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How to run successful paid media campaigns to attract Chinese students

August 3, 2021 |   Dandan Cheng

More and more universities worldwide are taking a proactive approach to marketing and recruiting Chinese international students within the constraints of Chinese internet regulation.

Once you have established your Chinese website and set up your WeChat official account, there inevitably comes the point when you want to ramp up your demand generation efforts through paid media campaigns in China. However, as with many digital marketing initiatives in China, it's critical to understand the nuances of the ecosystem and the online behaviour of Chinese audiences to increase the chance of a successful campaign.

Based on our experience of working with universities, schools and education service providers around the globe, this article covers our tips for running successful paid media campaigns to attract Chinese students.

Understanding your target audience in China and its implications for paid media campaigns

When we talk to universities about running paid media campaigns in China, they tend to come to us with a general idea of the geography and demographic they wish to target. Usually, it comprises the age bracket of students getting close to graduation and living in China's first-tier cities. And while there's nothing wrong with this level of targeting, it will generally take a more nuanced approach to gain traction with advertising efforts, particularly in times of tighter budgets.

In our experience, the most successful paid media campaigns take the entire Chinese students decision-making journey into consideration. For instance, brand awareness campaigns are best aimed at students at the very beginning of their international study research phase. On the other hand, retargeting for lead generation can be an effective tactic for students who are already a bit further down the decision-making journey and therefore more likely to be willing to submit their details in exchange for more information or register for an event.

Another pitfall education marketers commonly make when running paid media campaigns in China is to only focus on targeting Chinese students. While it's common for Chinese students these days to have a significant say in where they will pursue their overseas education, their parents are still very involved in the process. In fact, they often tend to attend recruitment events on behalf of their children, who are often preoccupied with preparing for the highly competitive Gaokao exam. For this reason, targeting Chinese parents should be part of a university's advertising strategy.

The challenge: Choosing the right channel

One challenge that this dual strategy of targeting both Chinese students and their parents throws up is choosing the right channels to reach them. The parent generation is still spending significant time on apps such as WeChat and Toutiao. And while students still make up 33.5% of monthly active users on WeChat and QQ, we see the younger generations increasingly shifting toward trendy emerging channels such as BiliBili and Douyin.

Right now, this means that WeChat and Tencent advertising is still effective for education marketers to reach both audiences. However, universities may want to keep a close eye on how these new channels continue to evolve and what role they can play as part of a digital marketing and recruitment strategy for China.

Depending on how the diversification of channels continues to evolve in China, it may be more effective to further split the approach when targeting Chinese students and their parents online. When the time is right for this move will differ from institution to institution. It also depends on budgets and internal resources.

One trend that we observe across the board for organisations looking to attract young Chinese audiences is the importance of consistently creating engaging and entertaining content that fits the overall style of the chosen platform. Content creation will support a university's aim to increase brand awareness which can be boosted through paid media campaigns to increase followers and drive website traffic.

Resources required to create this type of content need to be factored into a university's long-term digital strategy for China.

On the other hand, parents are much more likely to be open to educational marketing messages and have more patience to read copy. They are looking for information rather than to be entertained. This makes them a more receptive target audience for lead generation campaigns that trade information in exchange for contact details.

Defining a paid media strategy for China

Once you have gained an understanding of your target audience and have identified the best channels for your paid media campaign in China, it’s critical to spend some time planning and define the long-term goals of your institution’s paid media strategy in China. Ideally, this should comprise several phases with a clearly defined purpose.

One of the biggest mistakes we see universities make when they first launch paid media campaigns is to kick things off with a lead generation campaign without investing in building brand awareness first. Unless your institution has a global reputation to be able to rely on, this approach is unlikely to achieve the desired results.

Instead, universities should plan several waves of paid media campaigns, with the first wave focusing on brand awareness and switching to lead generation as the main campaign goal in one of the later waves.

We further recommend sticking to one main objective (e.g., brand awareness, lead generation) per campaign to be able to effectively evaluate effectiveness at the end.

Nurturing leads generated through paid media campaigns

Another challenge for universities running paid media campaigns in China is how to nurture leads effectively. This is because commonly used lead nurturing channels such as email are not effective in China. In fact, out of 989 million internet users, less than 5% check their email inbox regularly!

