providers, but cracking this market is fraught with challenges. Strategies that work at home won’t necessarily translate, and it can be difficult to navigate the intricacies of culture, language and a highly unique marketing landscape.
In order to sort out the dos from the don’ts, we enlisted the help of expert George Hernandez, who has worked in international education for 7 years, first as an international marketing communications manager for Macquarie University, and then as a digital and international marketing strategist for Higher Education Consulting Group (HECG). Now Hernandez is the founder of start-up Sofiri, a platform that aims to connect prospective students looking to study abroad with education counselling service providers, giving a digital alternative to the traditional bricks-and-mortar agency model.
Here are Hernandez’s top 5 tips for education providers looking to appeal to the Chinese market.
It’s all about relationships
In China, there is a concept known as “guanxi”, which is essentially about building a network of mutually beneficial interpersonal relationships that can be used for personal or business purposes. Guanxi is considered essential to social cohesion in Chinese culture, so education marketers can’t underestimate its importance.
Strong guanxi is particularly important in the Chinese education market, where students are heavily reliant on education agencies. As a result, agencies tend to wield more power than education providers.
As Hernandez says, “It’s a market of relationships.”
In order to foster relationship-building, Hernandez says hiring at least one person to represent your institution in China is a “no-brainer”, as this will help you create connections with local agencies and universities faster and more effectively.
A tip for smaller institutions is also to not focus too heavily on trying to build relationships with the biggest agencies, who will be working with hundreds if not thousands of other institutions. Rather, you may be better off forming deeper relationships with smaller agencies, who will be able to dedicate more time to your institution.
Get the basics right
In order for international institutions to establish a strong foundation in China, they must get the basics right. This means having a high-functioning website and a comprehensive social media presence.
Here, says Hernandez, it’s important to understand China’s unique landscape. Videos, for example, are a highly effective format for the Chinese market. It may be more beneficial, therefore, to create a strong presence on QQ, because both QQ and WeChat are owned by Tencent and are therefore more compatible with each other, whereas videos from other platforms (like Youku) cannot easily be embedded in WeChat.
Spend your marketing budget wisely
The complexity of the Chinese market means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Once you have a strong foundation established and a bigger budget to play with, therefore, Hernandez recommends performing tests to work out what are going to be the most effective strategies. If, for example, you have a $20,000 budget, you may want to spend half on advertising and half on KOLs to see what resonates with your audience.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box too – for example, are there forums that students in China might visit in order to seek information about the destination and study options, where a prominently placed ad might get a lot of click-through? Is there an alumni society with connections in China that could be sponsored? Could Chinese alumni produce content or be featured in marketing materials?
However, Hernandez advises thinking carefully about how to invest your offline marketing budget – print advertising, for example, is expensive, and doesn’t necessarily generate big results. Instead, consider investing that money in the people who are on the ground, whether that’s training your agents and counsellors, or giving them additional resources for education fairs. Remember, it’s all about relationships, so investing in people will give you the most offline marketing traction.
Get the right expertise (and not just people who can speak Chinese)
We see this all the time: the Chinese-speaking employee becomes the default expert on the Chinese market, purely based on the fact that they speak the language.
But you wouldn’t hire a native English speaker to do your marketing without asking if they have any actual marketing experience, would you?
To give you the best chance of success, you need to hire recruiters and marketers (it’s crucial to have both, says Hernandez) that are not just native speakers, but also have a deep understanding of the Chinese online and offline landscape. Recruitment and marketing staff also need to work closely together, as both will benefit greatly from the insights of the other.
The nature of the education industry is that things take a while to happen. Students need to thoroughly research their destinations and institutions, put in applications, sort out visas, find accommodation and in many instances take a 12-month English language course. That means the students you’re marketing to may not actually begin their degree until 2 years after your campaign has run.
It’s important, therefore, to be patient and bear this in mind when evaluating your marketing efforts.
In the meantime, learn as much as you can – Hernandez recommends travelling to China as often as your time and budget allows in order to cultivate a deeper understanding of the cultural nuances.