Chinese students: how to compel and convert

Mass messaging won’t do. It’s time for universities to match the maturity of the Chinese student market, says Domenica Di Lieto

The question most commonly asked of me during the last six months has been, what does the Chinese student recruitment market now look like? This is usually followed by the need for information on the most effective appropriate strategy.

The answers have evolved as the situation changed, but the position has stabilised to the point at which universities should now be acting decisively.

The prospective Chinese students that would have expected to join courses this year, but are deferring until next, want to secure a place by enrolling as soon as they can. This has not been lost on next year’s intake that believe there will be a consequent shortage of prime places, and they too want to confirm courses quickly.

There are other significant developments to be factored in. Future Chinese students are typically making twice as many applications, and they and their parents want much greater amounts of information. Response by university international teams should be purposeful, scaled to market need, but also much more geared towards converting offers.

Offer conversion is an area of traditional weakness in university recruitment planning. The prevailing approach has often been that an offer signals the end of the marketing cycle, when conversion should be considered the ultimate aim. Success comes from applying trigger messages and language precisely matched to audience profile and needs. When so many future students from China have six or more confirmed course options, there is a real need for the art of conversion to be applied effectively.

A comparative study of all Chinese social media output emanating from the UK higher education sector reveals that more compelling content during all stages of the recruitment cycle is needed.

More than 2,500 UK education institutions were found to make recruitment posts on Chinese social media every month. The content was consistently similar, with few points of differentiation, or compelling calls to action.

In the majority of cases, social media activity was found to be limited to posting infomercial-type messages with little to generate dialogue or other forms of interaction with future students, or their parents.

The effect of ‘me too’ mass messaging is to demonstrate to the audience that there is a misunderstanding of them collectively and as individuals, what their needs are, or that they are cared about little beyond fee-paying ability.

In the majority of cases, social media activity was found to be limited to posting infomercial-type messages with little to generate dialogue or other forms of interaction with future students, or their parents

While the Chinese student market itself has matured, and has become highly discerning – it knows exactly what it wants, and where it wants it from – a large proportion of the UK higher education sector is yet to match that awareness by properly researching and establishing what the best prospects look like, and what marketing content is applicable, which in turn prevents effective planning and strategy.

It is undoubtedly worth properly investing in Chinese recruitment. International higher education has never been more popular in China, according to studies by the Beijing Student Study Service Association. The Chinese government is actively promoting the benefits of studying abroad, and the latest New Oriental research shows a 42% preference for the UK as a global study destination, with traditional rivals such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand falling further behind.

The starting point for international departments that may doubt the value of current output is to audit marketing for effectiveness. Identifying whether it resonates to produce effective results is the first stage to producing accurately targeted communication leading to optimum conversion. The benefit of getting recruitment right not only creates gains for individual universities, it also raises the collective appeal of the UK higher education sector as a whole.


Domenica Di Lieto is CEO of Chinese marketing and planning consultancy, Emerging Communications

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