What’s more, the reach rate of outreach calls to mobile phone numbers is also decreasing because of the excessive numbers of sales call Chinese citizens receive every day, leading them to ignore calls from unknown numbers.

Therefore, it's more important for universities to nurture leads through a mixed channel approach such as a Chinese website and a WeChat official account rather than follow the Western lead nurturing approach through email marketing. And even though WeChat groups can be resource-intensive to manage, they can be an effective avenue for lead nurturing. For instance, institutions could set up dedicated parent groups for specific cities where they answer the most frequently asked questions and promote their online and in-person recruitment events.

Yet, the reality is that it's not viable for most universities to provide this level of "hand-holding" and one-on-one communication with limited in-house resources. That's why we recommend continuing to work with your local agent network in China to provide this kind of support.

Not only is this approach more cost-effective, but it also plays to the strength of each party in the recruitment process. Universities are in the best position to increase and generate brand awareness in China through their overall digital presence and by boosting this through paid media campaigns which will help your agents on the ground to drive more demand. When it comes to improving conversion, though, agents are better set up to provide ongoing support on the administrative and logistics side of things to move students further along the decision-making journey.

Measuring the performance of your paid media campaigns in China

Because of this division in responsibility between the institution and the study agent, as well as the length of the student's decision-making journey, with many factors influencing the process, tracking conversions from paid media campaigns can be difficult for universities.

This is also why setting a clear paid media campaign objective is so important as it makes measuring the impact so much clearer. For instance, if the main purpose of your campaign is brand awareness, you would track metrics such as overall ad reach and visits to your website. Depending on the theme of your lead generation campaign, KPIs may include registrations to a webinar, or the number of new WeChat followers acquired. This approach allows you to gain instant insights into the performance of your ads while also acknowledging the shared responsibility between your institution and your agent partners when it comes to nurturing students leads.

One more important thing to note when you’re running paid media campaigns in China with lead generation as the main objective, is that you should expect to receive some fake leads over the course of the campaign. While it’s impossible to prevent fake leads completely, you can reduce the risk by designing landing pages to include all relevant information on top of the page and the form at the. This creates a more natural flow and increases the likelihood that people who are filling in their details are genuinely interested to learn more. Ultimately, the most important thing to keep in mind when evaluating the performance of your campaign is that your fake/genuine lead ratio sits within a reasonable range.

Brand building through paid media campaigns: Adopting a test and learn approach

Focusing on brand awareness as a goal for paid media campaigns has the additional benefit of encouraging a more long-term and consistent approach with advertising campaigns rather than investing heavily in them when promoting larger initiatives such as university Open Days.

The issue with spending a large amount of paid media budget in short bursts is that this approach only provides limited opportunity to test and refine the campaign messaging and targeting which will ultimately impact your overall results. Digital marketing offers the potential for more sustained, year-round marketing activity accompanied by larger annual campaigns based on events like Open Days. By spreading the activity in this way, you can accumulate smaller quantities of leads that can be added to the nurturing queue and dial up the efforts to boost demand for bigger campaigns. The learnings from the ongoing activity will ensure that the bigger budgets for larger campaigns are spent more effectively and improve return on investment.

What's more, spending consistently on paid media campaigns in China also puts you more in control as external factors such as a temporary strain in international relations and restrictions may significantly impact the performance of short burst paid media campaigns. A long-term approach allows you to outlast these periods without coming to the wrong conclusions about the overall effectiveness of your paid media campaigns.

In this context, it's also important to keep in mind that brand building takes time - especially if your university does not already have a global reputation. It can take two to three years to start seeing real momentum from paid marketing campaigns. This means that setting realistic expectations is critical for success and that investment in branding is dialed up gradually. Once a certain level of awareness in the market has been reached though, you will be able to observe an uptick in traffic and leads from both paid and organic channels.

Even universities that have the luxury of a larger media budget should be mindful of keeping their expectations in check when first running paid media campaigns in China. It is a completely different market after all and it's critical not to give up too early if the first campaigns seem to underperform. Digital marketing success in China is all about adopting a mindset that understands testing, learning and then incorporating those learnings into the next campaign to pave the way for future success.

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