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Going with the tide: appealing to Chinese students in 2021

By Xixi You | APAC Account Director



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January 5, 2021 | 12 min read

In October, the UK introduced a point-based immigration route to attract international students. With more and more Chinese students turning their heads towards the UK for overseas education, in this article we explore key trends that British universities can utilise to reach overseas students more effectively, particularly as we move into the new year.

Alexis Brown

The tide is changing

In 2019, the US attracted the highest population of Chinese students looking to study abroad however, it seems that it’s starting to lose its attractiveness. According to the latest Open Doors data by the International Education Exchange (IEE), the growth rate of Chinese students studying in the US has been continuously declining since 2009 falling from 29.9%.


Figure one. Open Doors by IEE data

As US-China relations continue to deteriorate due to geopolitical conflict over the past years, Chinese students looking to study in the US face increasingly rigorous visa scrutiny, and even cancellation. In contrast, the UK is taking an entirely different approach. The new international student immigration routes within the UK aim to treat all students equally, either international students or those from Europe coming to study after the transition period. There is also no limit to the number of international students that can apply, with applications able to be submitted as early as six months prior to entering the UK.

Additionally, a new graduate immigration route will also be available in the UK to international students who have completed a degree in the UK from summer of 2021. Therefore, graduates will be able to work, hunt for jobs at any skill level in the UK for up to two years. Against the background of a global pandemic, the UK’s move to implement these immigration initiatives provide overseas students with more flexibility, making British education institutions more attractive.


Figure 2. Kantar Millward Brown & New Oriental Vision Overseas - 2019 Report on Chinese students overseas study’

Furthering this, New Oriental, the largest provider of private educational services in China, released a 2019 survey report of oversea education showcased the UK is rapidly becoming the second-favourite destination for Chinese students looking to study overseas, with Australian and Canada following suit.

Meanwhile, according to The Universities and College Admission Service (UCAS), China has become the main driver of non-UK applicant growth. In 2019, Chinese applicant numbers jumped by 25.7% and acceptances grew by 22%. This trend continues even under the pandemic disruption, as Chinese applicants have increased by 27% in 2020.

Covid-19 is changing the landscape

As British education institutions continue to benefit from a growth of interest from overseas students, they still face challenges when appealing to Chinese students, particularly in this competitive market.

In the past, offline recruitment events or consultancy sessions used to be a prominent channel for British institution representatives, and a way to talk to prospective students and their parents directly. This was typically an effective way to understand the evolving needs of these overseas students, and answer questions face to face. However, the unprecedented hit of a global pandemic has disrupted most offline events for the foreseeable future. In-person events have been replaced by live online streaming of presentations, student campus vlogs, as well as, students flocking to WeChat accounts of university institutions for answers to their queries.


Figure 3. University of York Pre-departure Presentation ob Bilibili

Even though the Chinese society is beginning to resume pre-pandemic socialising, it is likely that the digital behaviours adopted by students and parents during lockdown will not recede. To that end, many will have higher expectations of education institutions to continue providing better online experiences, including a more streamlined application process and online student services.

Additionally, as a recent McKinsey report points out, the impact on COVID-19 on changing consumer behaviours has propelled nearly all organisations across various industries to reorient their business models to become more digital. For players in the higher education industry, who are targeting the Chinese market, this trend is even more prevalent.

How to reach Chinese students

So with this in mind, how can you evolve your marketing strategy in China to tackle the shift away from fundamental traditional marketing methods? We believe the key is to know where and how to make yourself more digital-accessible to your target audience and respond to their needs quickly. Here are a few ways to do this.

Understand your target audience

In China, 43% of overseas study decisions are made by the whole family. Parents are equally as important decision makers as the students themselves, with also 25% of overseas study decisions made solely by parents in China. But as recent research suggests, students are also enjoying an increase in decision-making influence.


Figure 6. Datasource: Kantar Millward Brown & New Oriental Vision Overseas “2019 Report on Chinese Students’ Overseas Study”

This means your marketing strategy should be covering the needs and concerns of both overseas students and their parents, equally. For example, insights into campus life and the courses available might be of more interest to prospective students. Whereas campus safety and future employment prospects may be of more interest for their parents and families. Therefore, targeting each audience with the most appropriate information would be most effective. It’s also important to note that using direct translations of your marketing materials from English to Chinese without localisation might cause a lot of your marketing messages to be lost in translation, so it’s key to ensure you’re appropriately localising your content to suit the cultural and geographical nuances of your audience.

Choose the appropriate platforms to build digital presence

Limited by the ‘Great Firewall’ of Chinese internet, many global mainstream channels such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are all blocked in China. As a consequence, China has developed a unique but abundant digital marketing landscape, which might make most foreign marketers lose their bearings.

WeChat is usually the first digital platform choice by most marketers. With over 1.1 billion monthly active users (in 2019), WeChat is one of the most influential tools in the Chinese market to build a connection with your target students and their parents, no matter what background they have and which regions they belong to.

To start with, you can create your own official verified account as a touchpoint where you can gain visibility and build awareness by sharing content that’s tailored to prospective Chinese students. You can also share newsletters, FAQs and other important information about your institution. Additionally, you can also build up different WeChat groups and even provide WeChat enquiry services for students and parents. Ultimately, WeChat can function like a mini-live forum, providing you with opportunities to communicate much faster and more effectively with your target audience.

