Only connect: reaching out to Chinese students

How did the University of Stirling connect with 81,000 potential students in China?

The uncertainty surrounding the recruitment of students from China has resulted in universities adopting one of two strategies.

Some have largely stuck to what they know, adding amendments as they go. A minority have innovated with resonating, content-based marketing to put themselves ahead of the herd.

Of those that have used the last year to gain real cut-through in what is an increasingly noisy market, no university better exemplifies strategic and tactical success than University of Stirling. The resolve to identify, understand, and truly engage with future Chinese students has been demonstrated by a number of key attributes:

  • The ability to react to the fast-changing Chinese recruitment market
  • Dedicated social monitoring to measure student sentiment and respond accordingly
  • Fast adoption of new media developments to mirror audience behaviour
  • A desire to work in partnership with experts


Nowhere better illustrates Stirling’s enterprising approach than the use of the livestreaming opportunity with Sina Weibo at its International Education Fair.

The two-week event, staged by China’s biggest open platform social media channel, was the largest online showcase of what higher education institutions from around the world have to offer Chinese students.

Livestreaming into China is not ordinarily allowed, so the event provided universities with the unusual chance to broadcast live to a social media audience in China. Sina Weibo has massive influence across China, and would be able to attract the attention prospective international students, and their parents.

The potential benefits of participating in the event were very substantial, but ‘potential’ is the key adjective. Viewers were only going to turn up to a university livestreaming if they believed there would be real value in what was to be transmitted. It was essential to create the right subject hooks, and curate the right content to successfully attract the target audience to the broadcast, and turn large numbers of participants into followers and advocates.

The headline result of the education fair for Stirling was a livestream broadcast to 81,000 soon-to-be students, and their parents, in China. When the audience participation number was first reported, the university’s marketing director Lisa Wilkisky-Dick assumed an extra zero had been added by accident. She later commented: “The event was well promoted, which resulted in heightened brand awareness and an exceptional audience reach – the equivalent of filling Wembley Stadium.”

In fact, it was biggest livestreaming audience of the two-week event. The audience met professors and students already studying at Stirling, who explained the range of advantages the university provided and gave reassurance over Covid safety measures. Plus, there was a Q&A at the end to provide answers about the university, courses and the uncertainties that exist around study in the UK.

However, the viewing audience was only created through the use of the compelling subject hooks and content presented by professional copywriters and designers – the right messages delivered in the most engaging format.

Also important was research and analyses to clearly establish the optimum Chinese recruitment targets, use of effective planning, including researching appropriate content, creativity, and calls to action. The communications formats used to promote attendance of the live broadcast were paid search, programmatic and targeted social channel messaging.

The target goals for the campaign were met by increasing the university’s share of market voice, and cutting through the communications malaise emanating from the competition. There was nearly 140 per cent growth in the number of WeChat followers, and 229 per cent growth in Sina Weibo counterparts.

The results from the Sina Weibo Education Fair campaign are part of Stirling’s long term commitment to consistent use of well researched and presented content. It resonates with future students, and brings the campus to life.

In addition, the university also demonstrates agility and the adaptability needed for the fast changing nature of the Chinese student recruitment market. This is illustrated by the recent adoption of Bilibili in addition to Yuoku, due to the popularity of the younger platform with the target Gen Z audience, and the fact that Bilibili allows for livestreaming.

The result of Stirling’s approach is to position it firmly in the top 10 UK universities for WeChat engagement in China, but just as significant is that it is based on being relevant, and resonates with the intended audience who become followers and, in turn, recruit peers. The achievement is based on the commitment to having a detailed understanding of the market, correct strategy, and use of the best tactics of the moment.

The Chinese student recruitment market has always been very changeable, but now change is out of all proportion to what went before. The University of Stirling has established a benchmark for creating a market monitoring-based strategy able to capitalise on change, and provides an example to others of how to successfully grow presence in uncertain times.

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

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