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The 4 phases to digital marketing success for universities in China & how to map your budget

August 30, 2021 |   Nicolas Chu

There are many things to consider when it comes to developing an effective digital presence for your university or learning institution in China — and when you’re first starting out it can be easy to feel a bit overwhelmed. The good news is that you don’t have to do it all at once. In fact, you should consider your digital presence in China as a long-term investment. Any effort you’re putting in, will accumulate over time and continue to deliver results well into the future.

Sinorbis suggests taking a 4-phase approach to your China digital marketing strategy. How quickly you can move from one phase to the next will depend on where you’re starting out and how much budget you have available to you. The steps below indicate what actions you should take at each stage and indicators that show you’re ready to move into the next phase. 

Phase 1: Build


Establish/iron out issues with Chinese digital foundations:

Signs you’re ready to move into the next phase:

  1. You own all your Chinese digital channels
  2. Your website loads fast within the Chinese digital ecosystem.

Phase 2: Establish


Establish your presence organically by promoting your Chinese digital assets (Website and WeChat official account):

  • On your current International website and other digital assets.
  • To your current alumni base/Chinese students.
  • To your partners in China (recruitment agents, institution partners, representatives etc.)
  • At recruiting events that you are attending (Fairs and virtual fairs, conferences etc.)

Signs you’re ready to move into the next phase:

  1. You’re regularly producing content for your WeChat official account.

  2. You start receiving a few enquiries via your website or on WeChat

Phase 3: Test and adapt


Run your first demand generation to test your approach and learn. Actions in this phase should include:

  • Running your 1st paid media campaigns for brand awareness & WeChat follower acquisition (recommended test media budget ~ US$10,000 to US$15,000)
  • Testing different types of landing pages to understand how language and design impact conversions.
  • Focusing new content creation on SEO.
  • Testing different WeChat content types and formats.
  • Improving engagement through WeChat audience segmentation (alumni, current students, prospective students).
  • Building chatbots to automatically address common enquiries from China.
  • Tracking results to inform the approach going forward.
  • Adapting your website content based on insights gained across different channels.

Signs you’re ready to move into the next phase:

  1. You can demonstrate first results from your paid media and WeChat follower acquisition campaigns.

  2. Engagement and followers on WeChat are growing consistently.
  3. Ranking for your most important keywords continues to improve gradually over time on 2 of the major search Engines in China (Baidu, Sogou, 360 or Shenma).

Phase 4: Grow


Once you have reached the GROWTH phase of your China digital marketing strategy, you will be able to significantly ramp up your efforts while benefiting from improved efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Activities here should include:

  • Running your own online recruitment event or webinars with larger paid media investment (learnings from phase 3 will help maximise results).
  • Integrating Chinese digital presence with your CRM to better track conversions by channel.
  • Integrating your Wechat followers profiles into your marketing workflows to improve nurturing throughout the application journey.
  • Continuing  to optimise current channels and landing pages

Signs you’re ready to move into the next phase:

  1. You successfully manage and maintain your current channels without difficulty

  2. You can clearly attribute results to different channel activity
  3. You have buy-in from the university to invest in video content creation required to consistently produce new material for fast-moving emerging channels.

Mapping your China digital marketing timeline to your budget

As with many of the factors that we have discussed in our China digital strategy guide for the education sector, developing a timeline for moving from one phase to the next will depend on many variables, not least of all where you’re starting out on your journey. However, to give you a sense of what progress you can expect depending on your budget and specific situation, we have developed some very high-level timelines to guide you.


Please note that these scenarios are meant to be examples only and won’t fully reflect the complexity of your particular institution. It’s also unlikely that your budget and internal resourcing will remain exactly the same from the first year, right to the end of your third year of the implementation of your China digital strategy.

For instance, you may start out without a Chinese digital presence or internal resource on a budget of US$20,000 per year, but may decide to hire in the second year of your execution phase and maintain the same budget for outsourcing, suppliers and paid media. In this case, you'd be able to launch into Phase 3 sooner than indicated in the above example.

To realistically reach Phase 4, it will ultimately require at least an annual budget of US$30,000, plus an internal resource to manage your China digital marketing activity for you. Now that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to set up a Chinese digital presence at all. To the contrary, it can still be an important support channel for your study agents and recruitment team on the ground. However, you may not see as much growth that can be directly attributed to your digital marketing activity as you would expect to see on a higher budget.

If you are looking for a more accurate estimate or high level detail about your China digital marketing roadmap that takes your specific situation into account, please do not hesitate to contact the Sinorbis team. We’d be happy to help!

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