Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Stretch your marketing budget with online and social networks, but don’t forget the basics

What does 2013 look like in terms of how your institution will allocate its marketing budget?

For many, the emphasis will be on web platforms and online tactics, as well as on dedicated agents who know the ins and out of their target markets. A 2012 research report from IDP Education underlines the importance of both for international student recruiters:

“While a large range of sources are initially used by students to find out about countries and institutions, Internet-based sources and education agents are the most important… A majority of students were highly engaged in social media. Online profiles of institutions and overseas students emerged as top influencers for students from all source countries, suggesting a growing need for institutions to enrich their social network presence.”

As these study findings suggest, few things can replace the benefits of face-to-face contact with agents, partners, or prospective students. However, online channels and social networks continue to figure more prominently in international recruiting, and for many institutions they are becoming important tools for expanding reach and efficiency in the recruiting effort.

Social media and student recruitment

Through 2012, education institutions have grown more and more comfortable with the idea of social media being a crucial part of their marketing communications strategies. New data from the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts reveal that 78% of American admission officers say social media has changed the way they recruit and 86% plan to increase their investment in it next year.

Jeff Fuller, director of student recruitment at the University of Houston, commented to eCampus News that:

“Social media is increasingly becoming the preferred way college-aged students obtain and absorb news today. Having a presence on social media outlets allows colleges to honestly be in the discussion when students are leveraging where to apply and enroll.”

But having a presence on social media platforms and using social media effectively are two very different things.

As with so much technology, sometimes the rush to be where everyone else is – and using the same platforms – can obscure the need for the strategic thinking that must support every marketing effort – online, offline, any line. The fact is, almost every educational institution of note is now on Facebook and/or other relevant social platforms, and this creates a new challenge: how to differentiate your brand to students amidst a sea of competitors.

To accomplish this, it’s really a matter of going back to the basics as well as integrating best practices in online marketing.

Establish the foundation

Remember your brand: If your institution doesn’t have a brand DNA, it should. A brand DNA is a succinct series of attributes that helps to direct marketing efforts and ensure the consistent delivery of the brand across all touchpoints.

It should include aspects of personality (e.g., passionate), organisation (e.g., responsive and respectful), relationship (e.g., devoted to supporting international students to achieve success in their studies), and products and services (e.g., cutting-edge, applied, industry-focused, etc.).

Once you get your brand DNA down and really absorbed into every staff member with a marketing role, it will be much easier to stay true to what your brand stands for – on the phone, in emails, in brochures, and yes, in social media messaging.

Plan: Set a course for marketing at the start of the year, with goals and KPIs (key performance indicators) clearly indicated.

Remember that being on social media platforms is not an end in itself. Your institution is not simply striving for visibility or likeability: it’s got other business goals that must be achieved and this will require a smart, seamless, efficient interplay between online and offline channels.

What are the most important priorities for the year? They could include such things as:

  • Increasing the number of markets we recruit in
  • Increasing our depth and reach in key markets
  • Increasing our conversion rates (e.g., a student clicks on a link, then picks up the phone for a chat with a real person representing the institution, or a student goes from the home page right to the Apply Online form)
  • Increasing current students’ sense of engagement with our institution
  • Increasing alumni’s spreading the word about their success after graduation with us
  • Increasing our agents’ effectiveness by equipping them with better resources

Not all of those goals can be accomplished using social media alone. Social media is a marketing tool as much as a platform, and to be effective it must work alongside other tools and resources, such as:

  • Knowledgeable, supportive staff
  • User-friendly website(s) with compelling content and easy-to-use application forms and contact points
  • Options for students to connect directly with you (e.g., live chats, phone, email, personal visits, messaging)
  • Well-supported and engaged agents
  • Programmes and other institutional assets that deliver on what they promise
  • Students and alumni who feel proud to be part of the brand, and thus more likely to help support social media outreach

All the social media presence in the world won’t be truly effective in the long term if these other institutional resources aren’t nurtured and encouraged.

Measure and adjust: As essential as it is to start the year with a solid plan, do set specific times at which the plan – and what it is achieving to date – will be reviewed and adjusted.

It is literally impossible for even the most brilliant plan to stand untouched and successful through the year given how quickly the international education market is changing. Rely on the KPIs you have identified and measure them as routinely as possible in order to expand what’s really working and drop what isn’t yielding results.

Develop your online and social media strategies accordingly

Once you’ve established the foundation that will ground your entire branding and marketing effort, you can turn to the various elements for outreach, including, but again not limited to, the institutional website and social media.

If recruitment is the most important marketing goal, as it is for many institutions, it might make sense to start with communications touchpoints: what are the most likely ways target students are going to (a) hear about your brand, (b) find information about your brand that makes them consider submitting an application form, and (c) actually apply?

With these considerations in mind, here are some relevant points we’ve compiled from different sources:

  • Two-thirds of students access the Internet from two or more devices, underlining the importance of smartphones as a communication channel with students. (Source: IDP 2012 International Student Buyer Behaviour study)
  • Mobile-friendly websites are becoming a must-have, and students are most interested in basic information when using their mobile devices to research institutions: college descriptions and admission information (72%), deadline information (69%), tracking their applications to a college (68%), virtual tours (43%), college events calendar (41%), and campus news (34%). (Source: 2012 Cappex survey of 2,124 college-bound students and admissions officers from 151 colleges about their digital and mobile habits)
  • The most common KPIs institutions are using to measure social media success include number of friends, likes, tweets, comments, etc. (68%); volume of participation (53%); number of click-throughs (49%); event participation (30%); anecdotal success (26%); surveys of target audience (13%); number of applications for admission (13%). (Source:
  • Creating a great landing page – the webpage you hope your students click to via emails or social media posts – is essential to conversions: read how to do it here and learn why not to leave your students stranded on your home page here.
  • Use best practices in SEO – it’s crucial, since research shows how much students use online searches to initially hear about an institution – find best SEO practices here.
  • If you want your site to rank highly in Google – and you do – you need great content and you need people to share it: “Google is [currently] basing your search engine ranking more on how much your content is shared than on how much your content is linked to.” (Source: .eduGuru)
  • Always remember that content is king – once students hear about you and get to your site or social media accounts, you’ll want to keep them there. See great examples of institutional content marketing here.
  • Be creative, while also delivering key information. Use your brand’s DNA to find out ways to stand out from the pack and appeal to students in entertaining ways. For an example, see Delta State University’s Fighting Okra campaign here.

A recent survey from CASE/mStoner/Slover Linett revealed the some commonalities among schools that claim they are “very successful” with social media:

  • Have institutional support for social media
  • Believe in the power of social media to help them reach their goals
  • Have learned how to use Facebook well and are active on Twitter
  • Experiment with new channels when they are released (Pinterest, Google Plus)
  • Use multiple metrics to gauge success rather than just focusing on “likes” or “shares”
  • Are responsive to audience needs and engage audience members on their own terms
  • Regularly incorporate social media into broader multimedia campaigns

To this we would add, as always: use technology – including social media – to become more efficient in recruiting international students and driving down marketing costs, but don’t forget that at the end of the day we’re all real people. Use technologies to enhance the abilities of your staff and partners such as agents, not to replace them altogether. Students need more than online prompts and reassurance that they are making a good choice of institution. They may get a lot of their information on the web (and increasingly via their mobile devices), but there is always an emotional and personal aspect to school selection, so make sure you don’t neglect the humans working for and with you. They remain crucial touchpoints for prospective students.

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