At the same time, there are many other digital platforms worth investing in such as the Weibo (a Twitter-like service with 516 million monthly active users in 2019), Douyin (TikTok in China with 600 million daily active users by 2020) and Zhihu (a Quora-like Q&A social platform). Also, there are also some niche platforms such as Bilibili (a Chinese video sharing website themed around animation and games), which are equally valuable for targeting a younger generation.

You don't need to choose all of them at once, but you need to have a comprehensive understanding of the Chinese social media landscape and find the most appropriate ones to achieve your goal on each phase of the marketing funnel. Having experts onboard who fully understand each platform will definitely help you save a lot of time.

Create value through marketing

For education institutions, successful marketing not only increases your chances of favourability from students, but can also be an opportunity to create more value too. For example, providing online-assistance on applications can be an effective way to add value to your target audience. Support such as suggestions on how to write personal statements, guidance on interviews, preparation for visa applications, language support and other application-relation information are all effective ways to add value.

Other ways to support prospective students includes pre-enrolment advice, living expense predictions and accommodation recommendations. These are all valuable services for students applying to your institution, which can help you standout from competition. Many of the functions can already be achieved through WeChat’s Mini-program or a third-party mini-site.

Additionally, a latest survey by IDP Connect and Universities UK International (UUKi) in four areas shows that 30% of international students questioned in the UK indicated that they had not received any special non-academic assistance or support this year. With greater uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it’s important for education institutions to tackle concerns faced by overseas students, particularly surrounding support towards commencing their studies.


Figure 6. IDP Connect

As concerns over the global pandemic continues, we can expect both students and parents’ main concerns to be related to health and safety. For that reason, education providers need to highlight their plans and intentions towards meeting the increased health and safety requirements. For example, many British universities have chartered jets to bring Chinese students to the UK. Some are also providing airport pick-up, dedicated coaches to campus and quarantine support. Additionally, other universities have even gone further to update the latest coronavirus-related policy and government guidance on their WeChat official accounts for Chinese students' to reference. These all need to be clearly communicated and amplified through all marketing channels as they can effectively build up prospective students' confidence in studying abroad.


Figure 7. Sussex University WeChat potice about free virus testing in campus

Moving into 2021, with the vaccine beginning to roll out in the UK, there is promise for things to return to normal face-to-face learning in the near future. According to the IDP Connect and UUKi research, Chinese students were the group least willing to quarantine, with 25% indicating they would rather defer studies than quarantine. It might be a potential advantage for UK higher education providers to win over more prospective students than competing destinations, given the advantage of the vaccine.


Figure 8. IDP Connect

Talk to your audiences in their preferred ways

Digital and social media in China has advanced at a frenetic pace in the past decade. Consumer behaviours there, particularly their preferred content consumption channels have evolved and diversified all the time.

Chinese consumers are famously avid social media users. According to another McKinsey survey, Chinese consumers spend as much as 358 minutes per day online, two thirds of which is on social media and content apps. Amongst all, 33% of total time spent on social media (e.g. WeChat, Weibo etc.) is the dominant cohort. It is followed by 11% on short video watching, sharing and creating on apps such as Douyin, revealing the emerging preference for short video content.


Figure 8. QuestMobile; McKinsey China Digital Consumer Trends 2019

When looking at methods to communicate with your audience, look towards those that are most familiar with your target audience. For example, organising online activities using live streaming or short video in the form of vlogs can be a great way to share insights to your international student prospects.

Digital channels can also give you and your audience the chance to swiftly get feedback in engaging ways, such as online consultation or meetings. What’s more, live-interaction will allow you to get closer to your audience and help them to have an initial feeling of what it would be like to study at your institution, and what the atmosphere is like.

Leverage your alumni

Your overseas student alumni are a great resource for building trust with your audience. A highly active alumni network can contribute to a positive word-of-mouth culture for you, because it is easier to resonate with prospective students through alumni’s own application experience and tips as well as successful graduate stories.

You can also invite some of them to join in as part of the recruitment team in China. For instance, to invite them to join online live sessions to answer questions and talk with students and parents, those practices would definitely add credentials than a dry article.

By utilising these key steps and trends, you can improve the performance of your marketing efforts to reach these business goals more effectively. For more tailored WeChat marketing strategy and digital solutions, and how Croud can help, get in touch.

Xixi You, senior digital account manager at Croud.

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Croud is a global, full-service digital agency that helps businesses drive sustainable growth in the new world of marketing. With a rich heritage in performance, we apply that mindset to everything we do; brand planning, strategy, integrated media, social, creative, and data.

Founded in 2011 with the mission to reinvent the agency model, we combine 500+ in-house digital experts with a global, on-demand network of marketing specialists. This agile, scalable model gives us more time to really understand our clients’ businesses, and deliver truly incremental growth.

Part of the Croud Group, which also includes luxury specialists VERB Brands and social-first agency Born Social, Croud is proud to partner with leading global brands, including Audible, Vans, IWG, and AllSaints.

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