Chinese student recruitment is far more complex than it may appear on the surface. When marketing to this demographic, there is not just the language difference to contend with, but also the deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, behaviours and modes of communication.
Yet few education marketers understand these many nuances, and this can lead to a breakdown in communication, and students turning to other sources and even institutions. Effective cross-cultural communication relies on marketers and recruiters to understand these fundamental differences, and adapt their marketing assets accordingly.
To learn more about this, I turned to an expert on the subject matter: Associate Professor Shanton Chang, of the School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne. Over his academic career, Professor Chang has done extensive research into online behaviours, with a particular focus on the ways in which people seek information online, in different cultures around the world.
Here are some of the key takeaways from our discussion on cross-cultural communication, and how it pertains to Chinese student recruitment.
1. The way Chinese students communicate is inherently different to the way in which we communicate – both offline and online
While most of us appreciate the ways in which we communicate face-to-face can differ widely across cultures, many people assume the ways in which we communicate online are almost universal.
But this, in fact, is far from the truth. In his research, Professor Chang has found that these fundamental cultural differences occur in the online world just as much as they do in the real world.
“People from different cultures use or access or read information differently,” he says. “And I'm not just talking about language – I'm talking about the way we process information, the way we look for different types of information and the type of information we prioritise.”
This extends to:
- what information people expect to see on a page,
- how they look for credibility and authority,
- what their eye is drawn to first,
- how they interpret pictures,
- what density of information they prefer, and
- how they navigate to different pages of a website.
All these things can inform whether the experience they have with a website or social media platform is a helpful or frustrating one.
2. Rely on evidence, not stereotypes
When asked what universities often get wrong when trying to engage Chinese students during recruitment, Professor Chang says it often boils down to a lack of understanding:
“I think there is an underlying assumption that all students are just coming here because of the recognition of the degrees from our universities. And that's a very one-dimensional view … I think the reality is a lot more complex than that. There are layers of complexity around loyalty, around aspirations, and the expectations of the family. So I think when we approach Chinese students, we have to recognise that all those factors play a role and that it’s not the same for all Chinese students. They all have very different needs.”
Marketers need to be aware what are truly cross-cultural differences – that is, behaviours or attitudes that are supported by evidence – and what are merely stereotypes – pre-conceived notions that could potentially be inaccurate (and damaging if relied upon to make decisions).
And how do marketers gain such awareness?
By having honest, open conversations, says Professor Chang.
“We need to start asking questions. We need increase our understanding by truly engaging [with Chinese students], rather than just telling them what they need to do to get a degree. I think it's really important that we respect and understand that there can be a multitude of reasons why they are here or why they choose to come here. There can be multiple ways that we engage by asking the students themselves what's important to them and why. That's where we begin to have real conversations.”
3. Think carefully about how you design your assets
According to Professor Chang, Chinese students can visit a university’s website up to 20 times before they even put in their application. This raises immediate red flags – obviously students aren’t able to find the information they need quickly, which is partly why they often turn to agencies to help them with the process. Marketers, therefore, need to carefully consider the user experience (UX) of their university’s website.
Again, the best way to get this right is simply to ask. Focus groups, says Professor Chang, can be enormously helpful in helping to ascertain what students want from websites – marketers might be surprised by what students think make for good websites, versus what the administration does.
- Questions marketers could ask at such focus groups include:
- What information is the most important to them?
- How would they like to see that information presented?
- What would improve the website’s navigation?
It’s also important to consider design features, such as layout. Western website designs tend to favour large, sliding pictures, lots of white space and minimal text – to Westerners, this makes the page feel less cluttered and therefore easier to navigate. Chinese students, however, are used to websites where information is packed more densely – when they encounter Western-designed websites, therefore, it can appear as if there isn’t enough information on the page. (An interesting experiment, says Professor Chang, is to compare KFC’s different regional websites, which give some insight into how website design differs around the world.)
KFC’s Australian website
KFC’s Chinese website
Image choice is also important – for example, many Western universities tend to include pictures of smiling students. But would pictures of older professors perhaps communicate more authority and credibility to Chinese students?
4. Engage people who are experts in marketing to Chinese students
Just as there are vast differences in the way Chinese students navigate and interpret websites, there are also vast differences in the social media landscape in which they live. Yet education marketers can sometimes make the mistake of assuming that lessons learned in the local social media environment can be translated to the Chinese one.
“It’s very dangerous to assume that being an expert in marketing and recruitment in one country makes you a marketing and recruitment expert in another country,” says Professor Chang.
Basically, he says, if universities aren’t communicating to Chinese students on the platforms where they live – like WeChat and Weibo – then they aren’t communicating with them, full-stop. Universities, therefore, need to ensure they create a strong presence on these platforms, ideally with the help of marketing experts who have a deep understanding of the Chinese social media landscape.
By taking steps to really understand Chinese students, and to cater to the ways in which they communicate and seek information, marketers can make their institutions appear far more attractive to this important demographic.