The good news, when it comes to recruiting Chinese students in 2022? The Chinese desire to study abroad is now back to approaching pre-pandemic levels, and the UK remains the favoured destination for international study among China’s burgeoning wealthy middle classes. The bad news? This has far from created a seller’s market.
The media channels and techniques needed to reach future students in China have fundamentally changed this year. The Chinese audience know how to game the selection system, and they do it now to the highest degree.
It is now significantly more difficult to convert what may seem like candidates that have guaranteed interest in a course to the point at which fees are transferred to university coffers. Pre-pandemic, it was not unusual for future Chinese undergraduates to hold six or seven offers. Now that number is more likely to be 10 or more, and many now actually register with several universities before making a final decision.
Candidates are more selective than ever, and they know all the power lies with them
Such behaviour may seem like buyers are playing their choices to an extreme degree, but to some extent this is because many universities do not effectively convey their propositions. It makes it difficult for potential enrolees to decide. Equally, candidates are more selective than ever, and they know all the power lies with them.
Before Covid, most universities tended to have Chinese recruitment policy based on working towards issuing an offer, at which point communication more or less ended as prospective students were left to make their minds up. This, of course, was actually the point at which maximum effort was needed to get prospects over the line. Neglecting to do this was a fundamental and wasteful error.
Offers now count for even less, and obtaining one is standard activity when showing much above cursory interest. Universities have to assume nothing, and should instead focus on quality of engagement, and not just in terms of what is being offered. At least as important is how this is communicated. What is more, how future students in China want to receive information has changed radically this year.
Almost anyone with anything to sell remotely has to have livestreaming as part of a communications portfolio
Live-streaming is now a given expectation of the Chinese audience. They want live campus tours, to meet tutors, view briefings and talks from current Chinese students, and be able to join Q&As.
Live-streaming became a hugely popular medium in China’s consumer markets during lockdown, and has continued to grow and widen in use ever since. Selling though the medium topped £140 billion last year, according to McKinsey. Almost anyone with anything to sell remotely has to have livestreaming as part of a communications portfolio. In the case of universities, the medium is ideal for promoting USPs directly into China.
Live-stream broadcasts can be run independently, or through the benefit of joining Chinese social media giant Weibo’s digital education fairs. These events attract tens of millions of participants – including parents, which is important because they play a fundamental role in deciding which institution is chosen.
It is necessary to have the highest quality of content, and matching production values. Anything else is pointless
Participation in education fairs is fee-based, and universities have to produce live-streaming themselves, and promote it to generate an audience. But Weibo provides the significant advantage of enabling universities to be part of a very well attended week of events with the right targets participating. Targets that see each institution on the activity schedule.
However, there are advantages of an independent broadcast. It means having prospects’ entire attention rather than being on a rota, and it demonstrates a singular commitment to meeting information needs. Whatever option is chosen, it is necessary to have the highest quality of content, and matching production values. Anything else is pointless in front of such discerning viewers.
A good supporting marketing campaign means attendees of live-streaming can reach 80,000 plus for UK universities, and anything less than 3,000 should be considered a poor return on investment. Low numbers also go hand-in-hand with poor quality broadcasts.
Little Red Book is now used to talk about far more subjects, including travel, overseas experiences and international study
There are other notable changes to the Chinese recruitment media. Social media platform Little Red Book (LRB), should now be considered as important as Baidu to the media mix. LRB was originally about premium fashion and ‘lifestyle’ among wealthy Gen Zs and millennials. However, it is now used to talk about far more subjects, including travel, overseas experiences and international study. Similarly, video platform Bilibili has become a mainstream channel for the same demographic, and should be included in marketing.
With the proliferation of relevant Chinese media, it is tempting to just concentrate on two or three of the most used options. However, this would be an error. Not only do non-users concede platforms to rivals to engage with prospects, but absence indicates a lack of commitment to the audience. The significance of these two factors cannot be overemphasised.
Of course, a key element of communication when recruiting Chinese students in 2022 needs to be about providing assurance on Covid safety. This should include demonstrating safety protocol, how universities will assist in obtaining vaccinations, and if necessary, implement a study-from-home alternative to attending lectures. Help with obtaining flights and Covid-safe airport transfers are also recommended. Some universities have even arranged charter flights from China.
More than ever, Chinese student recruitment is no place for half measures. UK universities are split between the haves and have-nots from this perspective: those that have not put in the required investment, and those that have and see investment paying for itself many times over.
Michaela Zhu is marketing executive at London-based Chinese marketing consultancy Emerging Communications
You might also like: Only 17% of international students making UK their first-choice