A global pandemic in 2020 reinforced the importance of digital strategies as essential to ride out the disruption that came with being unable to market in more traditional ways.
But even prior to 2020, education providers wanting to remain relevant, visible and competitive in Chinese student recruitment were already coming to understand that being across the nuances of China’s digital ecosystem was crucial for engaging with prospective Chinese students.
This is not to say that having an on-the-ground strategy - visiting campuses, attending recruitment fairs, using local agents - has become irrelevant, particularly as we come out of the pandemic and international travel resumes.
However, these standard recruitment and marketing techniques are only useful if used alongside a comprehensive China digital strategy.
The student journey
The key to building this strategy is understanding the Chinese student journey and the digital channels most effective at each stage. Within the Chinese student decision journey, there are four key stages: Awareness, Consideration, Application, and Action. Of these four stages, Awareness lasts the longest, at up to 12 months.
During the Awareness stage, the average Chinese student will consider multiple touchpoints. Many of these touchpoints, such as agents; education exhibitions; vertical websites on overseas education; and friends’ referrals, are already well established. However, social media in China warrants extra attention.
As is the case in Western nations, social media is a powerful tool during the Awareness stage. However, there are some key differences between Chinese and Western social media.
Firstly, Chinese social media apps have evolved beyond their Western counterparts, to the extent where one platform can provide an array of services. That’s why, when determining how to reap maximum value from Chinese social media apps, marketers must cast aside the lens of Chinese social media.
Secondly, China’s social media landscape is highly segmented. With a more populous online user base than Europe and the US combined, Chinese social media platforms can sustainably cater to specific demographics or regional areas. This can allow universities to be highly granular in their targeting.
Finally, of China's internet users, 99.1% of them venture online via mobile phones. As such, China's social media ecosystem is very mobile-oriented - something any university needs to keep in mind when launching a student lifecycle plan.
As of 2021, there are an array of popular social media platforms in China. Weibo, Tencent QQ, Little Red Book and Youku all boast hundreds of millions of users each. However, China’s most popular social media platform is by far WeChat, with over 1.25 billion users. If you’re going to choose one Chinese social media platform for your awareness phase, let it be WeChat. China's leading platform has a seemingly endless list of functions, thereby allowing institutions to maximise their digital assets.
The next stage in the decision journey is Consideration. On average, the Consideration stage can last up to six months. The student actions during this stage include:
- Searching and checking reviews on vertical portals and search engines
- Following official institution social media accounts
- Searching for and visiting the official institution websites
- Attending institution open days or seminars, either face-to-face or virtually
- Joining WeChat groups
- Attending online or offline 1:1 sessions with agents
As was the case during the Awareness stage, WeChat continues to be important for Consideration. The other key item of importance in this stage is website compatibility with Chinese search engines. The fact is that many Western education providers haven’t optimised their Chinese websites for Baidu and other Chinese search engines. Because of this, the only way for prospective students to discover their websites is by searching the specific URL. This can cost a critical touchpoint in a student’s decision journey. This isn’t only true for a university’s China-facing homepage, but any digital assets, including virtual open days hosted on landing pages.
Application and Action
The next two stages of the journey are comparatively quite short, with both occurring in up to six months. The first of these two is the Application stage, in which a prospective student applies to your institution. These days, Chinese students expect to be able to apply via a range of channels, including:
- A traditional submission through an in-country agent
- An application through via the institution’s official website
- A form via social media or eDM
Regarding eDM application campaigns, email isn’t a powerful marketing tool in China. This is thanks to the low email response rate in China. In fact, out of 989 million internet users, only 5% check their emails regularly. Even so, it can still form part of a larger, multi-layered approach to student outreach.
The final stage – Action – is one which is neglected by some institutions, but is no less important than the others. Rather, it’s this stage which has the greatest potential to influence other students who still haven’t made a decision. During the Action stage, students will accept an offer, and share their experience on social media and vertical platforms. If a university wants to be involved in this stage, they’ll need a strong digital presence. This way, they can be a part of the conversation, and even equip new students with strategic digital assets that they can promote to other prospective students.
Put simply, a student’s decision journey takes them through several digital touchpoints beyond a traditional agent. That’s why more universities are investing in Chinese digital assets to complement their traditional recruitment.
Another way to view the student lifecycle
The above overview forms a conventional marketer or recruiter's perspective on the Chinese digital lifecycle. However, a much simpler interpretation would break the lifecycle down into three stages: Before, During, and After.
The journey starts as much as two years out from a student wanting to commence study (up to 31% of students plan this far out) and carries through the recruitment process until an offer is made and place accepted.
With 20-50% of international university places taken up by Chinese students, staying with this cohort during their degree is crucial, especially because Chinese students remain engaged with friends and family at home during their studies. If they are having a positive experience, they become quasi ‘Key Opinion Leaders’ (KOLS), helping to enhance and promote the brand.
Nearly 80% of students return home post-degree, with alumni engagement valued at around $41 billion in the US alone. This value comes from alumni returning to China and talking up their experiences, as well as their continued support through donations. It can also be more strategically leveraged by reaching out to alumni to act as case studies on Faculty/university webpages or during targeted digital marketing campaigns.
Creating a Chinese digital strategy can be quite complicated. But, we have simplified it for you! We created a Chinese digital strategy guide suited for institutions worldwide ready to enter the Chinese market. Download the guide here.